This is a work of fiction. It addresses a question I have had for years:
“What was Good Friday like for Barabbas?”
My name is Barabbas. I might have been misguided, but I wasn’t alone in my hatred of the Romans. Israel has been revolting and rising up against them for generations, though we never seem to be able to get everyone on board. If we ever do, things may turn out differently. For some reason, the Roman soldiers seemed to have it in for my family. They were always accusing us of breaking their laws and trying to get money out of us, the extortionists! They had the power and they knew it, and most of them used it for their own amusement.
There was one in particular I hated more than the rest. He seemed to enjoy nothing else about being in our country than tormenting me. I would try to hide from him because every time he saw me he would make me carry something for him. Impressment was the law—they could make anyone carry stuff for them for a mile, and it didn’t matter what it was. He’d take things from other people by force just so I’d have to carry it. Sometimes it was even a rock by the side of the road. I used to complain, but I eventually realized he seemed to enjoy that, so as I got older I wouldn’t say a word. I’d just pick up whatever it was, carry it for the required number of steps, and set it down. But inside I seethed.
My parents died, leaving me, the oldest, to take care of my brother and sister. This was just one more cruelty for me to endure. I was old enough, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I hated the Romans more than I loved my family. And then a new soldier joined the company in charge of our town, and this one was worse than the rest of them combined. He like only two things—wine and women—and he wasn’t bashful about using his sword to satisfy his lust for both.
One day I returned home to a horrible scene. My brother lay unconscious on the floor bleeding in several places and I heard noises in the other room. This Roman goon was defiling my sister. I rushed in, grabbed the Roman’s sword from the floor, and without thinking I plunged it into his back as hard as I could, again and again. By the time I stopped, I was covered in his blood and his lifeless body lay on top of my sister. As my rage subsided, I realized I had stabbed so hard I went through him and into her multiple times. They were both dead. I went back to check on my brother, but he was now dead as well, having bled to death on the floor. I can only assume he tried to stop the Roman goon from getting to my sister and paid with his life.
The enormity of the situation was beginning to dawn on me—I had nothing to live for and I was going to die—when I heard “my” soldier calling my name. He had come to torment me again, not knowing what had just happened in my house. I was still clutching the goon’s sword, but I didn’t care anymore. I called out that he could carry his own load today because I wasn’t coming out. When he charged into the house to punish me, I ran the sword through his stomach. He stopped, shocked. He staggered for a moment and I twisted, pulled, and stabbed him again. He fell next to my brother.
I finally dropped the sword on the floor and sank down, slumped against the wall. The entire floor was red and I was covered in blood, looking like I should be as dead as everyone else in my house. But I didn’t shed a tear. I just sat and stared and waited. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I was sure it would be brutal. Much later when the sun was setting, a group of soldiers came looking for their missing comrades. With the door still slightly ajar, it didn’t take long for them to discover the mayhem. As they came in, I didn’t move, so they must have thought I was among the casualties.
One ran back to the garrison while the other three tried to figure out what had happened. Eventually, I grew tired of their talk and murmured, “I did it.” They looked at me, stunned, mostly because I think they thought I was dead. They pulled me to my feet as more soldiers arrived and I was drug to the garrison and imprisoned.
The next day, they threw a bucket of water on me, shackled my hands and feet, and led me to Pilate. They charged me with the deaths of two Romans as well as my brother and sister. I didn’t argue; I didn’t say a word. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t just killed me yet. They thought I was part of some uprising so they convicted me of murder and insurrection and put me in a cell in the prison near Pilate’s palace. There were two robbers already in the cell, but I didn’t tell them much, just that I had been charged with murder and insurrection. The blood on my tunic confirmed my story and they didn’t ask questions. They were both pretty sure we would all be crucified in a few days.
There was a small opening in the cell to the outside and we could tell if it was day or night only by the light it allowed in. After a few days, we heard through the opening what sounded like a screaming mob, though we couldn’t tell what they were yelling about. We could pick out a few words, like blasphemy and king, and we wondered if the crowd was charging Pilate with blasphemy. And then the crowd began chanting, “Crucify him!” They definitely had it in for somebody.
All of the sudden, we heard, “Barabbas!” Why were they yelling my name? I was a nobody. Who even knew I was here? Everyone I cared about was dead. Did this mob want me dead? That I would die was a foregone conclusion in my mind, but I couldn’t understand why an angry mob knew I existed, let alone cared enough about me dead or alive to be yelling my name in the courts of Pilate.
Soon our cell door opened for the first time since I had entered and the Roman guards instructed us to come out. We all knew this was what we had been waiting for, our day to die. One of my cellmates started yelling obscenities at the guards and was rewarded with a hard slap. On the face of the other, I thought I saw tears. We were led down a corridor and into a small courtyard where they were flogging a man. Crosses leaned against the far wall and the whole place smelled of death.
A centurion came over and looked at the three of us. “You. You’re Barabbas?”
“If you say so.”
“Come with me.”
He led me out a side door into a small room and motioned to the guard to unshackle my hands and feet. I must have been staring dumbfounded when the centurion said, “You’re free to go. Your people decided they wanted to kill the man you saw being flogged worse than you. It’s Passover, right? Pilate lets one of you go and you’re the lucky one this year.”
The guard opened the door and I stumbled out into the street. I was hungry, not having eaten since before my house turned into a morgue, and I must have looked demon-possessed in my bloody tunic. People looked at me in shock, both at the way I looked and because I had come out of that prison free, something that never happened. I wondered who the man was that was dying in my place.
The streets were crowded. Passover—yes, it was almost time for the feast. No wonder there were so many people in Jerusalem. I sat down on a street corner having no idea what I should do. The crowds were largely in a good mood. Passover was a big deal. I remember celebrating it with my family when I was younger. Celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt now seemed hollow to me, though, since we were all slaves to the Romans. Some passersby thought I was a beggar, though, and dropped some coins in my lap. Someone even gave me a half-loaf of bread. This carried on all morning and soon I had a few days’ wages worth.
I walked to a market area and bought a new tunic, hiding my blood-soaked one in an alley. Then I walked to one of Jerusalem’s pools and washed as best as I could. It took me a while to work my fingers through my matted hair and beard. At least I didn’t garner worried looks as I passed by anymore. I used the last of the coins to buy more bread and I almost felt like a man again. While I ate, I walked aimlessly around the city. I had not been to Jerusalem in several years even though my village was only a few miles away.
When I heard the sounds of commotion, I realized I was near the way of suffering, the route condemned men walk out of the city to be crucified by the Romans. As I got closer, I saw my two former cellmates carrying their crosses. They didn’t even look up. Then a man—I assume the one being flogged earlier—was walking, stumbling, as a man behind him carried his cross. It was no wonder since he looked barely able to walk. Many in the crowd seemed upset he was being crucified and I heard them calling his name Jesus. I had heard stories of a man from Galilee called Jesus, a man many said was a prophet like in the days of old. I had heard that he did miracles. Could this be him? He looked like he needed a miracle.
I knew this must be the man the centurion said was dying instead of me today. I had heard that Pilate usually released a prisoner before the Passover, but I still didn’t understand how I was chosen. I followed the crowd a distance, blending in with the other curious onlookers. We watched as the men were nailed to crosses and raised up on that accursed hill. I didn’t know what else to do. I had no interest in watching these men die, but I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.
I stood there for hours even though the crowd started to disperse. There was nothing exciting about watching men die this way. It was long and agonizing, like everything the Romans did. I could hear some in the crowd mocking Jesus. Apparently he was the Jesus I had heard about because they were yelling something about “if he really was the son of God”. Then the sky became dark, night dark, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. This frightened some, but I was in such a surreal place that nothing would have surprised me at this point.
When they took Jesus off the cross, the barbaric Romans broke the legs of my two former cellmates. Apparently they weren’t dying fast enough for their tastes. I continued to stand there and may have until I was dead like them, had not someone come up to me and said, “Who was that man?”
“They called him Jesus,” I replied.
“Did you know him?”
“Not really. Did you?”
“I was made to carry his cross.”
I turned and looked at the man. It was him.
“I’m Simon. It will be the Sabbath soon. Do you have a place to stay?”
“No. No, I do not.”
“I have room. Come with me.”
And that’s how I got here tonight. Maybe someday I’ll understand why this Jesus died instead of me, but for now I’m thankful for your hospitality, Simon of Cyrene, and for the rest of you for listening to my story.