The Centurion’s Tale

[A narrative based on Mark 15.1-47]

It was not as if this was my first crucifixion.
It was not as if I hadn’t seen a man die before.

I had seen many men die.
Many of them at my very hands,
at the end of my spear, or with a slash of my sword.

You don’t get to be a centurion in the Roman army
without a lot of death.

And being stationed in Jerusalem,
especially during the Passover festival,
meant that you were on a high security alert,
and that there would invariably be some crucifixions.

When the locals get all excited
about a story of being liberated from an ancient empire,
then the present empire needs to keep a lid on things.
And there is nothing better than a few public crucifixions
to cool off some revolutionary hotheads.

So there was nothing surprising about the disturbance
around that Jesus of Nazareth.
Galilee had been a place of treasonous sentiment for years.
and we had crucified many a so-called Messiah from there.

We’d heard about Jesus.
We knew about the crowds enthusiastically
accompanying him into the city on the first day of the week.
Heck, I was marching into the city with the fresh cohort
on the same day, only from a different direction.

And it was our job to keep tabs on the population,
so we even heard about the disruption in the temple that he caused.

But really, as long as the natives are squabbling amongst themselves,
so much the better for us.

Who cares about their inter-religious feuds?
Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes, priests … I can’t really tell them apart.
The only ones we worry about are the revolutionaries, the bandits,
the insurrectionists.

You know, guys like Barabbas.
Nice name that. Barabbas.
Son of the Father

But as a Roman, I knew that I was a son, ultimately of only one father,
the Pater Patriae, the father of the father land,
Pater of all paters, my Lord Caesar, the emperor.

This Barabbas fellow clearly did not submit to my father.

No, he belonged to another father,
and was prepared to kill and to die, in service of that father.

And I was just as prepared to grant him his ill-founded martyr death wish.

So when I heard that he was in the garrison cells,
I relished the thought of putting that bastard on a cross.

But it wasn’t to be.
For some reason, when the governor,
in a show of the mercy and largesse of the empire,
asked the crowd who they would like set free for the festival,
they all shouted for Barabbas,
and not for Jesus.

So much for their loud ‘hosannas’ a couple of days ago.

So much for their messianic enthusiasm for Jesus.
When it came right down to it, these folks knew that Jesus
wasn’t going to bring any kingdom,
because he refused to take us on with might and arms.

Their enthusiasm for Jesus quickly waned
when they were offered the revolutionary services
of a real man like Barabbas.

And so “hosanna” became “Crucify him.”
No wonder they can’t ever mount much of an opposition to us.
They’re too fickle.
They can’t make up their minds about their own revolution.

Well, we’ll get Barabbas another day.
Today it is time for Jesus.
Just another day at the office, really.

Or that’s what I thought.

First the governor had Jesus flogged.
That kind of whipping is pretty standard.
Basically whip the man until you can see his bones.

Then he was sent to the courtyard where the boys could have some fun.
And since they were all getting a little bored,
the whole cohort came out for the show.

Almost five hundred of them laughing and jeering,
beating, getting their kicks in, spitting on the poor bugger,
dressing him up like a king, putting a crown of thorns on his head.

It was quite the spectacle

And while I wouldn’t have admitted it then,
maybe I wasn’t quite conscious of it at the time,
I think that it was during this ritualized brutality,
a brutality that really I had become numb to,
it was while this was going on, that I started to be taken by this man.

I know it is crazy.
He’s just another prisoner.
Just another possible threat to the empire who must be eradicated.
Just another Jew, another messiah,
another pretentious rabbi with aspirations to royalty.

But maybe it was as the lads were mocking him,
raising their hands in cruel salute,
“Hail, King of the Jews”,
that he started to kind of ‘look’ like a king.

I know its crazy.
How does a guy near dead from his flogging,
a man who has refused to say a word,
who had not tried to defend himself,
who has not cursed his torturers,
‘look’ like anything but a broken, dejected, political prisoner?

If he is a king, then his kingdom has just come crashing down
in the last few hours.
The cohort of Roman soldiers all around him have made sure of that.
And our sheer power of life and death over this man
should establish once and for all who the real king is around here,
who the real father is,
and whose kingdom is pre-eminent.

So we then took him to the execution hill.
I was the centurion on duty.
I was in charge.
This was my crucifixion – Jesus and the other two.

My respect for the man, what little I had at this point,
increased when he rejected the wine mixed with myrrh.
No pain numbing sedative for this Galilean.

But as the day progressed, something happened.

Maybe it was the way that he received the taunting
and mocking of his own people,
including the religious authorities.
Again, no cursing, no condemning, and no defense.

Maybe it was that eerie darkness that came over the land.
It was almost as if the sun refused to shine.
It was almost as if the very forces of nature were mourning the death of this man.

Maybe it was that sign above his head.
“King of the Jews.”
It was a charge against him.
If he was a ‘king’ of the Jews,
then he had every reason to be on that cross.

There can only be one king,
and his throne was in Rome.

But as I looked at that dying man,
with those words above his head,
I don’t know, but the more I looked at him,
the more I looked at those words,
“King of the Jews”,
the more I began to wonder whether it was true.
The more I began to wonder whether he really is
the King of the Jews.

But if that was actually true,
then all the more reason to crucify him.

So why was I feeling this dis-ease about it all?
I was, after all, just doing my duty.
What was it about this man,
and about this crucifixion,
this death,
that was having such an impact on me?

I don’t know, but after he cried out in Aramaic,
what sounded like a lamentful prayer,
and then cried out something that was not really words at all,
and then breathed his last,
well … there was something about that last breath,
maybe in combination with everything else about the way this man
had received the horrors of that day
but there was something about that last breath,
the way that the breath left him,
the way in which he gave up that last breath,
the way in which he surrendered to death …
that made me see that there was something going on here
that was bigger than the death of one man.
There was something about his death,
that seemed to have a power and a meaning
beyond just one more guy on a cross.

And without really thinking about what I was saying,
I said, “Truly, this man was God’s son.”
And as soon as the words left my mouth,
I realized not only that this man was a
son of the father in a way in which Barabbas could never have been,
but more profoundly, indeed, more frighteningly,
here on this hill, in front of this cross, bearing witness to this man’s death,
I had seen God’s son.

I knew that this was a treasonous thought,
and I looked to see if the other soldiers had heard me utter it.

You see, there had only ever been one man who could be my ultimate father,
one man who could hold my allegiance,
one man before whom I would bow the knee,
one man who I would confess to be a son of god,
and that was my Lord and Saviour, Caesar,
the very Lord who ultimately authorized this crucifixion.

But here before me was another one.
Here before me was a man who was truly God’s son.
Here before me was a man who was truly the King of the Jews.
And if he was God’s son, the King of the Jews,
then what could this possibly mean for Caesar?
For me?
And if he was God’s son, the King of the Jews,
then what was he doing on that cross?
But it is on the cross that I saw who he was.
It is on the cross that this king is enthroned.
And that doesn’t make any sense at all.
Or does it?

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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