I think to myself, “Forgiveness? Why on earth! But look at what they did to me! It hurts so much, and they don’t even care!”
….but there was one that forgave so much more….
And here is the story…..
By the time Jesus reached the hill outside Jerusalem’s wall, he was a horrible sight. He had been up all night, pushed from one interrogation to another. Already he had been beaten in a brutal game the soldiers played, a mocking crown of thorns mashed into his head, puncturing his scalp to form seeping wells of blood. His face throbbed, the bruises on it darkening as they swelled. The flesh on his back, arms, and chest had been eaten by a cat-o’-nine-tails, the merciless whip that had laid bear the pink of his muscles and the white of his bone. Jesus had just come from being paraded though the narrow streets of the city where he had staggered under the weight of the crossbeam, time and again from exhaustion.
A gruesome parade had brought him here, outside the city walls where the dirty work of the empire was done. The place was called Calvary, a stone hill sloping down from the eastern end of the city, staring out over the Kidron Valley. Jesus stood on that hill with two other men slated for the execution: Hardened and hateful, they were career criminals.
The crowed gathered early that morning. Gawkers, hecklers, and religious representative came to make sure that the job got done, that there were no escapes, no rescues. Soldiers stripped the three men. One by one the stretched them out on the splintery wood, while several of the soldiers sat on each prisoner so the spiker could do his woke without the prisoner twisting free. The criminals went first, cursing and swearing as they were strong-armed into submission and writhed on the wood.
They came for Jesus next. He submitted to the soldiers, then to the nails. One was pounded into each arm, right below the wrist at the heel of the palm. His legs were twisted sideways, pushed toward his pelvis, and one foot was placed over the other for a final nail. The clank of metal echoed off the stone walls.
The bases of the crosses were aligned so they would slide into place as they were lifted. Ropes were draped around the crossbeam awaiting the heave of the soldiers who had spaced themselves evenly on either side to the cruel mast. Jesus’ cross was raised, jostled into position, then thudded into postholes in the stone, tearing flesh and rasping bone. The pain pulled air into his lungs and held it there with a tightfisted grip.
Slowly the grip eased, allowing Jesus just enough strength to push himself up from the nail in his feet. He drew a breath and exhaled a prayer.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”
The soldiers beneath the cross, who were gambling for his clothes, looked up. Over the years they had heard a lot of things from those crosses. Screaming. Cursing. Delirious ranting. Convulsive. Sobbing. Confessions. Challenges. They thought they had heard everything. But they’d never heard anything like this. No one had ever extended forgiveness to his enemies. The winning soldier took the garment, and the circle around the cross dispersed.
With the soldiers gone, the consciousness crowd converged. The men around the cross crept forward, their sneering lips baring toothy smiles. They darted like hyenas, tearing at the still-living body of drowned animal.
“Ha! You who were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!”
The challenge drew the crowd’s laughter. When it subsided, a waiting silence followed, leaving the crowd wondering how this king of the hill would respond. He didn’t. Ripples of contempt for his silence ran though the ranks of the more religious.
“He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen.”
“Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe.”
One of them quoted Scripture. “He trusts in God; Let Him deliver Him now, if he takes pleaser in Him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”
A handful of soldiers then took their turn. Each with his own spear of ridicule. A cutting remark. A jab of sarcasm. A crass comment about his nakedness. Racial slurs. Rough laughter. They offered Jesus sour wine and some advice, “If you are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”
The morning sun was in Jesus’ face, drying the blood, as flies crowded the banks of open wounds. After the soldiers were finished with their fun, the criminals on either side of Jesus joined in hurling their own insults. Soldier, commoners, scribbles, priests, elders, criminals- they all wanted a taste of the kill. Dogs from the garbage dumps had scrabbled up the hill, panting along the fringes of the crowd, skittishly waiting their turn.
Jesus mother was hearing it all, watching it all, bearing it all. John stood by her side, giving her his shoulder, his tenderness, his support. Jesus looked down to them and seeing them holding each other, spoke.
“Woman, behold your son.”
“Behold your mother”
With these words Jesus entrusted the care of the mother he loved to the disciple he loved.
The sun was now high in the sky, and the fight in the criminals had been sweated out of them. They had resigned themselves to their fate. A fate they deserved. They had cursed peoples lived at so many different times and in so many different ways. But when they cursed Rome by breaking its laws, Rome cursed back. The vengeance of the empire was swift, certain, and without mercy.
From the fever in his wounds, one of the criminals drew enough fire to say one last hateful thing. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Jesus hung there, silently wearily, his weight straining at the nails. Though he didn’t defend himself, the other criminal defended him. “Do you not fear God. Since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
For the passed three hours the man defending Jesus had been watching the evil, the hatred, and the insults that had been thrown at him. Three hours of people cursing him, and never once did Jesus curse back. Never once did he argue. Never one did he accuse. Never once did he show any ill feeling at all. The only words he returned were ones of forgiveness--- genuinely, humbly and tenderly spoken.
The man looked at Jesus, glancing first at the caption Pilate had placed over his head; “Jesus, of Nazarene, King of the Jews.” Then he looked at the picture. In it he saw a love that he had never known existed.
“Jesus” His words were timid from their unworthiness, and there was shame in them for the works that came cursing from his mouth earlier. “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
Though lips that were parched and split, Jesus answered him. “Truly I say unto you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Forgiveness. Love. Mercy.
Its all there in that picture.
A picture of someone blessing to relationships that only offered curses.
A picture of someone giving light to relationships that huddled in the darkness.
A picture of someone giving life to a relationship that was dead.
Its all there, in that horrible, beautiful picture.