“The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise, in a single moment, O Lord. By the wood of thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.” From the Eastern Orthodox hymn “The Wise Thief” sung in celebration of Holy Friday.
The story of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) is often used to give misplaced theological answers to important theological questions. Some have used it to demonstrate that baptism is not necessary for salvation. Though this is a true statement, it is unrelated to Luke’s reason for including the narrative. Such a statement would lead Augustine to speculate that the thief may have been baptized at some point. Others would respond by saying baptism in water was not necessary for the thief since he had undergone a baptism of blood.
Many have used the story of the thief in attempts to prove that deathbed confessions are viable – another truth that is better proven from clearer biblical texts. Chrysostom would guess that the thief lived in the desert as a man of violence robbing and murdering those who traveled through territory where he squatted. Pope Gregory the Great would speculate the violent nature of the thief led to the murder of his own brother. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus would name the thief Dismas, a name still used in Orthodox circles.
Speculation of the location of the thieves in proximity to Christ has greatly influenced art, as indicated in the painting above done by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and currently housed in the Louvre. Notice how Christ is subtly positioned to face the thief illuminated to His right while the thief to His left remains in darkness. Further, notice the company gathered beneath the illuminated thief is made of Christ’s followers while the gathering around the shadowed cross is soldiers and others who mock Jesus.
The story of the thief on the cross has often been filled with speculation, which has distracted from a true understanding of Luke’s purpose of including the event in the gospel that bears his name. Perhaps the controversial, even violent, Eastern theologian Theophilus of Alexandria aids our understanding in his most famous homily and Eastern classic, and perhaps self-reflective “The Wise Thief”.
The gate of Paradise has been closed since the time when Adam transgressed, but I [Jesus] will open it today, and receive you [the thief] in it. Because you have recognised the nobility of my head on the cross, you who have shared with me in the suffering of the cross will be my companion in the joy of my kingdom. You have glorified me in the presence of carnal men, in the presence of sinners. I will therefore glorify you in the presence of the angels. You were fixed with me on the cross, and you united yourself with me of your own free will. I will therefore love you, and my Father will love you, and the angels will serve you with my holy food. If you used once to be a companion of murderers, behold, I who am the life of all have now made you a companion with me. You used once to walk in the night with the sons of darkness; behold I who am the light of the whole world have now made you walk with me. You used once to take counsel with murderers; behold, I who am the Creator have made you a companion with me.
The story of the thief on the Cross may lend support to teaching that baptism is not a prerequisite of salvation, in distinction from Augustine. One may legitimately use the story to show the immediacy of being in Christ’s presence upon death. But ‘support’ and ‘purpose’ are two different discussions. Supporting arguments laid aside, the thief on the Cross has very little to do with the wise thief. Rather, it has to do with the compassion of the Righteous One who receives all – even thieves – who are repentant.
With that in mind, let us who are thieves – having robbed God of His rightful glory – pray “Jesus, remember me when you come in your Kingdom” that we might hear “you shall be with me in Paradise.” For the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and it alone can make a thief wise.