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“My song is love unknown,
my Saviour’s love to me;
love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.”

It is common practice in many Christian denominations to reflect on the Passion during Lent. For instance, in the Catholic Church, there are the Stations of the Cross. Another widespread practice, across Christian denominations, is to examine the “last seven words of Christ from the cross.” That is, the last seven things Christ says to his followers before his death. In that tradition, I would like to offer a Lenten reflection of my own. But rather than focus on each of the last seven words or sayings, I would like to focus on just one. Specifically, Luke 23:43, where Christ tells the “good thief” that “Today you will be with me in paradise” (NIV).

The good thief elicits this response by defending Jesus’ innocence, and by humbly admitting his own sinfulness: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:41-42, NIV). What should be made of this scene? What spiritual lessons could be garnered from this interaction between the good thief and Christ? What should be made of Christ’s promise of salvation to the good thief? Though much can, and has been said, again I’d like to focus on only one simple insight: We should never despair of God’s mercy.2 Sincere repentance is always efficacious, or as the old Lutheran hymn puts it, “Jesus sinners doth receive.”3

The good thief was, by his own admission, a sinful man. He was being justly punished for his crimes. We too, though not in the same literal situation, are in the same metaphysical and spiritual situation. First, all of us are, like the good thief, destined for the grave. It is not a matter of if, but only of when and where.4 Second, everyone is a sinner. As St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:23-24, NIV).

How then, given the ubiquity of sin, can the thief, or any of us, be called good? The good thief earns his ascription, not through sinlessness, but in the humble admission of his need for forgiveness.5 This is seen clearly in his admonition of the other thief to “fear God” (Luke 23:40, NIV). As Qoheleth insists at the conclusion of Ecclesiastes, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13, RSVCE).

What then does the fear of God look like? What does it actually mean to fear God? Three things are worth noting. First, one must consider the 1st Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, NIV). God is sui generis. He is not the highest good, but the good itself. He is not the loveliest thing, but love itself. As such, nothing other than God merits worship. The second insight builds off of the first. God is the source of everything. This includes our very lives, even as you read this sentence. As St. Luke recounts St. Paul’s preaching to the Athenians in Acts 17:28, “in him we live and move and have our being” (NIV). Finally, Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Word made flesh. The Logos, the ordering principle of all reality, has taken flesh and “dwelt among us” (John 1:14, KJV). Given these realties “fear of God” is not about legalistic piety but rather a prudent recognition of the facts. An awe-filled recognition that we are all creatures, and that no matter how often we deny it, we are, at all times and in every way, beholden to our Creator.

Yet, why is the good thief in the position to speak to Christ at all? If three strangers were being crucified on a Friday afternoon, it would seem strange to expect the good thief to ask Jesus to “remember him.” It seems likely, therefore, that the good thief knew, or at least knew of Jesus, before he was crucified with Christ. Assuming this supposition is correct, it has an important lesson to teach. Just as the good thief failed to follow Christ, we too, knowing Christ, often fail to follow him. As such, humble repentance is always in season. Scripture continually reminds us of this reality.6 For instance, in Titus 3:3-6 we are reminded of the danger of smugly assuming spiritual superiority over others:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”(RSVCE).

We are all saved by God’s grace. Saint and sinner are not separated primarily by the presence of sin, but by the presence of repentance, conversion and forgiveness. This is why Christ insists that whoever, “exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, RSVCE). The means of grace, and the path to repentance, conversion, and forgiveness are open to all. Moreover, Christians have the gifts of the scriptures, the Church and the Sacraments.7 As such, we should not delay our repentance. Nevertheless, as the good thief shows, we should never despair of God’s mercy. Everyone who sincerely repents – no matter how late or how often – will be saved.

The reality of God’s superabundant8 mercy, is echoed beautifully in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Purgatory, Dante the pilgrim meets Manfred, the King of Sicily and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Manfred was killed in battle, and according to tradition, called out to God in his dying breath. That Dante puts Manfred on the path to heaven indicates his spiritual genius.9 Manfred was a great sinner and had, after political disagreements with Pope Urban IV, been excommunicated.

Nevertheless, everyone is a candidate for salvation. Moreover, it is always and everywhere God and God alone who judges us (Matthew 25: 31-46).  In the Purgatory, Manfred explains the situation this way:

My sins were horrible, but endless grace
has arms of generous goodness thrown so wide
they take in all who turn to them…
No man so loses, by their curse’s power,
eternal love, that love cannot return
So long as hope shows any green in flower.10

We are all “jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:8, NIV). We are frail and easily broken. This can tempt us to despair. Yet, God desires the salvation of everyone (1 Timothy 2:4). His grace is, therefore, freely given to all. Like the Prodigal Son, all that is needed is for us to “return to our senses.” All that is needed is to arise, turn to God and say “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19, RSVCE). Then God, even while we are “still far off,” will be filled with compassion, and run to meet us.

How then can we continually remind ourselves of God’s mercy? How can we too, like the Prodigal Son, come to our senses? Let me close with three recommendations. First, following the good thief’s example, we need to learn to “fear God.” The things of this world – though good and real gifts from God – are “passing away” (1st Corinthians 7:31). They are penultimate. Only God is eternal. Everything in creation is temporary and completely dependent upon God.11 St. Theresa of Avila’s Bookmark Prayer succinctly captures the fact that the fear of God is not about being terrorized by a divine tyrant, but about recognizing God’s sovereignty, so as to rest peacefully in Divine Providence.

Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.
God alone suffices.12

Second, we must come to recognize and then live in the reality of the Incarnation. That is, the Logos made flesh. The good thief, in repenting, participated in, was washed clean by, the blood of Christ the Logos. The Incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ means that repentance, mercy, self-giving love, and forgiveness are integral to the nature of reality, for Christ, the Logos, is reality. As Pope Benedict XVI insists, “God’s answer is not an explanation but an action. The answer is a sharing in suffering – not as a mere feeling, but as reality. God’s compassion has flesh.”13 This truth, this reality, this flesh, gives new meaning to Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (NIV).14

Third, we must come to see as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich put it, that “all manner of things shall be well.”15 Despite our weakness and failings, despite all the suffering and evil in the world, “all manner of things shall be well.” We can rest surely in this knowledge because Jesus, the Logos, took flesh and dwelt among us. Christ is true God and true Man. He is Alpha and Omega. Finally, God is Love.

The logical implications of these facts are not always fully appreciated. If Christ the Logos is the Alpha and the Omega, and if Christ is God, and if God is Love, then it follows that Love is the beginning and end of all things. As St. Paul insists, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31, NIV). Even as we suffer as pilgrims through life, we can rest in the knowledge that Christ, in taking on flesh, suffers with and for us. Julian of Norwich is right: “All manner of things shall be well.” As the good thief shows, God’s grace is available to all, no matter how much we fail, nor how late we repent. God’s love is tangible. “God’s compassion has flesh.” We must never despair of God’s mercy.


  1. Samuel Crossman, “My Song is Love Unknown,”, 1664,
  2. Despair is – along with presumption – one of the two traditional sins again the theological virtue of Hope. Each is literally hopeless. Despair says “I’m beyond hope”, while presumption in assuming salvation, says “I have no need for hope, I’m fine the way I am.”
  3. Erdmann Neumeister, “Jesus Sinners Doth Receive,”, n.d.,
  4. Pascal is useful here for bluntly pointing out our metaphysical situation: “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.” Blaise Pascal, Pensees, Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 137.
  5. The distinction between humility and pride is also the primary division St. Augustine makes in the City of God: “The humble city [The City of God] is the society of holy men and good angels; the proud city [The City of Man] is the society of wicked men and evil angels. The one City began with the love of God; the other had its beginnings in the love of self.” St. Augustine, City of God, Trans. Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan and Daniel J. Honan. (New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1958), 14.13.
  6. Other useful examples would include Luke 18:11 and the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12.
  7. Scripture can shake us out of complacency regarding the greatness of these gifts: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16-17,RSVCE).
  8. Pope Benedict XVI speaks movingly of this idea in his book Credo for Today: “Here we meet with a theme that runs through the whole of Christ’s message. The Christian is the person who does not calculate; rather, he does something extra…the Christian is the one who simply seeks what is good, without any calculation… ‘Superabundance’ is characteristic of the whole story of God’s dealing with man…That way of doing things by which, in a final, unheard-of lavishness, he gives himself away in order to save that ‘thinking reed’, man, and to bring him to his goal. This ultimate and unheard-of event will always defy the calculating minds of correct thinkers. It can really be understood only on the basis of that foolishness of a love that discards any notion of calculation and is unafraid of any lavishness…God himself lives and works according to the rule of superabundance, of that love which can give nothing less than itself.” Pope Benedict XVI, Credo for Today: What Christians Believe, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009), 14-15;17.
  9. For more on the nature and purpose of purgatory see:
  10. Dante Alighieri, Purgatory. Trans. Anthony Esolen. (New York: Random House, 2004), Canto III, 121-123;133-136.
  11. St. Augustine is instructive here on understanding the difference between creation and Creator: “I had my back to the light and my face towards the things which are illuminated. So my face, by which I was enabled to see the things lit up, was not itself illuminated.” St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 4.16.
  12. St. Theresa of Avila, “Bookmark Prayer,”, n.d.,
  13. Pope Benedict XVI, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008), 62.
  14. From a Catholic perspective this also helps explains the centrality of the Eucharist to worship. For in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ, the Logos, transcends time and space. The elements of bread and wine become, once consecrated, the Body and Blood of Christ “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28, RSVCE). The transcendent, tangible, love of Christ is made ever present. The flesh and blood of Christ invade and transform the world. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33,RSVCE).
  15. Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love,” Trans. Grace Warrack,, 2005,

Gregg Twietmeyer

Gregg Twietmeyer is Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Mississippi State University.