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.”
(Don’t know what’s going on in this story? Read the beginning of Criminal.)
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.
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.