St Dismas

St Dismas

‘Dismas’ is the name attributed to the dying thief who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom (see Luke 23:39-43).

I would like to suggest that this request was the most breathtaking demonstration of faith in the entire bible – even beyond anything Abraham ever achieved.

For in Abraham’s darkest hour he was asked to believe that God could raise his son from the dead (see Hebrews 11:17-19); the thief by contrast had to believe the God of Abraham was actually expiring next to him on the cross.

In this pitch black spiritual darkness the thief witnessed the disintegration of the words ‘God’ and ‘Messiah.’

For Jesus was dying a criminal’s death and therefore stood under the condemnation of Torah: cursed be the man who hangs on a tree.

If this was true then this blood gored Galilean peasant could not be the person he had claimed to be – he was in fact God’s enemy. He could not, therefore, be the object of anybody’s faith or hope.

Yet this is precisely what Jesus had become for Dismas.

How do we explain this?

Dismas saw no miracles, signs or wonders – nor heard the Sermon on the Mount.

Instead he witnessed the savage torture of a fellow prisoner amidst the cackle of laughter.

That Dismas believed anything is a mystery of faith in itself.

For the crucified there were no mental or physical resources to believe anything, not even one’s own pain and exhaustion.

Golgotha was the place to curse God.

Or question his faithfulness.

My God, My God why have you forsaken me? was not spoken by the dying thief.

Dismas had already accepted that he himself had been abandoned by God a long time ago.

But if Jesus thrashed about on the cross, questioning his God, what chance that Dismas would come to faith in him?

For Christians the cross is brilliantly illuminated by the light of Easter Sunday; this perspective was unavailable to Dismas.

In the Jewish cultural-religious milieu of the day Jesus’ predicament was proof positive that God was not, and could never been, on his side.

Crucifixion, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, was God’s way of damning apostates – people, that is, who had forsaken God’s law (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Somehow Jesus must have been an apostate. Somehow he must have flaunted God’s law.

Else he would not be under God’s curse.

Else myriads and myriads of angels would have come to his rescue.

But they didn’t.

And Jesus’ alleged miraculous powers completely deserted him, as they might a charlatan put to the ultimate test.

Yet Dismas would not accept the evidence of his senses or even the plain teaching of scripture. Dismas believed that Jesus was blameless. He also believed that he truly was a king, Israel’s Messiah. He conceived moreover something infinitely more implausible: that Jesus would survive his death and reign over God’s kingdom.

Remember me when you come into your kingdom…

This request was outrageous because Judaism had no concept of a dying and rising Messiah.

In whom or what therefore was Dismas placing his faith?

Even the disciples had difficulties making sense of Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection.

So whence did Dismas derive his conviction that Jesus would triumph over the grave?

How could a dying criminal be light years ahead of ‘The Twelve’ in spiritual insight and understanding?

On the Mount of Transfiguration leading disciples couldn’t discern the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death, even though Moses and Elijah had spoken about it in their hearing.

Yet Dismas reached dizzying heights of such understanding at the extreme limits of his life.

What was it that he saw, apart from the blood, sweat and flies that buzzed around Jesus’ face?

What did he see in Jesus’ humiliation and agony which turned the tide of faith in his own ebbing life?

Was it something Jesus did or said in his last hours on the cross?

We are not told.St Dismas

We are ignorant as to how Jesus’ claims suddenly became plausible to the thief as he stared into the abyss of Jesus’ dereliction – as well as his own.

My God, My God why have you forsaken me? are hardly the words we want to hear from the one in whom we hope for salvation.

Yet Luke invites us to ponder the mystery of Dismas’ faith without giving us easy answers.

For there are no easy answers when a second crucified thief, feet away, poured scorn on Jesus, saw nothing in him except the stupidity of a clown.

In 1 Corinthians Luke’s colleague Paul invites us to embrace ‘God’s foolishness’ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

In the wilderness God commanded his people to gaze at a bronze serpent in order to be healed of snake venom (Numbers 21:9).

According to John this portended the salvation which the cross would bring (John 3:14-15).

The symbol of the serpent however is intended to be as incongruous as it is arresting.

For in what sense can the poison be the cure?

And why would God use the image of a serpent to be a symbol of physical or spiritual well being when it is also a metaphor for Satan?

And how can the most hideous and bestial form of execution imaginable be the source of everlasting life?

The answer is that God seeks to transform and to use for our good the very thing which might destroy us.

In the wilderness it is through gazing at the serpent’s image that the Israelites are healed of poisonous venom.

Through staring into the abyss of Christ’s passion we are liberated from the power of the grave and released into everlasting life.

Here is the root of Jesus’ saying that those who find their lives will lose it and those who lose their lives for his sake will find it (Matt 10:39).

Only when Dismas came to a literal end of himself did he discern in the person dying next to him the possibility that death might not have the last word.

(St Dismas’ feast day is commemorated in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches on the 25th March.)

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.


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