The Rev. Clay Smith's column: The other thief


He was mad at the world. He had reason to be.

His father was killed by a Roman soldier when he was just a kid. He and his mother survived because of the charity of a few family members and a couple kind neighbors. Their kindness, however, was given with a touch of condescension. Kids, who have a special form of cruelty, made fun of him for not having a dad, for being too poor to even have a "coming-of-age" party.

He drifted toward two other boys a little older than him. They talked big, didn't work, did petty crime. He joined them in their adventures, often lurking outside town in the dark, waiting for a traveler who unwisely journeyed in the night. The gang would jump him, steal what he had of value, beat him up, then run. His cut was enough to ward off hunger but never enough to get ahead.

One night things went wrong, and the victim recognized one of them. He called out the boy's name. They decided they couldn't leave this one alive, so they killed him. Knowing his body would be discovered in the morning, the gang left the village for good.

They moved on to a bigger town, met some like-minded folks and moved on to bigger crimes. The gang robbed a tax collector on his way home from his booth. They attacked a priest coming home from Temple duty and got his wallet, his donkey and his meat from the Temple sacrifices. Merchants in town were told to pay "protection" money or have their marketplace booth ransacked.

He admitted to himself that he enjoyed power over people. He took perverse pleasure in seeing their terrorized faces. He was mad at the world for taking away his future, and the world would be made to pay.

His gang drifted down to Jerusalem. More traffic meant more opportunities. There were always people coming and going, most of them with money to buy a sacrifice for the Temple. They averaged a job every two or three days. His cut was never large but enough for him to buy women, buy some booze and not feel anything for a day or two. They were waiting among the rocks one night and heard the noise of straggling travelers. By now, everyone in the gang knew their roles. As the sound grew louder, they prepared to pounce. They stormed out from the rocks and found themselves face to face with 20 Roman soldiers. Most of the gang ran. He, however, was filled with the memory of what Roman soldiers had done to his father. He stabbed one of them before being pinned with a spear. In the moonlight, he saw another member of the gang, a new guy, had been caught as well.

The soldiers debated what to do with him. He struggled against the rope they tied him with. He heard them say, "Let's crucify him and the other one. Send a message."

He was taken to Jerusalem, thrown into a dungeon, his feet placed in stocks. Day after day the rats would come to gnaw on his toes. He screamed at the guards, screamed at the rats, screamed at the walls. The other member of the gang next to him spent a lot of time crying and praying. Then, one Friday morning, early, the soldiers came and took him and the other man out of the stocks. They gave them both a heavy beam of wood and told them to pick it up and carry it. This could only mean one thing - crucifixion.

The crossbeam was heavy. Every time he stumbled, the guards would put a lash to his back. He screamed his anger at them, but he knew he was marching to his death. Another man joined them. He had heard of this man. His name was Jesus, and he was supposed to be some kind of rabbi. Some people thought he was the Messiah, but no Messiah would be going to his death at Skull Hill.

When they reached the spot, he saw the crucifixion poles. The soldiers lifted the poles out of their holes, roped the crossbeams onto them, and then stretched out the three men. He screamed and cursed the soldiers as the nails went through his flesh. Rage ran through his body with the pain as he was lifted up and his cross was dropped into the hole. Pausing for breath, he looked to his left as he saw they had put the rabbi, the would-be Messiah, in the middle and his fellow gang member on the other side of him. The rage bubbled up again. "Aren't you the Messiah? Why don't you get down from there, and why don't you save us, too?" he screamed. He added a few choice cuss words to convey his point.

To his surprise, from the other side of Jesus, the other gang member yelled back at him: "Are you nuts? We deserve this. This man has done nothing wrong." Then, addressing Jesus in a quieter voice, he said, "Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom."

Speaking was more difficult now for all three of them. Jesus said to the other man, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." What in the world was Jesus talking about?

He saw the sky darken, he heard Jesus mumble a few more words, then he saw him stop breathing. Death was coming for him, too, he knew it. The soldiers broke the legs of the other gang member. His breathing stopped about three minutes later. Now they were coming to break his legs. He cussed them again. He heard his bones break. He couldn't push up to get his breath. With his last breath he cussed the Romans, the soldiers, his whole sorry stinking life.

Then there was bright light. Then heat. Fire. Darkness. The very voice of evil itself spoke. "Welcome to hell."

He screamed in rage. He deserved better than this. The evil voice spoke again: "Scream all you want. You chose your hate. Now, you get to live in it forever."

"Where's the other guy," he demanded. The evil voice responded again, this time with a note of disappointment, "He got away. Asked for mercy at the last minute. You heard him. God, being God, granted him the mercy. You, on the other hand, you were full of anger and pride. This is the eternity you wanted, because you chose hate over mercy. Enjoy."

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.