FROM St. Matthew we gather that at first the thieves joined the bystanders in reviling Christ. "The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth." But the majestic dignity of Christ, as well as His infinite patience, seem to have wrought on one of them as he watched Him. Though crucified together, yet they were, he felt, utterly different. "We indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." "We receive the due reward of our deeds!" There was the note of real penitence. How seldom we Christians have the courage and the justice to say that, when sin brings suffering upon us. How we pity ourselves, how readily we blame other people, circumstances, fortune, or anything rather than ourselves and our own wrong-doing. "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." He had seen the mocking superscription over Christ's Cross, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews," and had heard the jeering words of the chief priests in their hour of triumph, "If He be the King of Israel, let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe Him," and with the wonderful insight and discernment which come sometimes with the approach of death he saw in his inmost heart that this kingship was in some strange sense a fact. There was somewhere another world than this, a world of mercy and forgiveness, a realm of truth and love, a realm where this dying comrade of his was King and Lord. "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." So, because he has confessed his sin and turned wholeheartedly to Christ his Lord and King, the words of Absolution come from the parched lips; those arms stretched upon the Cross are stretched in blessing: "Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." Yes; whenever there is a penitent acknowledgment of sin, and a confident throwing of oneself upon the mercy of Christ, the words of pardon inevitably follow. This may be, as in this case, and in what we call deathbed repentances, just before death. In other cases it may be earlier in life, when a man has still time to bring forth worthy fruits of penance. But the main fact remains the same. Sin is caused by the rebellious will--when the will ceases to be rebellious sin ceases and the soul is accepted by God. Here, to avoid confusion, there are just two things to be said, (a) Only God knows in which case the will has really ceased to be rebellious, has really made its submission honestly and thoroughly; only God knows when the deathbed repentance is sincere. We do not know and cannot judge. God knows, and only when the repentance is sincere is it accepted by God. Do we complain that a sinner may thus be accepted at the hour of death by God? If we dare to do that, we must remember the words of Christ, "I will give unto this last even as unto thee." Whenever the heart turns unreservedly to God in penitence and trust (and only God knows when that is) it wins forgiveness from the Friend of sinners. And (b) surely there is suffering, suffering enough to content even our envious hearts, to be endured by the sinner thus forgiven. Do we think that the penitent thief suffered not at all from the thought that his life was ending and that there was no longer anything he could do to show his love for his Saviour and his hatred of those sins that had been forgiven? I think this must have been a very bitter agony to him. So again in all cases of those who turn to God at the last hour, there will be much cleansing suffering to be endured after death as the saved soul gradually grows in the knowledge and the love of God and in hatred of itself and its past iniquities. So we can leave God to see to His own justice, and can rejoice that this justice is tempered with mercy through the merits of the atoning sufferings of Christ.
The more profitable question for us to ask is: Have we honestly and unreservedly acknowledged our sins and faults and shortcomings, not making any excuses but confessing that in any punishment that has overtaken us we receive the due reward of our deeds, or rather far less than their due reward? Have we thrown ourselves just on the mercy of our Lord and King, trusting in that and that alone? If we have done that, then we, like the penitent thief, are accepted by the Saviour, Who bore our sins upon the Cross, and that is the only thing that matters.
You will see that in considering our Lord's dealing with the thief we have thought first of Him as our Redeemer and not as our Example. In this case this seemed the natural order, because our duty of following His example is so enormously strengthened by the fact that we have been ourselves forgiven. In the light of the pardon we have received, our duty of following His example, of pardoning others, becomes an urgent and constraining one.
But this duty of forgiveness is very hard, because it must be real, genuine, cheerful forgiveness. We are not to take vengeance on the person we pretend to have pardoned by saying nasty things to him or about him to other people. We must not, after saying we have forgiven him, be always trying to humiliate him in every possible way. God and his own conscience will do that. We are not only to forgive him, "but to comfort him, lest perhaps he should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow" (2 Cor. ii. 7). And it is very difficult for us to do this obvious duty. In this matter, then, Christ must be not only our Redeemer, Who has sealed our own pardon with His own Blood, and our Example of pardoning others--He must also be our indwelling life. We kneel before the altar and receive Him in the living power and energy of His love, and side by side with us there kneel, perhaps, those whom we have so grudgingly pardoned. The one Christ Whom we all receive acts as a levelling and uniting force. We cannot receive His love unless we receive it as a love that shines on others too. If the love of Christ is to be a reality for us in that Sacrament of love, it constrains us to the love of His other brothers, and a real forgiveness of their injuries to us is an elementary exhibition of our love to them. Therefore the more loyally and reverently we receive the Blessed Sacrament of Christ's universal love to sinners, the easier will it be for us to pardon, generously and wholeheartedly, those who have offended against us.
But we are to go farther than this. The offences are not only against us--that is a very small matter. If they are offences at all, they are offences against God. So we are not only to pardon such people ourselves, but to help them to get God's pardon, to bring Christ's Absolution to them in whatever way we can. And if this applies particularly to those who sin against us, it applies also to all sinners. Christ our Life demands that we shall bear our part in His universal work of Absolution; we are not only to pardon private injuries, and to win God's pardon for those who have inflicted them, but we are to bring God's pardon to those who have not offended us at all but are sinners against God in other ways. Christ's life of love in us is to make us agents of Absolution to any sort of sinner against God. On the first Easter Day our Lord laid this duty as a solemn charge upon His Church--"Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained." Of course these words apply in a special sense to the Priest's office of giving Absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, but they have also a far wider application. The Priest in giving Absolution is acting as the spokesman and representative of the whole Church; and just as the whole congregation bears its part in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice upon the altar by the hands of the Priest, so the whole body of the faithful have their part in the work of Absolution. Christ Who dwells in us through Holy Communion does, by that very fact, make us all heralds and apostles of His absolving love; we have our share in the remission of sins by our general attitude to sinners. What was Christ's attitude to sinners? Did it not combine an obvious hatred and detestation of sin with the deepest charity and readiest sympathy for the sinner? Was it not that combination of qualities that brought the outcasts to His feet and made Him their Saviour? But in Christians, instead of that deep charity and that ever-ready sympathy, we often find a sort of sour self-righteousness which repels instead of attracting, hardens instead of softening, and so perhaps retains the sins of people to whom by sympathy and love we might have become agents of remission. This is a matter which we ought to lay to heart. We must indeed maintain an unfaltering opposition to sin in ourselves and others, but we want a more compassionate regard and sympathy for our fellow-sinners. We mix every day with people who are aliens and strangers to the love of Christ. They know we are Christians, and they judge Christians and Christianity by us. If we repel them by our aloofness from them, and hardness and censoriousness towards them, we are false to the position to which we are called of being fellow-workers with Christ in His absolving love. After all, they have sinned against Christ, not against us, and what we have to do is to bring them by kindliness, courtesy, and compassion to the feet of Him Who has, we hope, by His infinite mercy, forgiven us our trespasses. In some such way as that, Christ our Life, Christ dwelling in us through the Holy Sacrament, may apply His work of Redemption by means of us to the souls of others and so help us to imitate His example and share in His work of Atonement.
Let us pray, then, that we, like the penitent thief, may bear patiently any suffering or punishment as the due reward of our deeds, and like him may throw ourselves on the Redeeming mercy of our Lord and King; let us pray for grace to follow Christ's example by forgiving those who have offended us; let us pray that Christ's love for sinners may be given to us, so that we may help them to come to the Saviour by our sympathy and kindness and charity.