And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
The story of the penitent thief is a most beautiful and affecting one. Christians' hearts, in all times, have clung to it for comfort, not only for themselves, but for those whom they loved. Indeed, some people think that we are likely to be too fond of the story. They have been afraid lest people should build too much on it; lest they should fancy that it gives them licence to sin, and lead bad lives, all their days, provided only they repent at last; lest it should countenance too much what is called a death-bed repentance.
Now, God forbid that I should try to narrow Christ's Gospel. Who am I, to settle who shall be saved, and who shall not? When the disciples asked the Lord Jesus, 'Are there few that be saved?' he would not tell them. And what Christ did not choose to tell, I am not likely to know.
But I must say openly, that I cannot see what the story of the penitent thief has to do with a death-bed repentance; and for this plain reason, that the penitent thief did not die in his bed.
On the contrary, he received the due reward of his deeds. He was crucified; publicly executed, by the most shameful, painful, and lingering torture; and confessed that it was no more than he deserved.
Therefore, if any man say to himself--and I am afraid that some do say to themselves--'I know I am leading a bad life; and I have no mind to mend it yet; the penitent thief repented at the last, and was forgiven; so I dare say that I shall be;' one has a right to answer him--'Very well; but you must first put yourself in the penitent thief's place. Are you willing to be hanged, or worse than hanged, as a punishment for your sins in this world? For, till then, the penitent thief would certainly not be on the same footing as you.'
If a man says to himself, I will go on sinning now, on the chance of repenting at last, and 'making my peace with God,' he is not like the penitent thief, he is much more like a famous Emperor of Rome, who, though a Christian in name, put off his baptism till his death-bed, fancying that by it his sins would be washed away, once and for all, and made use of the meantime in murdering his eldest son and his nephew, and committing a thousand follies and cruelties. Whether his death-bed repentance, purposely put off in order to give him time to sin, was of any use to him, let your own consciences judge.
Has, then, this story of the penitent thief no comfort for us? God forbid! Why else was it put into Christ's Gospel of good news? Surely, there is comfort in it.
Only let us take the story honestly, and word for word as it stands. So we may hope to be taught by it what it was meant to teach us.
He was a robber. The word means, not a petty thief, but a robber; and his being put to such a terrible death shows the same thing. Most probably he had belonged to one of the bands of robbers which haunted the mountains of Judea in those days, as they used in old times to haunt the forests in England, and as they do now in Italy and Spain, and other waste and wild countries. Some of these robbers would, of course, be shameless and hardened ruffians; as that robber seems to have been who insulted our Lord upon the very cross. Others among them would not be lost to all sense of good. Young men who got into trouble ran away from home, and joined these robber-bands, and found pleasure in the wild and dangerous life.
There is a beautiful story told of such a young robber in the life of the blessed Apostle St. John. A young man at Ephesus who had become a Christian, and of whom St. John was very fond, got into trouble while St. John was away, and had to flee for his life into the mountains. There he joined a band of robbers, and was so daring and desperate that they soon chose him as their captain. St. John came back, and found the poor lad gone. St. John had stood at the foot of the cross years before, and heard his Lord pardon the penitent thief; and he knew how to deal with such wild souls. And what did he do? Give him up for lost? No! He set off, old as he was, by himself, straight for the mountains, in spite of the warnings of his friends that he would be murdered, and that this young man was the most desperate and bloodthirsty of all the robbers. At last he found the young robber. And what did the robber do? As soon as he saw St. John coming--before St. John could speak a word to him, he turned, and ran away for shame; and old St. John followed him, never saying a harsh word to him, but only crying after him, 'My son, my son, come back to your father!' and at last he found him, where he was hidden, and held him by his clothes, and embraced him, and pleaded with him so, that the poor fellow burst into tears, and let St. John lead him away; and so that blessed St. John went down again to Ephesus in joy and triumph, bringing his lost lamb with him.
Now, such a man one can well believe this penitent thief to have been. A man who, however bad he had been, had never lost the feeling that he was meant for better things; whose conscience had never died out in him. He may have been such a man. He MUST have been such a man. For such faith as he showed on the cross does not grow up in an hour or a day. I do not mean the feeling that he deserved his punishment (that might come to a man very suddenly) but the feeling that Christ was the Lord, and the King of the Jews. He must have bought that by terrible struggles of mind, by bitter shame and self- reproach. He had heard, I suppose, of Christ's miracles and mercy, of his teaching, of his being the friend of publicans and sinners, had admired the Lord Jesus, and thought him excellent and noble. But he could not have done that without the Holy Spirit of God. It was the Holy Spirit striving with his sinful heart, which convinced him of Christ's righteousness. But the Holy Spirit would have convinced him, too, of his own sin. The more he admired our Lord, the more he must have despised himself for being unlike our Lord; and, doubt it not, he had passed many bitter hours, perhaps bitter years, seeing what was right, and yet doing what was wrong from bad habits or bad company, before he came to his end upon the gallows-tree. And there while he hung in torture on the cross, the whole truth came to him at last. God's Spirit shone truly on him at last, and divided the light from the darkness in his poor wretched heart. All the good which had been in him came out once and for all. Christ's light had been shining in the darkness of his heart, and the darkness had been trying to take it in, and close over it, but it could not; and now the light had conquered the darkness, and all was clear to him at last. He never despised himself so much, he never admired Christ so much, as when they hung side by side in the same condemnation. Side by side they hung, scorned alike, crucified alike, seemingly come alike to open shame and ruin. And yet he could see that though he deserved all his misery, that the man who hung by him not only did not deserve it, but was his Lord, the Lord, the King of the Jews, and that--of course he knew not how--the cross would not destroy him; that he would come in his kingdom. How he found out that, no man can tell; the Spirit of God taught him, the Spirit of God alone, to see in that crucified man the Lord of glory, and to cast himself humbly before his love and power, in hope that there might be mercy even for him--'Lord, remember me when thou comest to thy kingdom.' There was faith indeed, and humility indeed; royal faith and royal humility coming out in that dying robber. And so, if you ask--How was that robber justified by his works? How could his going into Paradise be the receiving of the due reward of the deeds done in his body whether they be good or evil. I say he WAS justified by his works. He DID receive the due reward of his deeds. One great and noble deed, even that saying of his in his dying agony,--that showed that whatever his heart had been, it was now right with God. He could not only confess God's justice against sin in his own punishment, but he could see God's beauty, God's glory, yea, God himself in that man who hung by him, helpless like himself, scourged like himself, crucified like himself, like himself a scorn to men. He could know that Christ was Christ, even on the cross, and know that Christ would conquer yet, and come to his kingdom. That was indeed a faith in the merits of Christ enough to justify him or any man alive.
Now what has all this to do with you or me living an easy, comfortable life in sin here, and hoping to die an easy, comfortable death after all, and get to heaven by having in a clergyman to read and pray a little with us; and saying a few words of formal repentance, when perhaps our body and our mind are so worn out and dulled by illness that we hardly know what we say? No, my friends, if our hearts be right, we shall not think of the penitent thief to give us comfort about our own souls; but we shall think of it and love it, to give us comfort about the souls of many a man or woman for whom we care.
How many men there are who are going wrong, very wrong; and yet whom we cannot help liking, even loving! In the midst of all their sins, there is something in them which will not let us give them up. Perhaps, kind-heartedness. Perhaps, an honest respect for good men, and for good and right conduct; loving the better, while they choose the worse. Perhaps, a real shame and sorrow when they have broken out and done wrong; and even though we know that they will go and do wrong again, we cannot help liking them, cannot give them up. Then let us believe that God will not give them up, any more than he gave up the penitent thief. If there be something in them that we love, let us believe that God loves it also; and what is more, that God put it into them, as he did into the penitent thief; and let us hope (we cannot of course be certain, but we may hope) that God will take care of it, and make it conquer, as he did in the penitent thief. Let us hope that God's light will conquer their darkness; God's strength conquer their weakness; God's peace, their violence; God's heavenly grace their earthly passions. Let us hope for them, I say.
When we hear, as we often hear, people say, 'What a noble-hearted man that is after all, and yet he is going to the devil!' let us remember the penitent thief and have hope. Who would have seemed to have gone to the devil more hopelessly than that poor thief when he hung upon the cross? And yet the devil did not have him. There was in him a seed of good, and of eternal life, which the devil had not trampled out; and that seed flowered and bore fruit upon the very cross in noble thoughts and words and deeds. Why may it not be so with others? True, they may receive the due reward of their deeds. They may end in shame and misery, like the penitent thief. Perhaps it may be good for them to do so. If a man will sow the wind, it may be good for him to reap the whirlwind, and so find out that sowing the wind will not prosper. The penitent thief did so. As the proverb is, he sowed the gallows-acorn, poor wretch, and he reaped the gallows-tree; but that gallows-tree taught him to confess God's justice, and his own sin, and so it may teach others.
Yes, let us hope; and when we see some one whom we love, and cannot help loving, bringing misery on himself by his own folly, let us hope and pray that the day may come to him when, in the midst of his misery, all that better nature in him shall come out once and for all, and he shall cry out of the deep to Christ, 'I only receive the due reward of my deeds; I have earned my shame; I have earned my sorrow. Lord, I have deserved it all. I look back on wasted time and wasted powers. I look round on ruined health, ruined fortune, ruined hopes, and confess that I deserve it all. But thou hast endured more than this for me, though thou hast deserved nothing, and hast done nothing amiss. Thou hast done nothing amiss by me. Thou hast been fair to me, and given me a fair chance; and more than that, thou hast endured all for me. For me thou didst suffer; for me thou hast been crucified; and me thou hast been trying to seek and to save all through the years of my vanity. Perhaps I have not wearied out thy love; perhaps I have not conquered thy patience. I will take the blessed chance. I will still cast myself upon thy love. Lord, I have deserved all my misery; yet, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
Oh, my friends, let us hope that that prayer will go up, even out of the wildest heart, in God's good time; and that it will not go up in vain.