Good Thief

Good Thief

or

Penitent Thief,

in the New Testament, the malefactor crucified with Jesus who did not revile Him; Jesus promised him Paradise that day. In the Roman martyrology his feast is Mar. 25. His name in tradition is Dismas or Desmas, that of the other thief Gesmas.

Good Thief

St. Dismas

In the Gospel according to Luke, one of the accounts of Jesus' life recorded in the Christian Bible, Jesus speaks to two thieves who are being crucified alongside him (Luke 23:39-43). One of the thieves mocks Jesus' apparent helplessness, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself, and us" (for more on the word Christ, see Jesus). The second thief reacts differently. He reproaches his companion for these harsh words towards Jesus, saying, "Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he turns to Jesus and says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

This humble speech has inspired generations of Christians to refer to this unnamed man as "the Good Thief." Jesus responds to the Good Thief's faith in him by saying: "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The Good Thief's words and Jesus' response have inspired many Christians to view this story as an emblem of the relationship between repentance and salvation.

Legends

For centuries Christians have wondered about the identity of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus. Since the Bible does not give their names or histories, storytellers have invented them. An ancient document known as The Acts of Pilate names the Good Thief Dysmas and his companion Gestas. These names changed slightly as they were passed down over the years, until they became Dismas and Gesmas. Although Dismas and Gesmas are the most common names assigned to the pair, others have been used. In the Arabic Infancy Gospel, an ancient document concerning Jesus' early years, the pair appear as Titus and Dumachus. Centuries later, in his 1851 poem "The Golden Legend," American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) reused these names. The pair have also been called Zoatham and Camma, and Joathas and Maggatras.

The Arabic Infancy Gospel records a legend concerning the two thieves that links them with Jesus' infancy. According to this legend, when Jesus' mother and father fled into Egypt shortly after Jesus' birth, they were held up by bandits (for more on Jesus' mother, see Mary, Blessed Virgin). One of these highwaymen, however, recognized something special about the family and ordered the others to let them go. This man was the Good Thief, who would later die from crucifixion on the same day and in the same place as Jesus. In the Arabic Infancy Gospel the infant Jesus predicts as much, so confirming that he was no ordinary toddler. In one version of this document, the Good Thief's evil companion refuses to let the Holy Family go. He relents after the Good Thief bribes him with forty coins and grudgingly allows the Holy Family to escape unharmed.

Patronages and Relics

In time St. Dismas became the special patron of prisoners, those sentenced to execution, reformed thieves, undertakers, and funeral directors. Some theologians found the idea of elevating Dismas into sainthood a bit unsettling, since there was no proof that he had ever been baptized. They resolved this issue by concluding that the water that poured from Jesus' side when the Roman soldier pierced him with a spear (John 19:34) splashed onto the Good Thief and, in effect, baptized him. His feast day was assigned to March 25, which in early Christian times was believed by many to have been the actual date of the Crucifixion (see also Annunciation; Easter, Date of). Some sources, however, record his feast date as March 26. The Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, located in Rome, Italy, keeps a fragment of wood which, according to legend, came from the cross of the Good Thief.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Hackwood, Frederick William. Christ Lore. 1902. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1969.

Web Sites

Page on St. Dismas, sponsored by the Catholic Forum at: olic-forum.com/saints/saintd11.htm Page on St. Dismas, sponsored by Catholics Online at: olic.org/saints/dismas.html
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