Wednesday, 04 April 2012
Jesus’ manner of life and teaching among people throughout Palestine was absolutely astounding. The temple officers, charged by the Jewish rulers with the duty of arresting and bringing Jesus back to the temple courts, instead returned empty handed.
The explanation for failing their assigned task? "No one has ever spoken like that man!" And so it was throughout Jesus’ ministry.However, it is not in the living, but in the dyingthat the true mettle of a person is often understood. Many a man who appears to have lived well, has fallen apart at the prospect of his own demise. Longinus,* the Roman Centurion charged with carrying out Jesus’ execution knew this only too well.
As a seasoned veteran of many campaigns and battles in the Roman army, he had had his fill of suffering and death even in this troublesome province of Palestine. Anticipating trouble from the Jews during the Passover Feast, Pontius Pilate who was Palestine’s governor, almost always traveled up to Jerusalem from regional headquarters in Ceasarea, escorted by a cohort consisting of 480 soldiers. Longinus, with four or five other Centurions and their men, comprised this contingent of troops charged with reinforcing the cohort already permanently installed at Jerusalem since its subjugation.
Though the common people of Palestine rarely saw the top brass of Rome, they became acutely aware of its policy on a daily basis: a policy of pain, suffering and death designed to always keep them in line. It was the Centurions and their troops -- the ‘gears and cogs’ of Roman strategy who became the all too familiar face of Rome in a conquered land.
It was up to Longinus and his Roman comrades to see that everything flowed in a smooth and orderly way -- even the business of torture and death!There could be no slip ups–no mistakes or miscalculations. It was theywho made the will of Rome happen on the dusty streets and roads of Jerusalem and Judea. Even the cantankerous, stubborn and ever rebellious people of this god forsaken land had quickly learned not to trifle with the Roman Centurions and their men. They obviously knew their craft well!Longinus and his troops were at the palace early in the morning when King Herod had returned to Pilate, a young Jewish Rabbi who had been arrested the previous evening for treason. Plautius, the Centurion charged with Jesus’ arrest and transport to the various hearings, reported to Longinus the highlights of the previous night’s events before surrendering the Nazarene into his care. To Plautius, aside from the fact that these series of inquests had occurred in the dead of night and Jesus’ Jewish accusers, mainly members of the religious establishment, had been contentious, tedious and inconsistent; the proceedings were for the most part routine.
Throughout the night, the capitol charges brought against this man were in constant flux, changing from moment to moment. Many of them were outlandish and obviously false, based upon violations of many obscure and inane interpretations of the so-called divine law of their god. Others were of a more serious nature. In their initial appearance before Pilate, the chief priests and elders charged Jesus of inciting the Palestinians to rebellion and a refusal to pay Rome its taxes. In addition they asserted that Jesus claimed to be a king in opposition to Caesar.
Plautius noted Jesus’ complete indifference toward any of the allegations except those dealing with treason and his claim to kingship. To Plautius’ amazement, the few responses Jesus did offer were equally deliberate and damning: “Yes, I am a king. For this I was born.To this end I came into the world.” Unlike any others he had ever seen facing the real threat of death,with their sniveling pleas and eager excuses, this man remained cool, calm and obviously confident -- clearly in total control as if he was not only awareof what was to come, but in fact, was arranging its final conclusion as well.
The one thing that had caught Plautius completely off guard was Jesus’ affirmative response to the oft repeated question; “Are you the Son of God?” Jesus’ answer had elicited an involuntary gasp from Plautius when at first he had heard it. Wasn’t he aware that Caesar alonelaid claim to this divine title?!
Plautius’ parting remarks to Longinus were dark, ominous and ultimately prophetic. “Mark my words—though this man is by no means a criminal worthy of death, by his own admission to being the Son of God, he has placed his neck in the noose and before the day is done, he will be without the city lifted upon a stake, and you will be presiding over his execution. By the gods; Mark these words, my friend;Fare you well.” And with that, he was gone.
Longinus returned to the temporary quarters of Pilate where some of his men had already relieved Plautius’ detachment of soldiers guarding the young cleric from Galilee. Longinus positioned himself at the doorway of the palace so that from its vantage point, he could witness both Pilate’s negotiations on the porch withthe Jewish leaders outside while keeping an eye upon the bound Jesus who was located across the great hall within.
He listened intently to the contentious haggling going on without while his trained eye scrutinized the prisoner who stood -- if that is what it could be called -- among the legionnaire’s company of men. It was obvious to him that along with the rigors of a sleepless night in endless questioning, this rabbi’s sweaty sagging body had been exposed to numerous beatings and other humiliating abuses of varying degrees. Jesus was barely able to peer out from his severely swollen eyes while the rest of his face and body were extensively marked with cuts, abrasions, bruises and welts. Longinus instinctively knew this man’s ordeal was far from over.
*All Roman Centurions obviously had names. I have chosen to use the name 'Longinus', the name traditionally associated with the Centurion at the crucifixion of Jesus. After our Lord's death, he reputedly returned to his home in Capadocia to preach about Jesus and was later beheaded for his faith.
Have you know anyone who demonstrated strength of character in the face of death? In what ways was this strength manifested? To what do you attribute this courage and strength? Were there any qualities in the Roman soldiers that might be considered admirable? What ones come to mind?