My name is Dismas, I was the last child born to my father, a vineyard owner just south of Jericho on the western side of the Dead Sea. We were about 2 or 3 days’ journey from our beloved Jerusalem.
I grew up helping my dad and brothers run our family vineyard. My dad’s wine was well known in Israel. On Saturdays, we all went to the synagogue in Jericho to hear God’s Law and Prophets being proclaimed by the teachers. From as long as I remembered, I loved and respected God. My father was a very devout Jew and always obeyed Yahweh in the way he treated people and did business. He said it was the Lord’s blessing that made him a success.
But my whole world came crashing down when I was a young man of about 17. The Roman Empire’s taxes on top of the Jewish temple taxes took about 50% of our income. Unfortunately, our local tax collector, Zacchaeus, was not an honest man. He often forced us to pay even more than what was necessary. Of course he kept it for himself. We didn’t have a choice either because if we didn’t pay him, he’d use the local Roman soldiers to force us to pay. Zacchaeus paid them off to keep all of this injustice quiet. We were quite wealthy so we could afford it. But Zaccheus ruined some of our neighbour’s farmland and vineyards. But for years, we survived the heavy taxation. Then we had two straight seasons of too little rain. This, plus the taxes, ruined my father.
We had to sell the vineyard for very little money and then went to live with my uncle in Jericho. I was furious at the Romans and at Zaccheus. My father had me learn my uncle’s trade of iron-smithing. My uncle repaired and made armour, horseshoes and chariot pieces for the Romans who had one of their major military outposts there in Jericho. Iron work in Jericho was good business in those days. However, many Israelites were quite upset at the Romans for being in Jericho. You see, when my people got here over a thousand years ago, Jericho was the first Canaanite city they conquered with Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man. And now, for the first time in a long time, we had no control over our beloved Jericho.
Anyway, I made the best of it and had lots of neighbourhood friends. One of them was a blind young man named Bartimaeus. My father and uncle often gave him food. I sat and talked with him every day. We grew to be good friends. But life was tough for my friend Bartimaeus because most people ignored him and he couldn’t work. He was very smart so he could almost imagine what he was missing by being blind. He asked me what colours might look like and what birds were like when they flew through the sky. It made me sad that my friend couldn’t see. If anyone deserved to see it was my smart and kind friend. Bart (which was my nickname for him) was like my father and uncle, a very strong believer in God. Bart even told me he had heard that there was a very good chance God’s Messiah had already arrived on earth and was walking around Israel teaching and healing. He said he prayed every night that this Messiah would give him his sight back. I didn’t want to say anything, but since my father’s vineyard had gone bankrupt, I was starting to doubt if God really loved us or worse, if He even existed. You see, my father and Bart were the most holy men I knew, and Zacchaeus and the Romans the worst men I knew, yet God seemed to bless the unholy people the most. In fact, my uncle’s business was now struggling because Zacchaeus was now charging more taxes than ever before. Almost 70% of the local income was being taken by Zacchaeus and more and more people were loosing their businesses. Everyone despised Zacchaeus and the Roman soldiers who helped him.
A few months later my uncle had me run an errand out of town to a town named Mesad on the shores of the Dead Sea. It took me 3 days round trip. When I got back, all of Jericho was in an uproar. The man Bart had told me about had come and gone. It seemed everyone had heard Him speak. Some thought He was crazy. Others thought He was the most amazing rabbi they had every heard. Then I started hearing stories about Him healing people. But the stories I heard at first were people who had headaches and stomach problems and they claimed the man named Jesus had healed them. My cynical mind thought “yeah, right, it will probably come back tomorrow.” And I went back to my uncle’s house with the supplies he had me buy for him. On the way there I realized my friend Bart wasn’t in his usual spot. It was weird because he was always there in the afternoon because we had met there every day for a couple years now. I was the only friend he had and he never missed a day. The other funny thing was that no one else was home either. So I dropped off the supplies and then went looking for my family. After a half hour I spotted my uncle about one hundred yards outside of town. I recognized his white and blue shawl. I walked closer and realized him and my father were standing there, watching a young man in a nearby tree. As I reached them both they didn’t seem to notice me at first. Looking closely I realized they both had tears streaming down their faces as they stared at the man on the branch. I went up to the tree and there was the young man, in the tree, arms wide open.
Suddenly I recognized him. It was my dear friend Bart! He had tears streaming down his face too. And his eyes, his eyes were looking around as if he could see. “Bart!” I yelled, “what’s going on?” He looked right at me, something he had never done before. Blind people have a stare that looks through you. Yet this was unmistakable; Bart could see me. “Dismas,” he said, “you never told me it was so beautiful,” and he motioned to the sky and looked back up. I fell sitting down. I was in shock. I looked back at my uncle and father and they sat down with me. They explained to me that Bart had waited patiently outside of town because he’d heart that Jesus was coming. When He arrived, Bart wouldn’t stop yelling out for Jesus to heal him. And Jesus had asked Bart to come to him and of course he scrambled to get to Jesus. Good old Bart trusted Jesus so much he simply went right out and asked Him to make him be able to see. And those standing right next to him said Bart blinked for a few moments then started looking around at them. It was the way he looked at me just now. My friend Bart could see. I could hardly believe it. But I couldn’t deny it.
For the next few weeks everybody was talking about this Jesus. As I walked through town I spotted Zacchaeus. I wondered why Jesus hadn’t zapped him if He was such a good magician. As I walked by though, something was odd. Zacchaeus looked miserable. Usually he walked around with his head held high and his chest out. Which was almost comical because he was so short. The only reason people feared him was because he had the power of Rome to support him. Or else I think he would have gotten beat up or killed a long time ago. “Hmmph,” I thought “I hope you stay miserable you schmuck!” and kept walking.
A few more weeks went by and the bread maker’s son came running into town, out of breath. “Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!” he screamed. And just like that, the whole of Jericho was in excitement. A few days later Jesus and His entourage arrived. He was teaching at the synagogue. I hadn’t been there in a couple of years but I had to go and listen to the Man who had made my friend see. I had heard many good solid rabbis in my life, but Jesus did not speak like them. It is hard for me to describe it but I felt like He wasn’t really teaching the Scriptures but that He was the Scriptures. Almost like seeing a famous person in real life when you’ve only seen them in a magazine before. Hopefully that makes sense to you because I don’t know how else to explain it. After His teaching the whole town followed Him from the synagogue. I was mesmerized and followed too.
As we came through the downtown area, all of a sudden, everyone heard a strange but familiar and annoying voice. It was Zaccheus, screeching at the top of his lungs. I thought “aha! Finally, that little idiot is going to get torched by this Holy Man, Jesus!” But much to my utter horror, Jesus smiled at Zacchaeus. He spoke kindly with him and ended up going to have supper with him at his house. I literally stopped following the crowd and sat there in the street. Totally shocked and disgusted. Not only had God let my father down, but this supposed Messiah couldn’t care less. How could He be a wise man if He was friends with sinners like Zacchaeus? All of Jericho had suffered under Rome and Zacchaeus for years. And now he got to be best friends with Jesus? Maybe God liked harsh men. Men who had the courage to steal from other men. Maybe men like my father were weak and allowed other men to take advantage of them.
I ran away from my family that night. I ended up moving to Jerusalem. Sadly, if I had stayed behind I would have seen Zacchaeus become a good man after talking to Jesus. Seen him give money back to those he had taken it from unfairly. He even bought the vineyard back for my father and renovated the house on that property. But I never did hear about this until it was too late.
You see, I was so furious that when I got to Jerusalem I joined a political movement known as the Zealots. This was a terrorist group. They didn’t wait around for God to free Israel through His supposed Messiah. They got down to business and took care of things themselves. We sought to terrorize Rome into leaving Jerusalem. We beat people up, we black mailed Jewish politicians to further our cause. We stole when we had to and unfortunately, even killed when we had to. I never did get caught for it but I took a Roman soldier’s life one evening in a tavern in Jerusalem. You see I was filled with hate. I hated Rome. I hated God for abandoning His people. I hated God for letting my family down. My hate had turned me into a terrorist. A murderer. A thief. A few months later I was finally caught and charged by the Romans. They knew I had murdered one of their soldiers but they couldn’t prove it. But when I was caught red handed stealing silver from a Roman garrison, they finally had me. Theoretically, Rome could do whatever they wanted. And they did. My blood ran cold when I was told I’d be crucified. The Romans’ most frightening weapon was nailing men to a cross. All who saw the hanging men wouldn’t dare betray the Romans.
Now, imagine my shock on the day of my execution. Besides a crook being crucified alongside me, the third man up for crucifixion that day was Jesus. I was shocked. And not only was He going to be executed, He had been beaten so badly that He looked half dead. He had no skin left on His back and couldn’t even carry His cross. He was so weak from blood loss. Now, I’ve seen dozens of men be crucified. They have nothing to lose and are always vicious and angry. They will curse the Romans and the Jews who watch them suffer. Men being crucified yell and spit, cursing a world as a last stab at revenge. The crook being crucified with us was doing exactly that. Yet on my other side, there was this Jesus, with a crown of thorns driven into His scalp and a purple robe on His back. But suffering with a docile submission that sucked all my attention to Him.
The Romans had placed the crown and robe to mock the claim by His followers that He was the King of Israel. As others laughed, I was silent. To me, He looked very much like a real King. I was so mesmerized by Him that for the first time in months my mind was not filled with hatred. I watched Jesus’ every move. His every facial expression. Listened to His every word. Not once did I pick up an ounce of hatred from Him. As we had the nails driven through the bones of our feet, I felt the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life. But Jesus looked at those hammering the spikes. No anger. Not an ounce. And I swear on my mother’s life He had love in His eyes. It’s hard to describe some things we experience, but it was that single look that made me a believer. Right then and there. I’m sorry if you can’t understand this. But it’s the truth.
As we hung there in pain we pushed up with our legs to relax our arms so we could breathe for short, painful moments. Over and over again we had to do this. Or else our chests would be cramped from hanging from nailed arms and we would suffocate. I gasped and didn’t have the energy to say anything. But at one point, Jesus looked upwards and pleaded “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” He wanted to forgive our torturers. And the way He said it you know He meant every word. Here was a man, absolutely squeezed to the maximum of pain and suffering and there was no hatred in Him. The comparison to me, who had felt so much hatred for so long was almost unbearable. Being crucified without my new found belief in my Messiah, I would have finished my life in the most intense blizzard of rage and hatred at the Romans. But I had now been mesmerized by this Jesus; changed by Him in my last moments. The other crook on the cross started mocking Jesus. I couldn’t have felt more different.
I didn’t dare say anything to this truly Holy Man. But when my body began to shiver and spasm, I knew death was near. My mind was flooded with all of my memories of my days in the synagogue hearing God’s Word. I remembered my father’s face from my childhood. I could picture him teaching me about God’s love. My father had always been the most holy man I knew. Until I hung next to Jesus. This was holiness in the purest form I’d ever seen. I knew I was a sinner. And I knew He was not.
I didn’t even know how to address Him. I almost said Majesty. Instead, I awkwardly but desperately said:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
I didn’t know if He had any energy left to hear me. But to my surprise, His head slowly turned to me and He looked right at me. But I mean really looked. The same way my friend Bart’s eyes had finally been able to truly see me, this man Jesus’ eyes looked not only at me but into me. I’m sorry, but that is, again, the best I can describe it. It was as though He had known I was going to be here. As if He knew the evil I had done. Not only my murder, but how I had scoffed at Him back in Jericho. How I had abandoned God until this day. Then He spoke slowly but deliberately. His words were the sweetest things I had ever heard because I knew this Man only spoke the truth.
He told me I would be with Him in paradise that very afternoon.
Those velvet words helped me slip into death without fear.
And now, I speak my story to you… from the other side…