“Move along!” the soldier shouted angrily. He prodded the man in the small of his back with the shaft of his spear. “Next time you stop, you’ll feel the sharp end!”
Asa picked up the pace a bit. One of the other men was slightly ahead of him, but the third man had fallen even farther behind. Asa felt for him a little, but he figured he would only need to keep pace with this third man, which would not be difficult. Asa had been treated roughly, and he had to admit rightly so, for he was a thief, at best! But this one had been brutalized. He could barely stand by now, much less walk, and even less, carry the crossbeam for his cross.
As he looked back, Asa saw the Roman soldier grab the sleeve of a man in the crowd along the street where they marched. The road they travelled led to a hill outside of Jerusalem where criminals were put to death. The three of them had been condemned to die on crosses, but Asa wasn’t sure this third man would last long enough to die the horrible death of a Roman crucifixion.
The three men had been carrying their own crossbeams upon their shoulders with their arms outstretched and tied to the beams. One of the soldiers quickly untied the arms of the man on his knees and lifted the crossbeam off his shoulders. Then he hefted it up onto the shoulder of this man who had been dragged from the sidelines. “What is your name?” asked the soldier who had grabbed him.
“Simon,” he replied. “Of Cyrene.”
As the soldier released his grip of the beam, leaving the full weight on Simon, he yelled above the crowd, “Carry his cross!” Asa turned back to continue his death-walk and thought that perhaps now this other man just might make it. He might last long enough to be crucified after all!
When they got to the place of the skull, as it was called due to its eerie, deathly shape, there were indeed three men still alive. The crossbeam was taken from Simon and the third man was once again tied to it. They were laid one by one on the upright poles of their crosses with their arms spread out and tied to the crossbeams. The crossbeams were constructed to fit onto the tops of the poles to form a cross. There was a small stud of wood nailed onto the front side of the uprights on which the victims could rest their feet and, for a while, push up for relief from hanging there, still tied to the beams.
Asa had witnessed a crucifixion or two in his day, so he knew what to expect. It didn’t make it any easier though. Having been laid out on the uprights, first his partner in crime, then Asa, and finally the other man had their wrists nailed to the crossbeams! Then their feet were nailed to the upright poles. He always knew that had to be painful – he was never even close to imagining correctly. He almost passed out and later wished he had. The men on their crosses were now raised and the poles were dropped off into the holes and wedges were driven into the holes to secure the posts in place. By evening, one way or another, the three would be dead. The Romans would make sure of it!
Asa Bar-Jonam had come to terms with it. He had conned people out of their life savings, robbed others at the point of a knife, beaten some who resisted, and even worse. He had not killed anyone that he knew of, but he had left victims behind who might well have died later if help didn’t come quickly. Asa naturally never stuck around to find out. Perhaps he had murdered and didn’t even realize it! He had finally come to the end of a life of everything dark and gloomy, even evil.
Asa knew what he had done, but how had he come to this? Asa, son of Jonam and Rachel. Born in Jericho. ‘Was that it?’ Asa wondered. Jericho had been cursed since the days of Joshua. Maybe Asa had inherited the curse!
His father was a poor man. He worked for a local merchant – behind the scenes – counting, marking, and displaying merchandise and then putting it all away each night. He was never involved directly with the customers, so he didn’t make much more than a servant’s wage. He and Rachel had six children – four girls and two boys.
Asa was the first-born. He had to do most of the chores and help with his siblings since Jonam was always working just to make ends meet. Asa tried, but by the time he was fourteen he felt that he got no credit for his hard work and all the blame for everything that had gone wrong in the family. He wanted out.
By the time he was sixteen, he had found easier ways to make money than his father had ever found. None of them were legal or decent! He learned to cut loose the money pouches draped from the waist bands of customers in the marketplace without them ever sensing it. He found ways to trick others into betting on a “sure thing” only to be cheated out of their hard-earned money by Asa.
He learned he could teach others how to steal and take a share of their earnings for instruction and leadership. By the time he was eighteen, he had left home and was living on the streets of Jerusalem or Capernaum or Bethany or Nazareth. He traveled from town to town stealing, recruiting fellow thieves from among the poor youth of each town, and much more.
When Asa left home, he would not return for several years. He had been caught a few times in the early days, but he learned to cry and lie his way out of it. Becoming a perfectly good actor, he later learned to trick others out of their money. He would make a nice little fortune and move on. He cared for no one but himself. He had no friends, just people he used for business or entertainment.
One day after a failed attempt to rob a merchant as he closed up his shop, Asa had to flee from Jerusalem. He headed out of the city toward the north, but soon turned east and circled back around to the south, eventually making his way to Bethlehem, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. It was just after dark when Asa slipped into town.
A quick survey showed the town to be overflowing with visitors. Asa remembered the census he had heard people talking about. Orders had come from Rome that all subjects of the Roman Empire were to be registered, so they could be counted and taxed. To keep it orderly and official, each was to return to the village or town or city of their ancestry for the census.
He figured all this confusion and traffic would make it easy to make some quick money and get away. But it would be easier to steal some food and he was hungry. Several traveling families had camped around town and fires dotted the town and its outlying areas just begging Asa to take some food. So, he did!
He watched in the shadows of a campsite until the family had moved away from the fire and provisions. Part of the family went into the tent and the others wandered over to a nearby tent to visit with the “neighbors.” Asa quickly and quietly slipped into camp and helped himself to all he wanted – bread, cheese, a bowl of stew, and a full wineskin. He grabbed a cloak hanging nearby and wrapped up all but the bowl of stew, which he carried separately, and slipped off into the darkness, completely unnoticed.
Asa moved quickly to the center of town yet away from the crowds. Finding a quiet, dark side street, he ducked into the shadows behind a small house, where it appeared the inhabitants had already gone to bed. He unfurled his cloth “bag” and enjoyed the repast he had procured from the camp. After filling his stomach, he left the bowl and took the cloak and wineskin and headed out into the street again.
Asa moved quickly across town, looking for a good place to hide and sleep for the night. He soon spotted the perfect place! It was a stable – the one belonging to the local inn. Surely, he thought, by this time the travelers would all be settled into the inn and only the animals would notice the latest arrival to their stable. He quietly snuck inside and found a makeshift ladder that led to a small loft over the back half of the stable.
Asa climbed up into the loft and piled up some straw to hide behind. Out of sight from the entrance, he spread out the straw to lie on and used his new cloak as a blanket. The hours of traveling roundabout from Jerusalem had taken their toll and now with his belly full, Asa quickly dropped off to sleep.
In a short while Asa was roused by the noise of someone in the stable below! Living on the run, he had learned to be fully awake and alert in only a second or two. He quickly sat up, rolled noiselessly to his knees, and peered out and down over his straw-wall. It was a couple, likely in town for the census, seeking shelter in the stable. Asa watched and listened.
The man spoke first, “I’m sorry that this is the best accommodation we could get. Maybe in a day or two we can find something better.”
The lady, obviously much younger than he, laid one hand on her stomach and replied, “By then, we will need room for three!”
A baby! And apparently due at any moment! Asa felt a tinge of pity for the young lady, having to give birth in such a place, but it didn’t last long. He seldom felt much of anything for anyone but himself. He watched as the man, Joseph he had learned as the couple talked, fixed a straw bed for his wife and hung a blanket between them and the doorway to block the chilling wind.
They spread out their belongings and made a nice little camp for the night. The horses and donkeys of the travelers from the inn didn’t seem to be bothered at all, so Asa figured he would just go back to sleep himself. Little did he know just how soon the baby would arrive!
He had barely drifted back to sleep when the woman’s quick cry of pain startled him back to reality! He lay in silence, only to hear more moans and groans. Joseph asked her, “Mary – is it time?”
Between labor pains, Mary replied that she was pretty sure that it was, and Joseph sprang into action. As Asa watched from his perch above, Joseph got up and showed that he must have had a plan all along. From a bag, he pulled out some clean, wide strips of cloth, some thread, a knife, and some rags. Apparently after Asa fell asleep, Joseph had drawn a couple buckets of water and had them ready. He must have cleaned out a place on the ground nearby and built a small fire, too, and a stone pitcher of water had been heated up.
They were as prepared as they could be under the circumstances and Asa watched quietly as Joseph helped his young wife give birth. From his angle, Asa could only surmise what Joseph was doing. He had seen a midwife do as much for his mother years ago when his siblings were born. The baby squalled right after his birth and Joseph cut the cord, used the thread to tie it off, and with warm water, gently wiped off his son. It took them both to wrap the babe in swaddling cloths and they smiled and spoke softly to each other as the baby cooed strange sounds.
Asa noticed they called the baby “Jesus” and did not seem surprised at all that they had had a boy. He knew that they were happy, and he figured he should have been happy for them, but his thoughts were more along the lines of ‘too bad, what a shame.’ Asa’s main thoughts were of another poor son of Israel destined to a life of poverty, misery, and despair. He silently laid back down and hoped the baby didn’t cry too much and he could still get some sleep.
About an hour later, perhaps around midnight, Asa was once again startled awake. “Here they are!” called out a voice he did not recognize. He heard the shuffling sounds of feet as a few men entered the stable. Once again behind his straw fortress, he saw three or four men entering the stable as one tried to hush the others and speak to the couple.
“Excuse us for intruding,” he said to Joseph and Mary, “but we were told to come.”
Joseph’s curiosity was immediately aroused. “Who told you we were here? Why have you come?”
Another of the men – shepherds, Asa surmised by their appearance – answered. “You may not believe this, but an angel from heaven appeared to us out in the field and told us the Messiah had been born!”
A third shepherd added, “Then a whole host of angels showed up praising Yahweh and we knew it had to be true!”
The first one spoke up again and told the whole story, as they all gathered quietly around the feeding trough that Joseph had fixed up as a bed for Jesus. The shepherds knelt and bowed their heads. Mary spoke, assuring the men that they did believe them. She told them that they had both been visited by angels to prepare them for this miraculous birth.
“So, you’ve known all along?” asked the youngest of the shepherds. “I mean that your baby boy would be our Messiah?”
“Yes,” said Joseph. “He is Yahweh’s son, not mine. But I will love him and raise him as my own.”
Asa simply could not believe what he was witnessing. He had heard the prophecies as a child. He had longed for the coming of the Messiah like every other Jewish child for centuries. But he had begun to doubt it would happen – certainly not in his lifetime. He didn’t know what to make of what he was hearing, but it surely would not happen like this.
After a brief visit, the shepherds rose to leave and said their goodbyes. They left quietly, but once outside the stable, they got louder as they hustled away. From what Asa could hear, they were excitedly making plans to tell everyone about this night. He figured he had better watch and wait for a good time to slip away.
It didn’t take too long for the baby and his new parents to fall asleep. When Asa was sure of it, he quietly folded his blanket, gathered up his few belongings, and as quietly as possible, climbed down from his lofty bedchamber. He was good at sneaking in and out of places unnoticed and that skill served him well that night. He snuck a peek at the sleeping baby boy, shook his head, and quietly left the stable. Asa was wide awake, so he just kept walking. He walked all night, circumventing Jerusalem, and headed northeast. He had no plans as yet beyond distancing himself from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He would eventually stop for some sleep and then continue on the next day.
For the next thirty years, Asa Bar-Jonam continued his life of crime, running and hiding. He stole plenty, but never really seemed to have much money. Drinking and gambling accounted for most of it. He spent years traveling all over Israel, mostly Judea, taking advantage of people, robbing whomever he chose, and wasting it all on riotous living. He spent several years in prison – several short-term stays and once for three years. Asa never once considered changing his ways after a stay in prison. He no sooner got out, than he was right back into crime. It was all he had known since before he left home at eighteen.
He had just been released from another six months in prison near Jerusalem, when he began to hear talk about the Messiah again. He had heard almost nothing about him since that strange night in Bethlehem thirty years ago. Once a couple of years after that night, he heard something about the Messiah’s birth being the reason for Herod’s massacre of a bunch of babies in the Bethlehem area, but with the Herods, anything was possible! Even the current Herod had killed family members to protect his throne!
He vaguely remembered a small stir in Jerusalem about ten years or so after that. There was something about a twelve-year-old boy amazing the teachers in Jerusalem about the time of the Passover celebration. It seems he had gotten lost and separated from his family who later found him conversing freely over religious matters in the temple courtyard. Odd, but hardly messianic, Asa had thought at the time.
Otherwise, Judea, and all of Israel for that matter, had been pretty silent these past thirty or more years. Asa assumed that “special-birth” story hadn’t turned out to be anything after all. He couldn’t really explain what he heard and saw that night, but he couldn’t imagine it mattered much either.
But now, after all these years, talk had started up again. Roman rule had been in effect for many years now, but it seemed to be getting worse. The people were tired of the oppression. Asa thought the Messiah talk was mostly just wishful thinking, but the rumors were circulating. A man named Jesus from Nazareth was traveling around preaching about God’s kingdom. Some were saying he was performing miracles. Asa remembered that night long ago in Bethlehem – they had said that baby was the Messiah and they called him Jesus! No, it couldn’t be, Asa concluded.
He went about business as usual, dismissing the accounts. Life was what you made it. Get what you can, any way you can. You’ve got to take care of yourself because no one else will take care of you. You can’t count on some Messiah to come fix everything. It just couldn’t be.
But the stories continued. Asa heard more and more about this Jesus. Teaching, drawing followers, healing the sick, opposing the Pharisees. With every passing month and season, the accounts grew, and the message intensified, until finally they crossed paths.
One day, a couple of years after the Messiah had been proclaimed, though still doubted by many, Asa found himself at the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus and his disciples. Asa liked crowds. Plenty of potential victims ripe for the plucking. Crowds provided anonymity. The festive atmosphere caused people to let down their guards. It was easy to rob someone and then get lost in the crowd. Getaways were easy, too.
Early one morning, Asa was meandering through the crowded street when a commotion arose. People shouted everyone’s attention to a side street that led to the temple complex. “Jesus!” they yelled. Asa stopped moving and watched as a man and his band of followers approached. Jesus walked into the temple complex, which quickly filled with people. He began to teach them about God’s kingdom.
Asa’s first thoughts were that this was a great opportunity. People were so intent on seeing and hearing this Jesus that Asa would have no trouble relieving several of their purses – pouches of gold and silver – just hanging there from their waistbands, waiting for him! The crowded conditions would cover the feelings – no one would notice when he cut away their pouch.
But before he could get started there was another commotion. The teacher was interrupted! The crowd parted as a small band of Pharisees and devoted followers paraded into the complex with a woman in tow. They led her forcefully to Jesus. The crowd grew deadly silent. Asa stood back to watch.
He listened as the spokesman for the Pharisees told Jesus and the crowd that the woman had been caught in the very act of adultery! The crowd made a collective gasp, but Asa focused on the reaction of Jesus. He did not flinch. His face did not betray his feelings one way or another. Asa noticed this Jesus to be about the right age to actually be the same Jesus he had watched be born so long ago.
The spokesman held up a hand to silence the crowd and addressed Jesus again. “The law says she should be put to death by stoning! But what do you say?” he asked. Asa had gotten pretty good at reading people and he felt that these rulers weren’t really interested in the woman or the law. They were out to trap Jesus.
If all he had heard these past couple of years was true, tensions had built between Jesus and his followers and the scribes and Pharisees. He had heard stories of trick questions and false accusations aimed at discrediting this new “rabbi.”
Asa listened for the answer to the Pharisee’s question. Instead, Jesus stooped down and started writing words in the dirt with his finger! Asa moved around and got a little closer. He wanted to see what Jesus was writing. Asa read “adulterer”, “liar”, and “love thy neighbor.”
Asa mulled over those words while the other Pharisees tried to continue the questioning. They were pressing Jesus for an answer. Asa thought it out. If Jesus agreed to the stoning, they would likely point out his lack of mercy and forgiveness. He would be to blame for the death of this “unfortunate” woman. If he demanded her release, he would be guilty of denying the law of God! Surely, he could not be from God and disobey the commandments!
Jesus stood and spoke up. “The one without sin among you should be the first one to throw a stone at her.” Asa had to stifle a laugh but could not hide his delight at that response. No one would dare stone this woman now and it would not be Jesus’s decision to stone her or release her!
But then Jesus stooped down again and wrote some more words. “Condemning”, “hateful”, “tax fraud” and more. In the silence, one by one, the Pharisees and scribes turned and walked away. Some who had held stones dropped them and slipped away quietly.
Asa was impressed. He wasn’t convinced the Messiah had come, but he was impressed with this man Jesus, who was still writing. The Pharisees were all gone. Jesus wrote one more word – “thief” and looked up, right at Asa. Asa felt the accusation. How could he know?!
Then Jesus turned to the woman. Motioning toward the vacant complex that had been her courtroom, he asked where her accusers were. Hadn’t anyone condemned her? She replied, “No one, Lord.”
Asa heard the word ‘Lord.’ Did she simply acknowledge him as her better or did she truly call him Lord? Who was this man? Then Jesus spoke to her again. “Neither do I condemn you – but go and sin no more.”
She bowed her head to Jesus, then lifted it back up as she walked away. Asa sensed that she felt forgiven and free. Jesus turned again and found Asa in his gaze. He nodded at Asa as if to say the same thing to him. Asa felt him say, “Go and sin no more,” but Asa was not convinced. Jesus moved on one way and Asa another. He had been moved, but not changed. Asa did not steal anything that day, but when he woke up the following morning, it was to business as usual.
Asa continued his wayward lifestyle. The special feast days provided plenty of prospects. He spent two days gathering his small fortune in the daytime and gambling and drinking most of it away in the evening. He seldom spent more than three days in one place. Eventually, word would get out about a rash of thefts and the Jewish leaders would appeal to the Romans. Asa had felt the wrath of the Roman soldiers more than once and had no desire to experience that again, so he moved on before they got involved.
One town was as good or bad as another to Asa. Feast days provided easier prey and more of them, but every town and village had markets and merchants. If you were smart enough, you could always find someone who could easily be relieved of their burden – money pouches, jewelry, or other goods.
Asa continued his business for nearly another year before his real trouble began. Pickings had gotten slim. People seemed to be getting more desperate due to high taxes. There was less wealth out there and most people kept better watch over what they had. Asa and others like him had to resort to more violent approaches to get their bounty. The Romans were getting more involved in keeping the peace. Beatings and jail time were becoming more prevalent.
Asa crossed paths with Jesus once more. He had pretty much done all he dared do in the town of Jericho and was about to head for Jerusalem, when he heard the announcement – Jesus was passing through town! “Why not?” Asa thought and decided to stay a little longer to see if there was anything new to this Messiah story. Besides, Jesus was always good for drawing a crowd, and crowds were easy pickings for a man with Asa’s talents.
He had learned before about a man named Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector. Wealthy and despised by most everyone. No one would even care if he was robbed – or worse! Tax collectors were Jews who made a living collaborating with the Romans in taxing their fellow Jews. They could keep whatever they could collect above what was due. Most were thieves themselves, just in a different way! Asa figured Zacchaeus would show up to see Jesus and he could rob him there.
The crowd walking along with Jesus grew with every step. Everyone wanted to see him, hear him teach, and perhaps witness a miracle. Asa didn’t care. This would be a good distraction to help him take some of Zacchaeus’ tax profits. Asa scanned the crowd – no sign of his quarry. He followed along with the crowd, hanging back enough to avoid contact with Jesus and still be able to see when Zacchaeus joined the festivity. Surely, he would come. And as for avoiding Jesus, well, Asa hadn’t forgotten that day in Jerusalem, when Jesus had written ‘thief’ in the dirt and stared knowingly at Asa.
Finally, there he was! Zacchaeus had come to see Jesus. Asa had made it a point to locate Zacchaeus before, so he would recognize him anywhere. And would know how and where he carried his money. Asa had three plans. His first was simply to cut loose Zacchaeus’ money bag while in the crowd and take off with whatever he could. The second, if the first didn’t work, was to lie in wait along the way back to his house and ambush Zacchaeus. If he didn’t go straight home after seeing Jesus, Asa would beat it back to Zacchaeus’ house and steal whatever he could while the man was gone.
Asa started to make his way up to Zacchaeus even as Zacchaeus tried to make his way through the crowd to Jesus. Zacchaeus was a short man. He couldn’t see over the crowd. He tried to worm his way through the crowd, but he was a despised man, and no one let him through.
His struggle and determination to see Jesus made it impossible for Asa to get a hold of Zacchaeus’ money bag. He got close, but the tax collector had to quickly form a new plan of action himself. He broke out from the crowd and sprinted ahead in the direction Jesus was leading the crowd.
Asa followed as closely as he dared. He couldn’t possibly have guessed what Zacchaeus would do next. He ran on ahead, cutting through town to arrive at a certain place along Jesus’ route. There was a Sycamore tree that spread out lowly over the road leaving Jericho. Jesus would soon pass by there.
Asa watched from behind shelter as Zacchaeus climbed up that tree. Once up in the tree, he scooted out on a limb that overhung the road. He would be able to see Jesus clearly. For once in his life, Zacchaeus would be able to see above the crowd! Asa decided he would have to wait for plan number two. He would wait and catch Zacchaeus afterwards on his way home.
Asa watched from a distance and Zacchaeus watched from his perch. Jesus and the crowd made their way down the road and presently Jesus was right under the sycamore tree. He abruptly stopped and looked up. Zacchaeus got what he wanted – to see Jesus. Jesus told Zacchaeus to come down. He added that he wanted to stay with Zacchaeus at his home. The self-righteous members of the crowd objected – Jesus consorting with a sinner like Zacchaeus! It wasn’t right.
Zacchaeus said that his meeting with Jesus had changed him! He would give half his goods to the poor! And if he had wronged anyone, he would repay him, but with four times as much! Asa couldn’t believe his ears. What had just happened? What kind of man was this Jesus?! Just one meeting and this Zacchaeus was a completely different person! Could this be real?
In any case, it had sure fouled up Asa’s plans. He couldn’t ambush the man on his way home now. Jesus, and likely a crowd, would be with Zacchaeus. And he couldn’t get there first in order to rob an empty house. Three good plans – all ruined! Asa headed away from Jericho toward Jerusalem. Passover was coming. Jerusalem would be swarming with people. Plenty of money.
After just three days in Jerusalem, Asa’s life was hanging in the balance. After he had arrived, he quickly looked over the city and formed a plan. The city was filling up in anticipation of the feast. The Passover was the biggest religious and social event of the year. Jews from all over Israel journeyed to the capital city for the annual sacrifice and observance of the Passover.
Asa knew all about the Passover. As a boy he had learned all about Moses and his ancestors who had been freed from slavery in Egypt when the Death Angel from Yahweh passed over the land. All the Israelites had been spared because they trusted their God and obeyed him by making a sacrifice and sprinkling its blood on their doorposts. They prepared a special meal and stayed inside that night as an Angel of Death passed across the land.
All who remained in a house “covered by the blood” would be spared. Anyone not doing so would experience a great loss – all the first-born sons would die! Naturally, the Egyptians did not obey, and every household suffered. The ruling Pharaoh agreed that all the Israelites should leave Egypt.
The Jews were supposed to offer this same sacrifice and eat a similar meal every year after that in remembrance of this Exodus. Asa’s family had observed Passovers as he grew up. He had not observed any since.
His only interests in Passover were the crowds and their money. As he scouted out the city on his first day in Jerusalem, he formulated a plan and even recruited a partner. Asa took charge and laid out the plan. His new partner would accost one of the travelers and start a fight. He was strong and experienced. He could take a beating if he needed to and give plenty back. His role was to create a distraction while Asa relieved the company of as much money or small goods as possible. Eventually, the partner would simply run away as if he was afraid and had given up. They would meet up later and split the rewards.
For two days, the pair plied their criminal trade around the city. They were careful to move around so as not to be recognized nor spotted afterwards. It all seemed so easy. But on the third day, they got caught!
The fight that was supposed to be a distraction got too serious. A knife was pulled. Asa’s partner had never resorted to that before, but this time he had to in order to defend himself. Someone ran for the authorities. Roman soldiers quickly responded. Asa tried to slip away with the goods while his partner was taken into custody. A crowd had followed the soldiers to the fight and one of them recognized Asa from the day before when his friends had been robbed.
The soldiers grabbed Asa, too, and took both men away. The magistrate took little time to sentence them both to a beating and jail time, while an investigation was started. He had heard similar stories and not just this week. Some witnesses were quickly found, and it was determined that these two thieves had both been involved in crimes and violence for years throughout Judea. Both had been in prison before and obviously had not learned any lessons.
The magistrate ruled that these two were far worse than just ordinary thieves. They had menaced all Judea for years. They were not only a threat to the personal wellbeing and property of the Jewish citizens, but such widespread criminal behavior was causing the Romans to threaten harsher treatment for all, in order to get things under control. The result was a sentence of death!
Asa’s partner cursed and tried to escape but was knocked down and almost unconscious. Asa did not react at all. He knew all along that this day would come sooner or later. Now it had. He went along quietly to his cell. The actual date for the crucifixion had not yet been set.
Two days later was the first day of the week and Asa was aroused by a great commotion outside his cell. He couldn’t see, but he could hear it. Something was getting the populace excited. It sounded like somebody special was coming to town. He couldn’t hear enough to find out who.
The guards came in with something they called food. Asa couldn’t recognize it, but he tried to eat it anyway. It was awful, but it helped take the empty feeling away from the pit of his stomach. He asked the guards about the commotion outside. One of them said it was some sort of unofficial procession. A man called Jesus had ridden into the city on a donkey and his followers had walked along side of him, shouting his praises! The other guard added that a crowd quickly sprang up and things started to get out of hand. The people were shouting about him being some kind of king and the Pharisees demanded that he stop them.
“Did he?” Asa asked.
“Not really,” the first guard said. “I heard someone say he told the Pharisees that if the people stopped shouting, the rocks and trees would cry out!” The guards laughed but Asa half expected a response like that. He asked the guards if they would tell him if they heard any more about this man this week. One said he would.
The next day the guard told Asa a story about Jesus making a whip and chasing people out of the temple! He accused them of abusing the people for profit. He said the temple was supposed to be “his father’s house of prayer.’ Asa wondered about Jesus saying, “his father’s house.” He recalled the words of Joseph that night in Bethlehem when Asa had watched him deliver the baby boy. Joseph had told the shepherds that the baby was God’s son, not his, but that he would love him and raise him. Asa tried to recall his lessons from childhood about the Messiah. He didn’t remember much, but he did remember the teacher saying that the Messiah would be Yahweh’s son.
Simply put, Asa was having a hard time believing. He had invested so much time and energy in not believing! He asked the guard to please keep him informed should there be further news about this Jesus.
There was no news for the next few days. Asa pressed the guard for any news, anything at all. He had become almost obsessed with finding out more about Jesus. The guard said he had not heard of any more encounters, but he had heard a rumor or two. Asa asked for more. The guard explained rumors of plots to kill this Jesus. Not among the Romans, but among the Jews, especially the Pharisees.
As Asa probed for more information, the guard said he had heard whispers about an inside job – a traitor among the followers. He added that nothing would likely be done right away, at least not during the feast. Asa pondered it all. He racked his brain for memories about his knowledge of the Messiah. He didn’t question the concept of a Messiah and had always thought, well, maybe someday he would come.
His struggle was in believing it had happened right in front of him! Would the Messiah really be born in a stable in Bethlehem? With shepherds, and maybe a thief, being the only witnesses?! Would scribes and Pharisees, teachers of the law and the prophets, reject him? Much less, plot to kill him?! It didn’t make sense. But the evidence…
He needed to know more. The next day he learned it. The guard seemed almost excited to bring Asa the latest news. Jesus had been arrested late in the night. Asa stood rapt by the soldier’s story. Soaking it in. The guard told him about Jesus being betrayed by one called Judas, one of his own followers, for money. The Jews’ temple guards had led a mob to the Garden of Gethsemane and had taken Jesus into custody.
Asa interrupted, asking about a fight, or any resistance. He knew he would have fought! The guard said he heard that one man started to fight, even cut off a servant’s ear, but Jesus made him stop.
“Stop?!” asked Asa in disbelief.
“Yes,” the guard said, then added, “and the talk is that this Jesus actually healed the man’s ear!
“He healed others – why not, I guess,” said Asa. “Go on, what happened?”
The guard told Asa that Jesus surrendered peacefully and was taken off to stand trial. The way he had heard it this morning, they moved him around from one official to the next and back again. He was currently standing in front of Pontius Pilate himself!
“What charges?!” asked Asa. “What are they trying to convict him of?”
“I heard blasphemy,” replied the guard. “They say he is claiming to be a god!”
“The Son of God,” said Asa, almost under his breath.
“That’s all I know for now,” the guard said. “I would think one way or another, this man’s fate will soon be decided. Pilate won’t want to deal with this very long and the Pharisees seem determined.”
Asa pleaded with the guard to get an update. He had to know. He didn’t say it aloud, but he had to know if Jesus could really be the Messiah. The guard said he would try to find out more and started to walk away. Another soldier met him and after a brief discussion, the guard returned to Asa’s cell.
“It may not matter now,” the guard said. “I’m afraid I have bad news for you and your partner.”
Asa simply asked, “When?”
Asa bowed his head. The guard said they would come get them shortly before midday and escort them to a hill outside of the city. There, they would crucify them both. Asa looked up and actually thanked the guard for his information.
A few hours later, the guards came and took Asa and the other thief from their cells. Just outside the prison, they were handed off to the soldiers who would escort them to the Place of the Skull. They would be hung upon crosses to die an ignominious death.
A large crowd had already assembled, and more people were coming. Soldiers lifted large wooden crossbeams onto Asa’s and his partner’s shoulders, forcing them to carry their own means of death to the hill. He wondered what all the commotion was about. Surely this large crowd and the shouting he heard coming from another gathering crowd could not be about two thieves being crucified. It happened quite often these days.
Some of the oncoming crowd were yelling, “Crucify him!” Asa turned and watched as the crowd around him parted. More soldiers arrived, pushing and prodding another prisoner. He, too, was carrying a crossbeam on bloody shoulders. The man could barely stumble along. The cruel soldiers shouted at him and hit him with the shafts of their spears. The man looked as if he had been beaten and whipped half to death. Asa wondered what he could possibly have been guilty of to have received such treatment. The man raised his head at last as a surge of strength propelled him to continue his death-march.
His face was bruised and swollen and bloody. Sweat and blood had soaked his hair. Someone had fashioned a sort of crown of thorns and pressed it on his head. His eyes fixed on Asa. Asa had to strain to recognize that face, but oh, those eyes! It was Jesus!
“What has he done?” Asa asked his guard.
“Who cares?” replied the soldier.
Another said, “The Jewish leaders demanded he be crucified. Said he is claiming to be their God, stirring up people against Caesar!”
Asa could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing. This man was innocent. He did not deserve this. Asa wasn’t quite sure the Messiah would be treated this way, so, maybe Jesus isn’t him. But he did not deserve this!
The soldiers prodded the men onward. The crowd jeered and mocked. Asa was a strong man and had only been beaten a little, yet the crossbeam made the long march difficult. Jesus stumbled and fell. The crowd shouted angrily at him. The soldiers jerked him to his feet and prodded him to continue. Asa had been mean and rotten almost his entire life. He had fought and even beaten some innocent victims in order to rob them and get away. But even he had never seen such brutality.
Asa stopped. Jesus had fallen again. He had carried his own cross about as far as any man in his condition could possibly do. The soldiers compelled a man from the crowd to carry Jesus’ burden the rest of the way.
As the three men hung in open shame upon their crosses that afternoon, Asa remembered his life. What a waste! Selfish, angry, even brutal. Caring for no one but himself, he had cheated and robbed others of what they had earned and saved. He wasted it all and had nothing to show for more than fifty years of living. He had been given several chances to make a fresh start, but he would never get another. He was sorry now, but it was too late.
His partner, on the other hand, seemed only angry. Jesus, hanging between the two thieves, still seemed focused and guided by a purpose. He was beaten and wounded beyond all reason, far worse than either thief, yet there was something more there. Asa was trying to process it.
He struggled for breath and even life itself but watched and listened. The crowd taunted and mocked Jesus. Asa marveled at Jesus’ response to the horrible treatment. Betrayed, deserted, arrested, falsely accused, wrongly convicted, beaten, whipped, mocked, and nailed to a cross! His response? “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Asa’s heart broke with final recognition. Somehow, he was suddenly sure. His questions – all answered. This is the Messiah. This Jesus was the baby boy he had seen born in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago. This Jesus was indeed God’s Son, not Joseph’s, and had come to save his people. He was the prophesied Messiah, sent from God to open the eyes of the blind, set the captives free, and heal the broken-hearted! And he had just asked God the Father to forgive them all. Forgive their mockery, their brutality, their rejection, their indifference. Forgive their pride and selfish ambition. Forgive their ignorance. But could he forgive Asa?!
Asa feared he had come to his senses too late. The other thief joined in with the mockery of the crowd. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself – and us!”
Asa looked past Jesus to his former partner and rebuked him. “Don’t you even fear God? You’re dying on a cross, too! We deserve what we’re getting – but this man? He has done nothing wrong.”
Asa then turned his attention to Jesus. Their eyes locked onto each other as they had that day in the temple complex when Jesus had picked Asa out of the crowd and looked into his very soul. “Jesus,” Asa said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Asa knew it sounded strange. His thief partner likely thought he was crazy. They were all about to die! What kingdom? How would this Jesus or any dying man hope for a kingdom? If there was any hope at all for life after death, how dare a man like Asa hope for forgiveness and restoration? Yet somehow, Asa believed in him. And believing in the Messiah meant hope and forgiveness! So, he had asked, and he hoped.
Looking into Asa’s eyes, Jesus must have seen the sincerity, the faith, the repentance. Asa called him by name – Jesus – Savior. Asa said when you come into your Kingdom. Not if, but when! That was faith. That was recognition of who Jesus is! Remember me – that was hope for mercy and grace. Jesus responded to Asa’s request. “I assure you,” he said, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
With that declaration of forgiveness and acceptance and promise of hope for eternal bliss, darkness came upon the earth. Asa didn’t care. In fact, it gave him peace of mind. It gave confirmation that this was God’s Son. It gave a covering for their shame and punishment. It even told him that his sins had just been blacked out. Death would come soon now, but only for the bodies.
Asa held on to his three-fold promise from Jesus – today – with Jesus – in paradise!