The Good Thief: Healing Our Shame

A criminal crucified next to Jesus is known to the world as “the good thief.” But to me, he was “Josh,” my big brother. Growing up, we were never really close, but we shared the same small bedroom until I was six years old. In mom’s eyes, Josh was a good boy by nature, but was ruined by my father’s alcoholic rage, which was for whatever reason always directed at Josh. Josh’s life was made miserable by years of physical and emotional abuse from dad. To escape, Josh increasingly stayed away from home—until one day, he completely disappeared from our lives. Seeing the sad confusion in my young face, my mother drew me close and gently told me that Josh had been arrested for killing a man in the process of a robbery and imprisoned. Then, when he never returned home after he served his time, mom shared that he had fallen in with a gang of thieves and would always either be on the run or in prison.

So, it happened that I was there at the place called the Skull, when Jesus of Nazareth was put to death. Josh and another criminal were hanging on crosses on either side of Jesus. I was the only family member there to witness this sad ending to Josh’s troubled life. I felt that it was important that someone should represent the family, but I was afraid of the jeering, angry mob. Wanting to be unnoticed, I nervously blended in with the crowd, hoping that my brother would spot me and not feel so desperately alone.

What I witnessed that day gave me such peace and comfort. The criminal on the opposite side of Josh was mocking Jesus and taunting him about his powerlessness. Then I heard Josh telling the thief who was shaming Jesus to shut up, because Jesus, unlike the two of them did not deserve the harsh punishment they were receiving. He was innocent; they were guilty. After this, Josh turned to Jesus and asked for reassurance as he faced death. The compassionate look on Jesus’ face and his words of tender mercy lifted Josh’s spirit. I could tell when I saw the peaceful look on my brother’s face. I heard Jesus reassure Josh that he was forgiven and would be okay. Jesus promised him that from that day on, they would be together in the presence of God.

This experience on the day that my brother Josh was executed has remained indelibly in my heart and grounds my faith in God’s compassionate love for all—no matter what.

(Lk 23:39-43)

by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au (Paulist Press).