First Reading: Is 52:13-53:12; Psalm: 31. R. v. Lk 23:46b; Second Reading: Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9; Gospel: Jn 18:1-19:42



A Tale of Two Thieves - by John Tuttle - Missio Dei

Every Good Friday is a day we celebrate the sacrifice of the cross; the day that Christ offered up his life on the cross for the salvation of the world. But today, I wish to drift a little to reflect on the life and choices of two men whom we often ignore on a day like this. Have we heard of Dismas and Gestas? If we have not, these were the two thieves that were crucified on either side of Jesus at Golgotha, a skull-shaped hill, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Have we ever wondered who these men were and why they were crucified alongside Jesus? Did their crucifixion with Jesus happen by accident or could there be any spiritual insight to it? History writings had it that Dismas and Gestas were street robbers in Jerusalem and rebels to the Roman government. And that they had a run-in with the Holy Family who fled to Egypt on that night when King Herod sought the killed the child Christ; but they did no harm to the Holy Family. Crucifixion was the capital punishment meted out on robbers and rebels by the Romans. So, Dismas and Gestas were probably crucified for these reasons. The same men, who had a run-in with Christ at his birth, also encountered Christ at his death.

Not much was said about these two robbers in the scripture. The only record we have of them was in Luke 23:32-43. Although their names were not mentioned in the scripture; Gestas was the “Impenitent Thief” or the “Bad Thief” crucified by the left-hand side of Christ. He was the thief who ridiculed Christ saying; “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (v 39). Dismas on the other hand is often called the “Penitent Thief” or the “Good Thief.” He was the thief by the right-hand side of Christ who rebuke Gestas; “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (vv 40-41).

It was also Dismas who out of repentance pleaded for Jesus’ mercy; “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power.” (v 42). And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (v 43). It is for this reason that the depictions of the crucifixion often show Jesus’ head inclined to his right, showing his acceptance of the Penitent Thief.

The crucifixion of Dismas and Gestas alongside Jesus was not by accident. There is a spiritual insight to it. The identity of these thieves represents the stark contrast between the hardened sinner and the repentant soul. Although Jesus died for our sins; but salvation is not possible without true repentance. Gestas, the bad thief was impenitent even in death; a sign of total rejection of God’s grace of salvation freely offered to all. He had his opportunity but wasted it. But unlike Gestas, Dismas the good thief was remorseful and pleaded for mercy. He seized his opportunity and received the salvation of the cross. And this is a clear revelation that repentance is the only access to the salvation of the cross.

The difference between Gestas and Dismas was true repentance. Dismas truly repented. He was not an opportunist. If he chose repentance simply because he was dying, Christ who sees through the heart would have known. In fact, as extreme as this may seem, Dismas is considered a saint. This is because he did not only repent but also received the forgiveness of God through baptism by desire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Vatican II documents teaches that “Those who, through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve salvation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 847; Lumen Gentium 16).

Good Friday happened for everyone. But the salvation of Good Friday is open only for those who seek God with a sincere penitent heart. Those who desire to do good and change for the better. Those who are opened to the grace of God and who make sincere effort to do the will of God as they know it through the dictates of their consciences. Christ did not die for us that we may continue to live in sin. He died for us that we might be saved from sin. So, if we remained impenitent believing in the salvation of the cross; it is a waste of time. “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.” (CCC 1864)

Let us today shun presumption and repent from our sins to reap the riches of the salvation of the cross. Presumption is when we presume “upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion, and glory without merit).” (CCC 2092). Salvation does not come that easy. True repentance is a necessity. Works of charity is required. So when next we think of Good Friday, don’t think of it as a license to salvation without personal effort. Think of it as an invitation to cooperate with the grace and mercy of God.


Christ our Saviour, we thank you for giving up your life for the salvation of the world. Help us to respond daily to this gift of grace through repentance and sincere charity. Amen.

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