A Story for Easter and beyond.
The Jewish month Nisan, Day 10, AD 33.
Onesimus watches as a huge crowd lines the narrow streets of Jerusalem carrying palm branches torn from nearby trees. The blue, cloudless sky seems a perfect backdrop for swaying hands and anxious hearts. No pleasure for a thirteen-year old boy, but he tolerates their mirth. He mindlessly walks down the street atop a few palms lain prematurely along the path.
“Get off!” They scream at him. “Get off these sacred palms.” He bends and scurries underneath several elbows among the tightly packed Israelites and makes his way to the back of the crowd. “What’s all the fuss?” he says to no one in particular.
“It’s Jesus! The one who raised Lazarus from the dead. He’s the Christ we’ve awaited.” He looks at the old woman who answered him, but she’s already turned. A gold hoop earring falls from her ear and Onesimus snatches it and walks away.
He plods slowly through the crowd, examining the earring before tucking it into his tunic. He’d heard of Jesus. Who hadn’t in Jerusalem these days. The thing that made Jesus special for Onesimus was not that Jesus had raised Lazarus, though that was pretty amazing. Or even that He’d healed many people, including his uncle Caipa, born with a withered hand, who now worked alongside his dad for their master. No, the thing that made Jesus different from others claiming to be the Messiah, the long-awaited King of the Jews, was that he seemed to really love these people. He had actually touched lepers and a woman who was bleeding! Strictly against their law. They can’t let him get away with that, can they? Yet now they declare him their Christ, a King. It’s confusing.
Suddenly, cheering and clapping erupt. “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Again and again. “Blessed is the King of Israel!”
He pushes through the crowd, to the end of the line of people, where he can easily walk into the street. Looking back, he sees a human tunnel. He runs down the left side and stops midway. A man on a donkey, surrounded by a dozen or so other men, slowly moves through the street amid the adoring crowd. Palms are thrust in front of him, some people bow, others reach out to touch him. Jesus, no doubt. He doesn’t look holy! Especially not holy enough to make palms sacred.
Slowly Jesus approaches. Until Onesimus can almost reach out and touch Him, or at least one of his disciples. They lock eyes. The donkey slows and Jesus motions to the youngster. Onesimus looks up at the tall stranger beside him before walking to Jesus. “One of these days,” Jesus practically whispers to him, “your name will be amongst the great men of faith, in a manuscript that will magnify the written Torah.” Onesimus stares at Jesus as though he’s heard an incredulous thing.
Jesus touches his hand. “I promise.” And before Onesimus can process the wonder of His words, Jesus and his disciples move on.
What did that mean? This son of a slave scratches his head, an unlikely candidate to have his name mentioned in a manuscript, especially one that magnifies the Torah, the five sacred scrolls of Moses. He laughs. I’m not even Jewish! As Jesus moves into the distance, Onesimus runs to tell his parents what the new Jewish Messiah has said.
His mother grabs his ear as he enters the kitchen. “Master Sergi has chosen the lamb for their Passover meal!” Her angry words feel like an assault. “Where have you been?”
“Ouch!” He pulls away. “What have I to do with that?”
“You must learn their traditions so you can better serve them!” Her look says, why must I keep repeating myself? “In three years they set us free,” she chides him, “according to their law. Seven years they own us, then they let us go. You know this. And if you want to work in this culture freely, you must learn their ways.”
“When they give us our freedom we can go anywhere and do anything!” Onesimus grins. “Besides, the new Jewish Messiah said my name would be written alongside the great men of faith in a manuscript.”
His mother grabs his shoulder and looks square into his eyes. “Don’t ever say anything about a Jewish Messiah in this household. Do you understand?”
She shakes his shoulder. “They are very serious about this Messiah nonsense. And they believe he will come back soon. But not this soon. That Jesus everyone talks about—He is a man, same as you.”
Onesimus looks away.
“Now act like a man and go find your father. There’s still much to do as we help prepare for the Passover feast.
“But Mother . . .”
It is no use. For weeks we’d washed and scrubbed everything in the kitchen, even inside the ovens, just in case anything had come in contact with chametz (leavened bread.) What was wrong with chametz touching something, anything in the kitchen. Last night the search for chametz began in other parts of the house, and as part of tradition, we carried a candle and a feather. Now they will dispose of the chametz in a traditional way. When I’m free I’m moving to Colossae, where Jewish rituals are scarce.
The Jewish month Nisan, Day 14
“Why must I do it Mother? Father should do it, or one of the other children. Why me?”
“Because you are the youngest of age. Last year your brother Elem did it. This year you are the most insignificant; it’s your turn to wash the feet of everyone who comes for the Passover meal.” Her hands settle on her hips and she looks at me. “The lowest class and the most insignificant, that’s who does it. This is their rule, not ours. You know this. You are very significant to me.” Her arms surround me. “You’ve been very good to help with all the preparations, Onesimus,” she says, still holding me. “Now promise me, no touching or taking anything that belongs to someone else, especially tonight.”
“Of course not, Mother!” I pull from her.
“So you’ve learned your lesson?”
“Yes.” I sigh. “You treat me like a baby.”
From the moment the parade of relatives begins, most speak of Jesus. I am actually happy with my job as I am all but unnoticed sitting at their feet with my pail and cloths, swabbing and drying, able to savor every detail.
“He upended the money-changers tables in the temple this morning,” the man I know as Uncle Bernard speaks loudly, “calling them vipers.‘ It is written,’ Jesus said, ‘My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’ Afterwards, he began teaching. Naturally everyone went to hear him after that terrible disruption.” Uncle Bernard looks down at me and winks. “Even some of the angrier old men marveled at His words. He’s something. He’s really something.”
When our owner Sergi’s father Sol arrives, he sets before me and my pail and continues the conversation. “Maybe Jesus is the Messiah.” I feel everyone’s eyes at my back. “They were trying to trick him in the temple.” Sol scans the room making sure he has captured his audience as I wash his left foot, mesmerized. “You know how the taxes are killing us all?” He sort of shrugs. “So they asked him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, knowing any answer would cause him misfortune.”
“So, what did he say?” someone asks.
“Jesus asked for a denarius.” Sol opens his palm. “When one was handed to him, he said, ‘Whose image and inscription does it have?’ They rightly replied, ‘Caesars.’ So he said, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” He laughs as they all marvel at the astuteness of the answer. “He stumped them all and they finally gave up.” He becomes solemn. “It’s quite marvelous hearing him speak, I almost wish he was the Christ.”
I dry his feet and decide that when I’m finished here I’m going to the temple to see if I can see and hear Jesus. Maybe he can help me quit stealing. Can you heal someone of that?
The Jewish Month Nisan, Day 15
It has been a long day and night. There was the foot washing and the serving. Four glasses of ritual wine. The Kiddush: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God . . . who has created the fruit of the vine . . . Blessed are you, O Lord, who has kept us alive . . .”
After the first cup of ritual wine was poured, Exodus was recited by our master. “I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” The wine was drunk.
There were the Karpas, the bitter herbs and the first dipping, followed by questions from the sons. From the youngest (the least significant) which I can relate to, to the eldest. Answered by Sergi, our owner, and Sol, his father. A long evening. I am ready for it to be over. But Mother insists this is part of our initiation: “It will teach us the Jewish way.”
There were hand washings and more wine, all ritualized, except upon entering the house, when everyone had wine. More prayers and the meal, and finally the Psalms. There will be no going to the temple tonight. I am a non-Jew anyway, and not allowed, but if I see Jesus maybe he will talk to me again. I will sleep a few hours and get there first thing in the morning.
I am up early, 4 AM, having had only three hours of rest. I cannot sleep remembering what Jesus said to me and wondering what it means. Is it possible for me, a gentile boy, to have my name in a Jewish manuscript?
Quietly, I put on my linen haluk, my leather sandals. “Where’re you going,” my brother Hadid grumbles at me before I can leave. “Shhh. Just out for a walk. To clear my head of all this Jewish stuff.”
He says something I can’t understand as I throw my tunic over my head and head out the door.
A distance away, I see two men in the darkness ahead of me. I run after them, noticing several others ahead of them, and others, here and there. “What’s going on this morning?” I ask catching up to them.
“You are Sergi Halil’s servant. What are you doing out in the middle of the night?”
I look down. “My father told me to find out what is going on this morning.”
“Tell him it is about Jesus. The Sanhedrin finally got their hands on him. No one is sure what will happen.”
“Y . . . yes,” I stammer. I will tell him.” I run across the dusty road, between two houses so they won’t see where I’ve gone, intending to make my way to the Temple.
I run until breathless, until I am at the outer courtyard where dozens of people gather. Some have built fires to keep the early morning chill away, but all are mesmerized by the scene in the inner courtyard. As I look closer, I can’t believe what is before me— Jesus. Bloodied. His hands tied behind his back. Several men in fine linen garments torment him. One with a whip, another with a thick walking stick. Some just lashing out with their hand.
I stand near the fire, not really cold, but not warm either. A woman watches a distraught, rugged-looking fellow who seems familiar. She cries out: “This man was with Jesus!”
He takes a step back. “Woman, I don’t know the man.” I watch as he weaves back through the crowd. I’m pretty sure he was the man nearest me the day Jesus spoke to me.
“Your blood soiled my tunic, Messiah! Can you make it disappear?” The men in the inner courtyard mock Jesus as they hit him, harder now. The one with the walking stick comes up behind him and hits him fierce against his back. “Prophecy, Messiah! Who struck you? Name me!” At once the tip of the whip cuts his flesh. “If you are the Son of God, where is your Father?” He winces but doesn’t cry out.
I watch in horror as Jesus is terrorized. Yet he never shrieks, never even acknowledges them with his eyes. Still, his body contorts as they whip and gash him, and I too am mesmerized by this man who could, if he wished, so eloquently defend himself, yet remains silent.
Finally, the elders, both chief priests and scribes, come out of the Temple. The Sanhedrin, they are called. My body relaxes. They motion for the men to stop beating Jesus and they lead Him inside, slowly, for he is somewhat crippled now. I run to the side of the building, knowing there must be small crevices a skinny boy like me can crawl through to hear what is being said.
There are many. Another boy is also there. He shakes his head at me and puts his finger across his lips. I nod. “No noise,” I mouth to him. But I cannot see.
“At last, Jesus,” someone says from the great council inside. They all sort of chuckle, but only for a moment. It is very tense. You don’t have to see to know. “If you are the Christ, tell us.” It is not a request, rather a demand.
“If I tell you, you will by no means believe. And if I also ask you, you will by no means answer me or let me go.” His voice is so steady, even after the beating. “Hereafter the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of the power of God.”
They begin chattering, loudly: “Are you then the Son of God?”
He answers. “You rightly say that I am.”
The voices become thunderous, indistinguishable, all speaking at once. A leader stills the clatter, “What further testimony do we need? For we have heard it from His own mouth.”
“Take him out of here,” the leader says. I hear footsteps and push closer to the cold surface of the building. The boy dashes away.
“Such blasphemy!” says the leader, and you can almost hear him shudder. “He must die.”
“Yes,” says another. “We are of the same mind. He must die.”
I back out of my space and wait with the ever-increasing gathering. After a time, we follow the Sanhedrin, Jesus in tow, to a Roman palace. As I linger with others, a man comes and tells us the governor has questioned Jesus but finds no fault with him. Yet, after discovering Jesus’ Galilean roots, he advises the council to take Jesus to Herod, who is currently and conveniently in Jerusalem.
Once again we form a procession and gain numbers; curiosity brings people into our ranks. Like the others, I have no access to Roman buildings. I linger near the steps where guards converse. After a time, a few soldiers leave. One says to the guards that Herod had been anxious to meet Jesus, hoping to see a miracle, but Jesus refused.
“He wouldn’t speak to Herod! Not one word!” The soldier enlists the guards with a raucous discussion. “Those infuriating Sanhedrin had plenty to say. Accusing him of blasphemy, not paying taxes, perverting the nation . . . “ He laughs. “As if they could be more perverted. And still, the Man wouldn’t speak.”
The guards talk amongst themselves incredulous that anyone would treat Herod with such disrespect. “So, we all surrounded Jesus, and with Herod’s blessing put a king’s robe over that sickly-looking body. They’d already beaten him well.” The guards look at each other and laugh. “We teased him, slapped him, mocked him unmercifully. The King of the Jews!” More laughter. “He never did speak. Now we’re sending him back to Pilate.”
As I am imagining the tortured Jesus in a robe, he ascends from the building, the robe flowing behind his bloodied and now bruised body. Laughter surrounds him, as soldiers prod him with the butt of their swords, pushing him faster than he is able to walk.
Jesus looks at me and I quickly turn away. Why did I do that? I am mad at myself for not showing him a hint of support. There is quite a parade as soldiers march alongside and behind Jesus, and the Sanhedrin members now trail them, chattering.
I, along with the ever-growing multitude, follow. Everyone in Jerusalem must be here! And then I think about my father and wonder if he and my brothers search for me, angry that I’m not helping. I look at the sun. It is nearing 7AM. A lot has happened since I awakened, but I cannot leave just yet.
Pilate stands on the palace’s great portico as the crowd enters the gates. Steps descend before him, pillars rise behind him. He must’ve heard the roar of the crowd or perhaps a runner told him what Herod did.
The soldiers climb the steps, with the brutalized Jesus in tow. When they get to the top they push Jesus down in front of Pilate and part like the wake of a grand ship, the Sanhedrin moving slowly through the wake. “I want everyone here,” Pilate says loudly, pointing to those around him. “Everyone in the palace, all the people who would have a say.”
No one answers. He makes a grand turn and walks inside. The air begins to feel thick and there is no breeze. More people pour into the open space, which already overflows. All murmur and bicker, mostly about the fake Messiah.
After a while Pilate returns with several men who stand well behind him. He looks out at the massive crowd, and then to the Sanhedrin. The well-heeled Jewish council stands one step down and to the right of Pilate.
Pilate looks down upon Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus looks away and doesn’t answer.
Pilate looks amazed and nods to the Sanhedrin. “You have brought this man to me as one who misleads the people. And indeed, having examined Him in your presence earlier, I have found no fault in him concerning those things of which you accuse him; no, neither did Herod, for I sent you back to him; and indeed nothing worthy of death has been done by him. I will therefore chastise Him and release Him.”
The crowd becomes enraged and roars: “Away with this Man! Away with Jesus!”
Their clamoring is relentless and I wonder why five days ago the multitude bowed and adored their returning Messiah, but now have turned on Him.
Pilate paces, posturing, and seems to marvel at Jesus’ silence in the face of the mob and his accusers. He clearly wants to release him. According to Roman tradition, one prisoner gains freedom during the Passover feast. As I ease nearer Pilate and continue observing, a messenger hands him a note. I partially hear and partially read from his lips these words: “Have nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.”
Pilate shoves the note back to the messenger, angry. “Tell my wife it is out of my hands.”
More perplexed than ever, Pilate calls out to the people, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”
“Release to us Barabbas,” the mob begins to chant. “Barabbas! Barabbas!”
Barabbas. A notorious insurrectionist and murderer.
“Barabbas! Release Barabbas.” My eyes are wide as I look across this sea of angry Israelites.
By offering up the murderous Barabbas, it seems Pilate was trying to induce the people to release Jesus. It didn’t work.
“We will scourge him,” declares the mystified governor. He calls the head of the garrison to his side and immediately scores of soldiers surround Jesus. They drag him across the portico and into a door on the left side of the praetorian. The Sanhedrin follow, and I wonder how I can gain entrance. Most everyone is outside the palace, so I run down the right side of the long portico and enter a side door. Pilate and his men walk inside and I hide behind a large urn.
“Use the flagrum,” Pilate says. “I don’t want to kill the man, but I must appease the Sanhedrin and this mob. It must look bad.” I peek around the urn and see a soldier holding a whip with several leather tails, each with a small metal ball attached. The flagrum! My hands instinctively cover my mouth. Why, I wonder, am I following this Jesus? Is it because of his prophecy to me? I maneuver around the giant urn, but can’t get past Pilate and the soldiers. A hall runs behind me. Assuring myself of my good sense of direction, I start down its wide corridors.
Carefully, I dart in and out of the ornate rooms; the grandeur almost takes my breath. Midway, I hear voices and stay down, holding in one of the rooms for what seems forever. Finally, as I dash out, a guard accosts me, grabbing onto my tunic as I twist to get away. “Trying to steal something, boy?” He laughs at my writhing.
It they think I’m stealing, I’m dead. A thought that never occurred to me. “No!” I say as genuinely as possible. “I wanted to see what they were doing to Jesus.”
“Oh, so you’re a follower.”
“No. I . . . I just wanted to see.”
“You do, do you?” He grabs my upper arm. ”You’re late to the party, but come with me.”
I walk as he holds my shoulder and we say nothing. I begin to hear laughter and cursing and the sound of metal balls boring their way into flesh. KaWhap! What a bad idea this was.
“Where are you taking me?”
“I’m giving you what you asked. What you see in this room is what I’ll do to you if I ever see you here again.”
The noises are evil to my tender ears and I wonder why I thought I wanted to see this. KaWhap!
I hear the voices clearly now, mocking Jesus, cursing. The unmistakable sound of the flagrum. “How many times will they hit him with that awful whip?” Please, no more.
“As many as it takes.” He opens the oversized wooden door, pushes me in, and stands beside me. “No one looks up. Several men, in addition to the garrison of soldiers, surround the bloody scene. Blood is everywhere, the floor, the walls, the soldiers. Most of the Sanhedrin have left.
The scene before me will keep me awake many nights. If I were free I would run as hard and as fast as possible. But, the guard’s hand is fully fixed on my shoulder, intent on teaching me a lesson no child should ever have.
Jesus is naked, his extended hands shackled so that his body is tilted toward the granite floor. I can’t imagine the pain of the position, the bracing of his body as steel balls crush across his flesh, tearing it from his frame. KaWhap! A soldier stands on either side of him, lashing the tendrils of the flagrum arc-like, down and across him, hard and fierce. A competition incites the surrounding soldiers to prod them on as they laugh and stick him with reeds and other objects. The long, many-fingered tendrils of the flagrum wrap the steel balls around his body so that his chest and testicles and legs and every part of him is brutalized. Blood oozes, along with things I do not recognize. Uncontrollable tears gush from my eyes and I try to turn away. The guard presses harder on my shoulder.
“This is what you wanted to see, right?”
I shake my head, feeling tears fly from my face with the motion.
He laughs. “They’re finishing up. Don’t be such a mother’s boy.”
Just as I realize Jesus is completely unrecognizable, the Centurion orders them to stop. “He must be alive to march in front of the crowd.”
The horror ceases. “Unshackle him,” says the Centurion. Jesus falls to the floor face first. One of the men cursing and laughing with one of his compatriots twists something in his hands. “Get up!” he yells to Jesus. A wave of motion comes from Jesus’ body, but he quickly collapses. “Pull the hoodwinker up, somebody.”
Three soldiers saturated in blood pull Jesus naked body into a sitting position. One stands behind Him, so that his leg holds up Jesus’ back. The cursing man shoves something down around Jesus’ once brown hair, and pulls his hand back cursing. Others reach in, cursing, pushing. Blood immediately flows from Jesus’ head and He blinks. My stomach feels queasy at the exact moment I realize He is now wearing a crown of thick, prickly thorns.
Dozens of soldiers surround him, laughing, cursing, covered in his healing blood. “Bring over that purple robe,” says one of them. Jesus’ eyes are partially opened. He reaches out then drops his hand. “Want something, Messiah?” one of them asks. “Can’t you make it appear?”
He healed my uncles hand!
Jesus seems somewhat paralyzed as they pull him from the floor and force the robe around him. “Stand up or I’ll spear you right where you stand,” says the bloodiest soldier. One helps Jesus stand as the others bow and laugh. “Hail, King of the Jews!”
The soldiers’ laughter is the song of demons.
The two remaining members of the Sanhedrin leave.
“Blood all over me because of you!” The soldier spits in Jesus’ face. They all begin to spit on him. They hit him again and again and he falls. They pull him up and put a reed in his hand, His scepter. One by one they walk by laughing, bowing, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
The Centurion breaks in. “Pilate should be ready for him. Walk him around.”
The guard has eased up on my shoulder. “Better to consider what you want from now on, boy.”
I nod my lowered head.
“Look at me boy.” My eyes meet his. “I better never see you again.” He stares like he is composing a mental image of my face, then shoves me away.
Free, I turn and tug as hard as I can to open the heavy wooden door. Scurrying from the room and down and off the portico, I push and shove, trying to make my way to the back of the mob of Israelites. I am panting, crying, my heart beating faster than I thought possible. People yell and slap at me as I flail past them. I lower my head, hoping to be invisible. Finally, in an opening near a large pillar, I curl into a ball, trembling. Only one old woman stares at me.
Finally, the Centurion brings Jesus to the portico. I stand, shivering as though I am cold. Jesus is stooped, completely covered in blood, the thorn crown piercing him, the robe flowing behind him. Unrecognizable. Some in the multitude gasp. I would, had I not seen the unimaginable already.
Pilate walks out, shakes his head, his hands on his waist. “Behold, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know I find no fault in Him.”
The chief priests and officers cry out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
He ignores them and speaks to the mob. “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
They speak in one voice: “Let him be crucified! Crucify Him. Crucify Him.”
“Why? What evil has he done?” Pilate seems mystified.
Tears come to my eyes and I flick them away, my hands and body shaking. Father says crucifixion is the most cruel and inhumane way to die. But what can be worse than what I saw? Short of lying to me about being in a scroll like the Torah, what has he done except heal people like my uncle.
The crowd moves toward Jesus, but Pilate’s army holds them back. “You will have your crucifixion. Stand back!” Pilate motions to a stalwart who brings him water. He pours it over his hands, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”
The people scream back: “His blood be on us and on our children.”
Pilate turns to go inside. “Release Barabbas!” He commands the soldiers. “Crucify Jesus.”
The people roar in one great resounding cheer.
No! I run from the courtyard as fast as my legs will move. I run past gates and buildings and through pastures. Past the field where Judas Iscariot hung himself three days ago and even beyond my own house, because I cannot stop running. Elem, my brother, sees and chases after me.
“Go away!” I yell back at him.
“Come home! You must come home.”
“I’m leaving. Running away. To Colossae. Where they will never find me.”
“Mother is so worried.”
“Tell her I am sorry I’m such a bad boy.” I start to cry. Talking and running has taken its toll and I stop.
We walk home, our arms about each other, me sobbing, trembling. I cannot stop. In the house, I cry as mother and father interrogate my sensibilities. I cry as I lie on my mat. I cry as my brothers ask why I am crying. Sometimes my body shakes.
“Things will never be the same,” I tell them. “People are horrible.”
“Onesimus, what has happened? Did you see what they did to Jesus?”
I am silent. Like Jesus.
Father paces, trying to decide whether to discipline me or to take me to a sanctuary. Mother implores him, “Leave him here. We don’t need him for the Seder today. Everyone is so preoccupied.”
They are now in the big house where our master lives, in front of our small abode. I had been embellishing sobs and gasps for a time, so I would not have to serve and participate in the Jewish Passover that the Messiah I now mourn celebrated.
Dark images fill my head. His skin being torn away, the cruelty of instruments made by man, of souls that are black, of hearts that do not know Him, as if I do.
But, I did. When He spoke to me, it was more than to me, but to my soul. My heart leapt as though a majestic light had filled me, given me life and every good thing. It was His light. His ways. What harm did He do?
It is easier for me because I’m not Jewish. He threatened them with His miracles and peace, and Pilate understood. Knew He was innocent but did not want Jesus’ supernatural presence to disrupt his kingdom.
I lie on my mat and close my eyes, pretending a beautiful pasture with fresh running water and lilies surrounds the house where I live in Colossae. When I open my eyes, there is black. I stand. Black. I reach out to touch the chest, a curtain, the wall. Black. I have gone blind from stealing and my lies! I stretch forth my hands as though sleepwalking and slink toward the door screaming, “Mother!”
She is in the big house. “Anyone!”
“Oh God of Israel. Forgive me for lying and for stealing. I know I’m a bad son and brother and I will stop if you’ll let me see again.” My tears start for real. “I didn’t know how to help Jesus. Perhaps if I’d been bigger or older. I’m sorry I let them take him to the cross and I left Him only because I could not watch.”
I shuffle through the menacing black unknown until I see candlelight in our master’s window. “Oh God! I’m not blind. Thank you! Thank you.” But what has happened? Have I portended agony only to find myself in a dream where darkness assails the day like the mood of my soul?
“God of Abraham!” I scream out. My Father rushes through the door holding a lantern.
“What are you screaming about?” he rightfully asks.
“I don’t know, Father. What is this blackness?”
He sets the lantern down and puts his arms around me. “Were you there today? I must know.”
I pull away from him and nod.
“Did you see him crucified?”
I shake my head and weep.
“My son, why do you cry so?” He sets on a mat and looks up at me.
“I couldn’t watch it, Father. He was my friend.”
“No one but a barbarian could watch.” His voice is gentle.
“I thought that too.” I weep into my hands.
He rises and picks up the lantern. “I must go back. I just wanted to check on you.”
“But, what time is it? What has happened, Father?”
He shakes his head. “It is noon. The world has gone black. No one understands. Nothing like this has ever happened. Perhaps they have truly crucified the Jewish Messiah. We will see. We will just wait and see.”
Rome AD 61 (28 years after the crucifixion of Christ)
Two or three and sometimes more times a week, Onesimus trudges a half mile in the seven-hilled city of Rome, along a narrow back street, to visit the dwelling where his best friend has been confined for months. The runaway slave and former thief enjoys the notoriety of his friend, a celebrity of sorts among Roman officials. Even the Praetorian guard, a body of ten thousand Roman soldiers, so powerful the emperors court their favor, are enamored.
And chained though he is, and in his own personal residence, it is far better than confinement in the shadowy, smelly, death-infused Roman prison where Onesimus and he first met. Onesimus was jailed for fighting. His friend Paul for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. A short stay for Onesimus, yet long enough for Paul of Tarsus, the revered apostle and prisoner for Christ, to convert him.
Paul’s influence was so staggering throughout the whole of Rome that eventually he’d been given special privileges. Now, people waited by his door for a private audience, a prayer, or a sermon. God’s ambassador to the Gentiles never let them down. And busy though he was, Paul always set time aside for Onesimus, whose joy was apparent to Paul, who loved him like a brother, and to the brethren who sent him.
After walking up the steep, granite steps, Onesimus knocks on Paul’s door. Obada, the guard, answers and without a word steps aside. Most of the time, Obada is only a good spit away—in the kitchen or lying across Paul’s sleeping mat—while Paul entertains dignitaries, well-wishers, Christians, and others.
As Onesimus steps into the small abode, he sees Paul gathering leather-bound scrolls in his bedroom. Parchment and pen nearby. Paul smiles upon seeing the former thief. “I’ve a list of things to be accomplished this week.” He motions him in.
Onesimus is used to Paul’s ardor. It’s one of the things he likes most about the apostle.
They hug and set upon the sleeping mat. After imprisonments, beatings, and even a stoning, Onesimus notices that Paul is beginning to look his age, though he’d never tell the beloved apostle.
“It’s a long list.” Paul rearranges the chains about his ankles for comfort. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s always long. Why would I mind? I’ve nothing more important to do.” They laugh, knowing Onesimus’ job with the brethren is to occasionally bring Paul food, enlighten him on their ministry work, and, most importantly, to bring back Paul’s messages, encouragement, chastisements, and “lists.” Whatever he has for them. Paul gets more done in two days than most of them do in a month.
Paul looks up to see that Obada is occupied in the kitchen. He lowers his voice. “Have you thought about our conversation the last time you were here, Onesimus?”
“I have.” Onesimus hangs his head. “Of course, you are correct. I must go back.” He starts to cry.
“My heart is breaking too.” Paul pats the tall man’s knee. “You’ve been such a joyful and useful companion to me for so long, I’m not sure how I’ll get on without you.”
Onesimus sniffles and turns to see if Obada listens. “A runaway slave is not much of a testimony for a Christian,” he says, rubbing his eyes. They both laugh. “I’ll miss you, but I must correct this,” says Onesimus. “For you. For Christ. For my master, Philemon. And for me. My dignity, my word, my Christianity, is at stake, and for once in my disgusting life, for Christ’s sake, I will do the right thing.”
Paul pats his knee. “I knew you would. We will talk about all the things we need to before you go. Hopefully I will be free from here soon and can visit you in Colossae at Philemon’s.”
“Paul, before I return to Philemon’s, as his slave, there is one thing I would like to ask you. I know some things are private and I hate to . . .”
“Anything you want to know, I’ll answer if I can.” The apostle extends his feet, stretching the chains.
Onesimus smiles, thankful for the friendship, the mentorship, the very heart of this giant of a man. He stutters, “I . . .I’ve been trying to justify my actions the day Jesus was crucified.” Tears well in his eyes again. “I’ve told you of my experience with Jesus, as you’ve told me yours . . .”
“You were a boy, Onesimus! I on the other hand was a man.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask about.”
“Yes. Go on.” The apostle motions with his hand.
“Why didn’t you believe when you saw the way the earth became dark and the way it split apart when Jesus hung on the cross?” Onesimus looks away as he questions Paul.
“I was educated beyond reason, Onesimus. I simply thought it was some sort of once in a lifetime occurrence. Even when some said people were raised from the dead, I didn’t believe.” The apostle pats Onesimus, knowing he’d been a lost soul for decades before coming to know Christ. “But, you Onesimus. You were a boy. There was nothing you could do. You weren’t even a Jew.”
“I just wish I’d believed sooner. But, no, after my parents gained freedom in Jerusalem, I had to run off to Colossae, to make my own way.” He hesitates. “My life could’ve been so different.”
“That’s true. But young boys don’t always use their head. Mostly they just maneuver through their day. Now, if your parents had been believers, things might’ve been different.”
“But I heard that He’d risen. Though I must say, I didn’t believe it.”
“I was a man, Onesimus, and I thought it ludicrous. I killed Christians! Quit being so hard on yourself. The important thing is, you know him now. And you’re still quite young.”
“I know. I know.” Onesimus’ body straightens and he smiles, but quickly asks, “Remember what he said to me when he rode on the donkey through Jerusalem?”
“That your name would be recorded in a manuscript that would magnify the Torah? Yes, you told me. How could I forget!” Paul chuckles.
“Is it possible?” An incredible hope stirs in his three words.
“It will happen. I don’t know how, but what Jesus says is truth. He is God’s Son. And He told you in person. I, on the other hand, mostly hear Him in my spirit.”
A great weight seems to lift from Onesimus and he sighs. “As to the other matter,” he turns to see if Obada listens. A runaway slave sharing space with a Roman guard is like being in a lion’s lair. “Of course, my life is not my own. Not only do I belong to Christ, but I am a slave. I belong to Philemon.”
“And, lucky for you, it’s Philemon!” The apostle tries to lift his spirits. “Think if you had to go back to a non-believer. And, as a Christ-follower, you would have to go back, regardless.” Paul elevates his position. “Philemon has been a great friend to me and to many believers. He will listen, just as you have listened.” He looks away, thoughtful. “As to your life as a slave, make it a lesson in being a slave to Christ. Can you look at it that way?”
“That’s exactly what I’ll do.”
Paul smiles as Obada now watches them. “So, please, shall we look at the list?”
It has been a jubilant morning at Paul’s house—a farewell to Onesimus and his traveling companion, the beloved Tychicus—filled to capacity with people who love the Lord Jesus and each other.
“Come for a moment.” Paul motions to Luke and Mark. “You must read young Timothy’s letter.”
Paul is happiest amongst the brethren and people he loves, and Onesimus is happy for his friend, yet sad he may never see these people again. His scant luggage sets near his feet ready for the trip to Colossae from Rome, a fortnight or more.
Joy and sadness overwhelm him. Sadness because he’d been a foolish man most of his life, squandering his money in Colossae, and ending up in the life he’d known as a child in Jerusalem—slavery. Only to learn that Roman slavery is unlike Jewish slavery. Not for seven years, but a lifetime.
Yet, making it right with his owner Philemon actually made him feel freer than he’d ever felt. He trusted Paul and Paul’s stalwart, Tychicus, who would be traveling with him. They had regaled him with stories of Philemon’s generosity and faithfulness.
And he trusted Jesus Christ. After all that Jesus had done for him and for all mankind, Onesimus knew he could withstand whatever the future held. He’d witnessed only a fraction of what Jesus had endured that horrible day twenty-eight years ago, but at least he had met and loved the man he now served.
Today, the brethren celebrated, not only the communion of their Lord and Savior, but of Onesimus’ return to honesty. The reality that God’s Word is truth and all who believe live under that truth. Onesimus’ departure was overshadowed by their happiness that he was doing what so many find difficult: to do what is right in the eyes of God. It made the former thief happy as well.
Luke, the physician, walks over and hugs Onesimus. “I am honored to know you.” He pats his shoulders. “And I already miss you.” He pulls back and grins at Onesimus.
Onesimus hugs him again. “Take good care of Paul, please. For me.”
“Luke nods. “You know I will.”
Onesimus received something from these men he’d never encountered: respect and reverence for his choices. They were different, yet so alike. Some, like Paul, had come under scrutiny at one time or another. Onesimus valued their friendship for many reasons, but especially for their varying perspectives and attitudes that were sealed in respect and love.
Paul and Tychicus walk up. “I have the letter.” Tychicus fans it in front of Onesimus, who had read it earlier.
Penned by Paul and Timothy, the heartfelt letter asks slave owner Philemon to come under a new judgement: to love all people, regardless of their station in life. “Onesimus is no longer a slave,” Paul wrote, “but more than a slave. He is a beloved brother in Christ.”
Sobbing, Onesimus pivots to go, but turns one last time to Paul, the best friend he’d ever known. “Please let me know,” he jokes through tears to the well-read apostle, “if you ever see my name in a manuscript.”
“It will happen!” Paul is emphatic. “You may not see it this side of heaven, but Jesus’ words are truth. Your name will be recorded in a manuscript that will magnify the Torah. They hug one last time as Tychicus tucks Paul’s letter to Philemon into his tunic, and they say their final farewell.
Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, in A.D. 110, wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus addressing a man named Bishop Onesimus numerous times. Many believe Bishop Onesimus is the former runaway slave, once owned by Philemon, and freed. The man Onesimus as Bishop was instrumental in collecting and preserving the letters of Paul, which would include the letter to Philemon, the third shortest book in the Bible. Like St. Paul, Bishop Onesimus was martyred.
This fictional story of the youthful juvenile Onesimus, his parents, and his meeting Jesus, is built around the very true story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. While the youthful Onesimus storyline is fictionalized, the story of the older Onesimus is only somewhat speculative. It is written around passages from the books of Philemon and Colossians 4, regarding the vaguely depicted relationship Paul had with Onesimus while imprisoned in Rome.