"He was a thief"
Lazzaro Pisani's depiction of the Good Thief is not just art; it is a catechesis.
The Good Thief accuses and condemns himself, holding the sign of his crime above his head. The sign describes who he was. A thief. Christ, hanging on the cross next to him, opens a door to what the Good Thief can be. A saint. "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
The story of the Good Thief (San Dimas, in Chamorro and Spanish), is a clear explanation of the way God is both just and merciful; God punishes, yet forgives the sinner who repents.
Many times, God's punishment is the very means He uses to move the sinner to repent.
By striking the less important (our temporary, earthly life), God tries to save the more important (our immortal soul). By punishing the earthly, God tries to get us to heaven.
God punishes. Dimas is put on a cross to die for his crimes. He is a thief (Mt 27:38) and, according to ancient tradition, a murderer. God used the civil powers to punish Dimas. Saint Paul teaches that the civil government can be God's instrument, punishing evil. (Romans 13:1-4)
If we do not punish and correct ourselves, someone else will. It is helpful for us who are punished to see God's hand in this.
In the Old Testament, God even used pagan kingdoms to punish the Chosen People, Israel, when Israel went astray. Assyria was God's instrument in punishing unfaithful Israel. (2 Kings 17:18-20) (Isaiah 10:5-6)
When God punishes us, what are we to do?
If God is the one punishing and correcting us, can we oppose that and expect to win?
The only wise thing to do is to submit, as Christ, who was innocent of all sin, submitted to punishment for our sake.
Because "For whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth." (Proverbs 3:12) "He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." (Hebrews 12:6)
If we allow God's heavy hand to bend us low, God Himself will lift us up after we have been purified. "Be humbled in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you." (James 4:10)
The Good Thief was punished. But, in the end, he was right where he should have been. Next to his Savior. Dimas' punishment placed him exactly where he could obtain paradise.
There are only two kinds of punishment given out by God.
The first is the eternal punishment of hell. Out of that, no good for the soul is possible.
The second is the temporary punishment on earth and in Purgatory. Out of these, God can accomplish much good in the punished souls on earth, and God definitely accomplishes a good thing in the punished souls in Purgatory.
Since you and I are reading this while still on earth, isn't the wise choice to allow God to accomplish the good He is trying to achieve when we feel the heavy hand of His justice? It is His way of opening a door to His gentle hand of mercy.
By giving us a little less than what we deserve (condemnation), God is trying to give us, if we allow Him, an abundance of what we do not deserve at all (mercy).