“Ask a Priest: At the crucifixion, why does Jesus only answer the ‘good thief’?”

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Q: Praying about the Gospel for Christ the King Sunday, Luke 23:35-43, I have a question. Christ only answers the “good thief” and doesn’t answer the thief who said to Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Since Jesus only answered the good thief, is he being a model to us? I am going to read the Gospels in this light now, to see how Jesus answers various people. I seem to think that he never gets in the defensive mode and often just ignores the negative comments thrown at him. I am trying to become less defensive to people, and maybe there is some help here. Christ never answers a person defensively. My guess is that one of the things involved here is that I need a more humble heart. -K.P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is great that, as you are reading the Gospels, you pay particular attention to how Jesus responds to others. Our Lord invited us, in fact, to “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).

Meekness, by the way, doesn’t mean timidity or cowardice. The virtue of meekness “enables an individual to use anger according to the rule of right reason” in the words of theologian Jordan Aumann (see his Spiritual Theology). Thus, meekness didn’t hold Jesus back from going on the offensive at times. Witness his cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-17) or his chastising of critics (“Can any of you charge me with sin?” –John 8:46).

On the cross Our Lord’s charity is remarkable. He prays for his persecutors, for instance (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” — Luke 23:34). So how could we interpret his silence to the thief who taunts him?

One interpretation (and this certainly doesn’t exclude others) is that Jesus tried to win over souls until the last moment of his earthly life. It wasn’t a moment to argue with a person who either didn’t believe or didn’t understand Jesus and his mission. It is interesting that the bad thief asked, “Are you not the Christ?” — as if he believed to some degree that Jesus was the messiah. In any case, the bad thief didn’t understand that the messiah’s mission would be to suffer for the redemption of mankind.

Jesus gives us a practical example here: When confronted with someone who is incapable in the moment of grasping a Gospel message, the best response might be the charity of silence. Sometimes it is better to be quiet, if by responding we only fuel a fruitless debate. No doubt, Jesus’ patience and endurance on the cross made a deep impact on the “good thief” — so much so that he both believed Jesus’ innocence and Our Lord’s ability to make room for a last-minute repentant sinner in his kingdom.

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