We are all familiar with these words, “My name is _____, and I’m an alcoholic.” Whether from movies, television, or real-world experience, we all know something about the recovery of alcoholics. We know that first step is to admit the problem. This is true with all rehabilitation. For any vice or fault in our lives, the road to recovery begins with acknowledging the disorder.
This simple truth helps us to understand the unique situation of the good thief. In Luke’s passion narrative, which we hear this Sunday, only the good thief receives the promise of salvation. This is striking. Jesus is suffering for the sins of the whole world, he is taking on the debt accrued by all of humanity, yet, in the midst of this monument of mercy, only one person receives the guarantee of salvation: “today you will be with me in paradise.”
The women bewailing the fate of Jesus are told only “weep for yourselves.” Simon of Cyrene, helping our Lord with his Cross, says nothing to Jesus, and Jesus is silent in turn. But a crucified thief, a criminal, is given safe passage to heaven. The great procession of the world’s salvation is passing through the streets of Jerusalem, and the only benefitting bystander is a convict on a cross. Why? Because he is the only one who asks for it.
The good thief, like the recovering addict, admitted he had a problem. He knew himself a sinner. He accepted as properly measured the cruelty and horror of crucifixion: “we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes.” Rejection, revilement, torture, these he considered mere justice. In his own eyes, he had merited damnation. But, so graced with self-knowledge, he was Calvary’s only sinner to ask for salvation: “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
All healing begins with a complaint. Every cure begins with a disease. Salvation is the same: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17). Jesus is the divine physician. He brings the remedy for sin. But only sinners can receive it. To receive it, we first have to know we need it. Pretending we are well, we will never get better. Only a sinner becomes a saint.
St. John warns, “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” This is exactly why he came. But “if we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:9-10). In short, if we don’t know ourselves as sinners, then we don’t know Jesus as our Savior.
Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s Scriptural reflections during Lent.