The Thief on the Cross

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

It was as though a thousand layers
Of fraud and murder and affairs,
Each wrapped around his shrinking heart,
And hard as steel, had come apart.
He hung there silent, numb and hoarse
From screaming at the pain. The coarse
And filthy language of his soul
Dried scarlet on the splintered pole.
No strength remained to comprehend
How these few, quiet words could rend
The wicked wineskins of his life
Where every other moral knife
Had snapped like twigs against the rock.

The man had heard the soldiers mock
The Lord, and joined them at the first.
He saw him keep his peace, and thirst,
And with this tongue he whipped and sliced
The folly of a feeble Christ.
And then by some strange providence
Of grace, above his impudence
He heard the word of Life—not preached,
But whispered low; and that it reached
His ear above the blasphemy
Of his own lips was gift, as free
As gifts could ever be. He heard
Above the mockery the word:
"O Father, please, I beg of you,
Forgive, they know not what they do."
A curse, half-formed beneath his teeth,
Fell silent to the ground beneath,
Like slaving ropes and prison chains,
Like fears and rage and guilt and pains.
But then the lurid memories
Like waves from demon-laden seas
Broke savagely against the light
Of hope.

The lad had learned to fight
For garbage just to stay alive
Before he reached the age of five.
When he was nine he stabbed a man,
A beggar, just to have his pan,
Then threw up in the alley where
He ran to count the coins. He'd wear
A holy garment like a priest
When he was grown and rob the feast
And desecrate the holy meals.
And set the stage for his appeals
To lonely women in their grief,
Until they learned he was a thief,
And he escaped to Jericho.
He formed a group called Ganavo
And worked the wealthy routes until
The roads to Jericho were still,
And Roman legions searched the woods
And found him drunk among his goods.

The prosecutor's case was built
With ease. He bragged about his guilt,
And cursed his way from court to cross
Without remorse, as if the loss
Of his own soul to endless woe
Were sealed, and he would have it so.

But now his vicious mouth was still,
And something deep within his will,
Begotten by the quiet prayer
Of this reputed King, was there
As new and strange to wickedness
As orchards in the wilderness.
And from his lips there came a word
That none from him had ever heard.
He turned his head so he could see:
"Jesus, is there a hope for me?"

At first he feared the Lord was dead.
But then he lifted up his head
To see the fruit of his travail,
And softly spoke around the nail,
"Today with me in Paradise
You'll reign beside the feeble Christ."
And when he heard the Savior die,
He gave his agonizing cry:
"My God! My God! How can this be!
Why hast thou not forsaken me?"

And do we not this time of year
Repeat these words with godly fear,
And stand in awe of sovereign grace
That put a God in sinners' place,
And turned his head to hear our plea!
Who is a pardoning God like thee!

The awesome truth of candle three:
A sinner justified and free!