Monthly Archives: July 2012

Jesus Followed by the Crowd

Jesus and two other criminals destined for execution are driven through the city to the place where they will be crucified. All three have been beaten, scourged, in preparation for death. Jesus is so weak he cannot carry his own crossbeam. He stumbles under its weight and probably lays exhausted from the torture he has already endured. Using their authority, the Roman guards impose upon a bystander, someone simply watching the spectacle, to carry the cross behind Jesus. Simon, of Cyrene hefts the beam to his shoulders and walks behind the beaten and traumatized man.

By this time, about noon, the city is awake and filled with business, preparation for the Passover, a holy Sabbath. But news of Jesus’ arrest and trial, his impending execution, escaped no one. People line the streets. People follow the procession of the condemned. This is a normal spectacle throughout history. Public executions are public affairs and people come to watch, to gossip, to be amused and entertained. This execution is no exception. Except that one of the people condemned is a well know teacher with many followers who has done nothing wrong or deserving of death. Many of the people following were part of the mob demanding Jesus’ life be taken. Many were just passersby’s, in the city for the feast. But, many were women and devoted followers of Jesus. “And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him” [Luke 23:27 ESV]. Luke describes the scene with people, specifically women, wailing and beating their breasts. A man they loved had been horribly beaten and tortured and was now being driven to inescapable death. They are watching him be dragged and driven, stumbling and barely able to walk, through the streets toward a place outside of the city where the Roman’s executed those who had broken their laws or threatened their sovereignty.

During this time, probably at a stumble, while he is down on his knees, Jesus turns to speak with the people. He knows them by name. He knows their hearts and the truth of their anguish over his fate. Always the teacher, always the compassionate lover of people, he continues to instruct and direct the thinking of their hearts. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” [Luke 23:28 ESV]. He is not directing his words to them personally but to them as representatives of the nation of Israel. He is not standing erect with one finger in the air lecturing these women. He is on his knees. His breath is coming hard and with rasps. His head is bowed and his strength is quickly ebbing. His words are not spoken with strength and vigor but whispered and forced. Jesus is already dying. He knows he is dying and will soon be dead. He is not afraid to die even the death he is facing. But he knows something they do not know. He knows many things they do not know. While his words sound mystical and surreal coming from a man who will soon be dead his resurrection undergirds and validates the force of his words. Don’t weep for his death for he must die first then be raised. Weep instead for what will happen to your nation, the children of your children as they face the future which is dire and filled with grief.

Jesus has already spoken about the future, what will happen. His people, the Jews, and his followers, soon to be called Christians, will face persecution and horror. They will be driven from place to place. Those who are parents will watch their children suffer and will be unable to do anything, which is the greatest agony. They will pray for death, to be hidden and removed from the world. “For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us'” [Luke 23:29-30 ESV]. People will face such agony they will feel compelled to do wicked and unthinkable things just to stay alive. Jesus is predicting the future. This is not an unusual prediction. He could see the present, the political climate, the tension between nation and nation, people and people, and say with fair accuracy the future would be explosive. But, he knows more than the obvious.

Now he makes a statement describing what is happening to him. He has done nothing wrong. Pilate and Herod both affirmed his innocence. In fact, everything he did was right. He healed people. He taught them about God though in a way which contradicted the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, which is why they wanted him dead. They cut down a tree in full bloom yielding nutritious fruit for no reason. “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry” [Luke 23:31 ESV]? If he is being murdered then no one is safe. If they circumvent the laws of God, ignoring their own responsibility to it, in order to remove a man who is completely innocent then their interpretation of the law of God will lead them anywhere they wish. If the laws of Rome can be nullified by a Governor simply through cultural pressure then there is no moral foundation for the existence of such laws. Law, especially moral law, ignored or changed and reinterpreted at a whim is no law but anarchy. No one is safe under these circumstances. It is better to have never lived than to live under such total disregard for people and the protection given them by law.

Simon of Cyrene

Pilate made a decision, one he did not want to make and argued against in a simple and foolish manner, but made anyway. He was the legal decision maker and the Jews could do nothing about his legal decision once made. Yet, he listened to the arguments, the accusations against Jesus, heard the charges against him change and change again, determined Jesus was not guilty, then agreed to have him executed. “So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted” [Luke 234 ESV]. But his giving in was not limited to murdering and innocent man. He exchanged Jesus’ life for that of a known murderer, one who justly deserved execution. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will” [Luke 23:25 ESV]. Those men who represented God’s law, a law which they concluded made them righteous before their Creator, asked someone they hated to release a man who would have been condemned under God’s law, who stood condemned under Roman law, so Jesus would be murdered. Caiaphas, the High Priest, and his fellow Jews, the religious leaders of God’s people, wanted Jesus murdered and argued for his execution.

Without belaboring the spectacle, Jesus was already half dead. He had been arrested in the middle of the night by a group of Temple guards who took him first to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest, Caiaphas his son-in-law. While in their custody Jesus was abused physically, emotionally and verbally. He was then delivered to Pilate who sent him to Herod, whose guards continued the physical and verbal abuse. Jesus was beaten and slapped and hit and spit upon. Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate who had him scourged by trained sadists, men who knew how to inflict the maximum amount of pain without causing immediate death. By the time Jesus is led away from this mob he is bleeding from wounds covering most of his body, is quivering from exhaustion, sliding into shock and had he been abandoned, left alone from then on, would probably have died anyway. But he is not dead. It is Roman custom the condemned, those facing crucifixion, carry their cross, or the cross-beam upon which they will be nailed with spikes, to the place of their execution. Jesus is forced to pick up a heavy beam and lug it through the streets of Jerusalem from Pilate’s judgment hall to the hill upon which he will ultimately die.

Jesus hasn’t the strength for this final act.

Roman soldiers have an authority throughout their territory, given them by the Emperor, which allows them to grab anyone they see, any of the local residents, and compel them to carry their load for a mile. This is something which was done daily in Rome’s Middle Eastern territories. Jesus is physically unable to carry his own cross-beam so the Roman guards snatch a by-stander, someone completely unawares, and force him to carry the burden. “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross” [Matthew 27:32 ESV].

Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims this time of year, all coming to celebrate Passover in their “city of God.” Simon, probably one of these pilgrims, a Jew from Cyrene, is in the city, probably with his family because he is devote and wants to be there to worship his God. Cyrene is in Northern Africa, in Libya and is modern day Tripoli. He has come a long way, either on foot or by boat. I can only assume his mental and emotional state of mind and heart. It is the day before Passover, the reason he has come to Jerusalem. Called Preparation day, it is a day when devote Jews prepare their homes according to the teaching of Scripture to celebrate a historical fact in a way which helps them remember who they are before God. Not only are they to prepare their homes they are to prepare their hearts to worship God. Simon is doing this. He is in the streets of Jerusalem, not as a tourist but as one who will experience the moment of a lifetime before returning to his home. He may never come back. But then, he may have moved to Judea with his family so he and his would become more closely identified with their heritage. We do not know the circumstance if his being in Jerusalem. We can assume he was not there to witness, let alone participate in, a crucifixion.

As he moves through the streets of Jerusalem a crowd forms and he hears the shouts of a mob coming toward him. Curious and cautious he moves to one side. It is never a good idea to get in the way of a Roman procession, especially if the Roman troops have their swords drawn. Coming by him, he hears the weeping of women, the groaning of men condemned and the exhausted steps of one carrying a heavy load. If he is normal he will see Jesus, beaten and bleeding, bowed under the weight of a cross-beam and know the man is going to die horribly soon. Looking at him, shocked by what he sees, for no one deserves the treatment Jesus has endured, he watches as the man stumbles and falls. New to the city he may not know who Jesus is and certainly would not immediately recognize him if he did know. Turning toward the crowd a Roman soldier grabs Simon, points to the cross, and tells him to pick it up. If Simon resisted he would have been beaten or killed immediately. He picks up the piece of wood and shoulders it while the Romans drag Jesus to his feet and force him to move toward certain death. Simon will carry Jesus cross the rest of the way, its weight pressing into his shoulder, its rough splinters poking his hands and arms and cheek, its stink assaulting his nose, bringing tears to his eyes. Carrying this cross-beam, probably having been used before to execute others condemned by the Romans, made Simon unclean. He came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Now, he could not.

If Simon did not know who Jesus was before he soon discovered who he was now. I cannot imagine anyone being thrown into his circumstance not wanting to discover all he can about the man driven behind him up a hill to his death. We know little about this man, but the document written by Mark, an eye-witness to the events, alludes to knowing him and at least two of his sons. “And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross” [Mark 15:21 ESV]. Is there any reason to disbelieve what is described in these documents? Is there a reason to suggest someone named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was not compelled to carry the cross-beam by the Romans as they drove Jesus to his death? Only those who do not want to believe the historical facts disregard the records and eye-witness testimony. Simon was a real man, carrying a real cross-beam so a real man named Jesus would be nailed to it with real spikes and dies a real death. This is all we know of Simon’s story but it is enough.