"I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
Tradition tells us the name of the Good Thief was St. Dismas. We know nothing of his life other than the fact that he was sentenced to crucifixion for being a criminal. Many would say that his final act was to steal heaven on that Good Friday. After the first thief mocks and scorns Jesus, Dismas rebukes him and offers a simple request to be remembered by Jesus. Somehow he recognized in the beaten, bruised and broken body of Jesus what the crowds of Jerusalem could not or would not see. Somehow he was able to see Jesus as the King of Kings ready to enter into his kingdom. His simple act of faith was rewarded by Christ’s promise of salvation.
It’s easy to be skeptical of death row confessions. We hear how hardened criminals suddenly “find Jesus” when it seems most convenient for them and it’s difficult not to react with some level of incredulity. We often ask ourselves how God could be so gullible as to accept the last minute “conversion” of someone who appears only to be trying to avoid going to hell. It seems unfair that someone who devotes their life to serving and following God and someone who ignores God until their final days would both be welcomed into heaven together.
In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who goes to town in the morning and hires men to work in his vineyard for a set wage. The man goes back to town near noon and again in the late afternoon each time hiring more workers for his vineyard. At the end of the day he pays all of the men the same amount. The men hired in the morning grumbled because they thought they should get more. He reminds them that they agreed to work for the price they were paid and tells them not to be envious of his generosity.
Does this mean that we can put off conversion so we can do what we want? Certainly not, for no one knows when their life will be required of them. Jesus and the scriptures are clear that we must remain faithful and vigilant. The moral of the story is not that the wicked prosper by fooling God, but that God's mercy knows no bounds and is always available to us. Indeed, it is God who makes a fool of the devil by mercifully accepting those who call on him even with their last breath.
Jesus’ words to the Good Thief should give us all hope. While we have breath, it is never too late for any of us to turn to Jesus. It's not too late for the friend or family member we love who has turned from God to come back to him.