Matthew 27:32-37

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention Simon of Cyrene who is pressed into service carrying Jesus’ cross. Given that Jesus has been up all night, abused and humiliated, and then beaten and whipped, it’s little wonder that he cannot, now, carry his cross. We have no idea who Simon is, of what brought him to Jerusalem, of whether and how he recovered from this ordeal, of his impression of the tortured man whose cross he carried. Some early Christian traditions – including some from which Luke drew – suggest that he and his family later became Christians. We do not know. We know only that on that fateful Friday nearly two thousand years ago he bore another man’s burden and cross even as that man would bear the burden of the world and hang on the cross for the sake of all people.

And after the gruesome parade through the city to the execution grounds comes the crucifixion proper. Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. The victim, first impaled upon the wood and then hung up as a spectacle, most often died not of the wounds themselves but from asphyxiation or dehydration, possibly several days later. Horrible…by design. This was Rome’s way, you see, of making a statement, of warning all who might journey near the condemned of the fate of those who oppose the Empire.

Given that, it’s striking how little detail Matthew gives. In the score of Hollywood dramatizations we’ve witnessed, the scene of Jesus’ death is always drawn out, as we are subjected to each brutal detail. Yet Matthew employs just one terse sentence. Actually, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t even the point of the sentence but rather is prelude – “and when they had crucified him…” – to the soldiers’ dividing Jesus’ clothes. Nothing is left to Jesus, as even the peasant’s clothes off his back are taken from him and divided among those who put him to death.

And yet amid the degradation, suffering, and humiliation, a moment of truth. The sign put over him reads that his man, Jesus, is king of the Jews. Except it’s not just a sign, it’s an accusation, the warrant and rationale for his execution. And now we know the truth: Jesus is executed as an enemy of the state. The claims made – whether by his followers or opponents or both – that he is king, lord, and messiah – have brought upon him the vengeance of an empire that will brook no defiance and countenance no counter claims of authority.

But in that accusation a second truth. This one – humiliated, beaten, scourged, crucified – is not defeated. Or rather, in his defeat we see God’s victory revealed. And it is the victory not of brute might but rather sacrificial love. In the face of Rome’s violence, God offers forgiveness. In the face of brutality, God offers mercy. In the face of injustice, God offers God’s own Son who, dying, grants the possibility of life, life more abundant and eternal than his crucifiers could ever imagine.

Prayer: Dear God, when we witness these two men – one bearing the other’s cross; the other bearing both the sin and hope of the world – grant us the capacity to see also your profound love….for everyone. In Jesus’ name, Amen.