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Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB

God's grace can turn thieves into saints

Voices Dec. 5, 2016

Jesus responds to repentance with mercy

This is an excerpt from a homily given at St. Mary's for the feast of Christ the King Nov. 19.

I share in the joy of your zealous parish of missionary disciples at the launch of the Catholic Street Missionaries, a new initiative (of the many!) here at St. Mary's.

Mildred Moy and some of her companions have completed a fast and pilgrimage as the first step in this new apostolate blessed by Father Pierre and me. May it be fruitful for the life of the Church as you serve with selfless love those on the street who yearn for freedom and the restoration of their dignity as children of God.

The selection of today's Gospel, the story of the "good thief," known as Dismas, for such a triumphant feast might strike us as odd. Here is Jesus, whom St. Paul describes as the One in Whom "all things in heaven and earth were created," "the Head of the body, the Church," pinned helplessly to the Cross.

Raised up on Calvary, Jesus appears not as the Lord before Whom every knee is meant to bow and every tongue confess his lordship. He is crucified like a common criminal, hanging between two thieves, while the leaders of the people jeer at him from below.

The inscription, "The King of the Jews," was formulated by Pilate to provoke the bystanders who decried him as a false prophet, not as their king. The provocation worked. Indeed, the leaders jeered and sneered, hurling cruel, yet prophetic, words at this defenceless King: "He saved others, let him save himself." The soldiers ridiculed his political pretensions,"If you are the King of the Kings, save yourself."

These words are deeply ironic. He truly is saving others, precisely by not saving His own self. He cannot save Himself! because he would be giving in to the temptations of the prince of this world.

He cannot save Himself precisely so as to be able to save others, precisely because He has given His life for us, as Pope Francis said. He gives Himself freely over to death so that we might have the life He promised in abundance.

That's why there is no gesture of power on Jesus's part, no final miracle. His sceptre is a reed; His crown, one of thorns; His throne, the wood of the cross.

In this scene there are also common criminals. "It tells us what Calvary did for all of us by narrating what Calvary did for one of us," as one writer put it.

The good thief sees Jesus on the Cross, tortured and bloody, and yet he entrusts himself to Him. Dismas believes the inscription hanging over Jesus's head: "The King of the Jews." He admits his guilt and rebukes his fellow felon. He repents, on the threshold of death, and pleads, "Remember me when You come into Your kingdom."

The dying King replies, "Today you will be with Me in paradise," answering his cry with mercy, not condemnation.

Pope Francis said, "Whenever anyone finds the courage to ask for this forgiveness, the Lord does not let such a petition go unheard. Today we can all think of our own history, our own journey. Each of us has his or her own history: we think of our mistakes, our sins, our good times and our bleak times.

"We would do well, each one of us, on this day, to think about our own personal history, to look at Jesus and to keep telling Him, sincerely and quietly: "Remember me, Lord, now that You are in Your kingdom!"

Jesus's promise gives us great hope: yesterday's thief can become today's saint. God's grace is always greater than the prayer which seeks it.

We know the basis on which we will be judged: "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to Me."

The righteous will wonder about this, and He will say, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me."

The starting point of salvation is less the confession of the sovereignty of Christ than the imitation of Jesus's works of mercy. In the twilight of life we will be judged on our love for, closeness to, and tenderness towards our brothers and sisters.