Today we read Luke’s account of the Crucifixion. We see the scene of Jesus being crucified with two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Often when discussing the nature of Salvation and the role of good works the “good thief” is used as an example of salvation without works. However, a closer look at the scene shows that this is not the case. Here is the relevant passage:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
First, let’s be clear, the good thief is saved first by his faith. He says to the bad thief “do you not fear God” and acknowledges that Jesus will soon come into His kingdom. In both sentences that the good thief says he leads with faith. There is no doubt that the good thief is saved by his faith. However, while that is certainly true, it does not follow that the good thief does no good works.
Death by crucifixion is caused primarily by suffocation. As the victim hangs on the cross their muscles pull and tighten across their chest constricting their lungs. To elevate this they have to push up on their feet, which of course is pierced with a nail and causes excruciating pain. To elevate the pain they have to late the pressure off and relax their legs which trigger the pulling and tightening of the chest muscles through the arms. This constant shifting back and forth produces exhaustion.
Thus, during crucifixion the most difficult thing to do is speak. It requires that the exhausted victim push up hard on their legs to elevated the pressure on their chest and allow them to take in enough air to speak. They must maintain this position long enough to complete their sentences. Thus when the good thief speaks he does so at an enormous cost of exertion, pain and what little strength he has left. He suffers greatly for Christ in that moment. The result of his efforts will mean that immediately after his legs will be spent and he will be hanging completely by his arms. Supporting the full weight of this body the good thief will be unable to breath. He will likely undergo the full feeling of suffocation until his brain in panic forces his legs to again push up on the nail to he can momentarily breathe. That’s work. That sacrifice and suffering for Christ.
Plus, the substance of what the good thief says is also important. He doesn’t use his dying breath on trivial matters. He EVANGELIZES the bad thief. He tries to get the bad thief to believe, convert and repent. That’s the work of evangelization. Then he uses his words to acknowledge Jesus and His authority. He asks the Lord for forgiveness and mercy. He lives his last moments as a Christian, setting the example for others. It may only be for a short while but the Lord doesn’t negate the quality of how he lived his last hours because the time was short.
The good thief is a perennial example to us. It’s never too late to repent and dedicate your life to the Lord. No act of sacrifice is too small or unimportant and good works blend seamlessly into a life well lived.