The Penitent Thief – a Good Friday reflection

A friend recently asked me who is the one person other than Jesus who we know to be in heaven, if we believe the gospel record. There may be other possible answers, but perhaps the clearest is the Penitent thief, or the Thief on the Cross – the one to whom Jesus says ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.

This story is one of the only obvious moments of light, hope and redemption within the unremitting horrors and darkness of the Good Friday narrative.

Eleventh-hour conversion

The Penitent thief is only featured in one gospel account (Luke’s). In Matthew’s and Mark’s versions both criminals crucified alongside Jesus hurl insults at him. Make of that what you will, but it’s still I think a very important vignette.

It’s surely the most dramatic (and perhaps the only) story of 11th-hour conversion in the pages of Scripture; very much a ‘deathbed’ repentance. Not the ideal way we might want someone to come to faith, perhaps, nor the ideal setting, but one that can give hope and encouragement to pretty much anyone. Few of us can be in a worse place than that crucified thief, yet he is given the cast-iron guarantee of salvation that few others can boast.

Tradition calls him the ‘penitent’ thief, but we do not actually see him repenting in the way that most Christians would understand the term. There is a form of confession but no apology, no ‘sinner’s prayer’. All he does is acknowledge that he has committed a crime and therefore deserves the punishment he’s receiving; and he then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom. That’s all – and it appears to be enough.

Radically simple

It’s wonderful how simple and uncomplicated it all is. The man does not do anything, nor need to do anything, except simply recognise Jesus at least partly for who he is – the true King, of the true Kingdom – and ask Jesus simply to ‘remember’ him. (Not ‘save’ him, but simply keep him in mind, be aware of him, not forget about him.) There’s no begging or bargaining; it’s just a very simple and humble request.

If we take this story seriously, it radically simplifies the requirements of Christianity – at least the entry requirements. We don’t have to be baptised to be saved. We don’t have to go to church, understand difficult theological doctrines, memorise scripture, speak in tongues or go on mission trips to be able to call ourselves Christians. We just need to turn to Jesus. All these others can be good and helpful things, and if we lead long Christian lives we may well end up doing many of them. But they are not required in order for us to be part of the Kingdom, for us to be remembered by Jesus and be with him in Paradise.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Good Friday, Salvation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Penitent Thief – a Good Friday reflection

  1. tonycutty says:

    Wow, Harvey, this is tremendous. You know I will want to reblog this, right? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tonycutty says:

    You should submit this to Patheos/Unfundamentalist Christians or something. It would really kick some stools over 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Harvey, I think your beginning is the most significant. One of many, many examples indicating the re-working of whatever was the earliest canonical or non-canonical gospel. (Q, perhaps, or Gospel of Thomas, or something not surviving?). The re-working, taken to new levels after the “Synoptics”, in John, seems clearly for interwoven literary and theological reasons. The “Passion” passages are the real core of them all. Someone has suggested they are Passion stories with extended introductions.

    And what is the lead-up to the trial and crucifixion? In all but John, it is the “cleansing” and related teaching in the Temple area! This whole incident, tamed waaay down in our teaching and thinking, is most fascinating. On several levels… historical, religious symbolism, myth-making, etc. As pertinent to the “thief on the cross”, several observations are important. I’ve made them in a couple posts. One, here: links to another in more depth on the Mark passage, particularly, on the cleansing incident.

    One is that “thief” is misleading. The original (Greek) is the term mainly meaning “bandit” or “insurrectionist”… and bandit as linked with guerrilla warfare, common at the time there. The Mark story makes the close-in-time proximity of an “uprising” in Jerusalem evident. This much seems fairly likely to be historical, and probably the actual basis of the way the Gospel stories got constructed and modified for religious/theological purposes. The “murders” committed by the “thieves” as well as by Barabbas were NOT merely petty heists gone wrong… I doubt the Romans cared much about that if it were unconnected with political upheaval or civil unrest. Read the Mark, Matt. and Luke passages carefully and comparatively. There was a violent insurrection in the city with more than one fatality, perhaps several or many… why the “lestai” (insurrectionists) were in custody, and probably only briefly.

    Jesus probably did NOT instigate it and may not have even been close by (I hold to his consistent non-violence). But in at least Mark, he DID lead a substantial show of force, perhaps as a prophetic statement, and had at least hours-long control of a large area within the Temple grounds… not easy to do, nor likely to be ignored by the closely-observing Roman contingent watching from well above. They were quick to quell any disturbances, especially around crowded Passover. Did Mark embellish a smaller incident, though mostly cryptically? Did the other writers downplay a major incident in which Jesus WAS arrested for at least suspected insurrection? Even if came from being in “the wrong place at the wrong time”? Scholars seem pretty certain, and me with them, that his execution was for sedition and/or insurrection… that was the point of crucifixion. It was not the form of punishment for religious squabbles.

    So do the “penitent thief’s” remarks, on an earthly level, indicate recognition that Jesus was wrongly swept up in “mass arrests”? Or does the derision of the other thief (and him, per other versions?) indicate their frustration that he started something that swept them up and in which the heat of the moment took them too far?

    Or was his arrest unremarkable (or even not known about by the writers) and the entire story is just story… for dramatic effect, as is so much around the Passion? Given all the confused aspects, I lean to the last option, while I DO see Jesus, on some level, challenging the corruption and collusion with Rome of particularly the high priestly class (and upper administrators in the Temple, mostly Jewish).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Penitent Thief | Flying in the Spirit

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