Beliefnet News

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

When Deacon Ken Finn is counseling prisoners, he often tells the story of St. Dismas.
“He was the guy crucified on the right side of Christ,” Finn says.
“He never took a course in (Catholic doctrine) but he gets to skip purgatory and go straight to heaven.”
Finn, 72, heads the St. Dismas Guild, a prison ministry based in Escondido,Calif. During his more than 20 years counseling the incarcerated, Finn says he’s fielded innumerable requests for devotional pictures, prayers and medals of Dismas. As patron saint of repentant criminals, the “good thief” offers hope to the woebegone, Finn says.
“They’re really attracted to someone saying `This was a condemned man, a prisoner, and he became a saint,”‘ he says.
Little is known about Dismas, whose feast day is March 25. He’s not named in the Bible and speaks but a few lines. However, his deathbed profession of faith, and Jesus’ ensuing promise of paradise, can offer a critical foothold for Christians struggling with faith and redemption, say Finn and other clergy and spiritual counselors.
Numerous halfway houses for prisoners bearing Dismas’ name are sprinkled across the country. The Greek Orthodox Church has placed his words at the center of prayers and hymns. A popular chant used in Taize services invokes Dismas’ plea, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Dismas’ visage stares out from Russian Orthodox icons and tradition holds that the slanted bar on the Orthodox cross represents the ultimate destiny of the two criminals crucified with Jesus. Dismas’ side points up toward heaven, the other tilts toward hell.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark call the men “thieves,” who both mock Jesus on Good Friday. “If you’re the messiah, why can’t you save yourself?” they taunt.
But Luke’s Gospel offers another account. One of the criminals, according to Luke, rebukes the other, saying “Don’t you fear God? …We are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“I assure you: Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus answers. New Testament scholar Darrell Bock says that’s the only time Jesus offers paradise in Luke’s Gospel, though the apostles are told they will have eternal life.
“He’s known as one of the few figures, who, in the midst of the Crucifixion, knows what’s going on,” said Bock, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.
Crucifixion is too harsh a crime for thievery, Bock says, so the men were probably insurgents or revolutionaries of some kind.
Extrabiblical stories add more to the Dismas legend.
In the apocryphal “Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior,”
Dismas and his fellow crucified thief, Gestas, meet Jesus, Mary and Joseph as the Holy Family wanders Egypt looking for a home. Gestas wants to rob them, but Dismas bribes him not too, according to Thomas J. Craughwell’s book “Saints Behaving Badly.”
Jesus then prophesies that “these two robbers will be raised upon the cross with me, Dismas on my right hand, and Gestas on my left: and after that day, Dismas shall go before me into paradise.”
The good thief also appears in the “Gospel of Nicodemus,” a fourth century text, where his villainous image scares some men who are waiting in hell to be taken to heaven.
That image also stares out at congregants today at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, D.C.
The cathedral’s rector, the Rev. Victor Potapov, said many Orthodox churches paint the archangels who guard heaven on the iconstasis, the screen that separates the congregation from the altar. In his cathedral, St. Michael stands on one side of Jesus, but a life-size icon of Dismas stands on the other.
“I wanted to teach our people a primitive lesson,” Potapov says.
“Each day they can see the good thief. The lesson is: confession in Christ as the savior of all souls.”
That lesson has made Dismas a favorite among the down-and-out, according to Dempster MacMurphy, the late Chicago newsman.
In 1939, Time magazine quoted MacMurphy on his favorite thief.
“There are so many better advertised saints, all specialists, that few mortals bother much with this hoodlum saint, who roams the outfields of eternity making shoestring catches of souls.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus