“Along the way they came on a man from Cyrene named Simon and made him carry Jesus’ cross.” Matthew 27:32
I read somewhere that in England and Ireland there is a Christian ministry motivated by the image of the man who helped Jesus carry his cross. The Cyrenian Movement is named for Simon of Cyrene and its wonderful mission of compassion is to “share the burden” of the homeless poor. I know almost nothing about their work, but it sounds beautiful and commendable and certainly like something Jesus would do.
Unfortunately the name seems to ignore the fact that the original sharer of Jesus’ burden did not do so willingly or out of compassion. He did it by compulsion. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story the same way, saying that the Roman executioners pulled Simon out of the crowd and forced him to carry Jesus’ cross for a while. This was not heart-felt service motivated by pity; Simon did what Caesar said because he had no choice. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught up in the dirty work of empire.
I wonder why they singled out Simon? Out of all the people who had gathered to watch the passing horror of this legal lynching, this state-sanctioned murder, why him? Maybe because he looked like a foreigner and stood out in the crowd? Cyrene is in North Africa and very likely was the same region as present-day Libya. So Simon, who we also know was a parent of two sons according to Mark’s gospel, was certainly dark-skinned and maybe dressed differently than everyone else lining the road to Skull Hill. Maybe the soldiers on the crucifixion detail figured that this stranger living in a strange land would be the least likely to resist an order. After all, when the empire said jump, you jumped. And if there was any hint of resistance, then the empire would strike back. Hard, and with brutal cruelty. As they were doing at that very moment.
Not much has changed, I suppose. Empires still compel the poor and the most vulnerable to do their dirty work. The state of Arkansas is planning to execute seven people in 11 days this month, and my guess is that most of the prison guards and members of the strap-down team are people of color and on the low-end of the wage scale. Our endless wars are seldom fought by members of this year’s fraternity and sorority pledge classes. The fruit we will enjoy in our Easter salads most likely was picked by women and men with brown Mexican skin who happen to look a lot like the people who pick up my garbage and clean my hotel rooms. That may not be exactly the same thing as what Simon was doing without pay, but empires always seem to require the blood, sweat, and tears of those who have little other choice.
By contrast, the story we are listening to tonight is the story of a God who forces us to do nothing. He certainly does not compel our belief or devotion. Instead he invites us to join him in loving without condition everyone who is burdened by their own fear and sorrow and conflicted allegiances. He especially loves those who get singled out for the dirty work no one else will do because of their color or nationality or place on the economic ladder. He has come to be with them, to suffer with them, and to create a community for them where they will one day know dignity and respect and joy. He has come with the promise that one day their hands will be washed clean of the blood of the wars started by the powerful and greedy. And that their backs will be straight and strong enough to carry their own children and grandchildren, and not made to ache by the splinters of empire. Amen.