Somehow I found myself pulled in by the lure of the crowd. Sheer curiosity as to the number of people watching; nothing more. I had already seen a man crucified. It was horrid. A man stretched out on a cross of rough timbers, his agonizing scream as spikes were driven through his wrists and ankles. The thud of the cross as it was dropped in a hole to stand firm in the ground. I had told myself I would never witness another execution, so why was I now at another one?
Perhaps the scandal of it all, the rumor about the man who now hung between two others; that had to be the reason. I watched and listened to the murmurs of those around me. Some saw him as a good man who did no wrong. Others saw him as a magician who performed tricks. Still others seemed to hate him just because it was popular to do so. Me? I had no feelings about the man at all. It would be nothing more than a good story to tell to my customers as I traveled to sell my wares.
My business was good. Fifty head of camel had I to pack with lavish gifts to take from one city to another. Once I had even traveled to Egypt selling my goods both there and again upon my return. I prided myself upon being clever and shrewd. Some would accuse me of deceit, but I never took advantage of a poor man. No, only the rich would I dare to make a shekel or two more. Why not? It was every man for himself, right? I did nothing any other man wouldn’t do if given the chance to advance his wealth.
It was then, upon these very thoughts, that I was brought back to the present moment. I glanced at the man on the cross and he was looking straight at me; yet not really at me, but through me. I heard myself gasp and felt my legs tremble. For a moment I thought I might drop to the ground. I tore my gaze away but something, I don’t know what, drew my sight back to his face. His eyes held mine and suddenly, unexpectedly I knew I was naked before him. He could see me as I am, the good and the bad, and all that was hidden. I was afraid and wanted to run, yet so drawn to him I dare not move. His eyes changed then; no longer just seeing through me, but now pleading, yearning, not for his own life — but for mine.
There were no words to explain the moment. I was exposed. Frantically I tried to calm my nerves by reminding myself of my own goodness. I gave to the poor who sat begging by the temple gates. I took care of my family. I was faithful to my wife even when other businessmen in their travels were not. I played with my children. Yes, I began to feel better because I was a good man overall. Relieved I looked back at the man. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he spoke to another criminal hanging on a cross next to him. How ridiculous! My thoughts raged in not a little inner anger. What does he mean by such nonsense! They’re not going anywhere but to a tomb!
Amidst my thoughts the man looked at me again. Blood streamed down his face from the thorns pressed into his scalp and forehead. A cruel, mocking crown of thorns. Even so, there was no hatred upon his face. My eyes locked with his once more and an overwhelming understanding washed over me. I had never before experienced — what? What was I feeling? What was coming over me?
Today you will be with me in paradise. Those were his words. Why couldn’t I shake them? Today. Where would I be today? More to the point, where would I be tomorrow? What was my destiny? Again I raised my face to look at the man. I stared. I desired something more than I had in my life. What was that I saw in his eyes as he shifted his head ever so slightly to continue looking in my direction? He could read my thoughts! I knew it! Was his heart calling to mine? Yes! He was calling! He wanted to give me more! Suddenly I wanted more, too! I nodded my head and smiled in both shame and incredible joy. I know he knew and he was happy. Among such cruelty shown him, I knew he was thinking about me on that cross. I knew he was thinking about everyone ever born and who was yet to be. It was true! Son of God! On a cross for me!
Paradise. That’s what he promised. That’s what I received. I finally understood that life in paradise had nothing to do with my own goodness, but everything to do with His. My life has never been the same since that awful but wonderful day. I heard amazing news of Him just two days later — He had risen from the dead! I didn’t need to see him with my own eyes. I already knew in my heart. I had already received his forgiveness and his promise. It should have been me on that cross. He wasn’t the guilty one. It was me. It was you. What sweet relief. One day — undeserved paradise.