The brief story of the good thief tells of a man crucified with Jesus who saw the goodness of Jesus and the folly of his own ways (Luke 23:39-43). This good thief saw that he was getting the punishment he deserved.
Despite the mocking rebukes of the other criminal and the soldiers, and despite the lack of any evidence that Jesus would one day exercise any sort of power, this thief made the remarkable request, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
In response to this confession of faith and despite whatever dastardly deed this man was being executed for, Jesus responded simply, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."
There are many things one might ponder about this stunning incident from the life of Jesus. But one thing the church has seen in this story is a witness to a judgment each person must face at the end of life. Each person will meet Jesus to be confronted alone with the truth of their life. Those who confess faith in Jesus and sorrow for their sins will enter immediately into paradise.
Luke, however, says nothing about the fate of the criminal on the other side of Jesus.
Matthew describes a different judgment scene, in fact, a different judgment. Again, Jesus speaks: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him . . ." (Matthew 25:31ff).
In one case, Jesus on the cross speaking to one man; in the other case, Jesus in glory faces "all the nations." Two judgments -- one at the end of each person's life, the other at the end of time. Why do we need to be judged twice?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the particular judgment each person faces at the end of life: "Each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith" (no. 1021).
But this is not enough. We do not each live on an island. The effects of our actions reverberate long after our deaths. Only at the end of time will we be able to see, "even to the furthest consequences, the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life" (no. 1039).
So, at this last judgment, we will be judged on the opportunities to do good which we have either seized or ignored. Jesus in this account, does not even take into account the heinous deeds we have done, only the good we have done or failed to do. Moreover, all the nations will be there to witness the truth about us, to see how we have loved or failed to love.
Many will ask why we need even one judgment. Why doesn't Jesus welcome all of us into his kingdom? All are sinners. How can God fairly decide to let some sinners "inherit the kingdom" and send others "away into eternal punishment?"
Yet the refusal to accept judgment is linked with the stubborn denial of sin. We have the possibility of sharing in divine life partly because Christ has made that possibility available to us, but also because we are free, self-determining agents of our fate. God has given us freedom to either "delight (in) the law of the Lord" or to "be driven away by the wind" (Psalm 1). The possibility of eternal life contains within it the peril of eternal punishment.
All are sinners, yet some, like the good thief, admit that the treachery of their own lives stands in sharp contrast with the unfailing goodness of God. They face the truth and are humbled by it. Others would like to be God, replacing God's laws with their own whims. Such a life is a lie.
St. John put it this way: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9).
So it was at the crucifixion. The self-righteous ones, blind to the truth, perhaps even willfully blind, mocked Jesus. But one criminal saw the profound goodness of Jesus. Because he admitted his own sin and called on Jesus to remember him, he was welcomed into Jesus' everlasting kingdom.
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