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An Unexpected Encounter, Palm Sunday (A) – 2005

March 20, 2005

Let’s turn our attention to one of the minor characters in the Passion story. He remains speechless, and appears in only one verse. Yet this character is one of the closest to Jesus as Jesus walks the road to the place of crucifixion. Here is the single verse that mentions this character:

On their way out they met a man from Cyrene, Simon by name, and pressed him into service to carry his cross.

Simon was a visitor to Jerusalem. He came from Cyrene, an important Greek city in North Africa. It is likely that he was a Jew. Greek-speaking Jews made up a large part of the population of Cyrene, and it’s easy to imagine some of these people traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover. Indeed, one of the synagogues in Jerusalem was identified as serving, among others, Jews from Cyrene [Acts 6:9].

Imagine the scene. Simon has just arrived for Passover. He’s in the holy city of Jerusalem—possibly for the first time in his life. Roman soldiers are dragging a beaten and bruised prisoner through the streets, taking him away for execution. The route the soldiers choose is a long one so that the people will see the prisoner’s plight and not repeat his crimes.

Suddenly the prisoner drops the cross on which he will be crucified. Merciless flogging has caused him to lose a great deal of blood; it’s clear he’s too weak to drag the cross any further. The soldiers will not stoop to pick it up, but legally they can force someone else to do so. Simon is the closest able-bodied man. He simply finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Having no alternative, Simon shoulders the prisoner’s cross, the cross on which he will soon be crucified. Simon undoubtedly gets blood on his robe. His good clothes become smudged with dust. He struggles and sweats, carrying the heavy cross down rough city streets, a hostile crowd on both sides of him. Some of the bystanders laugh. A few spit. Simon can only spend one Passover in Jerusalem, and it’s turning out like this! What a nightmare!
Finally they reach the killing place outside the city, and Simon drops his burden. The soldiers get on with their business of nailing the prisoner’s hands and feet to the wood. Then they place the bottom of the cross in a deep hole, push the top of it skyward, and sit down to watch their prisoner die.

The soldiers know it can take a long time for a crucified prisoner to die. They are resigned to this boredom. What keeps them alert is knowing that their prisoner has many followers. The soldiers are concerned that these followers may attempt a rescue.

What happens to Simon? Does he stay and watch the slow death, or does he leave? We simply do not know. Scripture does not speak directly of Simon again.

All that remains to be said concerns Simon’s family. The Passion account in Mark’s Gospel identifies Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus [Mark 15:21]. Mark’s Gospel was written about a generation after the events it describes. The reason Alexander and Rufus are named is probably because they were known by those for whom Mark’s Gospel was written—and were themselves Christian

Did Simon of Cyrene become a Christian? Did he see something in that prisoner that made him choose discipleship? We cannot know, but it does seems likely that Simon’s two sons became Christians. We can picture them listening to what their father told them of his first visit to Jerusalem, the cross he was forced to carry, and the prisoner who died on it.

So Simon of Cyrene finds himself walking beside a pathetic prisoner he has never seen before, carrying a heavy cross for him through the crowded, mean streets. Simon is far from home, in a strange city, forced to do demeaning hard labor against his will.

He is in the wrong place—or is he? Is it simply the Roman soldier who pulls Simon out of the crowd, or does a power greater than Rome call him forth? Is it an accident that he ends up in this nightmare situation, dirty, humiliated, exhausted—or is it more than an accident?

What Simon encounters outside the city wall is not religious in any conventional sense. It is the calculated, brutal, agonizing death of a man who can do nothing to defend himself. Yet might this not demonstrate the wisdom of God, waiting to be recognized? For God’s wisdom is not common sense, practical advice, moral uplift, or good feelings. Divine wisdom does not adhere to the rules of prudence. It is a radical emptying of self, sacrificial living and dying, extravagant spending, on the prisoner’s part, of blood and breath, of life and hope, knowing that God is greater than any darkness, and that the world aches to be redeemed.

Simon came to Jerusalem celebrate the Passover of his people: how once, long ago, the Lord heard his people cry out in their agony as Egyptian slaves, and delivered them with mighty signs and wonders, even dividing the Red Sea waters to bring them home to freedom. Simon knows that at the heart of this story is the making safe of Jewish homes by marking their doorways with the blood of the traditional Passover lamb.

What Simon saw in the killing place just outside Jerusalem may indeed have seemed to him the start of a different freedom march with a new Passover lamb, one slaughtered on a cross. He saw the promise that both Gentile and Jew are to be delivered from bondage to sin, alienation, and death. This realization may have dawned on him slowly through the days and years that followed that one visit to Jerusalem.

Simon was compelled to go to the place of execution, carrying a cross. We are gathered in that same place today for a variety of reasons. We may be here because of habit, duty, commitment, curiosity, or spiritual thirst. What matters is not how we get here, but what we recognize. Do we see a heartless execution, or something more?

In this incident of a man put to death, in bread broken and wine shared at his command, in the cross as our emblem, we can recognize the depths of foolish wisdom, the start of a new freedom march, a call for us to live, not by achievement or accumulation, but by sacrifice, which manifests the power of God.

May we always be ready to give up what we cannot keep, in order to gain what we cannot lose.

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Christopher Sikkema


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