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The good thief was not a hero

(Article published in the Mar 19, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

           My apologies to the Seven Last Words preachers of this coming Good Friday who may feel pre-empted on their discourse about the fifth.  But lest they be tempted to draw parallels between the two criminals crucified with Jesus, on the one hand, and JL and FG, regardless of whom they may consider to be the good and whom they may consider to be the otherwise, I write to remind them of what biblical scholars say about the two who died on their respective crosses the day Jesus did on the hill called the Skull.

Tradition assigns the name “Dimas” or “Dismas” to the one considered as “the good thief”, and “Gestas” to the other.  But, actually, the synoptic gospels themselves do not draw a distinction between the two, much less make an assertion that they were just  thieves. Mark and Mathew called both of them “bandits”.

         Banditry and thievery are different.  A bandit, or a brigand, as he is known in Philippine law, is one who, together with more than three armed persons form a band of robbers for the purpose of committing robbery in the highway or kidnapping persons for the purpose of extortion or to obtain ransom or for any other purpose to be attained by means of force and violence.  A thief is less troublesome; he also unlawfully takes property, but does so without violence against or intimidation of  persons nor force upon things.  Moreover, unlike a bandit who usually operates in the highways, a thief operates anywhere, in the city streets, in offices, and some are said to be living along the Pasig.

         Luke, who had the more extended story and whose narration is likely to be the material of many a preacher’s peroration, was not interested in the nature of their crime and simply described them as “wrongdoers.” But in so referring to them, he made sure there was no mistaking what they are and thus used the word “kakourgos” meaning “bad.”


Hence, in the judgment of the three gospel writers both bandits were not good at all. I suspect the downgrading of their crime was engineered by clerics who had received contributions from the thieves of their time.  They must have wanted to send the message that stealers too could be saved, especially, if they continue making donations to the church some of their loot, thereby moderating their greed.

Biblical experts also point out that the story line in Luke’s extended narration, i.e. of different fortunes befalling two people similarly situated, is not original to the New Testament.  In Genesis 40, Joseph interpreted the dreams of two people who were imprisoned with him, the Pharoah’s chief butler and  his chief baker, both of whom had offended Pharaoh.  Exactly as Joseph interpreted their respective dreams, the chief butler was returned to his post but the chief baker was hanged.

Significantly, the wrongdoer who was saved did not appear to be truly repentant.  Rebuking his fellow bandit for taunting Jesus, what he said was “Do you not even fear God? Because you are under the same condemnation; and indeed we justly for we are receiving what is worthy of what we did, but he did nothing disorderly.”  Clearly, all he did was to admit that they, the two bandits, were being punished justly, “receiving what is worthy of what we did” and contrasted the justice in their  fate with the injustice of what Jesus was similarly suffering since Jesus “did nothing disorderly.”

Even President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the face of the “Hello, Garci” case, was better than him since she did say, on prerecorded TV after so many takes, “I am sorry”.  Not being present on either occasion, though, I am not able to say who of the two was more sincere and what my president was really sorry for.

Also noticeable was the fact that Dimas was hardly the epitome of either decorum or delicadeza.  When he addressed Jesus, he did not show any respect; he called him by name without any formality.  Since there is nothing in the preceding sections of the narrative to show why he deemed it his privilege to address Jesus with an such astounding familiarity, I can only surmise that Senate witness San Miguel, if he indeed talked to anybody during the lunch break the day he testified, was more prim and proper than him.  At least, he did not call her by name but instead used the contraction of “Madam”, namely, “Ma’am.”  By the way, where was his Madam?

Moreover, Dimas or Dismas was too quick to ask for a favor.  “Jesus”, he unabashedly said, “remember me whenever you come into your kingdom.” In other words, for the very little he did, which was no more than to tell his fellow bandit to back-off, he wanted to be “remembered” when Jesus got to his kingdom.  “Remembering” is a significant biblical term meaning to save from misery.  For instance, after the days of rain that flooded the earth, the Old Testament says, “God remembered Noah” and the waters subsided.

Jun Lozada had thus more delicadeza than Dimas. Jun Lozada never asked for a share of the coming 200 that Abalos is said to have assured to be coming to Secretary Neri; for all his efforts in trying to reconcile the Joey De Venecia proposal with the Abalos proposition, and in seeking to decompress the “bukol” a bit so as to make it unnoticeable, all he was expecting was a “balato”, a small token given as a matter of course by winning bettors in gambling games or candidates in electoral contests.

Surely, that kind of person could not be a role model.  The real role model, though not for this world’s CEOs, was the man on the center cross whose kingdom was not of this world.  Whereas Dimas asked to be remembered only “whenever” Jesus came into his kingdom, the time Jesus promised was not some indefinite period in the future, but instead, “this day.”

Furthermore, whereas Dimas asked just to be “remembered”, what was given was much more, namely, intimate company, “with me you shall be in paradise.”  As used in the other portions of the gospels, being “with” Jesus meant not only being physically in his presence, but in addition, sharing in his victory. 

The portrait of Jesus being painted by Luke is one of abundant, and not an exacting forgiveness that was previously manifested when he healed the servant’s ear clumsily chopped off by Peter; one of doting concern, similar to that showed to the daughters of Jerusalem who were at the roadside on the way to Golgotha; and one of exculpating championship or advocacy embodied in the prayer to the Father on behalf of his enemies who did not know what they were doing.

        Of the three on the crosses, he was the only one good.  And, if he could be called a thief, he can be said to have stolen only from the jaws of hell.  As for the present day thieves, let’s break their legs to make sure they are dead.