He couldn’t remember where his life of stealing and violence had started, but it was horribly clear where it had led—the death penalty.
No one even knew his name. The crooked course of his life had swallowed his identity so much, that people simply called him “Thief.”
He had the singular misfortune of living in a time when crucifixion was practiced. His manly composure dissolved under the searing pain of spikes driven through his hands and feet. He wet himself.
Another thief was crucified close by. A third man was placed in between the two of them. Thief hated that one. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was because he thought the man in the middle was a religious fake, a fraud, a pretender.
Thief hurled a few insults at him, venting a reservoir of personal bitterness. The man in the middle said nothing back. Thief’s companion on the far side, also took a turn taunting and teasing the man.
If you are the messiah, save yourself and us!
Still no response.
The crowd joined in with jeers of its own.
If you are the Christ, come down from the cross and then we will believe in you!
He saved others, Himself He cannot save.
The mound of insults and challenges seemed to settle on the man, but there was no reply—no threats of divine reprisal, or curses. Only a profound sadness.
Through the pangs of his own agony, Thief caught himself wondering why everybody hated that person, and why he himself did, too. The man had done nothing wrong. He had healed people, had taught people, had changed people’s lives for the better. He had loved people. And now, after he had been beaten and nailed to a cross, some of those very people mocked him without mercy.
The more he considered the strange enigma and the pathetic figure in the middle, the more a strange warmth surged through his heart.
Before he knew it, the words came out of his mouth:
Jesus, Remember me when you come into your kingdom!
Finally a response came, unexpectedly clear, and certain.
Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise!
Thief had run from God all his life. Finally his feet had been stopped, nailed in place next to the Savior of the world. With so little time left on the clock, the Savior had still managed to “find” him.
Thief heard miserable screams as Roman soldiers shattered the legs of the other criminal. It was standard procedure to break them in order to hasten the death of a crucifixion victim.
Soldiers walked toward Thief now, brandishing large hammers. As they came to break his legs and kill him too, Thief hung on to the most precious thing he ever had—a promise from the mouth of Jesus.
This story appears in Matt. 27:44 and Luke 23:39-43.