January 31, 2013
Dear sisters and brothers,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:27-32
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him. As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.
The New American Bible notes tell us that a cohort of Roman soldiers numbered 600. Pilate usually headquartered at Caesarea Maritima on the coast, but traveled to Jerusalem for the principal feasts with a cohort of more of soldiers in order to tamp down nationalistic fervor that could lead to protests and riots. The praetorium was his residence, which had a large entry courtyard. The scarlet cloak was worn by a Roman soldier. The last note of interest is that Simon was from Cyrenaica, a Roman province on the north coast of Africa whose capital was Cyrene. It had a large population of Greek-speaking Jews. Simon could have possibly been a pilgrim in Jerusalem for Passover, although Mark identifies him as the father of Alexander and Rufus who must have been well-known members of Mark’s church years later. The Romans were at leave to press residents into service or to confiscate their goods.
It’s doubtful that these Roman soldiers knew anything about Jesus, who he was or what he had done to deserve crucifixion. It didn’t matter to them; so what if the authorities had called him king of the Jews. They knew he wasn’t really the king. They were strangers in a strange land populated by people who practiced strange customs. They were subject o continual tension as they were employed to keep the peace, assure that the taxes were collected, and carry out the brutal torture and crucifixion of enemies of Rome. They had just marched about 70 miles, entering a city teeming with perhaps as many as 1.5 million Jews celebrating their liberation from Egyptian enslavement. They were on their guard undoubtedly hoping that there would be no riots that they would have to quell, fearing that they could easily be outnumbered.
There is something about being part of a larger group. It provides anonymity, a kind of release of personal responsibility, and an emboldenment of dark passions normally kept in check. A group takes on its own personality drawing in part from its members but displays an exaggerated caricature. It’s usually ugly.
I think that’s what we witness here with this large group of soldiers — men who felt confined, tense, bored, resentful. Men who could easily vent their frustrations on a defenseless man condemned to death. There was not fear of retribution or punishment. Someone started it; robing Jesus with his own cloak to give Jesus the aura of royalty. Others got into the act by making a crown of thorns. It kept escalating; many spitting on him and hitting him about the head and shoulders with the mock scepter. When all those who wanted had their chance to participate in the fun, they tired of their game and started toward the site of the crucifixion.
By contrast Matthew gives us Simon. A man in the crowd of bystanders, an individual picked out of the crowd at random. A man who suddenly stood out from the crowd, who no longer had the cloak of anonymity. One single man who took on the responsibility of carrying the cross. A man who happened to be from Cyrenaica, not from Jerusalem. A man who may not have heard Jesus teach in the temple precincts. But something drew him to watch what was happening. If Simon wasn’t converted to become a follower of Jesus, apparently his sons subsequently became notable members of the Jewish Christian community. Whether he did or not, Simon had a profound experience that must have changed his life in some ways.
I think the story is about God reaching out to us as individuals, converting us one at a time through our encounter with Him. We have to take responsibility as individuals for our actions; we can’t hide in the anonymity of a group. He may single us out at the most unexpected time, in the most unexpected way like poor, unsuspecting Simon. Maybe he didn’t willingly bend beneath the weight of the cross, but he took the place of Jesus with each step he took toward Golgotha. That’s what God wants for me; He wants me to take the place of His son, Jesus. He wants me to bend to His will, to accept the burdens He imposes whether I am ready or not. He wants to pull me out of the crowd, to use me. I am the means to His end. I am Simon pressed into service to carry His son’s cross.
That’s a very sobering realization, a vivid picture of submission. I’m not even sure what it means other than to live my life one step at a time, bending to His will, and accepting whatever burdens He gives me. Surely wearying, stumbling at times, but gratified that I am serving Him. I am taking the place of Jesus; I am His beloved son on whom His favor rests. He has picked me out of the crowd.