Paradise Promised

Choices.  When had I started to make such wrong choices?  But even as I ask that question I realize that it did not begin with one defining moment—one momentous hour when I chose to go the wrong way, but a slow turning away from what I knew to be true and right.

Certainly I could have placed the blame on others: a harlot mother, a derelict father.  Or, I could blame the injustices which had made my life difficult early on: prejudices against me because of the sins of my parents.  But now I know—the choices I made were my choices and no one else’s!  And even though my life was tainted by bad examples and evil actions, God had placed just as many good influences in my path: the gentle, old sage who took the time to know me—know me for who I really am, or was—and tried to keep me on the straight and narrow; the widow woman next door, who took me in when life at home was too difficult.

All through those years, my life lay in the balance.  The wicked and the righteous way lay before me, and my steps faltered between the two. When I became a man, I wandered back and forth between those two paths.  For a time, my way was nearly pleasant: work was plentiful, I found my lodgings suitable, my past was forgotten.  But then the old acquaintances would reenter my life, reminding me of all the pleasures that this evil world could offer—temptations of the sweet fruits of sinful lusts, and I would fall in with them again.  Soon, the righteous way was a dim memory, and in its place wickedness abounded.

During that dark time, one incident shines forth like the brightness of the morning sun.  One face illuminated my way with the glory of heaven. As I walked the streets with my band of thieves, we came across a curious scene.  The Jewish leaders had gathered in the way, hotly disputing the crimes of a woman—a woman whom they had caught in the act of adultery.

We stopped, curious to see what would happen, thirsty for blood. We all knew her fate.  But then the Master spoke to them.  Their hands held stones, ready to do their deadly deeds, but His words stopped them.

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

I watched in amazement as my old sage was the first to drop his stone. My heart was stirred by the Master’s words as well as His countenance. One by one, they all left and we strained to hear His words to the woman, but all that drifted to my heart, as though directed by God Himself was this: “Go and sin no more.”

I stood transfixed, my heart aching and my pulse racing.  I wanted to go to Him, but someone pulled at my cloak and mocked my expression of guilt. The whole scene unnerved me.  For days, that face haunted my waking moments and my sleepless nights, and the others jeered at my softness. Jannes, our leader, didn’t seem to trust me after that and was always putting me to the test, and soon the incident was forgotten.  The pride in me directed all that I did, and what heart was left in me only yearned to be trusted once again. As time passed, the need to keep ahead of the law kept us moving throughout the land.  We stayed mostly to the south and crept into the towns when our supplies ran low or we grew bored.  Jannes was always restless, looking for the next big pocket or more sensational thrill.

It was the time of the Passover, the best time to be in Jerusalem as a thief.  So many new faces flooded the area that the authorities had their hands full.  We had been in the city a few days when the trouble started.  We had heard that a man had been taken by the priests and was now in the prison. I could see that Jannes had a plan.  His eyes glinted and his mouth curled into a cruel smile.  Then he looked at me.  I’m not sure what I saw there but later, I would remember that look!

“With all the pilgrims in Jerusalem, the coffers of the Temple will be full and ready for us to empty, and the priests will be busy with this blasphemer.”

I looked at him incredulously, “Steal from the Temple?” As soon as the words were out, I knew I should have stayed quiet.

“Yes, and you will do it,” he commanded, as though challenging me.

I knew not to argue.  I had come too far; I would not betray his trust. Our eyes locked, and I nodded.

He laid out the plan. It seemed easy enough and actually very clever. “There shouldn’t be anyone near the treasury during the trial before the pompous priests.  They’re so agitated by this Man, they will be blinded to us,” he explained.

He was right.  My mind went back to the Master—the One they had arrested.  Surely, it was all a mistake.  For the first time in a year, His face once again haunted my mind:  His eyes so full of compassion; His hands outstretched to the sinful woman. What if He truly was the Son of God as some had said?  Those times during my youth with the old sage came back to me, and I remembered his yearning to see the Messiah return.  Could the Master be the Messiah?  My thoughts were cut short when Jannes asked me something.

As I refocused, I wondered if I could break from this life and start over once again.  Often I had thought to do so, but my heart and hands were so filthy with evil acts that it would not be possible.  I would hang for my deeds or rot in prison, and I didn’t want to pay the price. Jannes looked for my answer.  “Yes, I understand.  I can do it.”

It was a simple plan: go into the temple as a worshiper when the crowds filled the place.  Jannes would make a disturbance while I took the coins.  It all would have worked if only my old friend hadn’t recognized me.  Just as I had the coins in my bag, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“My son, have you gone so low that you would steal from God?”  His gentle words cut me to the quick!  I turned to face him wanting to speak but having nothing to say.  My heart was in my throat as I looked into his eyes, and I was just about to speak when Jannes was there behind him.  Before I could warn him, Jannes sunk his knife into his side, watching me for my reaction, as though it brought him a thrill to see me suffer.

As the old man slumped to the floor, Jannes took the money and ran.  “Rabbi,” I cried, reaching for him as he lay on the floor.  His eyes fluttered open, and he looked into my eyes as his life blood soaked my hands.

“Look to the Master, son.  Only He can save your soul.”  His eyes pierced my spirit and my heart was ripped into a thousand pieces.

“No,” I cried.  “Please don’t die!”  But he was gone.

It was over.  I was to hang on a tree, like the common thief that I was!  I would pay for the crimes I had done as well as for those that Jannes had pinned on me: murder.  It seemed as though I was watching someone else’s life as they led me to Golgotha, until they drove the nails into my hands and feet.  Then the shocking reality raced across my mind as the pain seared through every nerve in my body.  I would be dead by nightfall, facing my Maker, and the thought nearly drove me mad.  Another thief was there as well and he cursed the day. They gave us gall to numb the pain, but could anything numb my broken heart?

The day was half spent when another was brought to the hill and placed between us.  I watched as they laid his mangled body on His cross.  What had He done to be so beaten and whipped?  In all our wicked deeds, I had never seen a body so broken!  And when they nailed Him to the cross, he never opened His mouth!  He never said a word!

As the cross was swung into place, I recalled the pain and agony of my own cross, and yet He still uttered not a word.   I watched in wonder, hearing the angry words of the chief priests arguing with Pilate.  It had to do with the inscription above His head. As the wind tore at it, the words came into focus: This is the King of the Jews.  That’s when I knew who He was—the Master!

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  His voice was low, barely above a whisper and edged with such compassion, but I heard it over the mocking jeers of the crowd below. Angry voices shouted at him on every side, mixing with the agonizing cries of His followers.  Even the other thief was mocking Him.  Some soldiers gambled for His garments while others stood by speaking casually to one another as though it was just another ordinary day!

I looked at Him there, at the thorns driven into his bleeding head, His mangled face where someone had torn away his beard and a hand had struck Him.  Blood was crusted to His body where it had oozed from more stripes than I could imagine!  Why?  Why had this been done to Him?  As though in answer to my question, the words of my old sage thundered in my head:  Look to the Master, son.  Only He can save your soul!

I rebuked the words of the other crucified one and turned my gaze upon Him, afraid to speak and yet unable to keep silent.  “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,” I cried, unable to say any more.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, He turned and looked at me.  As the life was draining out of Him, His eyes brightened beneath the pain.  His lips, though parched and cracked, uttered these words: “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Then I saw and understood that the pain in His heart was far greater than any pain placed upon Him at the hands of cruel men.  I saw my sin there upon Him, gone from my soul.  I was free, and for one fleeting moment, the joy of my release was all that I could see.  But then I realized: He was there for me—for my sins: every stripe, every thorn, every nail, every blow, every curse.  He was paying the price for my ransomed soul!

I died that day with Jesus.  I came to the cross to pay for my guilty deeds of the flesh but unable to pay for the crimes against God, and I left that cross a free soul!  I cannot tell you the rest, watching the darkness settle across the land, as though the Hand of the Father God covered that awful place.  The terror of it all would have been worse than the sufferings of the cross had it not been for my freedom.

When I heard Him say, “It is finished,” I could only watch in wonder as He looked my way once more and breathed His last breath.  Once again, like the runner as he crosses the finish line, I saw a joy unspeakable in His eyes because He had paid the price in full!  Victory was in His hand and He was going Home, and I would follow Him soon—very soon!

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