Three men on a Friday, condemned to die. Ensnared by Roman justice, convicted, and sentenced to a lingering death of profound cruelty and excruciating agony.
The Romans knew how to do it right: execution designed to utterly humiliate its victims, and maximize their suffering–a public spectacle and object lesson to others about the foolishness of defying Roman authority. First used by the Persians in the time of Alexander the Great, and adopted by Rome from Carthage, crucifixion was so horrible and debasing a fate that it was not permitted for citizens of Rome. Victims hung for days, their corpses consumed by carrion.
Our knowledge of these three men is incomplete. Two are described in ancient texts as thieves, the other a preacher run afoul of religious leaders, delivered to the Romans under pretense of imperial threat. There should have been nothing unusual about this event: the Romans crucified criminals often, sometimes hundreds at a time. Yet these men, in this spectacle, were different: on these crosses hung all of mankind.
Two thieves and a preacher — an odd picture indeed. And even more peculiar: the most hated was the preacher. Taunted, insulted, ridiculed, reviled. A miracle worker, he, a man who supposedly healed the sick and raised the dead, yet now hung naked in humiliation and agony, unable to extricate himself from his dire circumstance. Even those convicted with him–themselves dying in unbearable pain and mortification — join the fray. Insulting the rabbi, demanding he set himself–and naturally, themselves as well–free. They know his reputation, yet selfish to the end, desire only their own deliverance.
But one thief is slowly transformed, in frailty considering his fate and the foolishness of demanding release when his punishment is just. And he marvels at the man hung nearby — why? Why does this preacher, unjustly executed, not proclaim innocence nor demand justice or vengeance? Why does he–amazingly–ask God to forgive those who have so cruelly and unjustly punished him? Why, in the extraordinary agony only crucifixion can bring, does he seem to have peace, acceptance, perhaps even joy?
His revulsion at the baying crowd, at the arrogance of his fellow convict reviling this man of character and grace, bursts forth in rebuke at him who ridicules: “This man has done no wrong!” Turning to the preacher, he makes a simple, yet humble, request: to be remembered. Only that. No deliverance from agony, no sparing of death, no wealth, prosperity, or glory, no miracles–only to be remembered.
The reply reverberates throughout history: “This day you shall be with me in Paradise.” A promise of hope, a promise of relationship, a promise of forgiveness, a promise of comfort, joy, healing, peace.
Three men on a cross. In these three men are all who have lived: two are guilty, one innocent. Two are justly executed, one unjustly. All three have chosen their fate: one thief to revile, ridicule, hate, blaspheme; one criminal to trust, to seek consideration and mercy from one greater; one man to submit to brutal and humiliating torture and death, willingly, for no crime committed — or for all crimes committed, everywhere and for all time. Yet only one promise given–to the one who, though guilty, trusted and turned.
Who was this man in the middle, this preacher? A charlatan, perhaps – but an impostor abandons his schemes when such consequences appear. Delusional, deceived zealot, or presumptuous fool? Such grace in agonal death is inconceivable were he any such man. What power did he have to make such a promise? What proof that the promise was delivered?
An empty grave. A promise delivered by a cavern abandoned, a stone rolled away. A gruesome death transformed into a life of hope, meaning and purpose for those who also trust.