Promises Mixed with Love

Luke 23:32-49

(c) Copyright 1998 Rev. Bill Versteeg


Searing pain wrapped back to front, especially the front, as the whistling whip snaked its way around and dug into Mara's ribs. It came again. EWHAP!  Each time fresh blood oozed from fresh lines around his body.  Six lashes he could stand, with the seventh the pressure in his lungs burst forth in a guttural scream.  By the nineteenth, he had no strength left to scream. They dragged him to the side of the courtyard where the dirt would greedily drink his blood. Then they turned to the other prisoner to give him the same treatment.

The throbbing sting reminded Mara of the man he once called his father.  He had used the whip too.  Again and again Mara had angered his father beyond control. Because of his youth, Mara was hardened to pain - but never anything like this. Every convulsive twitch of his chest muscles ground the dirt and stubble deeper into his bare flesh.  This pain was beyond hardening.

Mara was an uncommon name for a Hebrew - it meant "Bitterness."  Mara's father had given it to him because he was a son who brought disgrace to his father, and his father's anger never had stopped burning. Granted, Mara knew he had done many things wrong, but it wasn't until much later that he came to understand his father's unending anger.  By rumour he discovered that he was an illegitimate son. By the age of 12 he was sent out of the house to fend for himself. At that age the world still gave him promises, promises of a new day, a new chance to make something of his life, promises that said "work hard, do what is right, and your future will be bright."  It didn't take long for him to find out that promises without the commitment of love are broken even as they are spoken.

Mara was bitter.  At age twenty two it was a wounded bitterness, bitterness so willing to change if only the world would give him a chance, respect him, and maybe love him.  No chances were found. Thick skin became his most treasured attribute. Deny the pain. Deny the brokenness.  A numb existence is not a whole lot better than existence - period. He had learned how to take care of himself, take advantage of situations, take advantage of people, take advantage of their good side, or their street ignorance, take, take, take, and then they caught him, and took him.  The judge made a quick sentence for a thief with hardly a name: "Crucify Him." The words cut right through toughened skin.  The injustice of it all ran its well beaten track through Mara's mind.

"God!  Why does this happen to me?"

Another lacerated body was thrown up against his bringing him back to his senses -an older man, even after twenty lashes cursed his captors. Iron shackles tied his wrists to his ankles behind his back.  The whip had cut deeply into the backs of his arms, they bled freely.

The soldiers were in a hurry.  Somebody mentioned that the procession to Golgotha had started, but there was no time to question.  Guards pulled Mara to his feet, threw a beam across his shoulders.

"Carry IT!" was their only instruction.

Mara staggered under the weight, his muscles quivered, his strength was whipped to weakness. With the older man, now unshackled, they were forced by spear point through the gates of the courtyard into the empty streets. They stumbled for two narrow virtually deserted blocks.  Hardly a person noticed them.  Crucifixion was common place.  Two lives coming to a gruesome, unrespectable end were not worthy of being even noticed.  The unfairness of it all!  When others died, people wept.  Not for Mara.  The old wounded anger resurged in Mara's mind giving him strength to bear the beam.

They turned a corner and came upon the procession - a crowd ahead of them chanting, women wailing freely, moving slowly forward in the narrow streets, children running trying to get a better look. The attention of the procession seemed to be fixed this time on the one bearing the cross up front.

"You're lucky!" said the Guard beside Mara. "Politicians always seem to get the attention."

"Who is he?"

"They say he's the King of the Jews and Pilate doesn't take to kindly to competition. MOVE ON!"   A spear probed Mara's bruised back, his step quickened.  By the time he looked up again, they were almost upon the slow procession, the painful procession.

And then it stopped.

Under the warming of the morning sun, Mara saw the beam being lifted above the crowd and placed on another pair of shoulders.  The King of the Jews was no longer able to carry the cross piece. The procession started moving again, this time at a more determined pace through the streets toward the edge of the city. A few passer-bys spit at Mara, but nothing compared to the treatment the King up front was getting.

"I a Jew and I've never heard of our King." Mara wondered what had happened to his life.

Then being near the tail end of the crowd he overheard the name "Jesus."  Right away he knew whom they were talking about.  Everyone knew about Jesus.  He had saved the sick, the lame, reports were he even recently saved a man named Lazarus from the grave. Mara had heard him speaking once, words about righteousness and a kingdom but Mara had been to busy taking from the man’s preoccupied listeners to really listen himself.

And now they were calling Jesus the King of the Jews. A rock stung the Mara's lower lip.  He kept his head down behind the procession.  “Best keep low unless this crowd think that in some way he was with the king.” For him, life had always been safer in the shadows. In his silent step, he could hear the older man behind him cursing the children who threw the stones.

Now the procession was going to fast.  With urgency it reached Golgotha, and there Mara saw Jesus for the first time.  They had thrown him to the ground on top of his cross beam, the nails and the hammer ready.

Before the hammer was raised, Mara himself was thrown into the ground.  Mara struggled and fought to keep himself away from the beam but cursing soldiers quickly overpowered him. One pressed a wineskin to his mouth.

"Drink, it will dull the pain!"

Mara's nose convulsed at the odour, his eyes watered freely at the mouthful of bitter vinegar.   Bitterness, it seemed such an appropriate end to such an accursed life. For years he had numbed the pain of broken promises with bitterness, now at the end of his life, the only remedy to sooth his pain was bitterness.

The soldiers forced, stretched and pressed his arm against the beam.  The hammer raised and came down with a thud.  His wrist, his arm, turned to fire. Pain was redefined in an instant. They pulled hard on his other arm.  The pain in his one arm was so intense he hardly noticed until "Thud," the spike slammed through his other wrist melting his flesh into the wood.

The soldiers grunted as they picked up his beam and his body, and laid it on the pole. One soldier started tying the cross beam to the pole, catching Mara's hair in the rope.  The other stripped Mara of his remaining cloths, and pressed his legs up and to the side. In terror, Mara saw the hammer lift again and then a spike slammed through his severed heels into the wood.

For Mara the world turned black.  Grace was a few minutes of unconsciousness as they hoisted the pole and rested his cross in one of the sockets of Golgotha.

Agonizing throbbing brought reality to focus.  Shock had blunted the fire in his hands and feet, but the smallest movement made the pain shoot through his limbs with fresh intensity. To take the weight off his hands was to send shearing pain up his legs.  The only thing he could do was hang and let the nails do their slow, methodical, ripping work.

The things he saw through his dizzy consciousness seemed twisted in an eternal way, an ultimate way.

He saw Jesus hanging, a few feet away, blood all over his body, a band of thorns pressed down hard on his head slashing his scalp, his hair thick with dark blood.

"Could this be Jesus, the one who was so powerful for others?" he wondered to himself as he looked upon the King of the Jews.

Jesus turned toward Mara.  Their eyes met. Mara was stunned by what he saw. He saw no anger, no bitterness, no numbing of the pain within. He saw rather something he'd never seen before, something toward him, eyes that for the first time shared Mara's pain, as if his own was not enough, these eyes had sharing and love, understanding, even acceptance.

For Mara, eyes had always communicated distance, fear, rejection.  These eyes were a contradiction to everything he had ever experienced. He had always longed for a father who loved him, if not his father, at least somebody else who would love him.  Well intentioned prospects had given promises without understanding but when they came to know his burdens, their love turned cold, promises without love meld into bitterness.

The difference was in Jesus’ eyes.  In those eyes for the first time he saw a father's love even though he had never known him. There was something wonderfully right about his eyes, there was something terribly wrong with his cross.  Crucifixion for this man, this King, seemed out of place.  Bitterness, not forgiveness, belonged on a cross.  Yet he cried without bitterness: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

What could he have done to deserve the cross?

It's strange how rightness can illumine what's wrong, how distorting darkness can reveal the smallest light. Mara for as long as he had known justified his own hatred, his own anger and his own bitterness.  He was a victim of circumstance, of people, of this world and when he hurt others, he was only giving them what the world had done to him.  Fair is fair. But when he saw those eyes, without anger though wounded, without malice though in deep pain, he saw for the first time how wrong he had been for all those years. And fear stole his soul like never before.  

Even though dizzy, his mind had a remarkable clarity for thought. Then he saw something truly twisted.   There were priests walking about.  They never showed up at crucifixions because to be close to such things would defile them.

"What were Priests doing at a crucifixion?"

Two priests, religious rulers, came to the crosses.  They ignored Mara.  They went straight to Jesus in the center and said to one another as if in conversation:

"He saved others: he cannot save himself."

"He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him."

"He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if desires him; for he said "I am the Son of God."

They mocked him in their holy dress.   They didn't respect him in life; they didn't even respect him in death. The righteous ones hated with such a religiously perfect hatred.

Those last words stung.

"He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said "I am the Son of God."

Those words pierced Mara's soul with a fresh thrust. Now he understood how Jesus knew his pain. Mara thought: "My father would have left me here to die to."

Bother were forsaken by their father. Jesus understood him.  Mara knew it.

A commander came in his processional dress.  He first eyed Mara.  He grunted with a sense of dissatisfaction.  He looked over to the older man, turned and barked an order to one of his soldiers about an axe and then he turned toward Jesus. Seeing the sign above Jesus crown of thorns he bullied: "If you're the king of the Jews save yourself!"

There was no response.

The older man, having heard the commanders order blurted out a desperate, angry and accusing cry "Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"

Mara could hear in that cry that the old man saw Jesus as just another criminal, maybe a political criminal but no different all the same. And Mara knew suddenly that this Jesus was different. He was all right and the world was all wrong.

"Don't you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Mara responded stretching well beyond his capacity to breath and speak.

The old man was in to much pain to put up a fight.  He grunted a curse and turned his thoughts to distant memories.

Mara turned his head toward Jesus again and as he did, the flesh on his right hand and wrist tore afresh sending tremors of fresh pain up his right arm and into his separating shoulder. But phrases and titles were racing through his head.

"Son of God"

"The Christ"

"The Messiah"

Phrases he heard when he was a child, rich with promise, but void of meaning because he never received those promises mixed with love..

"Jesus - God saves"

"King of the Jews."  It made a strange sense without thought, it clicked but he didn't know how.   The names, the words seemed to dance with life in his rushing mind.

With a painful breath, he blurted out "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!"

Jesus answered!  

His answer was filled with promise and the promise was mixed with love.  "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

Promise mixed with love, a divine mixture, a soothing mixture.  The words ran through Mara's mind: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."   The words, the promise and the love mixed making the sweetest red wine, taking away the pain, lifting the burden, consuming the longing for something he never had.

The world turned dark.  At first Mara thought he was dying, but then he noticed everyone else looking around in fear.  The ground shook, each tremor ripping his flesh again and again.  Onlookers ran in terror.

And he heard Jesus cry out above the commotion so that all could hear:

"Father into your hands I commit my Spirit."

Those words hurt in a way he had never hurt before. He lost somebody who understood him and loved him.  The ache, the loss within was the first time Mara loved somebody, even though he hardly knew him.  Hope became a desperate struggle.  "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

All was still. All was dark and still, the tremor over, the sun gone.   In the darkness, someone cried: "Certainly this was a righteous man."

But Mara's attention was no longer focused on that. In the darkness he heard another sound - a deep moan, a curse filled cry for mercy, and then a thud as an axe fell through the shins of the older man on the third cross.

And then they came to him.  Mara saw them lift the axe, he saw it come down.  His shins collapsed.  But as darkness enveloped now even his mind, there was a sweet red wine of promise mixed with love that soothed his pain into paradise.

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The Scripture on which this Story is based:

Luke 23:32 - 49 NIV

"Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.

When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals--one on his right, the other on his left.

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One."

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself."

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.   The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man."   When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.   But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things."

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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