The Bible is filled with the stories of people who get a brief, passing mention at the edges of the main salvation narrative. One of these minor characters is the thief who hung on the cross next to Jesus. Who was he, and what was his story, that at the end of his life, he was able to put his trust in Jesus? These are the questions answered by Raymond Arroyo in his book The Thief Who Stole Heaven.
I received this book for review courtesy of the publisher; all opinions expressed remain my own. This post contains affiliate links; as an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
The Thief Who Stole Heaven plot summary
We first meet Dismas, our thief, as a boy. Raised by thieves, he still has a gentle side. However, life with a band of thieves is harsh and unforgiving, and Dismas soon grows into a hardened criminal. Then one night, Dismas encounters the Holy Family as they flee to Egypt. Dismas has never met a baby like Jesus, whose eyes are so full of light and purity. Ashamed of his past, Dismas still reaches out to touch the Baby, and to ask for His mercy.
Then the Holy Family continues to Egypt, and Dismas continues his life of thievery. Gold is never enough to satisfy him, and the memory of the Baby on the road is forgotten. Then Dismas is captured by the Romans and sentenced to death on a cross. As he looks over at the cross next to him, he recognized the woman at the foot of the cross… and the Man who hangs next to him.
A New Perspective on Easter
Raymond Arroyo bases his children’s picture book on legends about the Good Thief, including the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich and the writings of the Early Church Fathers and other saints. While Arroyo hints that Dismas might have been a different man had he been raised by a family instead of by thieves, he also presents us with this idea of a moment of grace. A brief encounter with the Child Jesus forever changed Dismas’ life, even as he continued in his old ways.
God reaches out to each in so many ways with similar moments of grace. Baptism. Mass. A song on the radio. A brief moment when we stop and see God, perhaps in a flower or a child or a mountain peak. And like Dismas, we can either choose to continue our old lives of sin and violence, or to respond to that moment of grace and change. That moment of grace gave Dismas the ability to see Jesus on the cross not as a fellow criminal, not as a deranged preacher, but as the Son of God.
Before kings and prophets, apostles and saints, Dismas was the first to break through the gates of Paradise. ~ The Thief Who Stole Heaven
When we as Christians lose a loved one, an added grief that may assail us is whether or not that loved one will be saved. We may have prayed for years for the salvation of that person, yet seen no evidence in their life that our prayers made any difference. The Thief Who Stole Heaven gives me hope that God is ever merciful. I may never know what moments of grace were present in my loved one’s life. What chance encounters they had with the Child Jesus. Yet God knows, and constantly offers His grace, even in the moments before death. May there be many, like Dismas, who steal heaven, thanks to the prayers of their family and friends and the mercy of God.
More about the Book
The Thief That Stole Heaven is beautifully illustrated will full-page images of Palestine and Dismas’ life. The pictures themselves tell so much of the story. Randy Gallegos is a talented illustrator who puts so much emotion in the face of each person in the story. I had to go through the book again myself after reading it, just looking at the pictures and thinking about each person’s experience in that moment.
My favourite picture is the spread near the middle of the book, where Dismas meets the Holy Family. Joseph holds a lamp and his staff, facing Dismas as he tries to protect his family. Mary sits on the small donkey, holding a squirming baby Jesus in her arms. It made me smile as I thought about the reality of traveling via donkey with an under-two-year-old. (Donkeys don’t have car seats in which to contain busy babies!)
The last pages of the book depict Dismas’ and Jesus’ crucifixions. I wondered how my younger kids would react to these pictures, as the nailed hands and Jesus’ other wounds are shown. The picture of Jesus on the cross, looking at Jesus, is another picture that deserves a pause and a long look. This could be framed and placed on a wall. Jesus looks at each child, each parent, who reads this book with the same love and mercy He showed to Dismas.
As we journey towards Easter, this is a beautiful book to celebrate this season and to discuss what it means with our children. The Thief Who Stole Heaven moves between Christmas and Easter just as we do from December to April. This book could be used while praying Stations of the Cross as a family, to help keep younger children busy or to help draw them into prayers. Even as a parent, there is much in this book to pray and meditate on.
At the end of the book, Raymond provides a page detailing the inspiration for the story. He shares the questions he asked and the research he did, as well as saint quotes. As a history nut myself, I always love finding these historical notes, even at the end of a kids’ picture book.
More about the Author
Raymond Arroyo is an American author, journalist, and producer. He is the news director and lead anchor of EWTN News, the news division of the Eternal Word Television Network. He is creator and host of the news program The World Over Live and author of the Will Wilder series for young readers. He and his wife live in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Thief Who Stole Heaven is available from Amazon and your favourite Catholic bookstore.