My name isn’t really important…But if you must know, you can call me Abel. My life, however, has never added up to the legacy of that name. It means vanity, and I have lived up to that much of it. My life has been truly vain.
When I was 9 years old, I lived in Jerusalem. That was the first time I met Him. He was a boy, a few years older than me. He was coming out of the temple with his family as I came running by. I was running because I wanted to keep what I had just stolen from the market place. It wasn’t much. A little fruit. I ran right into him as He stepped down from the temple.
We both got up and dusted ourselves off. He smiled at me. Picking the fruit up from the ground, I glanced around to see if I was still being followed. He looked at me as if he knew what I was up to. “Shalom,” he said and then He and His family walked away. There was something about him. Something that I had never seen in anyone before, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And I didn’t have the time to figure it out anyway.
My brother and I started working the market places together. We stayed with my mother until she became sick and passed on. Some local orphanage tried to take us in, but we knew that we’d end up slaves. Besides, we ate better when we worked together stealing.
We also learned that if we were going to survive, we had to keep moving. A week in one decent size town and we’re already known. There’s only so many market places. So we kept going from town to village to city. Sometimes we were able to stay for a long time. Most times though, word would get out and we were running for our lives again.
My brother would approach a merchant with a cloak over his head so he wouldn‘t be recognized later. He always did this part because he was the fastest runner. He would steal a handful and run to a place where he could hide the goods and the cloak out of site. By the time they caught up with him, the goods and the cloak were stashed and he was walking directly towards them. They would mistake him for someone else and often asked him if he had seen the thief. He would give them false directions and keep on walking as if nothing happened. While they were chasing him, I would fill my pouch and walk away. It always worked because everyone’s attention was on my brother. At least until that one day.
My brother was19 and 2 years older than I. That day as he turned the corner into the ally where we had found a good hiding place, a garrison of Roman soldiers were marching towards him. He had no where to go and he had misjudged the running ability of the merchant. He found himself between the two. Before he could find a way out, the merchant was upon him, yelling at the troops that he was a thief.
I was half way out of the backside of the market place with my take when I heard the commotion. I looked back over my shoulder and watched as my brother was grabbed. At least a dozen soldiers gathered around him, kicking him with their feet and beating him with the blunt end of their spears. He looked at me, his face twisted by pain, covered in dust and sweat. And now blood. He struggled a few more moments yelling
“Por-u-ah-mee.” Go, get away. Only I knew he meant me. As he fell helpless to the ground, I turned from the only family I had known for many, many years, and walked away, never to lay my eyes upon him again. There was nothing I could do to help him now.
I shook and wept most of the night. He was not only my brother, he was also my only friend and companion. We were there for each other.
I spent the next 3 days traveling to Jerusalem. I looked really hard to find some work. I was not above doing labor from time to time when it was needed. I was able to get some work helping some men build a house. On the fourth day, with only food so far for pay, a woman recognized me from some things I had stolen a few months before. I had stolen so much in my life, I truly did not remember her. The man I was working for gave me a pack of food and a few mites. He told me to leave before she returned with the Soldiers. He showed me kindness when I had done nothing to deserve it. It felt good. I had never experienced it before.
I had grown so accustomed to living on such a small amount of food that the pack the carpenter had given me would last 2-3 weeks. I decided to head north for Nazareth. It had been many years since I had been there and the pickings were always good. The distance there would give me time to think of ways to steal without a partner. In fact, I decided to travel east first and follow the Jordan Valley upward. This way, I could avoid climbing the high mountains and stay near water.
About 9 miles downstream from the Sea of Galilee, I turned west skirting the southern foothills of Mt. Tabor, and then finally the last leg up another 1,000 feet to the city of Nazareth. The city had no significant purpose. The watchtower, as it was called, was very isolated. I think maybe that’s what drew me here. Few people and fewer Romans.
It had been some time since I had been here so no one recognized me. I cleaned up and put on my best, cleanest clothes.
I had worked out several different plans as I journeyed here. I gained the confidence of many local merchants. Playing tricks on their trustworthiness with the few mites I had from the carpenter at Jerusalem. With in no time, I had a significant amount of coin. I camped outside the city and was very careful to avoid being seen that way by those I was swindling. Finally, a man who owned a large pottery shop asked me if I would work for him as a vendor. He would provide for me a place to stay and food plus a small wage. He said I was good with people. I took the job with an eye on the cash flow.
One day as I was dusting the pottery on display, a Man entered the shop. As He came in, a slight breeze picked up in the room. I went to close the door but realized there was no wind coming from outside. I thought nothing of it, left the door open and turned to resume my work. As I did, I found myself face to face with this Man.
He was a little older than I. He was not a large man, nor small. He was not very handsome, but He was not homely either. In fact, He was very average. But despite all of this, He was the most wonderful person I had ever met. And I had no idea who He was. His smile was quick and genuine. His eyes seemed to radiate peace. He had a hauntingly familiar look about Him. This Man could be my best Friend. I suddenly realized I was staring at Him.
“Can I help you?” I asked, waking up.
“No.” he said without any edge. “I haven’t been in this shop for a while and I came by to see Barnabas and just say hello.”
“The owner is out.” I said to him, keeping my composure. “Can I take a message for him?”
“Yes, just tell him that I stopped by to say hello.” He took my hand that was now shaking. “My name is Jesus. Mary and Joseph are my parents.”
“I-I am-m pleased to meet you.” I stuttered.
He let go of my hand and with a quick squeeze of my shoulder, shuffled past me into the street. The breeze picked up again and I was almost certain I heard Him say “I love you Abel.” But of course, that was impossible. I never had a chance to tell Him my name. But, there was something about Him that was greatly disturbing to me.
I passed the message along to my employer. He had little explanation about the Man. He was from Bethlehem, but He and His parents had lived here for many years.
A week went by and I could not get the face of this man out of my head. I searched for Him, but I never found Him. I was afraid to ask around. I guess in a way, I was afraid to find Him.
Two weeks later, I was about to take the pottery shop owner for everything he had. But the face of this Jesus seemed to stay before me the whole time. I packed my bags and took only what was mine and never looked back.
I traveled back down the mountain now with my own donkey. He was not strong enough to carry me, but he could carry my pack. I turned south. I decided that if this Jesus was from Bethlehem, then I needed to see why that was crucial. Because it seemed to be very important.
I followed the coastline instead of the Jordan Valley this time. As I neared Caesarea, I began to gain a handle on who this Man was. The eyes seemed to be the eyes of that little Boy I had met at the base of the temple steps in Jerusalem. He had to be the same person, there was no doubt.
I continued along the coastal roads until I arrived in Joppa. From there I traveled inland on the trade routes. Because I was an accomplished thief, I was naturally suspicious of everyone around me. I assumed that everyone else was a deceitful as I was. This kept me safe on the dangerous routes.
As I lay staring into the sky on my bedroll one evening, I began to question who I was. Being a Jew when you did not follow what the Pharisees said you should, meant absolutely nothing and I knew it. So my background served me little in identifying who I was. I was a thief. A lowdown, dirty, cheating, rotten thief. As dishonest as I could get away with. But I never saw myself like that. After all, it wasn’t I who set the stage for me to become a thief, was it? Our father died before I was born. Mother died with no one to care for us. And we had no food anyway long before she got sick. Kids that went into that orphanage never came back out. I had no other options. Plus, I made sure I never hurt anyone. No one ever died because I stole something from them. Truth was, I figured I was the least of the concern of Israel. And innocent by reasons of circumstance.
At the edge of Bethlehem, I saw a sign that said the “City of David.” Everyone knew who King David was. Most hoped he’d come back to life and annihilate Caesar and the Romans. We knew this wouldn’t happen. I was not fortunate enough to have education as a child and I really wished I knew more. But maybe this had something to do with the significance of Jesus being born here. I wasn’t sure.
I gained little information about Jesus from people in Bethlehem. I was told that his father was a carpenter and that his mother had become pregnant out of wedlock. Some how, she had managed to avoid being stoned. That was it. I was disappointed and moved on. I was sure there was more to this…
I spent the next eight years just as I had the previous twenty-two: Surviving from hand to mouth. During that time I became bitter. Very bitter. I had no one. I had nothing. No heritage, no family, nothing. I don’t believe I ever understood how important it was to have someone. Someone to love and to love you. I was never still long enough to take a wife or to have sons.
As time passed, I became better at the trade. I had long come to justify what I did as a gift from Jehovah with which to survive. I stole from whomever and wherever I could. No longer did I concern myself with the so called morals of a thief. I got caught a few times, but always got away. I learned from those mistakes. But what I didn’t learn was that my arrogance and justification was leading to carelessness. I no longer stole because I needed to eat. I stole because I thought I was supposed to.
I was sitting in a café in Jerusalem. The people at the table next to me were talking and I heard them say the name Jesus. I listened more intently. The name was getting a lot of attention. He had built a reputation as a healer and a Rabbi. I knew this was the same Man I had met in Nazareth and the Boy I had seen in Jerusalem years before. The voices next to me said He was here in this city. I turned around and asked where he was staying. They said they didn’t know, only that a close friend of one of them had their arm shriveled up since birth and that He had healed it. The man laughed.
“Jesus healed him in the Synagogue on a Sabbath. The Pharisees were really mad. He put them in their place though.”
Suddenly I realized that I had to find Him. I jumped up and ran from the café. The owner came running after me. “You must pay for this food. You cannot leave and not pay. I will tell the Centurion!” he yelled after me, shaking his fist. My mind was focused and on I ran.
I ran and I ran and I searched and I searched.
I woke the next morning to the rattle of the door. The inn that I was staying at was noisy, but cheap. Through the fog of waking up, I realized that there was a Centurion at my door. I quickly got dressed, thinking about how far it was to the ground outside my window. One look and I realized that without a rope, I was dead if I jumped. I had gotten careless. I searched until late into the night and could not find Jesus. The late night was costing me now.
I could hear the Centurion and the inn keeper arguing about busting in the door. The Centurion won as the door came crashing in. He grabbed me and shoved me through the door into the arms of his men. Within a few minutes I was in a nasty, smelly underground dungeon. My hands were chained behind me to the wall and my feet chained together to the floor. I stayed like that for 4 days. They would allow me to stand momentarily once a day when they fed me. A life long thief and now I was imprisoned because I failed to pay for a meal at a café. I would likely be beaten and released.
On the fifth day, the guards came and took me into to see a magistrate. As I came around corner the into his chambers, horror swept over me. I began to sweat and shake. The magistrate was the man I robbed on the road two weeks before while traveling here from Bethany. And he saw me. Yes, I had sunk to the point of robbing men with a knife.
He was talking to an aid as I was brought in. He finished and looked at me.
Recognition was instant. A smile crested over his face. “Well, well.” He said as he rose from his seat.
“I have wronged you, my lord. I beg mercy on my soul.” I pleaded.
“Mercy will be between you and God.” He looked at his aid. “Bring Antipas in here.” He returned to his seat. Moments later a very large Centurion walked in. “Antipas, my friend. It just so happens that this man who could not pay for his food at the café, is the very wretch that robbed me on the road less than fortnight ago. You may recall my having told this to you.”
“Yes, my lord, I recall. What shall I do with him?”
“Have him returned to his cell, chained and gagged. No more meals. We’ll crucify him tomorrow.”
The words hung in air before me. There was a mental echo. By this time tomorrow, I will be hanging on a cross, gasping to live. Why?
All the way back into my cell, I asked why I was being treated this way. I was never that bad that I deserved this act of murderous terror.
I slept little that night. It mattered little to nothing to the guards that I was to be executed the next day. There was no last meal or comforts at all. I realized I was about to face God and I had no idea what to do about it.
Deep into the night I heard screaming. It was a mob. They yelled obscenities and noises that I could not make out because of the distance. I heard one word though, that I completely understood. “Crucify, crucify!” Apparently, I was not alone in my sentencing.
At dawn, the guards entered my cell and unlocked me. With help I stood to my feet, struggling to stay up, I leaned on the guard. Amazingly, he did not push me away. I stumbled and waddled until my body regained it’s strength from being in such a position all night.
The guards led me from the prison down through the streets of the city. Finally, we exited the great walls and headed up Golgotha. As we climbed the steep mountain, citizens lined the roadway yelling names and throwing rocks and rotten fruit at me. At the top, I saw another man chained as I was. He must be the one they screamed at in the night, I thought. The soldiers stood me next to him. In a moment, the wagon arrived with two crosses in it. The stench of these rough, hideous, blood soaked logs struck me now with a terror I had not yet felt. I fell to my knees and wept loudly. The man next to me kicked me. “You cry like an old woman. Shut up you dog.”
I looked at him and I saw a hard old man that hated the world. “Why are you up here?” I asked.
“I stole. That’s what I do. I steal stuff. Clothes, furniture, whatever I can.” He spoke with bitter words as if he were spitting.
“Don’t you wished you had one more chance?” I said as I was getting up. Faced with this reality, I could not help but continue weeping. He never answered me, we just stared at the old used crosses being yanked from the wagon.
Down the hill towards the gate, there was a sudden loud roar from the crowd who’d come to watch the crucifixion. I could see the gate clearly but the crowd was keeping whoever was there from being seen. Then, the Roman soldiers cleared the crowd back and a Man came stumbling along the dusty road in our direction. The crowd stayed back now, but grew increasingly louder.
This Man was wearing a red cloak and a red cloth on His head. It was all He could do to remain upright. I had thought Him to be drunk. A few yards behind Him, a well dressed man was dragging another cross. This made little sense to me. But I had more difficult issues at hand.
They grabbed me and drug me over to the far side of the hill top. There was a deep hole in the ground and one of the crosses lay next to it. “All right Jew,” the soldier barked at me. “You’re gonna lay down on this here cross. Then we’re going to tie our arms and spike your hands on it, then your feet. We’re gonna lift you up and drop you into this hole. Understand?”
They began undoing my bonds when the noise of the crowd became unbearable. I looked over my shoulder just as the drunk Man crested the hill top. I could see a look of shock on many faces. What I saw was the most horrible sight I had ever seen. This Man was Jesus.
He was not wearing a red cloak. He wore only His under garment. He had been flogged. And most severely. His body was covered with blood. On His head was several loops of thorns. They had done terrible damage to His scalp. His back had very little skin left on it. I couldn’t understand why He was even still alive after all this. It was unbearable. He looked at me. I believe there was a moment of recognition. Suddenly I realized who this Man was.
At that moment, I was brutally wrenched backwards and slammed down upon the cross. The rough wood gauged into my back. The smell of a dozen other men’s blood fill my nostrils with the acrid aroma of death. The stink caused me to wretch, but there was nothing to come up and I turned to dry heave. The Romans fought with me, bringing my left hand down hard. One knelt there to hold it in place with his knee while another tied my arm to the spiny like surface of the wood. Moments later, the first spike began driving into my left wrist. I screamed, trying to bring my other hand over to stop them. It had already been tied down. I passed out.
I awoke to the agonizing pain of the second spike going into my right wrist. It was beyond torture. When this was done, they gathered at my feet and pulled me downward until my feet rested on a single support in the center of the cross. Splinters covered with dried blood drove into my back. They forced my legs to over lap in a tormenting position as they readied to drive one more spike into me. Through both my feet.
When they were done, they gathered together and lifted the cross and dropped it into the hole in the ground. Muscles and tendons tore loose in my wrists. The pain was overwhelming and I passed out again.
This time, cold water struck my face, waking me. They didn’t want me to miss anything. My body convulsed as I tried to gain an upright posture. It was nearly impossible. The pain in my hands and feet kept me near to passing out, but not quite. I suddenly and desperately wanted to die.
My mind began slowly to clear enough to grasp what was occurring around me. That’s was when I realized that a massive storm had come up. Thunder began raging and lightening was flashing. This made no sense. It was a clear morning when they took me from my cell. I looked down, they had laid Jesus on His cross and were spiking Him to it. Over His head they had nailed a sign. It read “the King of the Jews.” My mind drifted backwards to the moment when I ran into the little Boy in front of the Temple. And again when I met Jesus in the pottery shop. I knew now they were one and the same. I had heard enough, I knew now without a doubt who He was. I just didn’t understand why He was being crucified.
I was amazed at the amount of blood that encompassed Jesus. He was bathed in it. They slowly lifted Him into position and then dropped His cross into the hole. The crowd still yelled for His death. I was unsure myself, but somehow, this fit into His plan. If He was the Messiah, then He had God on His side. That meant that at any time, He could destroy the Romans and set us free. I had very little schooling, but everyone knew who the Prophet Isaiah was and that a great deliverer was coming. The Messiah. I realized Jesus was Him.
I watched as many of the leaders from all over Jerusalem came to see Jesus die. They all mocked Him and laughed at Him. They kept telling Him if He was the Son of God, then how come he couldn’t come down off the cross? On the other side of Jesus was the other thief. He repeated most what they had said. “Yeah, Jesus. If you’re this high and mighty King of the Jews, why don’t you save yourself? And while you’re at it, save us has well!” He stopped to push himself up so that he could breathe.
I was unexpectedly angry for his mocking. “Shut up you fool.” I yelled over the storm. “Don’t you know who you’re talking too? You and I deserve whatever we get, but Jesus has committed no crimes. He is innocent.” The other thief did not respond to me. I think he knew I was right. With every bit of effort in Him, Jesus turned to look at me. I think He knew who I was now for sure.
“Master?” I struggled to get out between incomprehensibly painful breaths. “This day, I will die. But I wish to live on with You.”
He smiled. It was very difficult, but He smiled. There was peace in those eyes. Those eyes that I‘d seen the first time so long ago. “I speak the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.”
I accepted what He said to me with a feeling of complete warmth, knowing that my life was somehow okay now. A life that meant nothing to the world around me, a life that really meant nothing to me became the one thing that the Messiah focused on while hanging there to benefit the people who put him there the most. I don’t know what the next moment would hold, but I knew who would hold me from now on.