The soldiers shoved me, and I fell through the opening of the cave-like pit below. My hands and knees took most of the impact. The smells left by the previous inhabitants filled my nose: sweat and urine. My fellow thief, Jesse, landed on top of me. I grunted as his kneecap slammed into the middle of my back.
“Get off,” I grumbled.
“Am I making you uncomfortable Johan? Terribly sorry. The whole purpose of this prison is our comfort. I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you,” said Jesse as he pushed himself off of me. I scowled at him.
“I’ll show you comfort.” I thought about punching the grin right off his face. How he could smile with death looming over us was beyond me.
“What’s wrong, eh? This prison isn’t up to your standards?” Jesse asked. “Do you hear that?” he called to the Roman guards standing above us in the entryway, “My friend doesn’t like your prison!” He cackled. I hurried to my feet and grabbed his shoulder.
“Shut up,” I hissed. He turned to me.
“What? What are they going to do to me? Kill me?” He snorted, then in a flat tone added, “We’re already dead.” Jesse turned and walked to one of the rough rock walls and slumped to the floor. He sat, one leg sprawled out and the other pulled in so that his arm flopped over his knee.
“Don’t be stupid,” I told him, “There is a lot they can do before they kill you.”
“Are you scared Johan?” Jesse sneered. I again resisted the urge to punch him. I didn’t hold myself back because I was afraid of Jesse’s fists. He was two inches shorter and weighed a good deal lighter than I did. It was a habit of mine to spare Jesse even when he deserved a hit. Through the years, I’d learned Jesse couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and he became especially mouthy when things were dangerous or he was cornered. Besides, I only had a little more time to live, and I didn’t want to spend my last moments beating the daylights out of Jesse.
But what did I want to spend it doing? Praying? Reciting passages of the Torah? A few hours of scripture recounting couldn’t erase an entire life. I didn’t even know if I remembered the scriptures my father taught me. My father…. It was a long time since I’d thought of him. I taught myself to ignore his image looming in my mind early on. It was too painful.
My father was beaten to death by robbers while traveling to Samaria. My mother died some years before, so at nine years old, I was left to take care of myself. Life on the streets was cruel. I tried begging for money, but I didn’t get much. There were droves of orphaned children on the streets of Jerusalem and the ones who made the most money were the blind, or crippled.
It didn’t take me long for me to I realize that some of their disabilities were fake. Once we were huddled in our tunnel for the night, blind folds would come off, canes and crutches were thrown to the ground, and “lame” legs were suddenly strong enough to walk.
It would be easy to tie a strip of cloth around my eyes, but it would be dishonest. My father would never do something like that, and even if he wasn’t with me physically, he was alive in my mind. I wouldn’t disappoint him.
After a few weeks, the hunger in my belly became more real than the memory of my father. I tore a strip from the bottom of my tunic and tied it around my eyes. Why should I starve just because people were naïve enough to give money to a fake blind kid? Honesty got me nothing but hunger pains.
The blindfold wasn’t enough to keep the gnawing hunger away. I’d watched other children swipe a fig from a cart or bread from a bakery, but I never tried. It was wrong to steal. But my aching belly told me it was wrong that people should have so much food, and not share it.
The first time I stole a barley loaf, I thought that the Almighty would strike me dead, but the moment I put it in my mouth, I didn’t care if he did. With a bite of stolen food, I banished God and my father from my mind.
Now, hours away from my death, they came back.
I slumped against the wall, tired of pacing. I had learned to live one day at a time, keeping all thoughts of life after death out of my head. Now, with nothing to do but wait for death to come, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to me after my lungs breathed their last.
When I was a boy, I would have said that I would go to the bosom of Abraham like all my forefathers. Like my father. Even if I could go there now, I doubted my father would want to see me. He wouldn’t be able to stand what I’d become.
I eventually outgrew snatching food from the market and graduated to patrolling the highways for unfortunate travelers with Jesse. One day, we got lucky and a wealthy man rode by. His clothes were fine, and he was riding a horse instead of a donkey. Best of all, he was alone.
The man put up a fight. He charged at me with a knife. I knocked his arm aside and plunged my own dagger into his gut. Blood gushed over my hand. I pulled my dagger out and watched his body crumple to the ground. What was the fool thinking? He could have lived. We wanted his money, not his life.
As l looked at his blank eyes staring wide at the sky, I wondered if that’s what my father looked like when he was found. Then I realized what I’d become.
I was a murderer. No better than the one who killed my father.
No prayer could save me now. When the Romans put me to death tomorrow, I would go straight to hell.
In honor of Easter, I’m sharing this three-part story telling the crucifixion from a nontraditional point of view: the thief on the cross.
For some of us, the crucifixion story is so well known that there may be a tendency to sort of “zone out” when hearing it again. I wanted to write something that would trick our brains into paying attention before it went into I-don’t-have-to-pay-attention-because-I-already-know-it mode.
I hope this story will allow those of you who have heard about Jesus on the cross many times to have the chance to experience it like someone hearing it for the first time.