Updated: Mar 1, 2020
A different take on a familiar Bible story...
Simon looked up, squinting into the cloudless sky. The sun seemed to be unmercifully hot today as he made his way back along the dusty road toward the city. Not that he wasn’t used to a scorching mid-morning sun where he came from, but this was somehow different. The air was close, like before a heavy thunderstorm, yet there was not even a sign of a dark cloud on the horizon.
And there was so much else to occupy his view. For, sprawled out in front of him on the next hill, were the glistening walls of the city of his dreams: Jerusalem! He remembered seeing this same breathtaking view for the first time when he was just 12 years old and he’d come for the Passover. Even now he felt so drawn to the place; he knew somehow he was part of it. And it was more than just heritage, or the temple being there, or even the fact that not many of his town folk or even his countrymen could often come—Cyrene was such a great distance away; another world almost—it was just that he somehow knew it was right for him to be there.
Simon picked up his pace a little as he neared the city gate. He wanted to be back at his cousin’s house in plenty of time to celebrate the Passover Seder. After the morning surveying his cousin’s lands, he’d even had the opportunity to inspect the lamb they would use for the sacrifice that evening. They had so much to do these last few days since his arrival, they barely had time to get re-acquainted. Even last night after supper, all the talk had been about the arrest of a great prophet who’d entered this very gate earlier in the week, with the people proclaiming him Messiah. He wished he’d been there then. Could this man be the Holy One of God? There was talk of miracles and even the raising of the dead, but were they just so many stories? There’d been this kind of talk before. All too often. And besides, the Romans always arrested these so-called saviors to keep the peace, and then who knows what happened to them. A brutal lot, that.
It seemed everyone was always so anxious for something better to come along. They didn’t understand. That wasn’t to be the Messiah’s purpose. And this place was special just the way it was. It transcended political systems, economic problems—all that. It was a holy place. He’d always felt that.
But something seemed out of place today as he threaded his way through the thick crowds gathered along the narrow streets. A sense around him like something was very, very wrong. People seemed tense, less friendly today than he remembered. He expected some hesitation because of the darkness of his skin and the foreign accent of his Hebrew, but this went beyond that. It seemed to be in the very air he breathed. He’d be glad to be back at his cousin’s house sipping a nice cool drink of water under the shade of one of the trees in his garden.
He pushed quickly through a tight knot of people. It looked like a little clearing beyond them in the street and then he’d be able to breathe freely at last.
Too late! He hadn’t seen the brightly-colored plume in the centurion’s helmet standing out above the crowd.
“Halt!” A spear was thrust directly in front of his face, blocking his pathway. Roman soldiers!
Trouble. He’d always known enough to steer clear of them, but now here he was almost eye-to-eye with one that didn’t look too happy with him for breaking through the crowd.
He glanced around quickly at the clearing the soldier had made. There were three other uniformed soldiers there, prodding a prisoner who was lying face down on the roadway, a heavy plank stretched across his back.
Poor fellow, Simon thought. What must his crime have been to be so beaten and bloody? He barely looked like a man under the ripped and blood-stained heap of homespun cloth.
“You, there,” one of the other guards growled, pointing a broadsword directly at him. A lump rose in Simon’s throat, threatening to choke the very air out of him.
“You, there,” the soldier repeated. “The dark one. Come here.”
Simon froze to the spot, unable to even think.
“Are you deaf, Jew,” the soldier yelled once more. “Come here.”
Simon instinctively felt the crowd around him shrink back a step. The soldier next to him reached out an arm and gave him a hard shove. He shot forward, losing his balance, and landed painfully on his knees directly in front of the crumpled form on the ground.
He wanted to shrink back, too. He’d never come quite so close to death before. And he was sure this man was doomed to die. He seemed as good as dead already. What Simon had felt in the air earlier seemed to tangibly cling to this one as if he were the very center of it. Death itself!
And the soldiers all around him! He dared not even look up. They’d as easily run you through with a sword as look at you. The mockery they made of justice, what with arrests for no reason, paid-off witnesses, and the punishment for all too many offenses usually some form of torture. And now here he was in the midst of a group of them and they seemed in no mood for mercy.
“Pick up the wood, Jew,” the guard with the sword growled, pointing the tip of his blade at the beam resting on the prisoner’s shoulders.
“C’mon,” another prodded Simon with his spear point. “Carry the cross for your savior.”
Simon shot a quick look up at the guard, his expression a mix of anger and surprise. The guard grinned widely, then spat on him.
His heart racing, Simon wiped the spittle from his face with this sleeve. He glanced at the crumpled figure on the ground as he reached for the wooden beam. So, this was probably the one they’d talked about last night around a friendly, well-provisioned table. Another fool trying to solve their political problems with a façade of religion. And look where it got him.
And here was Simon, caught in the midst of it now, too. Did they think he was one of this man’s followers? Were they going to let him go when they were done with him? They’d be worried at his cousin’s house if he didn’t show up soon.
The city seemed to darken around him. No longer did it seem the shining city of promise he’d heard it called. There was no attraction now, only the desire to run away from here as far as he could. Home is where he wanted to be right now, not here in this filthy alleyway with the stench of death reaching out to throttle him. Home…home…
He laid hold of the plank, wresting it from the prisoner’s shoulders, and stood it upright. The figure on the ground visibly shuddered as Simon lifted the weight and then lay still. Maybe he was dead! If that was the case, they’d have to let Simon go home, wouldn’t they?
One of the soldiers jabbed a few times at the prone figure with his lance. He looked at Simon.
“Better hope he’s not dead. We don’t want to waste that cross.” He grinned again. Simon stared down at the man on the ground, praying that he would rise; by all the powers in heaven, if need be.
The figure stirred, then raised himself to his knees. Finally, with a little more prodding from the soldiers, he stood shakily. Simon hoisted the cross on his shoulder, preparing to fall into step as the group readied themselves to move off.
Simon looked over at the man now standing next to him. Long hair hung over his face, matted with blood from the wounds in his scalp caused by the branches of a thorn bush that were woven into a kind of cap for him. His cheeks were scratched and his beard had actually been pulled out in places, it seemed by the handful. Simon shuddered at the atrocity that was once a man.
The prisoner seemed to stir from his stupor at Simon’s gaze. He looked up, then over at Simon for the first time.
Such light! Such life! Those eyes did not belong in that battered body. And yet, there they were, staring out at him with compassion and love.
Simon suddenly felt so ashamed, he had to look away. How could that man, in his condition, look at him like that?
“He felt sorry for me!” he thought. “And I loathed being near him.”
He looked over at the man once again, drawn somehow back to those eyes. The look had not changed. He hadn’t imagined it. He felt dizzy.
“Peace, child.” A calloused, blood-stained hand reached out and gently squeezed his arm.
In that touch was such profound peace. The darkness and heaviness lifted immediately from Simon’s heart and mind. And the fear was gone! There was such a sense that everything would somehow be all right. Even the heavy wooden beam seemed somehow lighter.
He couldn’t understand it, but it didn’t seem to matter to him anymore whether he was going to die when the soldiers were through with him, or whether he was going to walk off freely. He was free now!
He looked down at the ground quickly now for fear that the soldiers might have seen him actually smile. How ironic. Here he was in probably the worst situation of his life and he felt so good about it, so right about it. He suddenly realized that all his dreams about this city were always only a drawing towards, a yearning for something…he didn’t know what. And now here he was, complete, fulfilled, ready for whatever would come his way. And all because of the touch of this one beside him!
And those eyes! There was peace in those eyes, and understanding, too. They seemed to say that everything was going to be all right; that nothing could harm him. He could look forever into those eyes and never grow tired, not even of carrying this burden.
He finally managed a whispered question. “Who are…?”
“I am called Jesus,” the man replied, his voice hoarse. “You were chosen. Follow me.”
With that, the man turned his gaze to the hillside before him and walked on ahead.