Eternal Reflection – “The Witness”: A Short Story by Pastor Carl W. Mann, II Based on the Centurion’s Perspective
Matthew 19:25-26 (KJV) “When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
“Were you There,” you ask? Was I There?! Yes, I was There! Why do you ask? I mean, why do you ask me? After what I witnessed, something tells me – we were ALL There!
I was born in a world that was troubled and tiresome. Being born of Anatolian descent, privileged to be a Roman citizen, and reflecting my father’s massive build and strength, only promoted the purpose for which I was created.
My father was a stone mason who evidenced the physique of one who worked with stone. The muscles in his arms, back, chest, and legs were massive. His hands were calloused and coarse, yet his touch was comfortingly tender. I was always fascinated with how he could handle the rough-hewn stones with such deliberate determination yet grasp my young hand with a tempered tenderness that made me feel both secure and special.
I loved to roam the honeycombed hills of my homeland. The landscape reminded me more of what I imagined the surface of the Moon to be; for, surely as I looked on the Moon at night, it resembled my homeland. Many of our homes were carved in rocks, and the towering boulders that scattered the landscape presented a beauty that was otherworldly. I was a dreamer.
While I loved my father, I did not desire to remain with him in working with stone. When the opportunity for me to enlist in the Roman army arose, I quickly availed myself of it. After all, this would be my chance to see “the world,” perhaps. My father reluctantly sent me off. He challenged me to make sure I always tempered my strength with a sensitive touch. You can only imagine how difficult that would be for a Roman soldier! Nonetheless, I remembered my father’s challenge.
I excelled in my role as a soldier of Rome! My size and strength boded well for me. When Tiberius ordered us to join the Judean ranks to supplement the need to squelch the Jewish uprisings, I gladly made the transition. I looked upon my new assignment as a welcome relief. Having become battle-hardened through my 20 years of service, I viewed serving under the jurisdiction of Pontius Pilate as a vacation compared to where I’d been.
I wish my father had lived long enough to see me elevated to the stature of Centurion. Although I hadn’t forgotten his challenge, being an “agent of death” brought experiences that seemed to overshadow and harden my heart. I had few opportunities to handle people with a “tender touch,” and the ability to do so seemed to disappear a long time ago.
I had few friends. One of my closest was another Centurion; for, we were taught, and encouraged, to only fraternize with those who were our peers – NEVER our subordinates. He was an interesting guy. While I was a dreamer when I was young, he still was! What I mean by being a “dreamer,” is that as the landscape in which I was raised seemed to be more “otherworldly,” making it easier to keep my imagination active while I lived there, my friend was able to do so in the barren, seemingly “God-forsaken” Judean land.
He was particularly intrigued by a local Jewish Rabbi by the name of Jesus. It seemed that this Rabbi had the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out devils, and speak with an authority that was “otherworldly.” My friend had been stationed under Pilate’s governorship for a good while. He had his family with him, owned a home, and even had his own slaves.
He told me that one of his slaves, he called them “servants” because he considered them part of his family, became seriously ill. In fact, my friend was concerned that his slave was going to die! So, my friend told me, he went to the area he heard that Jesus was last seen to see if Jesus could help him. Sure enough, my friend said that he met Jesus coming down the road. Of course, Jesus being a Jew, stopped when He saw my friend with a squad of his soldiers approaching.
My friend told Jesus who he was, and said he told Jesus that he believed He had the authority to heal his slave. When Jesus offered to go with my friend to his house, my friend told Jesus that his soldiers obeyed his commands; therefore, he believed that the “spirits of sickness” would obey the commands of Jesus.
I have to admit, when my friend was telling me this, I thought, “Yea, right! I thought you were smarter than that!”
My friend said Jesus told him to go home and “see” what he believed. So, when he returned home he found his slave healed and going about his day like nothing had ever been wrong!
Now, everything my friend told me was fascinating, BUT what really got my attention is when he told me he called Jesus “Lord.”
It’s important for you to understand that my friend was the only man in my unit that I was not strong enough to out-wrestle. He was stronger than me and was a man I looked up to. In fact, he reminded me of my father because he was strong, big-built, with calloused and coarse hands. I was with him once when we were surrounded by children in the market place. I would have quickly sent them on their way, but my friend reached out to several of the children and began to pat them on their heads. I was reminded of my father when I saw how tenderly my friend touched them.
I asked, “You called Jesus Lord?” “I mean, we have no lord, or king, but Caesar! Why would you call Jesus Lord, for God’s sake?!”
I’ll never forget his response – “That’s exactly the reason! I believe He is the Son of God.”
When my friend told me that, I honestly thought he had lost touch with reality! Nonetheless, he was my friend who had saved my life in battle more than once, so I just logged his words in my mind and decided to humor him with a feigned nod of understanding.
After this conversation with my friend, I also became intrigued with Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi, who my friend believed was the Son of God. Because of the crowds His presence seemed to gather, I dispatched squads of my soldiers to “watch over” the people to squelch any disturbance that might arise. Governor Pilate was adamant about keeping the peace in Jerusalem!
You asked me, “Were you There?” That question started this whole conversation. Yes, I was “There!” Before I tell you about that, however, I must tell you that I lost my friend before I got “There.” About two weeks before I got “There,” another Jewish uprising took place. I was called upon to send two of my squads to join two squads of my friend. When the fighting was over, I discovered that my friend had been killed. It is reported that he jumped between a flying spear and a young child that was not part of the rioting. His soldiers said that he picked the child up and became the child’s shield. I miss my friend.
We caught the one that threw the spear, and I couldn’t wait to participate in his crucifixion! I asked to be the Centurion-in-Charge of the execution. I wasn’t about to miss that opportunity! I wanted to be able to witness his pain as my men drove the nails in his hands and feet. I wanted to stand under him as he hung on the cross and make sure that his torture lasted as long as possible! It wasn’t going to be the first execution I carried out, BUT, I intended for it to be the most memorable one. The name of my friend’s murderer is Barabbas.
Barabbas – he was all I could think about for approximately one week after he had killed my friend. I was at his trial when Pontius Pilate heard my friend’s soldiers bear witness against Barabbas. Of course, this was merely a formality; for, all it took for a Jew to be executed, was for a Roman citizen to state that he had committed a capital crime. That was one of the reasons that the Jews feared us!
I wanted those soldiers to give their testimonies because I desired that Pilate would hate Barabbas as much as I did. I also wanted to make sure that Barabbas would be given his death sentence that I was only so happy to be able to carry out!
Barabbas never admitted that he participated in the uprising, and he surely did not admit that he threw the spear that killed my friend. He just stood in his place as the accused and kept laughing as the soldiers gave their testimony as to how Barabbas killed my friend, and how my friend gave his life to save that child. Barabbas laughed!! If it wouldn’t have brought shame upon myself and my men, I would have given way to the tears that were pushing to flood my eyes. I did find it interesting though, I hadn’t felt the need to cry for a very long time. I looked down at my calloused, course hands and remembered my father’s challenge.
I only had approximately one week to allow my friend’s passing to consume my thoughts. The Jewish Passover was approaching, and we always had to beef up the cadre of peacekeeping squads during the “Week of Passover.” This was one Passover I would never forget!
The week leading up to “There,” began with one of the funniest parades I’d ever witnessed.
The multitude of Jewish pilgrims began to fill Jerusalem’s inns, houses, streets, and hillsides. On the first day of the week, we were summoned to what the Jews called “The Golden Gate,” because it was announced that a conquering king was about to enter Jerusalem. I quickly commanded my men to prepare for battle at the Golden Gate.
I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw what was happening. The street leading up to the Golden Gate was lined with cheering Jews who were waving palm branches and shouting out, “Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that comes in the name of the Lord!” When I heard them crying out, “Hosanna,” I grabbed one of the Jewish leaders I recognized and asked him what “Hosanna” meant. He said it meant, “Oh, Save Us!”
After hearing this, I urged my men into a run because I assumed that a military leader was entering the city with his army. When I saw what I saw, I halted my men’s charge and stood there in wonderment. I thought, “This is NOT a conquering king entering Jerusalem! This is nothing more than some “savior-want-to-be” that was enjoying his moment!
I told my soldiers to “stand down” and occupy their positions behind the multitude. I participated in parades of conquering kings and generals. I had NEVER seen a conquering king riding on the back of a donkey!! That poor colt looked hardly big enough to carry the man that was riding him, and the colt was being led by its mother! “This is NOT a conquering savior entering the city,” I thought!
I stood so I could see this “savior” more clearly. When the man approached, and passed, a group of people, they cried out more loudly. I was particularly struck by the fact that he was not waving at the people encouraging them to shout out. He kept looking at them, as if he were looking at each of them, and into them. He raised his hand much like I’ve seen Jewish leaders lift their hands when they prayed in the streets. It was if he was pronouncing a blessing upon them.
I noticed his hand – it was calloused and coarse. I wondered if he had a tender touch. His hands looked very similar to my father’s. I thought, “Hmm, I wonder if he worked with stone?”
He looked my way, and we looked at one another. Now, I’ve seen determination etched on the faces of many men before; but, there was such a deliberation upon his countenance, I was struck with an uncommon sense of awe. I’ve never been intimidated by any man in my life. BUT, there was something “otherworldly” about this “donkey-rider’s,” gaze that struck the core of my heart. I’ve faced many men in battle circumstances, and I’ve looked in their eyes as we embraced in mortal combat; but, I’ve never seen such an expression of focused strength!
While I did not fear this man, from the expression on his face, I was thankful that I was not called upon to attempt to fight him. There was no evidence of defiance in his demeanor, but it was easy to see he had entered Jerusalem with a mission and he wasn’t going to let anyone, or anything, stop him from completing it. I had the strange awareness that this man was not going to lose any battle soon. I was glad we were not enemies.
When the “donkey-rider” looked at me, I noticed something else – while his face exhibited a stern determination, his eyes projected tenderness, sorrow, love, and victory all at the same time. I was quickly struck with the awareness that this was no ordinary man. In fact, his reception was very much that of a conquering king; but his demeanor was that of a humble shepherd. I’d met many shepherds in Judea, but none of them had such a confident air.
I asked one of the men standing by me, “Who is this man?” My question was more of a command than an inquiry. Because of the recent loss of my friend, the man’s response struck a chord in my heart. The man replied, “His name is Jesus, Centurion. He is Jesus from Nazareth.”
I couldn’t believe it! I was looking on the face of my friend’s “Lord.” It made me miss my friend even more.
I stepped back to regain my advantaged position to give orders to my men. I was consumed with what my friend had told me about this Jesus. I glanced back one more time to see the parade. Jesus was about to turn a corner on the street. He looked back my way and nodded slightly as we locked eyes. Was his nod a sign of respect, a gesture of approval, a warning, or incidental? I didn’t know, but I did sense that this would not be the last time we encountered one another!
I returned to my quarters after my encounter with Jesus as he rode his donkey into the city. While the memory of his gaze remained in my mind, it was not long before I became consumed with my desire to exact revenge on Barabbas for killing my friend. The execution was scheduled to take place in two days. I couldn’t wait!
I handpicked the soldiers who would accompany me to execute Barabbas. They were the most ruthless, ardent soldiers in my company. While they were not my friends, they were loyal soldiers of Rome, and they respected my authority as their Centurion. They would jump off a cliff if I ordered them to! I had something very special planned to avail myself of their obedience and meanness – exact revenge for a friend!
The first statement I gave to these men was this, “You are being given a great privilege to not only do a service for King Caesar and Governor Pilate, but you will gain my undying gratitude by making sure that the man who killed my friend dies the most miserable death possible. Do your job correctly, and it is all right if you enjoy it in the process!”
Knowing that my father’s challenge of giving a “tender touch” amid my strength might rise up on the day of execution, I gave them an irreversible order – “There will be three men executed. I want you to vent all you anger, all your hatred, and all the spite you hold toward the Jews on the one that will be crucified in the middle of the other two. Even if I decide to give you the order to shorten his agony or ease up on his torture, do NOT obey me. He MUST die in the most excruciating manner possible!”
I knew I had chosen the right ones to carry out my orders. I had never seen such hatred and glee projected in men’s eyes as I did in my soldiers’ eyes after they heard my command. I was eager for them to spend some time with Barabbas.
The Religious – Political climate became increasingly volatile as the day of execution approached. My quarters were located near the High Priest’s Palace and I saw the flow of visitors to Caiaphas intensified. I was particularly interested when a solitary figure entered furtively two nights before the execution. I’ve seen traitors before, and this man had every mannerism of being a traitor. But, I didn’t bother myself with this – I had my mind on Barabbas.
The day before the execution arrived, and I felt exhilarated that my friend’s murder was finally going to be avenged! Everything was going as planned. I went down to the prison and had what I thought were some of my final words with Barabbas. I looked him in the eye and told him how satisfied I was going to be to see that his crucifixion was the most horrific of all I’d ever witnessed. He was unrepentant – that only whetted my appetite for revenge!
“Execution Eve” was different than I’d anticipated. Instead of being able to enjoy a quiet meal with my men, Governor Pilate summoned me to send extra guards to the High Priest’s Palace. It seemed that there was an uprising about to take place.
I decided to accompany my men. The “Traitor!” He returned to the High Priest’s Palace! After about 15 minutes, the “Traitor” and a group of the High Priest’s guards left quickly with an apparently urgent mission. Once again, I was glad I didn’t have to entangle myself with the Jewish problems.
After approximately one hour, the group returned. There he was – Jesus of Nazareth was in the middle of the guards, and they were delivering him as a prisoner to Caiaphas. Once again, I turned my thoughts to the execution of Barabbas. It was the only comfort I had at the time.
The Day of Execution arrived! I gathered my “special squad” and reiterated my orders and sent them off to Pilate’s Palace to be ready to exact my revenge.
I went to Pilate’s Hall as well. When I got there, there was such a commotion going on that I immediately sent for reinforcements to surround the mob of Jews that had gathered outside the Hall. There he was again – Jesus of Nazareth was standing behind Pilate! What?! Pilate sent Jesus back to the prison to be scourged! I had never felt so sorry for any prisoner who was going to be scourged before, BUT it was my men who were placed to exact any “extra punishment” that Barabbas would be given. They would be the ones to “handle” Jesus!
About one hour later, Jesus was returned and stood behind Pilate as he addressed the mob. Poor guy, Jesus had the same look of determination on his face, and my men had done their job exactly as I ordered. They dressed him in a robe and a crown of thorns to make him look like a king. I had told them that Barabbas needed to “feel” the part of being a leader!
I thought Jesus was going to be released. I’d never heard Pilate say, “I find no fault in this man” before with any other prisoner. What I heard next nearly drove me to my knees. Pilate offered to release any prisoner the people chose in honor of the Passover. I just knew they would choose Jesus; for, I saw many of the same faces who welcomed him into Jerusalem the other day, standing in the mob. They began to chant, “Barabbas! Barabbas! Barabbas!”
I wanted to cry out, “NO!!!!! Don’t release Barabbas! He killed my friend. I don’t know much about Jesus, but he didn’t kill my friend! AND my friend believed he was the Son of God!”
I’ll NEVER forget what the people said when Pilate asked them what they wanted him to do with Jesus. Their chant still resounds in my spirit – “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!”
When I first saw Jesus of Nazareth riding the donkey’s colt into Jerusalem, I didn’t dream that he would be the “Man in the Middle” on Golgotha’s Hill. AND, there was nothing I could do to alleviate his pain; for, I’d already ordered my men to dismiss any change in orders concerning the execution of the “Man in the Middle.”
While I couldn’t do anything to interfere with the torment my men were exacting on Jesus, who had taken the place of Barabbas, I did step in to help him carry his cross to Golgotha. He was having difficulty carrying the cross beam, so I ordered one of the by-standers to carry it for him. Jesus looked at me again and gave the same nod that he had done when he looked back while riding the donkey. His gaze and nod seemed to express, “Thank you for helping me accomplish this.”
When we arrived at Golgotha, I was amazed to see the large crowd of Jewish leaders that had already gathered awaiting the arrival of Jesus. I ordered my men to push the crowd back.
My men did their job exquisitely! How I wished I had not ordered them to be so harsh. Barabbas! Vengeance should have been meted out on Barabbas – NOT Jesus! I wanted to hunt Barabbas down, BUT Pilate had pardoned him. I would be the criminal if I killed him for murdering my friend! “What a twist of fate,” I thought!
I locked eyes with Jesus as my men drove the nails in his hands. Once again, I saw such great determination and tenderness. He neither cried out when they struck the nails, nor did he ask for mercy. With his arms stretched out and his hands turned outward, I could see how calloused and coarse they were, yet I sensed he had a tender touch. He evidenced it when he said, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing!”
The two criminals who were executed with Jesus joined the crowd in taunting Jesus. After approximately one and one-half hours, one of the criminals seemed to “come to himself,” and was repentant. I heard him say to his friend, “We deserve to be here, but this man is innocent.” Some of the Jewish leaders laughed when they heard this, but I didn’t. What he said next struck me deeply in my heart. He said, “LORD, please remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” The thief called Jesus the same thing my friend did – he called him, “Lord!”
I listened closely as Jesus responded with, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” I wondered if my friend was in Paradise. My friend believed in life after death – I did NOT! While I was thinking about this, suddenly a strange darkness appeared. It was like the time of day of speeded up and nightfall had come. BUT, this was different than the night. It was as if the gods were angry and attempted to hide what was being done on Golgotha. This darkness lasted from around noon to three in the afternoon. It was so strange!
At approximately 3:00 p.m., I could tell that Jesus wasn’t going to live much longer. My men had done their job perfectly! Jesus was struggling to get his breath. He lifted himself, so he could get some air, then he spoke his last words, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” Jesus died immediately after saying this.
Immediately after Jesus spoke, an eerie earthquake sounded throughout the countryside! It happened so quickly that I was certain that his Father not only heard his cry, but he answered with a sign that what Jesus just did had shaken all of creation! This convinced me. My friend was correct! I heard myself say, “Surely, this is the Son of God!”
Yes!! I was “There!” When the earth shook, I was convinced that all creation was “There!” Jesus took the place of my friend’s murderer. After hearing Jesus say, “Father forgive them,” seeing the darkness, and feeling the earth convulse with the death of Jesus, I came to understand that Jesus had taken my place on the Cross as well.
I was sorrowful for three days! I assigned my men to stand guard over the tomb of Jesus. Pilate ordered me to send some men. After all, they crucified him, it was only fitting that they would keep watch. There was no way they would let anyone enter that tomb and steal the body of Jesus!!!
I heard another earthquake as the sun was rising on the third day after Jesus was placed in the tomb. What do you know?! His body was no longer in the tomb!! The Jews reported that his followers came and stole his body. I could only laugh!! There was no way my men would let that happen!!
Surely Jesus is the Son of God, and I’m going to believe in Him and follow Him! Yes, I was “There!” I still am!!