The Gospel Truth

The Good Thief | March 28, 2013

I don’t think I have ever done an Easter reflection for my blog.

I mean what can I add to a religious event that has been going on for almost 2000 years?

At our Palm Sunday Mass I found it increasingly difficult to stand, such are the ravages of age.

So my mind started drifting a bit.

When the reader came to the part about Jesus being crucified between two robbers, I got an interesting idea that I want to share with you.

Remember some years ago when they tried to make the thieves into revolutionary insurgents?

What a joke that was!

I always loved the story of the good thief, as the saved criminal was originally called.

I think it is the greatest oxymoron in the Bible.

In his classic Life of Christ, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote that he was the thief who stole Heaven.

What a lyrical way of describing such a triumphant event!

The thief on Jesus’ right stole paradise

He was never canonized by the Catholic Church but is venerated as a saint by local traditions as Saint Dismas (sometimes spelled “Dysmas” or in Spanish “Dimas”). The name Dismas for this thief may date back to the 4th century.

According to Matthew, both of the thieves mocked Jesus (Matthew 27:44);

Luke however, mentions that:

39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

According to tradition, the Good Thief was crucified to Jesus’ right hand and the other thief was crucified to his left. For this reason, depictions of the crucifixion often show Jesus’ head inclined to his right, showing his acceptance of the Good Thief. 

His story inspired several priests, nuns and others to work with people who had made very bad choices about taking other people’s property.

Dismas House was founded by Father Charles Dismas Clark in 1959.

Father Clark was a Jesuit priest who long had the goal of helping ex-offenders by giving them a place to stay while they got on their feet after releasing from prison.

Along with Morris Shenker, a Russian immigrant lawyer, Clark opened Dismas House in 1959.

At the time, halfway houses were a radical concept and initially met with a lot of resistance within the community.

Today, halfway houses are commonplace and are recognized as a valuable asset to the offender and an integral part of the criminal justice system.

Father Clark became nationally famous as The Hoodlum Priest, the protagonist of a 1960’s Hollywood movie of the same name.

The film starred Hollywood actor Don Murray in the title role.  He also directed the low-budget film.

It was Father Clark who approached Murray with an idea about turning his life’s work into a TV movie.

Murray signed on Father Clark’s ambitious project that described the creation and development of his rehabilitation ministry of returning criminals to mainstream American society after their prison terms.

Today Dismas House, which is in St. Louis, serves referrals from the United States Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Probation Offices in the Eastern District of Missouri and Southern District of Illinois, the Pretrial Services Office, and direct court commitments.

Residents can stay anywhere for a few days up to six months or longer, depending on their needs as determined by their referring authority.

Don Murray wrote, produced and starred in The Hoodlum Priest, based on the life and work of Father Charles Dismas Clark (at left), founder of Dismas House.

The two Father Clarks

I also had another thought during the reading.

The only participation the people standing in the pews was a few utterances by the crowd.

The one that spoke to me was when the mostly Jewish crowd yelled crucify him…crucify him.

That made me think of an interview that I did with Philip Jenkins, the Chairman of the Religion Department at Penn State University on my WGNU radio program many years ago.

A former Catholic, Jenkins has distinguished himself for many years, writing about Christianity and the sociological forces in the world of religion.

In asking him about his latest book, somehow the discussion turned to the death of Jesus.

The Romans did it

I think he had blamed it on the Romans, which was a view that just starting to gain currency as a political correction to the standard view that the Jews did it!

I found this something very difficult to believe…and from a Cambridge man at that!

I had never heard the term blood libel during any of my Catholic education from 1949-1965.

I had never personally blamed any Jews for the death of Christ–other than the leaders of the Sanhedrin in the time of Christ.

Nor had I ever uttered the epithet, Christ killer! to anyone.

But how could the Romans (all Italians) be guilty?

Did not Pontius Pilate not offer them Barabas instead?

Was it not the Jews who refused, yelling crucify him..crucify him?

What was the symbolism of Pilate’s washing of his hands?

Pilate Washing His Hands

Found no crime but…

Did he not say…I find no guilt in this man?

It was indifference and maybe even cowardice but certainly not  full complicity.

Of course he had to offer his soldiers for the actual execution.

The Jews lived under Roman control and had no right to execute anyone, even though some of them, according to John’s Gospel, had tried to kill Jesus after one of his sermons.

That was Roman law.

Pilate feared for his job since he was afraid that if he did not hand Jesus over to the Jews, there might be a rebellion.

Jerusalem was not the prime posting for a career politician and he could not afford to make any waves that would ripple back to Rome.

The crowd said crucify him!

But to blame the Romans is not only specious reasoning but a distortion of both the Gospels and history.

In fact both Pilate and his soldiers became very uneasy about the whole matter.

One centurion spoke of Jesus’ innocence and his divine lineage after he died.

Near the end of the interview, I asked Professor Jenkins if the Romans were responsible, then what was Jesus’ crime?

I will never forget his answer.

He said nothing…not a word…and then we had to bid adieu.

A third and final idea occurred to me Palm Sunday when Jesus predicted his right-hand man and the future first pope, Peter would betray him…not just once or even twice…but three times.

Peter is one of my favorite saints because of his deeply flawed humanity.

He loved deeply but he seems to muck things up at every juncture.

He liked to boast but everything he said seemed to blow back in his face.

He wanted to walk on water and was doing fine until his fears and lack of trust took over and Jesus had to save him.

But when push came to shove, he was crucified just like Jesus with a very humble twist as if being stripped naked and hung up for the pleasure of hundreds of spectators is not humbling enough.

Humble at the end

Peter was nailed to his cross upside down.

I hope all of the above will give you something to think about as this Easter season draws to a close.

And maybe if you have any energy left watch Mel’s movie again…the Passion of the Christ.  No Easter is complete without it.



  1. Bill
    As you have (in the past) often commented about your esteem for our now-deceased fellow parishioner Mr. Musial and his certain new zip code (Heaven), I will thank you and praise you for taking a stand on issues.
    I truly believe that the “smoke of deception” is satan’s most useful tool. That “progress” to 99% of the world means a gentle slide from core Truths. You do the “work of the Cross”
    (yes, Holy Cross’ too) in your writings.
    Your harsh judgement by others is your promise of a mailbox with “The Man”.
    I saw The Passion again the other night. It always affects me, each time differently.

    Comment by Bill — March 29, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

  2. I liked your musings. I get plenty of distractions while trying to pray but it mostly goes to non-religious things. At least you get it on various parts of the passion. About your back–if you consent to drink LIMU, that will improve. It is so new that only 7 states have acquired the new health discovery. Happy Easter to you and yours. Pax

    Comment by Mary B. Lachney — March 29, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    • Mary:

      I did run it by my physician of nearly 35 years and he said that there was no advantage in taking this product. BB


      Comment by bbprof — March 30, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  3. Bill thanks for the comment I really appreciate the kind words.

    Mary: I asked my doctor about LIMU and he advised against trying it. Actually I do feel fine but when I work out, the old Rigor Mortis flares up—just a mild case I understand. But thanks again for the suggestion. BB

    Comment by bbprof — March 29, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at







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