Of the two men crucified with Jesus, only one joins in the mockery: the other grasps the mystery of Jesus. He knows and he sees that the nature of Jesus’ “offense” was quite different—that Jesus was nonviolent. And now he sees that this man crucified beside him truly makes the face of God visible, he is truly God’s Son. So he asks him: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (Lk 23:42). What exactly the good thief understood by Jesus’ coming in his kingly power, and what he therefore meant by asking Jesus to remember him, we do not know. But clearly, while on the Cross, he realized that this powerless man was the true king—the one for whom Israel was waiting. Now he wanted to be at this man’s side not only on the Cross, but also in glory.
Jesus’ response goes beyond what is asked of him. Instead of an unspecified future, he speaks of that very day: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). This too is a mysterious saying, but it shows us one thing for certain: Jesus knew he would enter directly into fellowship with the Father—that the promise of “Paradise” was something he could offer “today”. He knew he was leading mankind back to the Paradise from which it had fallen: into fellowship with God as man’s true salvation.
So in the history of Christian devotion, the good thief has become an image of hope—an image of the consoling certainty that God’s mercy can reach us even in our final moments, that even after a misspent life, the plea for his gracious favor is not made in vain. So, for example, the Dies Irae prays: "Qui . . . latronem exaudisti, mihi quoque spem dedisti" (just as you answered the prayer of the thief, so you have given me hope).