The Repentant Thief (Luke 23:32-43)

By | March 25, 2012

Cross Examinations: #4
Examining Key Witnesses In The Jesus Conspiracy


     I know I used that video almost a year ago but it’s sort my homage to the movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and it’s also another way to get into the hearts and minds of the characters from one of the most fascinating incidents in both the life and the crucifixion of Jesus. I’ve always been fascinated by this story of the Repentant thief and the Unrepentant thief.

     The repentant thief is a favorite plot device in literature, movies and plays. It is the happy ending most of us are looking for in our lives and in the stories we read and tell. Character after character has been built around the 11th hour Confession, Repentance and Redemption of the Good Thief.

     Probably the most famous of all the repentant thieves in literature is Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That’s followed closely by Dr. Suess’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Both characters have a change of heart, repent and become someone new.

     There are other great scenes as well like Boromir in Lord of the Rings who, while dying repents of trying to take the Ring of Power away from Frodo.

     There’s Cameron Poe, Nicholas Cage’s character from Con Air who becomes the hero on a plane full of the worst convicts in the U.S. who are being transferred to a new maximum security prison.

     Then there’s a great Good Thief repentance scene in a little known Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart film titled “Brother Orchid.”  You can get it on DVD now or keep a look out on Turner Classic Movies. It has a great ending and is the only movie starring Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart together in which one of them doen’t die.

     The Unrepentant thief has equally been treated in movies as well. Probably one of the best known scenes is in the worst of the Godfather movies, Godfather III.

     Michael Corleone is aging, sick and dying and he visits Cardinal Lamberto for help. The cardinal asks Michael if he would like to make his confession. Michael, surprised, struggles to make excuses and winds up shaking his head and saying: “Well, I’m beyond redemption.” The Cardinal takes Michael to a secluded corner of the courtyard, where they can be alone and says, “Sometimes the desire to confess is overwhelming, and we must seize the moment.” Michael asks bluntly: “What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent?”

     The Cardinal smiles and says: “I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose?”

     Michael makes his confession but in the process it’s obvious there is no repentance. The cardinal turns to look at Michael and says, “Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know that you don’t believe that. You will not change.”

     So, who was this Repentant Thief? What motivated his repentance? And what can this story teach us about our own faith journeys.


     Before we go any further, let’s look at the passage from Luke 23:32-43 (NRSV)

[32] Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  

[33] When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  

[34] [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.  

[35] And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  

[36] The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,  

[37] and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  

[38] There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”  

[39] One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? 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 have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  

[42] Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  

[43] He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


     A. We don’t really know for certain anything other than what is described here in Scripture. However, legend and conjecture has been very busy when it comes to this guy. He has been called by at least five different names: Dismus, Demas, Dumachus, Titus and Rakh. According to William Barclay’s Daily Bible Study, one legend makes him out to be a Judaean Robin Hood who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. It’s as if once Jesus forgave him we have to make him less criminal and more civil than he actually was.

     A very warm and gooshey kind of legend tells us that while the Holy Family were fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt a band of robbers saw them take refuge in a cave. The leader of this band of robbers decided it was time for his young son to prove himself and told him to go to the cave, murder the family and take everything of value.

     Filled with the desire to both prove himself and please his father, the son heads to the cave. There he found the family asleep. When the thief looked at the baby Jesus, he couldn’t do it. The baby was just too beautiful and precious. And just as soon as he made the decision to spare the baby’s life, Jesus opened his eyes. The startled but pleased would be thief then offered a prayer saying, “O most blessed of children, if there’s ever a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and don’t forget this hour.”

     When he returned to their camp, the young thief was beaten and banished by his own father for failing to do what he was told. As this thief grew to be a man, he kept trying to prove himself to his father by doing what he’d been taught to do, stealing. He never received redemption from his father but that day at Calvary, Jesus recognized him and gave him the ultimate redemption.

     That’s a sweet story but the thief’s redemption in that story seems to be based on works. It’s based on what he did for Christ as an infant and not simply on the Grace of Christ. It makes it sound like he earned that redemption rather than it being the gift of a forgiving Savior.

     The Roman Catholic Church considers Dismas a Saint, The patron saint of prisoners. Even though Dismas was never fully canonized, he’s regarded as a saint by virtue of Jesus saying he would be with him in Paradise this very day. They believe it was Jesus who canonized him from the cross.

     In Cecil B. Demille’s 1927 film “The King of Kings,” the fate of Dismas is compared to and paralleled to the fate of Jesus. While in one scene people are mourning for Jesus as He is en route to Golgotha, in the next scene the very same people are throwing garbage at the two thieves. Later, when all three men are crucified, the good thief defends Jesus from the other thief’s insults and asks to be forgiven for his own crimes. Jesus forgives the good thief.

     Later when the two men are dead, Mary is mourning at the foot of her Son’s cross. She notices that at the foot of the thief’s cross is a disheveled old woman crying for him. The old woman says “He was my son.” The two mothers embrace and console each other.

     As I said, while we know very little about the Good Thief or the Repentant Thief, he is a fascinating character with lots of legends and conjecture.


     A. So, what can we learn?

     One of things I think this story tells us is very simple and yet is very basic to our understanding of who we are as human beings as well sharing the Gospel or Good News Jesus Christ with the rest of the world. It’s basic to how we treat one another, both those like us and those completely unlike us.

     We are created in God’s Image and that Image of God, that spark of the divine that is in us from birth can’t be taken away. We can call it conscience, we can call it Prevenient Grace, we can call it divine guidance or even the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God, but it doesn’t go away.

     We can push it down or try to hide it but it’s in our DNA and at some point it will be seen whether it’s in a noble act or a right choice at a critical time or something unselfish we do for someone else. It is the basic nature of who we are. That spark of Goodness, broken and cracked as it is by our sin, can be touched and reached with the Good News of Jesus. It may take a while but it CAN happen.

     Sometimes all it takes is being treated as if you ARE a child of God or as if you were created in God’s Image. When we do that, we honor God.

     B. Another thing I think we can garner from this is that what we learn as children can make all the difference in the world to us when we are adults.

     The KJV of Proverbs 22:6 reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

     The NRSV reads this way, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”

     I wonder if somewhere along the way Dismas didn’t hear about the God of Israel’s love for the people of Israel. I wonder if somehow maybe he heard the stories of Messiah. And maybe even heard John the Baptist preach? Something of faith stuck with him and surfaced that day while he was on the cross next to Jesus.

     It could have been just instant recognition or what he was witnessing as everyone else seemed to go rabid with hate while Jesus, suffering immense pain remained calm and loving. It may have been when Jesus asked God to forgive everyone that the switch went off in the Good Thief’s head. But something sparked that recognition.

     The Good Thief realized he was in the presence of the Messiah. It changed his heart. It changed his  mind. It changed him thoroughly from the inside out. That change led him to defend Jesus against his partner in crime, who like the crowd was taunting and mocking Jesus.


     A. The passage presents us with a couple of challenges both as individual Christians striving to live as Jesus taught and as a church seeking to become and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

     The First Challenge is to continue to plant the seeds of faith. We are not in charge of making them grow. We are in charge of scattering seed. And if it does begin to sprout, then we’re called to water and fertilize. But first and foremost we are called to continue to plant the seeds of faith in as many different ways as possible.

     Through Worship which draws people into the presence of God, touches hearts and changes lives;

     Through our Music ministry which uplifts and inspires through the Word of God as expressed through voice and instruments;

     Through Missions and Outreach which engages us, the followers of Christ, to be about the work of Christ both in the world and in our local community;

      And through our Christian Education and Discipleship ministries such as our various Bible Studies, Youth Group, the Pre-School, and our Sunday School ministry.

     This is what the author proverbs meant when he or she said, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”

     I think our Children’s Christian Education is so important I’ve got a special message from someone you’ll recognize. WATCH

     Raising up children in the faith is vitally important. It has eternal consequences both for us and our children. A father and mother were talking about how important it is to be a good Christian when one of their children asked, “Have we ever seen one?”

     The world doesn’t need children who don’t know what a Christian looks like. The world needs children and adults who model the Christian life. It needs people who live in Christ and Christ lives in them.

     We have an incredible new Sunday School curriculum. We are in the process of making it even better by including practical materials for parents to use and learn together how to become better Christian Parents as well as how to live out the lessons the children have been learning. 

     B. The Second Challenge is to never give up on anyone. Mama Lou was sixteen and Shorty was twenty when they got married. Mama Lou had been raised in a Xn home, Shorty hadn’t. But Shorty was a good man. Mama Lou went to church every Sun. Shorty didn’t.

     After their first year of marriage Mama Lou talked to her mother, her sister and her pastor. What was she to do. She was worried about Shorty’s soul. She didn’t want to be without him for eternity. They all said the same thing. Pray. Continue to love him, continue to live your faith but pray for God to work in Shorty’s life. So, Mama Lou started to pray.

     It took 10 years but Shorty finally went to church to help with the Lord’s Acre. Two year’s later he actually attended worship when his first daughter was baptized, then three years after when the second daughter was baptized and four years later when the third daughter was baptized. Mama Lou continued to pray.

     When each of the daughters got married Shorty went to church & walked them down aisle. He was 60 when the last daughter got married. Again, he went when all of the grandchildren were baptized. Mama Lou continued to pray.

     When the youngest grandson was four he asked Shorty to come to church with him. Shorty made some excuse but Brian persisted. He kept on asking until finally Shorty attended worship with Brian. Brian just beamed with delight.

     From that day on Shorty was in church with Brian, Mama Lou and the rest of the family. Mama Lou smiled but she continued to pray.

     When Brian turned twelve he started Confirmation. Brian fell in love with Jesus, no other way to put it. At twelve he had a depth of faith few people have, especially 12 year olds. When Brian would visit Shorty he’d tell him all about the things he’d learned about God and Jesus and being a Christian. Mama Lou continued to pray.

     A week before Confirmation Sun, Mama Lou and Shorty went to visit their pastor. Shorty wanted to surprise his family on Confirmation Sunday. Brian’s love for Jesus and the things he shared made Jesus come alive and convinced Shorty of his need for Jesus in his life.

     So, on Confirmation Sunday I heard the profession of faith of a twelve year old & an 82 year old man. I baptized them both, kneeling side by side, holding each other’s hand. I’ve got to tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. But they were tears of joy, especially Mama Lou’s who never gave up and who never quit praying.

Mama Lou never gave up and neither does God.

     The story of Dismas or the Good thief is in the Scripture not to serve as an example of the way life should be, waiting until the last minute to make a decision for Christ, but showing us there is always hope. Someone said, “If you’re waiting to repent at the eleventh hour beware because you just might die at 10:30.”

     I think this story is there to show us that there is hope for each and every one of us, even up until the very last second. I think it‘s there to remind us to NOT give up hope when it comes to the salvation of someone else.

     Saint Augustine wrote of the Repentant Thief: “There is one case of deathbed repentance recorded, that of the penitent thief, that none should despair; and only one, that none should presume.”


     Continue to plant the seeds of faith through your example and through your words. Live your life of faith in such a way that it is invitational in nature. Let your love for Christ and your enthusiasm for doing God’s work be contagious. Plant those seeds.

     Then continue to pray for those who have turned away or those who have never known Christ.

This is the Word of the Lord for this day.