Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. (Luke 23:42)
The Holy Church treats us like mothers treat children when teaching them to speak. To do this, they make children repeat after them the names of people and things which are most necessary for conversation. The Church does the same. In as much as for us, sinners, repentance is the most important thing, the Church, to teach us how to repent, makes us, at the present time, repeat, following after Her, the repentant psalm of David, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy” (Ps. 50:1), the moving hymn, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept… (Ps. 136:1), the contrite prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, “O Lord and Master of my life,” and the present touching appeal of the repentant thief on the cross to the Savior, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Since, for these words the Savior Himself replied to the one who said them, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), it is not surprising that they are especially precious for every sinner; and every time when they are proclaimed in Church they bring about a general visible impression, which expresses itself in the making of the sign of the cross and the bowing of the head. Each one feels that this appeal of the repentant thief contains, as it were, a key to the gates of paradise. And truly, this is a key to the Kingdom; not only in order to open whatever they want, a key not just to hold in one’s hands, but to be able to use it as is necessary. Otherwise, what would we think of the Heavenly Kingdom if for entrance into it it was only needed to pronounce a few words? If they opened paradise to the thief, it is because very much in his heart was connected to these few words on his lips. Without this the thief, no matter how many times he repeated these words while on his cross, would not have received the answer which the Savior of the world willed to vouchsafe him.
“To whom,” you ask, “may they open paradise?” Firstly, to the one who has just such a living and firm faith in the Lord Jesus, such as had the thief on the cross. See how he believes! He believes as many of the closest disciples of the Lord did not believe in the hour of His death. For Peter himself denied Him at that time swearing three times. Peter denies but the thief accepts the one rejected by all-the tortured one, crucified together with evil-doers, left, it seems, by His very Father, not having done any wrong-calls Him his Lord and Master and offers Him a humble prayer that he would not be forgotten by Him in His future Kingdom!… Can you imagine anything higher and stronger than such faith? Judge for yourself: are you in a state to adopt the confession of the thief? If you feel within yourself the presence of his faith, if, in spite of the thinking of false reason, which, even now, being blind, continues to see in Jesus not the Son of God but only the son of Mary, you constantly see Him as Christ, God’s power and wisdom; if you are prepared to stay with Him even when all have left Him; if neither His cross, carried for your sake, nor your cross, which you are carrying for Him, not in the least tempts you but even more binds your soul and heart to Him, then open your mouth and say, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Who can worthily pronounce the words of the thief? The one who, similar to him, not only sincerely admits his sins but also who good-naturedly bears their unfortunate consequences. The thief, regardless of his repentance, undergoes everything on the earth possible for a breaker of the law according to human justice: he dies now on a cross in terrible torment. But look how he endures that torment! When his unfortunate companion gives himself up to useless grumbling, he humbly confesses, “we receive the due reward of our deeds” (Luke 23:41). It is as if he said, “Why are you grumbling? Everything is happening to us as it must be: sinners like us must suffer.” This shows that a decisive change of thinking happened in him, that he felt all of the emptiness of his actions, had a heartfelt loathing of sin and looks on it as at such an enemy of man from which the even suffering on a cross is a trifle to be freed from it. Perhaps this is why he does not even ask the Savior for the lightening of his suffering, or even courage for enduring it; that is, he wants to drink the cup of suffering to the dregs, in order to, with its bitterness, be cleansed from all the previous pernicious sweetness of sin. His gaze is directed only to the future, to eternal life beyond the grave. There he wants to begin his new existence and new pure and holy activity, and prays to Christ so that He would not prevent him in that good intention, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” That is, cover my sins before the judgment of the righteous God, fill up, from your merits, that which is lacking for my punishment so that, in Your Kingdom, I may not be rejected from Your face just as now I have been made worthy to be close to You on my cross. Such is the humility, devotion, and hope of the repentant thief!
Do you, sinner, also want to be given his good part? Acquire first his feelings. Do not limit yourself with the vague acknowledgment that you are a sinner. What sinner does not acknowledge this? But show that you feel all the vileness of your sins. How is this shown? Firstly, by always abandoning sin; secondly, with good-humored patience of the misfortunes which, as a shadow to a body, always follow sin. Has human justice sentenced you to a deserved punishment? Bear it without murmuring, saying like the thief, “we receive the due reward of our deeds” (Luke 23:41). Has harm and evil such as sickness, loss of property, or disgrace happened to you of itself from your sinful life? Endure good-humoredly saying, “we receive the due reward of our deeds” (Luke 23:41). One who repents truly, feeling the vileness of sin, not only tries not to avoid punishment for sin but seeks it and often asks for it as mercy; but not finding it from others he makes for himself a punishment. When you get yourself in such a disposition of soul, then open your mouth with faith and say, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Your voice will be heard and you will not be forgotten by the Master of paradise.
Who can worthily pronounce the words of the thief?
The one who, like the thief, not only feels disgust for sin, ceasing sinning, but who also tries to bring to repentance sinners like himself, especially those with which he participated in sin. This is the holy duty of a repenting sinner; he must utilize everything in order not only to return to the true way himself but to return those who were seduced with him in his passions. How touchingly the repentant thief on the cross fulfills this duty in relation to his companion crucified with him! Maybe he did not tempt him into sin but was himself tempted by the other, but since the crime was common, he wanted to also share with him his repentance. “Dost not thou fear God” (Luke 23:40), he says, hearing the abuse of Jesus, “for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:41). Few words, but what self-deprivation it demanded to say them for the one who was being torn in pains on the cross. It is therefore that the repentant thief, not even finishing his address to the other, breaks it off and with faint lips turns to the Savior with the prayer, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42), wishing to not only in words but with an example say to his poor companion what he also needs to do.
And so, repentant sinner, if you want to acquire this prayer, do not stop with this conversion. You did not sin alone and must not repent alone. Do not hide your conversion, as some do, before friends and companions. Everyone has seen that you’re a sinner, let everyone see that you are a repentant sinner. No matter how much your former companions, like the crucified companion of the repentant thief, would foolishly mock the business of your salvation, you must not be grieved but mind your own business. Advise, ask, beg, entreat to try to return to the right way your accomplices. For only in such a way will you be like the wise thief and be able to unashamedly say with him to your Savior, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Basically, my brothers, we must not think that when we pronounce a few words with a sigh-whether it’s David’s words, the publican’s, or the repentant thief’s-that we already have the right for mercy and can continue to carelessly sin as before. No, this would be the grossest error. In that case, these very same words serve for our condemnation. You knew and understood, at one point, how you must repent, for your very lips pronounced the words of repentant David or the thief on the cross. Why then, using their words, did you not imitate their actions? Why did you accept their form and not acquire their spirit and heart? So, imploring, together with the thief, the Lord, that He would remember us in His Kingdom, let us take care so that the Lord has something to remember about us, so that, when we are remembered it would not be worse for us from that which is remembered, that is, from our untruths and our unrepentance in sin. Amen
St. Innocent (Borisov), Archbishop of Kherson