“Today I was to be crucified.”
I instantly regret the words as the old merchant looks up, his gaze moving uneasily over the long scar slashing my cheek. Yet I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Something about the vast blue sky makes me want to shout ‘freedom!’ and the shrieks of children chasing each other makes me want to laugh out loud. I long to point out to all the unseeing passers-by how the morning light is shimmering on the temple walls above us. After weeks of near darkness, nothing has ever looked lovelier. I’m free! I would shout it across all of Jerusalem if I could.
“Indeed?” The man hastily pockets the coin and hands me a salted fish.
After weeks of eating prison scraps I don’t hesitate. I stuff the fish into my mouth, savouring its salty flesh. I close my eyes, for a moment back in my father’s home, sharing our Sabbath meal. Those ended the day the Romans dragged him away. A familiar bitterness curdles my stomach. Perhaps it’s just the unaccustomed richness of the food.
The merchant is watching me intently. Finally inquisitiveness overcomes wariness. “Not easy to escape the Roman garrison. How’d you do it?”
“They released me.” My mouth is still full of fish. I swallow and say, “Another took my place.”
“Took your place? Why?”
“Seems they were after his blood.”
As I turn my head I hear it – the distant, throbbing sound of a multitude of voices. Still shouting. Still blood-thirsty. They’re already on their way to Golgotha. Caesar be cursed! I should have been out of Jerusalem before now. One zealous Roman soldier and I’ll be right back in that cold, filthy cell. Unconsciously my right hand fumbles for a blade. Of course it isn’t there. That’s the first thing I must lay my hands on.
“You’re not him, are you?” The man’s brow is furrowed.
“You know.” He looks down at his feet. “That murderer, Barabbas. They wouldn’t just let somebody like him walk free, would they?”
Rattled, I shake my head but I’m already starting to move, away from the man’s probing gaze and the pulsing sound of the approaching crowd. I try to push through a stream of pilgrims, workmen, tradesmen and slaves but it’s impossible, like straining against the Jordan’s current. Everyone is trying to join the execution crowd as they make their way to the city gate.
At the flash of a metal helmet ahead of me, I quickly turn and allow myself to be swept back along with the crowd. Surely the soldiers won’t see me in this mass of people. Once I’m out of the gate I can break away and head for the hills. Last I heard, a handful of my men remained uncaptured. They might still be in our cave. At least I’ll be able to arm myself again. Curses! I feel bare without my knife.
The throng of which I’m now a part pours onto the road leading to Jerusalem’s gate. I can see the execution crowd coming towards us, led by a cluster of Roman soldiers pushing bystanders aside. I can just make out the tops of three crosses, swaying erratically from side to side. I want to bolt away but the mass of bodies holds me captive.
The first prisoner to pass is the thief called Gildad. Until I arrived he was the strongest inmate, the one the others feared and gave way to. Angry, mocking, vindictive. Like me. On my second day at the garrison I knocked out two of his teeth. He has hated me ever since.
Behind him comes Hez, dragging his cross as stoically as ever. My throat clenches with grief at the sight of him. He was the youngest—and gentlest—of my men. I should never have drawn him in to our cruel world.
He struggles to lift his head at the sound of his name, his dulled eyes peering into the crowd, but before he catches sight of me a soldier is already shoving him forward.
A long way behind Hez comes the one who took my place today. For a moment the crowd around me grows still, but as he draws nearer they come alive. Hissing and booing. Mocking and spitting. What has this man done that they hate him so? Strangely, a few voices also wail out in sorrow—the name on their lips, Yeshua.
His face is creased with pain. There are thorns cutting into his forehead and blood dripping into the dust at his feet. A chilling thought settles onto me then. That should be me. The rough cross he carries is mine. The heavy weight of it should be bearing down on my shoulders. The crowd spitting in my face. I burned and killed and maimed—not just Romans—anyone who stepped into the path of my red rage.
The man stumbles and falls, groaning as the cross thuds heavily onto his back. A soldier drags him back to his feet. I watch as another pulls a man from the crowd and places the cross on his shoulders instead.
My gaze turns back to the one called Yeshua and a cold dread clasps me. He is looking at me. For a moment I expect his voice to call, “That’s Barabbas! This is his cross.” Hands will clasp me, swords will point at me and I will be dragged forward to face my due death.
Instead the man stands quietly and looks at me. Looks into me. And I am suddenly more afraid under that single searing look than I am of every Roman soldier in Jerusalem.
Who is this man who took my place today?
Then he is thrust forward, away from me. I feel both bereft and relieved. I want to run after him and look into those eyes one more time almost as much as I want to run away—far away—where I can forget his face, his blood. His gaze.
I make it through the gate that day and into the hills. By the time night falls I am huddled around a fire with my remaining men, a knife sheathed comfortingly on my hip. They expect me to talk vengeance and death but I cannot seem to invoke the same rage-filled rhetoric as before. I’m not the man I used to be. Perhaps I was changed by those weeks in a dank, stinking prison. Or perhaps it was seeing gentle Hez, bent under the weight of his approaching execution.
I know precisely when the anger and revenge bled out of me. It was that moment caught in a hate-filled crowd, looking into eyes both fierce and gentle, convicting and compassionate, knowing and accepting.
Something changed when I looked at the man who died in my place today and I saw that there was no anger or bitterness in his eyes, even as he was carried along on a tide of hatred, even as he looked at me—the murderer in whose place he stood.
Something changed when I looked into Yeshua’s eyes today.
I saw another way. I saw forgiveness.
Based on Matthew 27:15-26