I will tell you the truth, I never expected to come to a good end. From my childhood I was one of those boys marked out for trouble, running wild and getting into bad company. It would be easy to blame all my family’s woes on the Roman tax system, but the truth is (and I can admit that now after years and years when my scalding hatred of Rome was the thing that propelled me on), my parents were wastrels, lazy, careless and concerned for nothing but their own immediate gratification. If they had been very rich, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered so much, or perhaps they would have plunged even faster into every kind of degradation. I know now that, while Rome certainly isn’t blameless (all kingdoms except one squeeze as much as they can out of the people at the bottom), it was only the catalyst that hastened my family’s inevitable destruction. But my parents blamed Rome for every bad thing that happened, and, as a child, I believed them. It is always easier to blame an external enemy.
So I grew up without a trade, without an inheritance, and with a deep anger burning in my heart. Is it any wonder that I gravitated towards the rebels and the robbers. Truth to tell, we were nothing more than a band of brigands, carving out our own little niche on the Jerusalem-Jericho road, which was infested with our kind, but we told ourselves that we were nobly resisting Roman rule, striking a blow for freedom; and we were foolish enough to believe our own lies. In fact we rarely attacked Romans of any kind, they were far too well defended. It was our own people, and heedless foreigners that we usually attacked, telling ourselves that they wouldn’t be rich enough to steal from if they weren’t collaborating with Rome. It is extraordinary the lengths we will go to so that we can justify ourselves and be heroes in our own imaginations, when the squalid truth was that we were simply criminals.
Of course I ended up getting caught, I wasn’t nearly as clever as I thought I was, and in one of the periodic clearances of the area I didn’t get away fast enough. Then I languished in prison until my execution date was set. I had time to do a lot of thinking then, being forced to sit still and quiet for once in my life, and some of my realisations really made me squirm. I got chatty with some of the guards and began to realise that perhaps these Roman soldiers didn’t exactly have the wonderful life I’d always envied. They also told me news of what was going on in the city (conversation helps pass the time, even for a guard) and inevitably I started hearing about Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth. I was fascinated.
The day came for my execution. Any man would be terrified of crucifixion, and I was no exception. As we walked the streets to Golgotha I noticed the crowds and realised it must be Passover. I had lost count of the days, and, anyway, whoever heard of keeping Passover in a robber’s den? So much for our allegiance to our own people!
Everyone knows the horrors of crucifixion, I don’t need to go there. It was only after I was strung up there in agony that I realised, from the things that the crowd were saying, that the man on the cross next to me was Jesus. I looked at him, I looked at myself, and noticed the difference. But mostly I looked at him, even in my extremity, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. And when the thief on the cross on the other side started mocking him as well, it was too much. With a last surge of my own anger, I said, “Don’t you fear God? We are under the same sentence, be we deserve our punishment. This man has done has done nothing wrong!”
And as I said those words, understanding came. I do not know fully who he is or what he is doing, but I knew enough. And I knew that all my life I had misunderstood everything. I turned to him, and the tears in my eyes were no longer from the pain. Brokenhearted, with no more pride, no more anger I simply begged, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.
He looked me fully in the eye and replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It is almost the end. My agony will be over soon. But I am no longer afraid. I am with Jesus.