Why the Thief on the Cross Has More Good Works Than We Do

Yesterday, I wrote about the Good Thief on the Cross, whose story Protestants often use to “prove” that salvation is by faith alone, apart from good works of love and obedience. On the contrary, I tried to show, the Thief did actually do good works, however few and measly they were.

Now, I want to flip-flop on that. (I know, and you thought the season of electoral politics was over…)

I want to take myself to task for saying that. The Good Thief’s works may have seemed little but here’s the truth: he probably has more good works than all of us put together. And I should have said so.

Master of Flémalle, The Crucified Thief, 1410 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

As I said in my last post, it’s vitally important that we understand good works as Jesus understands: it’s not about how much you do, how long you do it or how impressive it looks – it’s about what you do with what has been given to you.

Jesus affirms this again and again throughout the gospels but my favourite example is of the Widow’s Mite when Jesus, sitting in the temple courts,

“watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mark 12:43-43)

Real generosity, whether in love or money, comes not from the mere amount we give but what we give out of what we have – and what we do with the opportunities that are given to us.

That said, back to our Thief on the cross. If anyone could be forgiven for not putting his faith into practice, it was the Thief. He was justly condemned by a Roman court, enduring a brutal execution, in excruciating pain and merely hours away from death.

He had nothing to give and nowhere to go – literally, he was naked and nailed to a cross.

The one dignity – the one right – he had left was to be silent and wait for death. He might be a wretched and despised criminal but at least he wasn’t like the criminal who thought he was the messiah, at least he was still in his right mind, at least he spot a failure when he saw him.

But what did the Good Thief do? He gave away that one dignity.

He spoke up for Christ.

It was the only thing he was able to do – and he did it.

We pour over the last words of Jesus, knowing how much pain they cost him to speak. But what about the words of the Thief? Wasn’t he in the same excruciating pain? Wasn’t he just as tormented and wretched?

And yet, what a work of love that he would speak! And what a miracle of grace that God enabled him to do so!

The Thief saw and proclaimed, when no one else did, the Christ in the criminal. And while the onlookers, rulers, soldiers and even the other crucified man hurled insults at the pitiful figure, the Thief proclaimed that He was King and had the power to take him to Paradise, this man who couldn’t even “save himself” (Luke 23:35).

“And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

Not only is the Good Thief in Heaven with Christ but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in Heaven, he is renowned for doing great works. For while we do good out of the abundance we received; he did good out of his poverty.

For like the Widow and her mite, his little was all he had… and gave it all to Christ.

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9 responses to “Why the Thief on the Cross Has More Good Works Than We Do

  1. Pingback: What about the Thief on the Cross? | CATHOLIC CRAVINGS·

  2. I wonder if you could go further? Here was a man who, by his own admission, had misspent the talents God had given him. He had been a robber and a thief, and he had been rightly convicted. He could, like his fellow thief, have been unrepentant, but instead, he did repent. Even at that late hour his heart opened and he did what Jesus commanded all to do – he turned from his sins and repented – and, of course, he accepted Jesus as Lord – and from that came the actions you described in your last post. Faith, followed, as it always is, by works.

  3. This is a lovely and wonderful insight. It’s rather Sidney Carton-esque (even though I think Carton was being melodramatic, and though he felt he’d wasted his life, probably had things to live for before giving up all he had left for somebody else): “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

    • Thanks Joseph! 🙂 I like the comparison to Sydney Carton. I hadn’t thought of that! They’re are some similarities but I guess, unlike Carton, the thief was going to die in a few hours either way. In another sense, he had nothing to lose! (Wait, did I just contradict myself… oh dear!)

    • Oh wow, I didn’t even think of that. You’re right! Though… that depends on when the whole Harrowing of Hell thing happens and all that. I still don’t understand how that all works… 😀

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