Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
GREAT CONVERSION STORIES
All the Gospel accounts speak of criminals crucified with Jesus, but Luke (23:39-43) is the only source that indicates that a great conversion took place on the gruesome heights of Golgotha that day. But what kind of life did the man we now honor as Saint Dismas live up until his miraculous final transformation?
We know that crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful method of execution as well as a deeply degrading form of humiliation. It not only exposed the slowly dying criminal (along with the written label of his crime) to the mockery of the public but also made him serve as an example, a deterrent to the most dangerous criminal intentions of the masses of the Empire’s vast underclasses. Among foreign populations, it was especially used for those who rebelled against Roman rule.
Dismas, therefore, was no petty thief. He was a dangerous violent criminal. He was a man who plundered and perhaps murdered during his career of crime. He was clearly a threat, not only to Rome, but to the fundamental safety of his fellow Israelites. Indeed, he and his partner in crime were everything that Jesus was not.
But then came the moment when the grace of the God who was utterly helpless on the cross entered the heart of the violent man suffering next to him. What was it that struck Dismas in that moment when Jesus’ glory seemed so remote from the agony of his human figure? We have been condemned justly, he says to his cohort, but this man has done nothing criminal (Lk 23:41). Part of this was the recognition of the undeniable fact that everyone else recognized in some way (whether they admitted it or not): Jesus was innocent. But grace enlivened this perception in Dismas, leading him to a corresponding penitent recognition of his own guilt. Dismas tells us everything we need to know about his life right at this moment. Even by the cruel, merciless standards of Rome’s iron rule, the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes (Lk 23:41). They were men of open violence, suffering now in themselves the kind of brutality they had inflicted on others. Dismas had been, up to that moment, an evil man without hope.
But then the scales fell from his eyes, and he saw a King on the cross. How? How did the grace of faith transform his mind? Jesus on the cross looked like the exact opposite of any imaginable kind of king entering into his reign. Jesus was torn and beaten, the life pouring out of him. He probably looked more like one of Dismas’ crime victims. Indeed, perhaps in that moment he saw all the poor and helpless people he had maimed and killed, whose suffering was encompassed by this silent, innocent man. The silence of Jesus, the surrender, the defenselessness of his love “spoke” to Dismas in that moment, as if it could say, “All of the evil and violence you have perpetrated has not destroyed my love for you. Even now, I love you and I forgive you.” And Dismas was given the awesome gift of faith, of discovering that unconquerable love was the real Kingdom of God, and the hope for the most desperate human heart. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Lk 23:42).
(John Janaro is associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College, and author of Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy (Servant Books). He blogs at www.johnjanaro.com.)