Today’s Gospel is the last Sunday gospel for the liturgical year and for our time, I think it is one of the most important.
First understand this Gospel is only in Luke. When you hear of Jesus’ crucifixion in the others, they just give a passing reference to the two criminals on either side of Our Lord. Luke alone offers this conversation.
The reason why this gospel is so important is that it answers the fundamental question about who we are and where we are going.
Notice, of course, the two criminals who are colloquially known as the good thief and the bad thief. We also know that the good thief’s name was Dismas and he is the first saint of the Church.
Why is this message so important?
One of the questions that people seek to know is who is saved. There are two extremes as Fr. Paulo Ricardo Azevedo, Jr. explains. One extreme is universalism. Everyone is saved no matter who. The other extreme is more common in many traditional circles—a vast majority of people will be damned. St. Augustine believed that and the common terminology for this belief is the Latin phrase Massa Damnata. The masses are damned.
I do not subscribe to either belief. I also strongly discourage you from embracing them. The actual answer is in this reading.
Jesus uses two actions when the issue is who is saved and who is not. In his parables, he uses the expression “I never knew you.” To explain those who are not saved. In his actually life, he simply does not speak to those who reject him outright. He never spoke to the bad thief on the cross or King Herod.
So the key has to do with exactly what the Church actually teaches—relationship. Those who develop a relationship with Jesus are saved and those who reject a relationship with Jesus are not. That is the defining point and we can see it in this reading.
The bad thief
Let us look at the bad thief. He does in fact speak to Jesus but what is his message? He actually channels the words of the devil. Some people believe this is the devil, others believe he is possessed and still others believe he assumed the devil’s attitude. In either case, look carefully, what do you see? A manipulative, self-centered narcissist who cares only about himself and seeks his world his way.
So what does he demand of Jesus? That if he is the Son of God, he is to get himself off the cross and the thieves as well. The obvious question would be what would this thief do once he was off the cross? He would continue being a thief. He would care about no one and not only be his usual self-centered self, he would grow in his self-centeredness and not care at all.
He not only has no relationship with Christ, he has no relationship with anyone unless it benefits him.
The good thief
What about the good thief on the cross? First, understand, he admits that he is guilty. He is a thief. However, he realizes that what he did was wrong and most importantly, he turns to Jesus and develops that relationship with him. There it is. He repents not because it is the right thing to do, but because he recognizes Jesus for whom he is and this changes his life completely not only here but after here.
This highlights an ancient teaching of the Church. I often quote St. Alphonsus Liguori. Who goes to Heaven? He says those who pray. Those who do not pray do not go to Heaven. Prayer is key.
What does the Church teach?
The Church teaches two important things about this. Those who go to Heaven pray. Yet, God does all he can to open those channels of communication. Jesus is present to these two thieves as they are being crucified which also represents God in all his grace being there for the person in his most difficult time.
This is why we believe in the Sacrament of the Sick or last rites. To bring the sacrament at one person’s time of death is to bring Christ there.
However, as St. Paul teaches, where sin abounds grace abounds more. So, the Church teaches the more one sins, the more God reaches out to lead them out of sin and into salvation. We can see this here with Jesus present at this time for the two thieves.
One of them is obstinate and rejects Christ to the end. This is what the Church teaches is the message of those who go to Hell. God reaches out to them and they reject his grace to their dying breath. This is what the catechism teaches.
Meanwhile, the good thief responds to God’s grace through Jesus’ presence at his dying breath.
God does all he can for you to be saved. He calls us to co-operate with his grace.
So why is it important for us to do things like go to Church and be here? The answer is simple, God has appointed you as agents of that message through your baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. We have confession to help those channels between us and Christ grow not just so that we can go to heaven but that we can be channels of God’s grace and peace. The more we grow in humility the more we understand that message.
A good line to use to help people understand—We are not here so that we can be saved as much as we are here so that they may be saved.
The Church teaches that the obstinate who reject Christ’s grace are not saved. He reaches out to all and invites everyone more and more. Jesus calls us here to help others understand this and to live this message that all of us be open to God’s grace and be saved.
Come join us for Mass at St. Anthony Parish in Allston at 10:00 am every Sunday.
Check out our daily podcast website at catholicaudiomedia.com