Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals— one on his right, the other on his left… There was a written notice above him, which read: This is the king of the Jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
There is much one could say about this little exchange of words between two criminals and the Savior of the world. I want to say something about the last minute conversion of one of the criminals.
Jesus once told a parable about workers in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Some of the workers begin very early in the morning and work all day, others are hired throughout the day, and some don’t begin until five in the afternoon. But then all of them are paid the same wage. One of the lessons of that parable is that the door is always open, we may come to faith anytime, and God receives us with his fullest blessings.
We might assume that these two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus were not believers. But now, right at the very end of their lives, they have the greatest opportunity possible for a last minute conversion. They were dying in the presence of the Son of God himself. One of them sees Jesus and believes in Him, and the other does not. That’s how is is with last minute conversions– sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t.
Think about the mothers of those two boys, probably at home worrying about them. These mothers no doubt worried much over the years, disappointed with how their boys turned out. Maybe they didn’t even know where their sons were that day; though perhaps they did hear about their trial and the sentence to be executed for their crimes. We can imagine that the biggest worry for those mothers was to think that their sons were dying without being right with God. And unless they were at the cross that day, and heard this conversation with Jesus, they would have been left with uncertainty. But they would have probably been quite sure their boys died without being right with God, and that leaves a terrible sadness.
St. Augustine was one time asked a question by a mother in that very position, distraught about the fate of her son that died. He had drifted away from his Christian faith, and she did not know if he had ever returned to the Lord. In his reply Augustine referenced this story. He said, “Do not presume anything, one thief was lost. But do not despair, one thief was saved.”
Do not presume, he said, there are no guarantees– one thief was lost. He rejected and even insulted Jesus right to the very end. I have seen people die that way.
But, Augustine said, do not despair, for one thief was saved. In his last day, perhaps it was even his last hour, he looked to Jesus in faith. That can happen. I have seen that, too. Even on a death bed, even in quiet of one’s own heart without anyone else seeing, hearing, or ever knowing, just between the person and Jesus, right at the end, one can come to faith.
Do not presume… do not despair…
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.