Tag Archives: christian fiction

The Criminal (Part 3)

The burning in my lungs chased away thoughts of miracles and prophets. My breaths in were difficult, but breathing out was impossible with my arms stretched out and over my head. I needed to pull myself up, but I couldn’t move. My muscles weren’t responding to the command. Up. I need to breathe.

Did I need to breathe? Why not stop breathing and end this misery now? Cramps assaulted me. The muscles around my chest and shoulders angrily squeezed themselves into tight balls of fire.

Instinct took over, and even though my mind told me not to prolong this agony, my body began to rise. Fiery swords twisted into the holes in my wrists and feet. I was sure I could hear bones grinding against the iron spike. The assent rubbed my back against the rough timber, scraping it until there was blood running down my legs.

I reached the top, and my lungs moved up and down. The cramps subsided. Then my arms began to shake and I let my knees buckle beneath me. The movement jolted the spikes in my hands sending searing pain through my fingers and arms. I would have to go down more slowly.

“Father.” The zealot carpenter from Nazareth was talking. “Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

The angry mob paid little attention to the man’s words—they continued to hurl insults—but I wondered why he would say such a thing. Was he trying to play the crowd? Pretending to be the merciful messiah to the end, hoping that someone would believe his act and get him down?

No. I felt my body pulling apart just as he, and pain like this didn’t leave room for acting. It stripped a person of all pretending and exposed who they truly were. He meant it.

I looked to the soldiers who gambled over his clothes. Did he mean them too? The ones who held him down and drove spikes into his flesh? What person would forgive that? Unless, he wasn’t just a person.

I’d seen a miracle once. I don’t even know why I went that day. I think part of me hoped that there was a prophet among us again. There was a mob there to hear the man preach. Such a vast crowd—it was like one I’d never been a part of. If that many people believed in him, then maybe not all the rumors were false. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember the taste of the fish and bread. It looked ordinary, but it had a taste like no other fish or bread I’d ever eaten before or since. Maybe because it wasn’t the food of this earth.

I saw what the man had to feed the massive crowd—five barley loaves and two fish. It was hardly a meal enough for one man but somehow, as his followers broke the food into pieces and handed them out, the food didn’t run out. The entire crowd was feed on such a meager portion. It was food coming out of nowhere, like the manna my forefathers received in the desert. There was a prophet amongst us again.

My taste buds remembered the meal as I thought of that day—a small pleasure in the middle of my torment. I glanced at the bloody face of the man next to me. The misshapen face didn’t look like the man that spoke that day, but how many carpenters from Nazareth could there be claiming to be the Messiah?

“Your name is Yeshua? Isn’t it?” I gasped.

The man nodded.

A soldier heard my question. “You’ve heard of him, huh? What is it like to be put to death beside a king?” He gave a roaring laugh, then turned to Yeshua. “That’s what you are, isn’t it? It’s what your sign says. Well, if you are really king of the Jews, then why don’t you save yourself?”

“Come off your cross,” said another soldier, “Aren’t you their messiah? Don’t you have the power to help yourself?”

“Where is your power?” called someone from the crowd, “Where is your army of angels? Can’t you call them to save you?”

“Why don’t you call them?” I recognized that voice. It was Jesse, hanging on the other side of Yeshua. He would join our tormentors in berating this man? He had no decency, to turn on a man dying in the same way we were. Would he start yelling insults at me too?

Jesse continued his mocking. “If you are God, then save yourself. While you’re at it, save us.”

The solders laughed and one said, “Your fellow criminals want you to help them. Are you going to disappoint them?”

“We’ll be your most devoted subjects. Won’t we Johan? All hail the King of the Jews,” Jesse gave a laugh that sounded more like a cough, “What’s wrong oh king? Come, we don’t have all day.”

Let him mouth off to the Romans if he wanted to. They deserved it. But what did he know of Yeshua? I balanced shakily on the spikes so I could breath. “Don’t you have any respect?” I asked him. “We are under the same sentence. At least we deserve it.” I hung my head and took a breath. “We are punished justly. But this man isn’t like us. He has done nothing wrong.”

“He’s still dying ain’t he? Just like us.” He snorted. “He’s no different than we are. Even if he does have a fancy crown.” He gave a hollow laugh. “Death. The great equalizer.”

Death wasn’t an equalizer. Yeshua wouldn’t be going to the same place as Jesse. Or me.

This man was a king. Not just King of the Jews, but king of an other-worldly realm. If anyone could help me, if anyone could change my destination after death, it would be him.

I let my head roll in his direction.

“Yeshua.” The man looked at me. “Lord. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The soldiers laughed. “He wants the king to remember him.”

One of the soldier nudged another. “He believes the carpenter has the power to come off the cross and hopes he’ll get him down as well.”

I paid them no attention. Yeshua was pushing himself up, grimacing as the wood peeled away the flesh of his back. Once he caught his breath, he would give me an answer.

Suddenly, I dreaded his response. What chance did I actually have? It was too late to go back and live my life in a way that would ready me for death. Did I spend time reading the Torah? Had I prayed twice every day with the scriptures tied on my arm and head? Did I recite the Shema every morning and night?

But he was a man of compassion. Even if he wouldn’t do what I requested, he would respond with an indulging answer simply to comfort me in his time of death. Perhaps a kind lie was more than I deserved.

“I answer you truthfully,” said Yeshua, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

My muscles where shaking. I slunk down the wooden stake and let my weight again hang from my arms. I was too out of breath to say anything.

“You’ve earned a place in a paradise with the gods!” bellowed a soldier.

Another looked at Jesse and said, “What about you? Are you going to join them in their kingdom?”

“Fool.” Jesse spoke to me, not the soldiers. “Fear of death has addled your mind.”

I closed my eyes. My muscles tightened, then teased me by slowly releasing before squeezing even harder in a jerking movement. I fixed the word “paradise” in my mind so that it blocked out all other words. It soothed me. Soon it would all be over, and a new life would begin.

Now, all that was left to do was die.

———

Time was my enemy. It moved slower and slower, stretching infinitely. I pushed myself up, and eased back down. I breathed. I bled. This went on for days. No, not days. It was only hours. Sometimes consciousness would slip away. I was always disappointed that it came back.

Why was I still breathing? My back scraped up and down along the wood so many times I wondered if my ribcage showed.

Finally, relief came. A club smashed against my legs until my bones broke. My tongue was swollen and my mouth so dry, screaming was difficult.

Now I wouldn’t be able to lift myself to breath. I would suffocate.

This small mercy was only given to me because whoever was responsible for our burial was impatient to finish his job before nightfall when Shabbat began and work wasn’t allowed. Any other day, and I could have hung for days before drawing my last breath.

My arms were out of their sockets, but the ache of their stretching was overshadowed by pressure in my chest. I could inhale, but couldn’t exhale. My lungs were going to explode.

My head was floating. The people still gathered meshed and wavered like a candle.

This was it. What would happen after the end? My panicked mind fought to hang on. Me in paradise? It would take a miracle to get me there.

Something filled my mouth. It was a taste that I’d only savored once before. Bread and fish. Miracles did happen. And I’d met the one who did them.

Then, everything was still. My muscles were free of cramping. My body wasn’t being torn apart.

A circle of light appeared in front of me, and out of the light walked two men.

It was him! The man from Nazareth was standing free of blood or bruise wearing a white and purple robe. There were no thorns on his head, but a crown that glimmered with more jewels then even Solomon himself could have had.

Behind him was a man I hadn’t seen in years. My father. A huge grin lit his face.

Yeshua stretched out a hand. “Come Johan. Let me lead you to the kingdom.”

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Part 1

Part 2


Hi everyone! I hope you enjoyed this three-part story that tells an age-old tale from a perspective not often seen. The two criminals hanging side-by-side with Jesus is a powerful visual for the options each person is given. Both men were beside Jesus in the darkest moment in their lives, and both would have been given the comfort of everlasting life, but while one dared to ask the unthinkable, the other could only spew insults. Even at death, all he could think of was temporal things that wouldn’t count as soon as he breathed his last. By joining in the catcalling, he put the views of the people gathered that day ahead of his soul.

 

Interesting facts:

Johan means “God is gracious.” I chose this name because God was gracious enough to give him everlasting life in spite of anything he did.

Jesse means “God’s gift.”  The greatest gift was pinned to a tree, bleeding before his eyes, but he chose to refuse it.

The Criminal (Part 2)

The soldiers hoisted a wooden beam onto my bloody shoulders. My body swayed slightly as it adjusted to the weight. It wasn’t enough for these pigs to simply kill us. They had to humiliate and torture us as well. Perhaps so that when death came, we would welcome it.

Earlier this morning, Jesse and I were flogged with a nine-tailed whip riddled with bone and glass. The claws of the whip didn’t stop digging into my naked flesh until I sagged unconscious, dangling from the rope that tied my hands above me. Now that half the life was beaten out of us, we would have the privilege of carrying our own instrument of death.

Beside me, the soldiers placed a beam on Jesse’s shoulders. He spat at their feet and was rewarded with a fist in his jaw. Jesse laughed wildly as if he thought it was funny that a punch would mean anything to him when the worst death imaginable awaited us. It was a slave’s death we were sentenced to. A death only given to the worst and lowest of society.  It wouldn’t be a quick one.

Another prisoner was lead out. He looked dead already. His own blood covered every inch of him, including his bruised and swollen face. Maybe he’d spit at the Romans too.  He must have done it more than once by the look of his face.

The people in the crowd began to boo as soon as they saw him. He must have murdered many people, or maybe of a very loved and important person judging by the crowd’s reaction. Whatever he’d done, I was glad he was being executed with us. The crowd saved all their insults for him, and Jesse and I were left alone.

After the murderer’s beam was secured across his back, the centurion ordered the procession to begin. The centurion lead the way with the badly beaten murderer next, then me, then Jesse behind me. Soldiers walked beside us, as if ready for us to try to escape. Like that were possible with a hundred-pound piece of wood on my back.

The Romans lead us down a highway, so as many people could see us as possible. On either side of the street, people stopped what they were doing to gawk. Some ran to join the crowd that was forming behind us. Others stood to the side shaking their fist and yelling.

“Die! Kill them.”

The murderer in front of me stumbled and fell. Jesse cursed under his breath. The soldier beside the fallen man kicked him.

“Get up!”

“Yeah, get up,” Jesse said. “We have an important appointment to keep.”

“Come on,” I grunted under my breath. Every moment this man sat there was a moment longer I had to stand with the weight of the beam cutting into my shoulders.

“Can’t you lift yourself from the ground, oh great Messiah?” taunted someone from the crowd.

Messiah? So this man wasn’t a murderer. He was one of those mad zealots that told everyone they were the Messiah as a ruse to get followers. No wonder the soldiers beat him so much. He was encouraging people to rebel against Rome.

The soldiers must have realized the zealot didn’t have the strength to get up because they pulled a man out of the crowd and had him carry the beam. I was surprised he complied. It seemed everyone in this crowd hated the zealot. He didn’t really have a choice though. Argue with a Roman solder and he might be joining us for more than just the walk.

Freed from his burden, the zealot shakily stood and began walking again. I stepped forward, my bare feet treading on the street’s worn stones, wet with his blood.

I don’t know how long we walked before we left the road and were led over a rocky path. The ground inclined and I had to stoop even farther forward to keep the weight on my back from toppling me backward. I cursed the Romans for putting their killing ground on the top of a steep mound. Jesse grunted behind me as if agreeing with my thoughts.  The beam across my shoulders rubbed at my open flesh making fresh blood pour out. My leg muscles burned and began to shake.

Finally, we reached the top and the centurion gave the order to halt.

My body sagged in relief as the beam was lifted from my shoulders. My eyes wandered to the eight-foot stakes rising out of the ground like naked trees. I would hang on one of them in just a few minutes. I wondered if the Romans knew what Moses wrote, “Cursed is the man who hangs on a tree,” and picked this tortured death just for us Jews.

A soldier offered me a drink of wine and myrrh, as was custom. I knew it would do little to numb the pain, but it was better than nothing, so I drank. The myrrh left a bitter taste.

The soldier moved to the zealot, but when the ladle was put to his lips, he shook his head. He was refusing?

“Stupid,” said Jesse beside me, “Does he think that refusing the drug makes him tough? Or does he think his little act of defiance insults the Romans?”

The soldier came to Jesse and he drank, keeping his eyes locked on the zealot who watched him. He swallowed once, then filled his mouth with more. When the ladle was pulled away he spewed the wine mixture out on the Roman. The soldier backhanded Jesse so hard he stumbled back. When he regained his balance he looked at the zealot.

“That is how you insult.”

The man didn’t have time to answer. A soldier came and pulled his clothes from him.  More came and stripped Jesse and me. The blood on my back had hardened so that the cloth was part of the forming scabs. As the garment was pulled over my head, the cloth took my dried blood and pieces of skin with it. I hissed as my back was ripped off with my clothes.

Once I was naked, I was pushed to the ground, the beam I’d carried was beneath the back of my neck and my open wounds pressed to the rocky ground.

They pulled my arms out so that the back of my hands rested on the beam. My right arm was held down and a metal point pressed into my wrist. I knew what it was, but I turned my head to look anyway. The spike that rested against my skin looked longer than the seven inches it actually was. How many hammer strikes would it take before all of it went through my wrist and into the wood beneath?

Pain. It took my brain a second to realize that the pain that shot through me was related to the slightly shorter spike. It was a moment before I realized that I’d seen the hammer fall and it was already coming back for a second blow. My body jerked, and I yelled as the hammer struck the head of the spike. I heard the metallic zing this time. It was the loudest sound there was.

My hand twitched like a separate entity as the spike burrowed deeper into my flesh. My arm was a betrayer, sending wave after wave of pain. I didn’t want to watch the blood bubble out of my wrist and spill over the wood beam anymore, but I forgot how to move my head.

Finally, the spike was gone. It was nothing but a flat bit of iron resting on my skin. It was over.

But had it only started. My other arm was held down. I didn’t look.

Once I was pinned to the beam, soldiers lifted each side and hoisted me to the top of one of the stakes already in the ground. My entire weight was hanging from my staked wrists.

My feet were placed on top of each other and my bottom foot made to lay flat against the wood. My knees were left slightly bent. I tried to brace myself for what would come next, but nothing could prepare me for the pain that coursed through me as a third spike entered my body. Every blow slowly moved the iron through my muscle. First my top foot, then it broke through the skin at my foot’s arch and in the same movement cut open the top of the foot beneath. The hammer struck again, and again. It would never end.

Then, I realized that it had. The hammering was done. The sound of the crowd came in a rush, their angry voices slapping me in a demand to be heard.

This is not how I should die, pinned and mounted, stretched out like an animal hide at the tanners. Hanging naked for all to see while people hurled insults. I should die peacefully with a family gathered around.

But was that the death I gave the man on the highway? It wasn’t the death my father got.

Father. If only he hadn’t died while I was so young. I would have grown up to be respectable like he was. He would have taken me to the temple at my thirteenth birthday for my bar mitzvah. I would have become a man by reading the Torah before the congregation instead of by swiping food in the midst of beggars. I wondered if the man I put a knife through had sons. Did they have a mother? Or would it be the streets that raised them, turning them into criminals instead of sons of the law?

A sign was nailed above my head. It let everyone know what I’d done so they could scream their indignation at me. I waited for their cries to come, but the word murderer didn’t arrive.

“King!” someone shouted, “What kind of king are you?”

I scanned the crowd. They weren’t looking at me. I followed their gaze to my left where the zealot hung. All of their anger was for him. He claimed to be a king? The ring of thorns that crushed into his skull made since now.

“You said you could raise the temple in three days,” cried another, “Well coming down from the cross shouldn’t be so hard then should it?”

“Prove to us your divinity. Are you the Messiah? Or are you the carpenter from Nazareth?”

A carpenter from Nazareth who claimed to be the Messiah? I’d heard of him. Who hadn’t? All of Judea was talking about the man who could make crooked legs straight and blind eyes to see. I’d even heard that he cured the incurable leprosy.

None of it was true of course. There were always rumors of messiahs. The people were hungry for a deliverer—someone to get them from under Roman rule. Someone who would build a vast kingdom and usher in a great age like that of Solomon. Miracle workers only existed in people’s minds or in the times of old when prophets were in our land. Still, there was that one time…

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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.

If you haven’t read the first part, here it is.

Part 1

Look for part three tomorrow!

 

Interesting facts:

The nails used to hang criminals to the cross were often reused. The materials used to make the nails were too scarce to waste by leaving them in the dead body.

The stake that went in the ground (the part of the cross that stood upright) was also reused because trees that would yield beams that large were in short supply in the area. That’s why the stakes were already in the ground when Johan reached the top of the hill.