The Good Thief

'Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun' photo (c) 2013, The U.S. Army - license: visiting my sister-in-law’s family in Colorado last year, she pointed me to this article in the paper that morning: Chaplain who died in Korean POW camp to get Medal of Honor. Here is a link to the official Medal of Honor website: Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun. If you have the time, I recommend reading the story of Rev. Emil Kapaun, who served soldiers in the Korean war in the most humble, selfless and probably Christ-like way possible. From reading the article, it seems Rev. Emil Kapaun definitely earned the right to be recognized with our military’s highest honors without, as far as I know, ever picking up a gun and killing another human. That would probably be a good topic for another post, but one of the things that hit me when reading the article was this little tidbit:

“He would pray to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, before he foraged in sheds and fields, stuffing corn, peaches and other food in his pockets, then giving it all to starving soldiers.”

My interest was piqued at the idea of there being saint recognized as the “Good Thief”. Thievery is bad right? That’s one of the 10 Commandments, it’s right there in the middle. “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15, quoted from the KJV because when I discuss saints, I start feeling traditional). It is a pretty basic law of society that we do not take from others without asking or being offered. How can a thief be good? How can a thief be a saint? Why would you pray to such a saint?

I quickly found out that I was more familiar with Saint Dismas, the Good Thief, than I thought. He was the thief crucified alongside Jesus who, rather than hurling insults like his companion, asked Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:40-43

St. Dismas (probably not his real name) is utterly forgotten to history after the biblical account and it is only through traditions and myths that we have any further “information” about him. Thus, we remember him mainly for this moment of repentance and acknowledging Jesus. We typically don’t recognize him for thievery, or whatever deeds got him to a cross in the first place. His attitude is what we remember him for, not his law-breaking actions. Which is why I think that the story of Rev. Emil Kapaun is so interesting and inspiring. He was a thief and a priest at the same time. How is this possible? Why do we remember his valor and not his thieving ways?


If you read the story, Rev. Emil Kapaun stole in order to feed starving soldiers. Even in the POW camp where no one (himself included) had enough to eat, he made sure he provided for those around him. He swatted away “an enemy soldier pointing a gun at a GI’s head,” he washed the wounded, he pulled injured soldiers out of the line of fire or dragged them away on stretchers.

“Come on, boys,” he would say. “Let’s help these guys.”

Every action was one in which Kapaun could have been killed or imprisoned. Yet, all were done with the other soldiers in mind. His attitude of selfless sacrifice led to him saving the lives of many soldiers at the expense of his own. If he died, he did not care. He realized his life was not his own and he gave it willingly for all around him. It’s not hard to imagine the words of Jesus to the Good Thief being whispered in Kaaun’s ear as he lie dying of penumonia and dysentary, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

When we live our lives in such a way, with an attitude of selfless sacrifice for others, feeding them, washing them, clothing them, healing them, the laws and rules should not ultimately define our actions. Jesus often broke deeply held Jewish laws for the sake of the hungry, sick and helpless. He was a Sabbath-breaker, leper-toucher and adultery-and-sin-forgiver. It is true that rules and laws are good for the sake of a stable society and I’m not encouraging any vigilante, Robin Hood, type actions. But, when rules, laws and the threat of violence stand in the way of helping the poor, powerless and oppressed, Jesus seems to show that people are more important than legalities or threat of violence. Rev. Emil Kapaun stole for others and put his life on the line for others. He helped bring a little slice of paradise into their lives.

I pray we are not afraid to find opportunities to do the same.

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