The Thoughts of a Thief as He Hangs on a Cross

Spring 1998

I started fighting as they led me away.

I looked the head guard in the eye and spat upon his face when they came for me. As I figured, with all that I had in store for me, no beating they could give as punishment could compare. And besides, they couldn’t kill me; they had to get me up to the hill alive. So I spat upon his face. Once the others had bound my hands, he wiped it off with his hand and transferred it to my shirt. His eyes were so cold, so hard…so devoid of life. How could someone with so much power, so much respect, so much freedom, be so dead?

I started fighting as they led me away.

With each step I felt the welts on my back stretching, as if begging to rip back open at any time. I walked on down the hall, struggling as much as I could…not out of a desire to escape, for I knew escape was impossible, but simply to show that I would not be strung up without a fight. No flogging, no insults, and no hard wooden cross could break my spirit. No body of mine would passively be led up the hall, through the streets, and up the hill like a sheep to slaughter. I heaped insults upon them as they led me farther down the prison hall.

Abruptly the head guard stopped and turned back to me. He motioned to the guards to back away and hit me in the mouth. Two teeth broke loose, and my mouth filled with blood.

“Have you anything else to say, thief?”

I spat my teeth in his face. Blood slowly ran down his upper lip and onto his lower. Fire burned in my mouth, but I did not grimace. He turned around and led me outside. The morning sun shone brightly upon my bloody face. A crowd of the free, the lawful, was waiting there in the street.

“I didn’t realize I was so popular,” I told the head guard.

“They’re here to see Jesus, you idiot,” he growled back.

Jesus? That crazy prophet who went around preaching to any fool who’d listen? I remembered seeing him around. He always distracted the crowd for me while I picked a few pockets. He was a good man.

“Are you stringing him up, too?”

“Shut your mouth, thief.”

Some other guards joined them and gave me my cross. It was very thick, very hard, full of knots and splinters. I placed it on my shoulder and dragged it slowly forward with my body and my bound hands. They led me through the street toward Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Along the way a few of the onlookers jeered at me or spat upon me. By chance I looked into the crowd and saw the man who caught me and turned me in after I beat and robbed him in his house. “May the Lord rain horror upon your soul,” he yelled at me. I smiled at him and winked.

In the distance behind me a wave of shouts rose up. I couldn’t tell what the people were saying, but the voices seemed full of rage and vengeance and hate. Slowly the wave drew closer, and those waiting around me strained to see something far behind me on the road.

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” was their cry. “Death to Jesus of Nazareth who called himself God!”

Hadn’t Jesus also claimed to be the Messiah foretold by the prophets, the one who would save us all? Well, it didn’t look like he was doing too good a job.

I walked on, dragging my death behind me.

In the distance I saw the hill. Only then did I first truly think about my fate, and my heart began to quiver.

“Hey guard! After I’m gone and you go home, say hi to your wife for me.”

He turned and drew his sword on me. The others stopped, and the sword point hovered a finger’s width from my throat.

“I would run you through right now if I didn’t have waiting for me the privilege of watching you die for 6 hours.”

“I know.”

I fought some more, just to show I still could, and eventually we arrived at the top of the hill. Two holes had been dug in the ground. I carried my cross over to the hole of the left where they led me. I assumed Jesus was carrying the second cross behind me. The third was already standing and occupied. The sweat upon my back turned to ice.

They ripped my clothes off me and slapped me down upon the cross. The other guards held me down as the head guard picked up a nail and hammer and positioned it over my left wrist, digging it into me just a bit to let me know it was there. He smirked at me, and I looked away.

He drove it in.

I didn’t look at the wound as they changed position to nail in my other arm. I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and sealed my lips to keep from screaming.

He drove in the other one.

My body began to tremble. I didn’t feel as much pain as I expected to feel, and my mind dissolved into the state between dreams and consciousness. I did feel blood running out from the wounds, but I kept my eyes shut so I couldn’t see it. By this time I had stopped fighting.

He drove the third nail into my feet.

I arched my body against the nails, but they refused to release me. The guards picked up the cross and carried it over to the hole. Then they dropped it in and pushed me up, hanging me in the air by three nails.

I screamed.

I was amazed by the fact that the nails held me up. I wished that they would simply rip through and let me crumple to the ground and die there, instead of being held up as entertainment for the masses. I looked into the eyes of the few people below who were watching me and not Jesus. In most I saw contempt, rejection, and hatred. In a few I saw pity and compassion. I looked away.

Was this what my life had come to? I was born, I lived, I learned, I made some “wrong” choices, and now I would hang naked on a cross until I died, with a crowd of people at my feet who weren’t even there to see me?

My body continued to shudder from the shock. I realized that in order to breathe, I had to pull myself up by the wrists to open up my lungs. In the meantime my chest was constricted by the stress upon my arms. The guards told me earlier, with perverse glee, that crucified prisoners didn’t die from blood loss, but from slow suffocation. Soon I began to truly feel the pain, and it overwhelmed my entire body. I began a scream, and then it weakened into a cry because I lacked the breath.

I opened my eyes again and looked out to the focal point of most of the people on the hill, this man they called Jesus. He was no longer carrying his cross, having given it to a large man walking with him. Once he came closer, I could see that Jesus no longer had the strength to carry it himself. He staggered onward toward us, like a delirious wanderer in the desert, with a crown of thorns upon his head and blood running down his face. He did not fight against his oppressors; he simply struggled onward. The huge crowd following him continued shouting insults at him and spitting upon him, their fists in the air in triumphant malice. He looked up once at me and then at the man on the opposite cross, who I think was also a thief. Then the soldiers stripped him of his clothing and nailed him to his cross. He screamed.

They dropped him into the hole and raised him up, and the crowd continued to fill in the surrounding area.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Jesus said.

Forgive them, for they know not what they do? They knew exactly what they were doing, and exactly why they were doing it. I rolled my eyes and then closed them. Stupid crazy prophets.

I continued struggling for breath each time, wondering how long I’d been up there and how much longer until I died. But I knew it would be a long, long time unless the soldiers were merciful and finished me off early. I finally looked over at my wrists. The image seemed unreal, like something out of a dream.

In the eyes of the law I deserved that cross. I did steal from others, especially the rich fat pigs who dominated my old world and made us work ourselves to death just to survive. I stole from the rich and loved every second of it, particularly the thrill of escaping with the goods. I also robbed hypocrites, religious leaders, travelers, and anyone else who deserved it. Actually, while I was robbing some of the Pharisees as they listened to Jesus preach, he told a story about a man robbed and left for dead on a dangerous road, and it reminded me of myself. I almost cracked a smile.

I looked down at the liars, the adulterers, the exploiters, and the hypocrites beneath me, and asked myself why they were not with me on crosses of their own. What sin have I committed that is any worse than theirs?

The people below mocked the man Jesus relentlessly.

“So! You can destroy the Temple and build it up again in three days, can you? Well, then, come on down from the cross if you are the Son of God!”

“He saved others, but he cannot save himself! So you are the King of Israel, are you? Come down from the cross and we’ll believe you!”

I looked over at Jesus, and he said nothing in response to the crowd. Sometimes he opened his eyes and looked around at the people, and other times he closed his eyes and fought against the pain and suffocation. He was another of these fanatical prophets who came along periodically, making up stories about God and the future and building up a following for attention. As much as I hated those people, it actually sounded like fun. Why hadn’t I done something like that, instead of living and dying for mere material goods? I could’ve been famous.

Down below him some men and women mourned violently for Jesus, tearing their clothes and hair and looking up to him in agony.

No one mourned for me.

“Hey, you, aren’t you the Messiah? Aren’t you the King who’s here to save us all? Prove it! Take yourself off the cross, and save us, too. You must be one great Messiah to get a crowd like this at your execution! Prove it! Get us down from here. You can’t do it, can you? You’re a fake, just like all the others! I heard you speak. All your great ideas won’t do you much good anymore, will they?” I yelled at him. For the first time I heard the other thief speak as he joined in the mockery.

Jesus still said nothing. His head hung down, and I looked closely at the crown of thorns upon his head, and the blood running down his face, back, and arms. Some of it had dried upon him. He was the weakest, most broken man I had ever seen. He didn’t fight. He didn’t answer our insults. He didn’t defend himself. He simply hung there. Sometimes it seemed like he was crying.

I looked away and yelled at the crowd some more. Then my mind began to grow hazy, and I stopped. I shut my eyes and felt the soft wind blow over my naked, pierced body, drying the blood without numbing the pain. I tried to drift away, to sleep, to die, but I could not. The pain kept me excruciatingly conscious. My body kept living and refused to die, and I hung powerless to help myself along toward that sweet end.

The seconds, the minutes, the hours dragged on. The insults continued to rain down upon Jesus as some of the spectators left and new ones arrived. I kept waiting, longing, to die, but death never came to any of us. I figured Jesus would have gone already, since he seemed so broken, but he was still alive, hoisting himself up with all his might a few times each minute in order to breathe. Blood and sweat drenched our bodies, and my mouth had dried out to the texture of the cross on which I hung. The sun was almost directly overhead.

The people below began to disgust me as they angrily watched us die. Could they not let us simply die in peace? Especially the one in the middle, the broken one. He was simply too pathetic to watch. What was wrong with those people? Anyone as twisted as they deserved to join us there, hanging on crosses in the bottom of the sky.

“Hey priest! You like all this, do you? You like seeing men die? You like seeing the blood run and hearing the men scream? Then come up here and kill us, you fat, rich pig! Climb up and take your fill! Woman! Come up here and get a good look! You’d get a much better view hanging up here with me! Guard! Hey, soldier boy! Get up here and finish us off so you can go home! Save yourself the trouble. You could have the whole afternoon to yourself!” I screamed at them, gasping for breath after every few phrases. The priest and many of those surrounding him turned red with rage and charged my cross. Unfortunately the soldiers held them back.

I caught a glimpse of the man I’d seen earlier along the road to the hill, the man who had caught me and had me arrested.

In his eyes I deserved that cross.

The man came over to my cross and stood there for a moment, staring off into the distance. Then he looked up at me. I remembered the look upon his face as I beat him in his house that evening and began searching through his possessions. He had tried to fight back but had no weapon, and soon he lay moaning upon the floor as I began picking out what I wanted. His eyes had filled with hatred, although his body lay powerless to express his hate. I don’t really remember what I got from him. I just remember the darkness in his eyes, the inexpressible rage at my deeds.

But that day on the hill, instead of looking upon me with pride and disgust, I saw a hint of compassion in his eyes, as if he were putting to death a prized ox who had gone mad. One of the men I had nearly killed was pitying me in my death.

For an instant I forgot the pain.

The man closed his eyes and bowed his head briefly, mumbling a few words I couldn’t understand, and walked over to the women mourning for Jesus without looking up again. After all the pain, suffering, humiliation, and loss I had caused him, apparently he had forgiven me. Why? What did I do to deserve his forgiveness? His pity? His compassion? Absolutely nothing.

In my own eyes I deserved that cross.

Certainly far more than Jesus, I deserved that cross, for Jesus couldn’t have done anything truly wrong. He was too weak. Sure, he had claimed to be the Messiah, but he wasn’t the only one. And besides, people shouldn’t be crucified for insanity. I looked over once more at Jesus, the man of the hour whom almost everyone was there to see. He still hadn’t said a word in his defense.

“Hey Jesus, you’re awful quiet today! Say something! Why don’t you defend yourself?”

For the first time Jesus turned his head to me and looked me in the eyes. They were the most loving eyes I had ever seen. He strained, grimaced, and smiled a smile so tiny that no one may have noticed it but me. Despite his apparent weakness, his eyes also held more strength and resolve than any man I’d ever known. I looked deep into his eyes and saw that his soul was of rock, unbreakable, unchangeable, and without end.

The thought frightened me.

He turned away and closed his eyes.

I thought I saw in him the untapped power to somehow bring us down from the crosses. I looked down at the mourners wailing at his feet, who, in the midst of the scoffers and murderers, continued to praise and love the man.

“Blessed be Jesus of Nazareth, who is our salvation!”

“Blessed be Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Israel!”

They seemed like they were crazy, but I knew they weren’t. I don’t know how I knew; I simply knew. I began to wonder if they were right. I tried to remember what Jesus had said in his teachings, who he was, and what the prophets had written about the Messiah. Surely it could not be true. How could a Messiah die? Why wasn’t he leading us to freedom against the Romans who had crucified us? Why was a Messiah nailed to a cross, struggling for breath until he either succumbed or gave up? Where was his kingdom, and why was the crown he wore made of thorns and not gold?

“Jesus,” I called to him with my ever weakening breath. “Are you who these women say you are?”

He slowly turned to look at me again, and smiled. I looked into his eyes again, and knew that it was true.

“Then where is your kingdom?”

He struggled for another breath.

“My kingdom is not of this world. My throne is in heaven, and I must die in your place so that you may live.”

“But how can I live through this? We’re all going to die here in a few hours.”

“Believe in me, and I will give you life in this world, and in that which is to come.”

Could it be true? Could this bloody, naked, battered, dying man be the prophesied Messiah for whom we’d been waiting all these years, the one who would save us all?

His eyes held no contempt for me whatsoever. No hatred. No condemnation. Only love and acceptance and forgiveness. His eyes seemed to hold the depths of the earth: every secret, every wish, every dream. I looked down at his mourners, and their eyes shone with that same love, even now as they shifted their gazes from Jesus to me and back again. No love like that could come from the human heart.

I wanted to believe.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“I tell you the truth; today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

I smiled at him, and closed my eyes, and hung my head, and waited for the beginning.

Scripture quotations taken from Matthew 28:40-43 and Luke 23:34-43, The Living Bible