From Fr Robert Hugh Benson’s Seven Last Words:
THE SECOND WORD
Amen I say to thee, to-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.
Our Divine Lord, in this Second Word, immediately applies and illustrates the First and drives its lesson home. He shows us how the rain of mercy that poured out of heaven in answer to the prayer He made just now enlightens the man who, above all others present on Calvary, was the most abjectly ignorant of all; the man who, himself at the very heart of the tragedy, understood it less, probably, than the smallest child on the outskirts of the crowd.
His life had been one long defiance of the laws of both God and man. He had been a member of one of those troops of human vermin that crawl round Jerusalem, raiding solitary houses, attacking solitary travellers, guilty of sins at once the bloodiest and the meanest, comparable only to the French apaches of our own day. Well, he had been gripped at last by the Roman machine, caught in some sordid adventure, and here, resentful and furious and contemptuous, full of bravado and terror, he snarled like a polecat at every human face he saw, snarled and spat at the Divine Face Itself that looked at him from a cross that was like his own; and, since he had not even a spark of the honour that is reputed to exist “among thieves,” taunted his “fellow criminal” for the folly of His “crime.”
“If thou be the Christ, save Thyself and us.”
Again, then, the Paradox is plain enough. Surely an educated priest, or a timid disciple, or a good-hearted dutiful soldier who hated the work he was at, surely one of these will be the first object of Christ’s pardon; and so one of these would have been, if one of ourselves had hung there. But when God forgives, He forgives the most ignorant first—that is, the most remote from forgiveness—and makes, not Peter or Caiphas or the Centurion, but Dismas the thief, the first fruits of Redemption.
I. The first effect of the Divine Mercy is Enlightenment. Before they call, I will answer. Before the thief feels the first pang of sorrow Grace is at work on him, and for the first time in his dreary life he begins to understand. And an extraordinary illumination shines in his soul. For no expert penitent after years of spirituality, no sorrowful saint, could have prayed more perfectly than this outcast. His intellect, perhaps, took in little or nothing of the great forces that were active about him and within him; he knew, perhaps, explicitly little or nothing of Who this was that hung beside him; yet his soul’s intuition pierces to the very heart of the mystery and expresses itself in a prayer that combines at once a perfect love, an exquisite humility, an entire confidence, a resolute hope, a clear-sighted faith, and an unutterable patience; his soul blossoms all in a moment: Lord, remember me when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom. He saw the glory behind the shame, the Eternal Throne behind the Cross, and the future behind the present; and he asked only to be remembered when the glory should transfigure the shame and the Cross be transformed into the Throne; for he understood what that remembrance would mean: “Remember, Lord, that I suffered at Thy side.”
II. So perfect, then, are the dispositions formed in him by grace that at one bound the last is first. Not even Mary and John shall have the instant reward that shall be his; for them there are other gifts, and the first are those of separation and exile. For the moment, then, this man steps into the foremost place and they who have hung side by side on Calvary shall walk side by side to meet those waiting souls beyond the veil who will run so eagerly to welcome them. To-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.
III. Now this Paradox, the last shall be first, is an old doctrine of Christ, so startling and bewildering that He has been forced to repeat it again and again. He taught it in at least four parables: in the parables of the Lost Piece of Silver, the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, and the Vineyard. The Nine Pieces lie neglected on the table, the Ninety-nine sheep are exiled in the Fold, the Elder Son is, he thinks, overlooked and slighted, and the Labourers complain of favouritism. Yet still, even after all this teaching, the complaint goes up from Christians that God is too loving to be quite just. A convert, perhaps, comes into the Church in middle age and in a few months develops the graces of Saint Teresa and becomes one of her daughters. A careless black-guard is condemned to death for murder and three weeks later dies upon the scaffold the death of a saint, at the very head of the line. And the complaints seem natural enough. Thou hast made them equal unto us who have borne the burden and heat of the day.
Yet look again, you Elder Sons. Have your religious, careful, timid lives ever exhibited anything resembling that depth of self-abjection to which the Younger Son has attained? Certainly you have been virtuous and conscientious; after all, it would be a shame if you had not been so, considering the wealth of grace you have always enjoyed. But have you ever even striven seriously after the one single moral quality which Christ holds up in His own character as the point of imitation: Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart? It is surely significant that He does not say, expressly, Learn of Me to be pure, or courageous, or fervent; but Learn to be humble, for in this, above all, you shall find rest to your souls. Instead, have you not had a kind of gentle pride in your religion or your virtue or your fastidiousness? In a word, you have not been as excellent an Elder Son as your brother has been a Younger.
You have not corresponded with your graces as he has corresponded with his. You have never yet been capable of sufficient lowliness to come home (which is so much harder than to remain there), or of sufficient humility to begin for the first time to work with all your heart only an hour before sunset. Begin, then, at the beginning, not half-way up the line. Go down to the church door and beat your breast and say not, God reward me who have done so much for Him, but God be merciful to me who have done so little. Get off your seat amongst the Pharisees and go down on your knees and weep behind Christ’s couch, if perhaps He may at last say to you, Friend, come up higher.