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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Prisoner

Inspired by a Sunday School lesson at Ingleside Baptist Church

The prisoner lay on his back, a thin pallet of straw the only thing separating him from the cold stone floor of his cell. The first rays of sunlight were filtering in through the tiny barred window near the ceiling, and as he watched, the rays began to travel across the small room. Determinedly, he shut his eyes, trying to fall back asleep. It had been a restless night. Instead of quiet, the night had been filled with the shouts and the comings and goings of travelers. Had he wanted to, he could have dragged the bed to one of the dark corners the sun didn’t reach, but already the sounds of people beginning the day’s work interrupted the sleepy stillness of the morning.

Resigning to the fact that his sleep was indeed over, the prisoner opened his eyes, revealing the ceiling, who’s every inch had been under his scrutiny the past few days. When first arrested, he had spent his days walking the perimeter of his cell, but that had only served to remind him how small it really was. Soon the prisoner had discovered that by lying still on his mat he could allow his mind to wander outside the constraints of the cell and join the hustle and bustle of the city outside. Today though, the sounds were different. There was a concentration of sound just a little ways away from the prison, and he could hear the sound growing. People were gathering for something.

Allowing his mind to wander, he began to imagine what could be going on outside. Was it some Roman spectacle? Acrobats perhaps? Gladiators? While he pictured the carnival-like scene, the sounds grew louder, then suddenly stopped. Straining his ears, the prisoner could just make out a low mumbling of voices, which the whole crowd seemed to be listening to. Was this a play then? But what an odd place for one, next to the jail. The voices stopped and once again the people in the crowd began talk amongst themselves. Despite his best efforts, the prisoner was unable to make out the topic of all the excitement.

Once again, the dull roar of the crowd stopped and the two voices resumed. This happened several more times. And as the prisoner listened, the crowd grew more and more agitated. Finally, the crowd became quiet once again and he could just barely make out a single voice talking. Then, a roaring wave of sound built up, startling the prisoner into a sitting position. They were shouting his name. His name. What on earth had happened that this giant crowd was talking about him? What could this possibly mean? It had been weeks since his trial, and since then the only people who ever thought of him were the guards who brought his food.

The prisoner stiffened as the crowd once again fell silent. What were they talking about? The bright carnival images were far from his mind now that he had discovered that he was the topic of all this discussion. He strained his ears, desperate to learn what was happening. Once again he could hear the lone voice speaking, followed by the shouting of the crowd. It started as a jumble of voices, but quickly formed itself into a chant which froze the prisoner’s blood. Crucify him. They shouted. Crucify him.

Overwhelmed by the sound, he curled into a ball, pressing his hands against his ears. The chanting subsided, but the shouts didn’t. People continued running back and forth and strange sounds echoed off the walls of the cell. The prisoner was ignorant of it all, caught up as he was in thoughts of his fate. He just couldn’t understand it. Of course, he had known what his punishment was to be. Even before the verdict had been given he had known. A man was only brought before the Roman court for one reason. He had no confusion about that. No. What he couldn’t understand was the anger. Where had the crowd been during his trail? There had been no shouting or chanting. The only one who had felt any real feelings about the trial had been the prisoner himself. So where had this crowd come from? Why did everyone suddenly want to see him dead?

His thoughts were abruptly driven from his mind at the sound of keys in the lock. His muscles grew rigid as he curled up even smaller. Death, he thought, he might be ready for. But not this. The angry chant of the crowd had seared itself to his brain. He knew he couldn’t face the mob that was waiting for him. He resisted the tug of the soldier trying to pull him up and found himself begging. “Please. Please. No.” The soldier jerked him impatiently.

“Aren’t you listening? You’re free!” The prisoner stared at the soldier in disbelief, and then looked at the open door of the cell. He made a split second decision and sprinted out of the prison and into the street.

He didn’t get very far. As soon as he got onto the streets, the prisoner was swept up by the pressing crowd. At first, he was terrified. What would the crowd do to him? But to his surprise, they ignored him. Not wanting to press his luck, he followed along, trying to blend into the parade of people making their way towards Golgatha. As he joined the crowd, he wondered if he was really doing the smartest thing. After all, he was walking directly towards the place the angry mob had wanted to drag him just a few hours ago. Even as he thought of changing his mind, it was too late. The press of the crowd had dragged him forward and there was no fighting against it.

As they reached the hill, the prisoner froze, causing the people behind him to stumble into each other to avoid knocking him and one another down. Still the prisoner did not move, transfixed by the sight before him. A man was being crucified. As he watched the man’s hands being nailed to the cross, he could feel the pain in his own hands. The cross was raised and he watched as people threw themselves forward, crying and clutching at their clothes. Sinking to his knees, the prisoner joined them, his fists crushed so tight that blood oozed out from between his fingers. He didn’t understand what was going on, who this man was or how he had ended up on the cross. But there was one thing he did know. That man on the cross was the wrong one. The cross on the hill had been built for him. Someone had made a mistake and crucified the wrong man. Tears filled the eyes of the prisoner, and he wept for the man who was being punished in his stead.

Late that night, even after the man was taken down from the cross, the prisoner was still kneeling in the field. There had been a sign above the man, one the prisoner couldn’t understand. It had read King of the Jews. What sort of king was this? The Jewish people were under the rule of the Roman Empire. Who was this man who had been punished so severely? Was he truly a king? And from what kingdom? As the first rays of light filled the morning sky, the prisoner arose from the ground, stretching muscles sore from kneeling so long. As he walked down the hill, the prisoner made up his mind. Somehow, he would find the family of this man and explain to them what had happened. About the mistake that had been made. And he would ask them for forgiveness.
Matthew 37:20-23 NRSV, emphasis added

20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ 22Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’* All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ 23Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!

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