For years I wondered how the Roman soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross must have felt, both during and after the event. Since there was no way to ever know for certain, one year during Lent I decided to put my own thoughts about it down in writing as a kind of interior monologue. This required some imaginative filling-in of the blank spaces in the gospel narrative, of course. As a kind of coherent story line began to come together, I made the bold decision to deliver the monologue, now entitled “About Midday,” in dramatic form as my sermon at the Good Friday service I was planning for that year. Somewhat to my surprise and greatly to my relief, it was well received. At the time, I assumed it would be a one-time experience. However, when I went to serve a new church and volunteered to design and preside over a new kind of Good Friday service that would be part of an elaborate Holy Week observance, I was able to deliver “About Midday” again, and to a much larger congregation that, as the previous one had, received it enthusiastically.
About nine months later, as the time approached to start planning for Holy Week again, I was asked to do the Good Friday service again. I was excited and gratified, but that meant I needed new material. So I wrote a new monologue, from the perspective of Barabbas, and entitled it “He Took My Place.” The year after that I wrote “Just One More Try,” about Peter’s struggle with guilt after denying Jesus. And the year after that I pulled out all the stops and wrote my most daring and speculative monologue of the group—“The Lamb of God”—tracing the thoughts of Jesus himself as he died on the cross, mingled with recollections of his childhood.
And that’s where it stayed for quite a few years. I knew I wanted to write three more monologues to round out the collection at seven, but the well of inspiration had hit a dry spell.
Then, after years of pestering, in early 2015 my friend Marty Vershel convinced me to complete the collection and publish it by offering me a chance to perform one of the monologues at the Good Friday service at his church, First UMC of Missouri City, and sell copies of the newly published collection to his members. It wasn’t really a monetary motive (I sold them at cost). It was more about sharing my reflections with a larger audience. Whatever the motivation, it was enough to start the springs of inspiration flowing again. In the space of just a few weeks, I wrote the three monologues I knew I needed to finish the collection: Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The work was both invigorating and deeply satisfying—a way to continue leading others, even in retirement, to a fuller understanding of what God did for us in Christ.
My fervent hope is that one or more of these pieces will speak to you personally, that you will see yourself in the faith, doubt, joy, despair, and ultimate triumph of these seven individuals.
Keith A. Jenkins
For as long as I live, I will never forget today. Career soldier in great Caesar’s army, veteran of nearly a hundred campaigns, decorated three times for valor in arms (once by Augustus himself), noble and trusted guardian of the glorious “peace of Rome”–now assigned to this desolate little Hebrew backwater, keeping watch over the most troublesome and most ungrateful subjects anywhere in the empire. And today I, who have killed a thousand men, many better than myself, and never even paused while wiping their blood from my sword, wept at the sight of a man dying by my hand.
What was different this time? Did I pity my victim because he had not come armed against me? Or was I somehow shaken by the unfamiliar heft and weight of the strange weapon in my hand, so awkward and blunt and altogether lacking in glory? It does not ring out when drawn, nor sing when engaged in its work, but rather falls with a dull and lifeless sound. No, it was not these. Nor was it the eerie darkness that blotted out the sun’s light about midday. It was that gaze he fixed upon me, unlike any I have ever seen before, or hope to see again. And it was the words he spoke, so calmly and quietly, when most men cry out begging for their lives to end. O ye gods in heaven, curse the day that I was made an executioner.
“Hey, take a look at this one. He won’t tax us much. Looks nearly dead already.”
“We better get him up first, before he dies, or we’ll only get paid for two.”
“Whose turn to do the honors?”
“Mine,” I said (more to myself than out loud), as I stepped forward and took the crude mallet. Reaching into the sack, I pulled out nine spikes, three sets of three. They were bent and twisted, their points dulled from repeated use. So hard to drive in straight. I hate them. They make me look like a novice . . . as if I were shaking so in anticipation of the violent wrenching and the blood that I can’t even hit a nail on the head. I put the worst three back and searched through the bag until I found shiny, new ones—for the feet. I guess it was the contrast that made me notice the deep reddish-brown stains on the older ones, the only reminder left of their previous clients.
While my compatriots were playing with the prisoner wearing the thorns, I set to work on the other two. So different from battle in the open field. There, every action is instinctive, or it’s your last. Here, the pace is slower. More precise. Using the tip of my thumb, I felt for the spot between the tendons. Just as blind, old Flavius had taught me when I was first made one of the custodians of death. “If you hit a blood vessel on the way in,” he used to say, “they die too quickly. Better to give them enough time to think about their crimes.”
“Nothing even worth gambling for except this cloak!”
The first one looked like a tough character, filled with hatred, angry at a world that had failed him—angry at me for doing my job. But he turned his eyes away as I raised the mallet, so I hit the head of the spike off-center, letting the mallet glance aside and crush one of his fingers. The second one was crying. Said he was innocent and didn’t want to die.
“I don’t care about what you did or didn’t do. None of that matters anymore. The only truth around here is my truth.”
My helper and I hoisted two of the crosses upright, then let them drop into the holes in the ground with a jarring thud. We watched eagerly as our victims felt the tug of flesh against the nails for the first time—a feeling that would become all too familiar over the next few days.
“Bring some of that wine over here. They’re thrashing around so much I can’t line up straight on the feet.”
When they brought the third man over to me, I studied him closely for the first time. That’s when I noticed he wasn’t like most of the men I see. He stared me right in the eyes, but never said a word. It was almost as if he knew me, but I was sure he didn’t. I stay away from Jews. But this one was different. I could see that he was already in much pain, but he never made a sound. The braided ring of thorns around his head outlined a dozen puncture wounds, each one streaming blood. The gouges in his flesh from the lashing even made me feel weak. (I had never seen thirty-nine before.) He looked like he should be dead, but somehow his eyes were filled with life.
“This one thinks he’s the King of the Jews.”
“That’s why we get him. No kings allowed but Caesar.”
“I heard he claims he’s the Son of God.”
My aim was perfect. The downward force of the mallet drove the spike through his wrist and into the rough wooden beam in a single motion.
I used the weight of my knee to hold his right hand down to the wood so both of my hands were free. I positioned my second nail and raised the mallet, pausing only briefly to check his eyes once more for some sign of the effect all this was having on him. Nothing!
“Curse you! You shall not resist the power of Caesar! I will make you yield!”
Number two found its mark perfectly, but he never made a sound.
We set his cross in place just as we had the other two, and I reached for my final nail—for his feet. No one had ever taken all three nails without crying out, and I was determined that this pitiful Jewish rebel was not going to be the first. My helper held his feet in place—crossed at the ankles—and I lifted the mallet high above my head. But I never heard the blow hit. The blinding flash of lightning knocked me to the ground, the air around me exploded with the clap of thunder, then all was darkness.
Trying to struggle to my feet, I reached out in front of me and felt the base of the cross. I ran my hands up along its rough surface until I found his feet. They were warm and wet—with his blood—which ran down onto my hands. I looked up, and in the darkness I could barely see his face. He seemed to be speaking to someone. I could see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear the words. Then he looked down at me. Our eyes met. I had never seen any man look like that before. Anger I understand. Hatred I understand. Even fear. But I didn’t understand what I saw in his eyes. It was tenderness—almost like the way a mother looks at her newborn baby. He was looking at me—the man who put him to death—with tenderness—with love.
Those haunting eyes were the last thing I saw. When I regained consciousness, I was lying on the stony ground beside a makeshift fire. The chilly air of the approaching dusk had drawn the men of my detail to huddle nearby, warming their hands, watching me. The lowering sun cast the shadows of empty crosses over the hillside.
“Where was he,” I thought, “this one called Ihsus—the King of the Jews?”
“Where did you men take the prisoners?” I asked.
“Dead already. Broke their legs. Families took the bodies.”
“What about that third one?”
“Just shouted something then died before we got to him.”
“What did he say?” I asked. But I knew what they would say. Roman soldiers don’t pay any attention to Jews—especially to condemned prisoners hanging on crosses. By tomorrow they wouldn’t even remember him—but I would. And I had to know what it was he said before he died.
I ran down the hillside toward the Damascus Gate. The Jewish Sabbath was beginning, so the streets of the city were nearly empty. I called out to those I saw,
“Did you know the one named Ihsus, the one crucified today?”
But they all turned from me in silent resentment and fear. I must have seemed like a madman—a Roman soldier desperately looking for a crucified Jew. But I didn’t care what they thought. I had to know what he said before he died.
The voice of my centurion snapped me back to reality.
“Gaius! Where have you been? Your men said you ran off babbling something about one of the prisoners.”
“The one called Ihsus, Sir. The ‘King of the Jews.’ You were there, Sir. What did he say before he died?”
“He cried out to his Father, something about forgiving us because we didn’t know what we were doing. But I don’t even know who his father is.”
My centurion was still speaking as I turned and walked away. As I passed out through the Damascus Gate, I felt odd—almost as if I weren’t myself anymore. All I could think of was this strange Jewish prophet named Ihsus.
How could he be so calm in the face of death? How could he forgive me after what I did to him? Why did I still feel the warmth of his blood flowing down my hands?
By the time I reached the hillside, the sun had set. In that cold, lonely place, I found three women. Their grief was so strong, they didn’t hear me approach until I was nearly upon them. I thought my uniform would frighten them, but instead they seemed to welcome me. Without saying a word I joined them at the foot of the cross on which he had died, and together we wept.
Walking through a smoky tunnel, lit on either side with torches, in the distance I can see flickering lights . . . it seems brighter than where we are. As we move down the passageway, I begin to hear the murmur of a large crowd. I can’t make out words yet, but the sound grows. Dull, muffled, almost like the roar of a fierce wind or an intense fire. Gradually, individual voices begin to emerge, more distinct with each step I take forward. I catch single words in isolation, but can’t form them into sentences yet. It has a rhythm to it—like the chant of worshipers in some kind of trance. Now I can see the portal clearly—figures moving in the bright space just beyond it—but the light hurts my eyes, so I turn my head aside and look down at my feet as I continue to shuffle forward. Finally, I piece two words together:
As the guards drag me forward into the light, they hurl me roughly to my knees. Fighting against the manacles, I make it to my feet again. Lifting my head, I see the crowd for the first time. Over and over the chant repeats, swelling in hostile intensity:
“Crucify him! Crucify him!”
What seems like thousands are gathered in the courtyard. I remember one old man near the front of the crowd looking straight at me and yelling, “Watch this one . . . he’s dangerous!”
He was right, I suppose. Many saw me as dangerous . . . as a threat to their comfort and safety. All I wanted to do was call my people to remember who they were and throw off the bonds of slavery once more. But I never wanted to be anything special. I guess I’m rambling again . . . an old man’s memories. I should introduce myself, because you probably don’t know who I am.
My name is Jesus.
My parents gave me that name—Yeshua, like the Joshua of old. I guess they hoped I would be another great deliverer for Israel. Yeshua bar Abbas—that’s my full name—though some call me simply Barabbas.
This is my story.
I was set free on that day. I thought they brought me from my cell to torture me, then nail me to a cross, but instead, I was set free.
I stood before Pontius Pilate that day—a weak, cowardly man whose only strength was his position. And on that day, my only strength was my hatred for Rome!
Don’t get the wrong idea—he didn’t want to set me free, but when he tried to use the Passover custom of clemency to set Jesus of Nazareth free, the crowd cried out for me instead:
“Give us Barabbas!
I couldn’t understand why they chose me. I had a few friends in the crowd . . . but I was not the kind of man that most people would want set free. I frightened them too much. And so I couldn’t believe they were cheering for me—for my release.
I had heard of Jesus of Nazareth—and I remember thinking he was a simple fool who believed he could change the world with mercy and love. He attracted crowds in the thousands— hungry sheep who were desperate enough to follow anyone. But instead of leading them against Rome—like I thought he should have—he told them stories about runaway sons and forgiving fathers. He even taught his followers to “turn the other cheek” and let their enemy smite then again! When I was younger, any man who struck me in the face had better be ready for a fight—that’s all I can say. I killed a man once for less than that!
So there we stood, the two of us, in front of the crowd. I can see Pilate calculating the strength of his position . . . wondering if he can sway the crowd. He cries out as loudly as he can—just to be heard, “What should I do with this one called Jesus the Christ?”
All this time, I was watching the one called Jesus. He should have been in great pain. He looked horrible from his beating. His body was bruised and blood was running down his face. Many a harder man would have been broken by what he had gone through . . . and yet, he never spoke a word. But I’ll never forget what I saw in his eyes. There was pain there, but it wasn’t physical pain. It was more like disappointment . . . or maybe betrayal. It sounds odd to say it, but it was like the look on my wife’s face that day the soldiers came and took me away. I had promised her I would quit the movement, but we both knew I had lied. I didn’t know it then, but that look—on both of their faces—it was the look of a broken heart.
I can tell Pilate is close to making a decision. He signals his servant, who disappears, then returns, bringing a basin of water. Then he washes his hands . . . making quite a show of it so everyone can see . . . and crying out in a loud, dramatic voice:
“Let his blood be on you, not on me! I wash my hands of this man and all of your affair with him!”
Then he turned toward me, with hatred in his eyes, and he said, almost in a whisper, “Set Barabbas free.”
The guards removed the manacles from my wrists and shoved me down the steps into the waiting crowd. In a single moment, I had been transformed from a condemned murderer to a free man—as if my crime had just been wiped away! But as I left, I turned and looked over my shoulder for one last glimpse of this man who would take my place on a cross that day—this Jesus of Nazareth. I wanted to see how he responded to his own death sentence. No man I knew could stand there as calmly as he had under the sentence of crucifixion. I looked for some indication of fear . . . some sign of agitation . . . but I saw none.
Jesus is staring right at me, looking deeply into my eyes. And I hear a voice inside my head that sounds so real I shake my head to be sure I’m not dreaming. Deep and gentle, like a long-ago-forgotten voice from my childhood. A kindly voice, like that of my father, who died so long ago I can barely remember him. It’s like that, but it isn’t my father’s voice. And it repeats a single phrase, over and over again: “For you, for you.”
When I look at Jesus again, he’s still staring at me—his eyes fixed upon mine. No sign of pain or fear—only a calm quiet assurance. The voice in my head repeats one more time, “For you, for you, Barabbas. For you.” And then he lowers his head and doesn’t look at me anymore.
I was still confused when my friends shoved their way to the front of the crowd, welcoming me as if I had returned from the grave. Deciding I should celebrate my unexpected freedom by getting drunk and finding a willing woman, my friends grabbed my arm and dragged me through the crowd and out the front gate. Down a narrow back street was a haunt of ours where we had gathered many times to plot against the Romans or lift a cup in celebration of some minor mischief we had carried out against the local guard. The same place where I had hidden for three days the first time I killed a Roman soldier. I told them I needed to go somewhere else first and would join them later, but I never got there. Instead, I returned to the Praetorium.
It wasn’t a wise thing to do. I had many enemies—both among the Roman guard and my own people—so I rarely walked the streets alone in broad daylight, for fear of an ambush. No, it wasn’t a wise thing to do, but it was almost as if something was drawing me back there and I couldn’t help myself. I had to see this Jesus one more time.
I told myself it was because I wanted to watch for the moment when he would finally break—when he would cry out in despair—or open his mouth to curse the demons of Rome. But, in truth, I guess part of me wanted to believe what I had heard about him . . . that he was a mighty man of magic and miracles, who claimed he could destroy the Temple and build it again in three days. I had heard that he spoke of a kingdom, and the day I was captured, I saw him riding into the city like a king while the crowd waved palm branches and cheered wildly!
He didn’t look like any king I had ever seen before, and yet I wondered if he was waiting patiently for just the right moment. Had he worked out a plan to signal his followers, who would then rise up in great numbers, take up arms, and overthrow their oppressors—then take him and make him their king?
If that was his plan, I wanted to be there when it happened, so that when he was crowned king, I could step before him and say,
“Remember me. We were prisoners together—we stood side by side before Pilate. I too am an enemy of Rome. Use me. Use my sword. Give me a place at your side in your kingdom.”
And so I hid myself in the crowd and waited.
Someone says that Pilate has ordered the thirty-nine lashes, so I know Jesus will act soon. No one would let himself be beaten so savagely if he intends to be set free. They strip his cloak and tunic from him, bind his arms around the whipping post, and bring out the lash. Long strips of leather, tipped with sharp bits of metal that tear the flesh from a man’s body. I have seen many men beaten and gone under the lash a few times myself when I was younger. But this will be the first time I have ever seen the thirty-nine.
Savage, hungry for blood, the crowd pushes forward to get a closer view. The guard raises his arm, then the lash falls across the back of Jesus. I hold my breath. This is it. This is the moment. Surely now, his lieutenants will spring forward with swords drawn, and strike this Roman guard dead where he stands. Then they will set their Master free.
His blood runs red, and each time the lash falls, I see his body shudder, but it’s only an instinctive reaction. He doesn’t cry out. He doesn’t beg for mercy. I start to worry because his followers are nowhere to be seen.
Something has gone wrong.
Perhaps they’ve been arrested by the Roman guard. Or been betrayed by one of their own. Or are lying at this very moment in prison cells, awaiting the same fate as their Master.
Something has gone wrong.
I know that some say he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God, but I don’t believe in such legends. Still, I find myself wanting to believe now. If he is the Chosen One, surely God will send his angels to fight for him and set him free.
The arm raises . . . the lash falls for the last time.
Thirty-nine lashes. One less than the death penalty. Not because they didn’t want to kill him, but because they wanted to save him for the cross. They knew that seeing him hanging there would cut the heart out of his followers, and they would have no more problems from this one. As they untie him from the whipping post and drag what’s left of him back down the passageway to the prison, I hear the voice again:
“For you, for you, Barabbas. For you.”
Angry and confused, I decide to join my friends. This man is not the Messiah! This man will not lead us to victory against Rome! If that was ever his intention, something has gone wrong with his plan, and now he is on his way to die a slow, agonizing death of shame, hanging on a Roman cross. He might end up a martyr to his cause, but Rome is not overthrown by martyrs.
I push my way back through the crowd. Distracted and lost in my thoughts, I wander into a side street that runs down the hill from the Praetorium, forgetting that it will take me past the back gate of the prison. Through the gate, I see the crucifixion detail—twelve soldiers and three prisoners, each of which is carrying a large wooden beam across his shoulders—the cross bar from which he will hang until dead. I look at the prisoners. Two of them I recognize as petty thieves. Then I look at the third prisoner. It’s Jesus!
Surely they can’t expect him to carry his own cross bar—he’s lost so much blood, he can barely stand up! But they strap it onto his back and drag him to his feet. I duck into a doorway to avoid being seen by the guards, but as I do, Jesus looks up at me. And in that moment, we are bound into one—as if we’re sitting together at table, breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine. There was a closeness that I didn’t understand then and I can’t explain now.
I mouthed a single word to him. “Why?”
I meant, why did you choose this strategy? Why did this happen to you? What went wrong? Were you trying to overthrow Rome? You rode into Jerusalem in glory with the crowd shouting, “Hosanna!” proclaiming you the Son of David. Why didn’t you strike then? Why were you so foolish to let yourself be arrested? Or, if that was part of your plan, why didn’t your followers rise up to set you free? If you really are the Chosen One of God . . . and if God is even really there . . . why doesn’t he send his angels to save you? Why?
All of this is what I mean by that single word I mouth to him, but I know it’s a pointless question. He has no idea what I mean by it, no idea how broken-hearted I am to see his rebellion fail. One word I mouth to him, then I slip out of the doorway and run like a frightened child. I don’t know where I’m going . . . I just run. Run until the sound of my own blood is pounding in my ears . . . until all I can hear is the sound of my saddles on the paving stones. Then everything grows suddenly and strangely quiet, and I hear that voice again, saying,
“For you, Barabbas. For you. I did it for you.”
I wander the streets for a while. Everywhere I go, small circles of men—huddled in doorways, talking quietly with each other—fall suddenly silent as I walk by. Women and children stare at me as if I am marked in some strange way, as if my appearance has changed somehow and I am no longer something recognizable to them.
I don’t know how long I walked, but I finally find myself outside the city walls. I think about leaving Jerusalem, setting out right then on the three-day journey to my boyhood home. But even as I form these plans, I know I won’t do it.
Instead, my feet follow a path that seems to be laid out for me, until finally, a lonely, desolate hillside comes into view. All along the top of the hill I can make out shapes like barren trees . . . on which the midday sun beats down without mercy.
As I draw closer, I realize where I am. It’s Golgotha, the place of death . . . where I myself would have ended up. If this one named Jesus had not taken my place, one of those crosses would have been mine!
I try to turn and walk away, but my feet have a mind of their own, and they continue to carry me closer and closer. Then suddenly—without warning—everything around me is covered up by an eerie, unnatural darkness. I inch my way forward, steadying myself with my hands as I climb the hillside.
I can tell that a crowd has gathered around the foot of the center cross, and I strain my eyes to see who is hanging on it. From the sound of the crowd—jeering and mocking—I know it must be Jesus. But there are women making that horrible sound women make when one they love is dying. I think back to Pilate’s courtyard and that look Jesus gave me as I turned to leave. And I realize for the first time that he is exactly where he wants to be! He’s hanging there on that cross dying because that’s where he chooses to be. He could have avoided it. Nothing has gone wrong—this is exactly what he planned! But why? That’s what I still don’t know.
Am I somehow to blame? Did I cause the death of this foolish, innocent man?
I have to know, so I steel my nerve and move closer. I can see the features on his face now . . . and the cries of the women are clearer. The soldiers are dividing his clothes among themselves . . . laughing and shouting . . . throwing dice, as if this is nothing more than sport to them.
On impulse, I step forward, intending to pull my knife and kill at least one of them before the others get me. It might not bring down Rome, but at least I’ll die for something—not powerless, not pitiful, like this would-be King hanging before me! I reach for my knife. I grip it firmly, poised with it still hidden in the folds of my cloak. They’re distracted with their game. This is my chance to strike.
And I would have . . . and I would have died that day, except that he spoke.
“Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
I had never heard words like that before. How could he say that? How could anyone say that? No one could endure what he had, and then say those words! No one who had suffered as he had could still believe that mercy is stronger than hate. No one who had come as close to victory as he had just a few short days ago could find such grace in defeat! And yet, somehow, he did.
A woman kneels before him, caressing his broken, bleeding feet with the tenderness of a lover. And yet it isn’t that kind of touch at all. It’s like she’s bowing before a god—but there’s no fear! Only adoration . . . and trust.
It’s almost as if all the distance between heaven and earth has been removed. It’s like God Himself is here in the flesh to be worshiped. That’s the way she touches his feet—washing them with her tears. I hear her say, “Thank you, Rabboni. Thank you for forgiving me.” At first I don’t know who she’s speaking to. There’s no rabbi here . . . no holy man would come to this ungodly place!
Then I realize she’s talking to him—to Jesus—hanging there on the cross. Without thinking, I speak out loud.
“Forgive you? Woman, you are mistaken! It’s not you he is forgiving. It’s these filthy Romans!”
Only then does she turn and look at me, the way a mother looks at her young child, and she says to me,
“Sir, before I even knew who he was, my sins had broken his heart. But he forgave me more than I can ever repay, and he gave me the power not to sin anymore. He forgives me. He forgives you too, Barabbas. For you, even for you, Barabbas, he has forgiveness . . . and love.”
What does he want from me? I never asked him to love me!
“He doesn’t want anything from you. He wants to give you what you seek.”
I told her I wasn’t seeking anything, except maybe a chance to start all over again—try to forget all the mistakes I had made.
But that’s a long story. If we ever speak again, maybe I’ll tell it to you. I’d better be going now.
There’s one more thing I guess I should tell you about myself. On the day my father died, though I was just a boy, I realized that life would be hard. And I knew that to survive, I had to be harder than other men. So I took an oath. I vowed that I would never again shed a tear. On the day my Lord Jesus took my place and died for me, I broke that vow.