One of my significant mentors, D. Elton Trueblood, was a professor of philosophy and author of an introductory philosophy book, a noted speaker, and a prolific author. “Time” magazine called Trueblood “the most quoted religious author in America.” Although he held the lofty position of senior adviser to President Eisenhower, Elton found time once a month to spend a couple of hours visiting men in a nearby prison. He did this not because of his teaching, writing, or lecturing, but simply as an individual Christian who felt called to do so because of his commitment to Jesus, who taught, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). Few knew of his personal commitment to these prison visits.
When I left a career in the academy, bid farewell to Elton, and moved to New England to become a pastor, one of the first things I did was to start a jail ministry to our local county jail, inspired by his example. I arranged for every pastor in our city to invest two hours a month to visit prisoners individually, resulting in numerous visits per week. Almost always, more than a dozen prisoners signed up for a personal visit, which was usually more than we could accommodate in our two hours of availability. Every time I emerged from behind bars, I said to myself, “That was time well spent and ministry much needed.” Always in the back of my mind was Jesus saying, “I was in prison and you visited me.” If ever there were people who qualified for the label “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), it was convicted prisoners. And yet, remarkably and strangely, Jesus named these prisoners “members of my family” (v. 40) and said that what we did to the least of these, we did to him. That meant that every one of us who visited prisoners tiptoed onto holy ground as we met with members of God’s family.
It did not take long for me to hear that the patron saint of the prisoners was Dismas. Dismas is the name legend gives to the penitent thief who hung on the cross next to Jesus. Dismas is the name known by every inmate on death row. That is about as low on the food chain of humanity as you can go, and that is the one to whom Jesus spoke, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NRSV). It is to Dismas’ experience that prisoners look for hope. Here is the gospel account: “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:39–43 NRSV).
Consider what Dismas on the cross next to Jesus did not say: He did not ask for forgiveness. He did not say he was sorry for his deeds that led to his execution. He did not ask for any special privilege. He did not recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, or memorized verses. He did not repent. He offered no remorse. It was too late to atone for his behavior. He did not say, “Oh, if only I had it to do all over again.” By his own admission, he was receiving the punishment he deserved. He had done no good works. All he said was, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That reply from Jesus is the only time he ever said anything like that to anyone—a promise of being with him in paradise.
Is it any wonder that Dismas is the patron saint for those with little hope? Such is the nature of God’s unconditional love. Perhaps you know people who wonder if they might be excluded from entrance into the eternal presence of God because of something they have done or not done in the past. Let them look to Dismas. Perhaps you have questioned if God can forgive something you have done. We must never make light of this serious questioning. What is the worst crime you can conceive of committing? What is the deepest hurt you have inflicted upon another? Is there a profound sin of which you are ashamed or questioning? Could you be beyond the reach of God’s outstretched fingers pulling you heavenward? The entire teaching of the New Testament rests on the pillars of love and forgiveness. No greater love exists than God’s love and forgiveness for you. You can never be beyond God’s forgiveness, for that would be to limit God, and God cannot be limited. To Dismas, to you, to me, and to all, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).
We might guess that the good go to be with Jesus when they die, but ironically, Dismas is the only one in the Gospels whom we know for sure is with Jesus. Therein lies hope, not only for death row inmates, but even for all the people you know and love who are not people of faith, who never darkened the door of a church, who never attended church school, or who never cared to live a life of love, justice, and forgiveness.
I remember looking at my grandfather in his casket. I loved him and visited him many times. He took me fishing for catfish. I spent hours and days sitting in his barbershop with him. But he did not like religion. He had come to America as a teenager to run away from the church in Lithuania. Never went to church. Never mentioned God except to curse. I do not know if he ever prayed. He probably did not own a Bible. I cannot say if he ever did anything to help another or to lift a burden. He had prejudices. He would not have called himself a person of faith. But I loved him. He was my Grandpop, and as I looked at him lying there, I found hope in this word from the cross: that if Jesus could accept and welcome Dismas and promise him paradise, then there was hope for my grandfather too. That is how big God is, with arms wide enough to hold the whole world in God’s hands: to forgive, to give grace, and to say even to a thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash