His name was Simon and he was from a community in Northern Africa called Cyrene, which was 783 miles from Jerusalem. In the fourth century BC, 100,000 Judean Jews had been displaced and forced to settle there. But the connection to Jerusalem remained so strong that Cyrenian Jews had a synagogue in Jerusalem where many went for annual feast days like Passover. Think about that….if Simon walked four miles per hour for eight hours a day (which would be an amazing amount of miles per day) it would take him 25 days of walking to make the journey to Jerusalem. Of course, you have to factor in that Jews were not allowed to go more than 2,000 cubits on the Sabbath, which is equal to about 3/5 of a mile. As you can imagine going to Jerusalem for Passover wasn’t just a flippant decision. Simon had to make serious plans and then he probably walked for over a month.
And he made it, along with throngs of other travelers who had also sacrificed greatly to make this arduous journey. The scripture says that Simon had just arrived from the country. There he is in the crowded, narrow streets of Jerusalem when he comes upon a parade of convicted criminals headed to Golgotha to be crucified. As was the custom, Roman soldiers were herding them through the streets of Jerusalem. The convicted were carrying the patibulum, the cross beam of the cross, on which they would be executed. A cross beam would have weighed approximately100 pounds.
Crucifixion wasn’t just about death or even a painful death. The Roman Empire wanted convicted criminals to be humiliated as a warning to others. Making them carry their own form of execution through the city streets was part of that humiliation.
Simon can see that one of these men is really struggling. What he doesn’t know is that his name is Jesus and he is weary beyond belief. Jesus has been up all night. It is Friday and Jesus was arrested late Thursday night while praying in a garden. He was bound and taken before the Jewish Sanhedrin. He stood before them all night while they debated his fate. Then the Jewish religious leaders took him to Pilate, the Roman governor. They were seeking the death penalty for Jesus. Pilate eventually sentenced him to die by crucifixion and then sent Jesus off to be flogged — lashed with a whip 39 times. Then the Roman soldiers who were given the duty of crucifying Jesus took him to a courtyard where they mocked him. They put a purple robe on him, made a crown out of thorns and put it on his head. They saluted him and yelled, “Hail, King of the Jews.” They spit on him and hit his head with a reed. When they had finished with their fun they made Jesus carry the cross beam through the city streets crowded with Passover pilgrims. Jesus was exhausted, hungry and bleeding.
It became clear to the Roman soldiers that Jesus wasn’t going to make it to Golgotha in any expedient manner. So one of them told Simon of Cyrene to hustle on over and carry the cross beam for this stranger…this bleeding, exhausted, condemned man. Why Simon? Was he the closest man? Was he taller and more visible than the other bystanders? Was he built like Popeye? We don’t know. We just know Simon was compelled by a Roman soldier and one didn’t refuse a Roman soldier. It was the law that they could make anyone carry their gear for one mile.
Where were Jesus’ disciples? Where was Peter who had declared, “Even if all of the rest of these guys desert you, I will never leave you, Jesus.”? Peter and the rest were nowhere to be found and so a random stranger is compelled to share Jesus’ burden.
Simon does as he is told but he knows that the moment he comes into contact with the blood on this crossbeam he will be rendered ceremonially unclean and unable to participate in Passover until he performs the rituals to become clean, again. Whether there will be time to go through the purification ritual again is doubtful. Almost a month of journeying to Jerusalem and a month of journeying home from Jerusalem….all for naught…because some stranger’s burden was thrust on him. Simon of Cyrene was in the wrong place, at the wrong time….and all of his plans were ruined.
Erik Kolbell, former minister of Social Justice at the Riverside Church in New York City, writes: “We are defined by many things, including both the burdens we choose and the burdens that choose us.” I think that is a true statement but the more it rolled around in my brain the more I think that one of those is more defining than the other. I think we are more defined by the burdens that are thrust on us…the ones that seem to come from nowhere and blindside us. I am more defined by becoming a widow and being the mother of a child who went through addiction than I am of anything I chose to take on….because the truth is that I never, ever would have chosen either of those burdens. All the plans I had made in my life were halted and changed by both of those realities. What are the burdens that were thrust on you? …the ones that you never would have chosen for yourself and yet they define you?
When these burdens attach themselves to us we ask, “Why? Why me?” I am guessing that Simon of Cyrene asked himself that question. “Why me? I was minding my own business. I was on my way to the synagogue for Passover….clean and ready to worship. I am faithful and this is how I am rewarded? Now I will miss Passover and there will be no do over….until next year. And who knows what will happen in a year.”
Kolbell says, “The question we must ask is not why the cross is lashed to our shoulders, but what will we do with it.” I tell you I don’t like that question. But since “Why me?” has no answer that satisfies me there is only one question left, “What now?” There is an old Sufi saying, “We must bear the portion of the world’s pain that has been entrusted into our care.”
In the United Kingdom and Ireland there is a non-profit association called the Cyrenian Movement. Their guiding principle is to “share the burden.” Through volunteer hours they provide services to the homeless and other disadvantaged people. I love that a charity to care for the marginalized is named after Simon of Cyrene, of whom there is one sentence written about in three of the Gospels. But I think the movement is misnamed because it is a charity that chooses the burdens they want and ought to shoulder. We have all heard of Simon of Cyrene because of the burden that was forced on him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. It is odd to me that the author of the Gospel of Mark bothers to tell us that Simon of Cyrene has two sons and that their names are Alexander and Rufus. In fact, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the crossbeam for Jesus. They don’t say some random stranger coming to Jerusalem for the Passover. They tell us his name and where he is from and Mark goes even further to tell us the names of his sons. The way a man was usually identified in the Bible was by his father: David, son of Jesse; James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Why identify Simon through his sons? It must be because the reader would have some knowledge of Simon of Cyrene who has two sons named Alexander and Rufus?
Early Christian tradition claims that Rufus and Alexander became missionaries in the early church. In Romans 16:13 we read these words: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother – a mother to me also.” Could it be that the sons of Simon of Cyrene became followers of the very same condemned man for whom their father was compelled to carry the cross? Could it be that Simon’s wife became so closely knit into the early Christian community that she served as a surrogate mother to the Apostle Paul? Absolutely. And all of that would only make sense if Simon of Cyrene had a life changing experience by carrying that crossbeam through the streets of Jerusalem.
What happened in those final steps….those final moments….as Simon of Cyrene, father to Alexander and Rufus, carried the bloody crossbeam of a man bound for execution? Somewhere along the way he stopped asking “Why me?” and started asking “Why him?” Somewhere on that burdensome journey everything got turned on its head. Somewhere along the way he forgot of all the things that he had lost and started seeing what he had gained. Somewhere…. somewhere the thing that he wished most hadn’t happened became a gift of newness in his life. Somewhere….somewhere.…long the journey.
One of the problems I have with most conservative and evangelical Christianity is that the message is that Jesus took the whole burden on himself and died for our sins. One and done we are all free. Nothing else is required of you but to say the Sinner’s Prayer and you are on the life raft to heaven. No wonder that message is so appealing to so many. But the message of the gospel of Jesus is way more costly than that simplistic narcissism and I believe it brings a much deeper joy.
The message here invites us right into the midst of community and away from individual salvation. It calls us to bear the portion of the world’s pain that has been entrusted to us….thrust on us even. It calls us to pick up the cross of Jesus and make it our own. It calls us to care so deeply for the world and its pains that we would let our lives and all our plans be completely disrupted. It calls to something so profound that we find that when we carry that burden we are completely changed by it….and then we hurry home to share the good news with others. Amen.