The last public execution in the United States took place in Owensboro, Kentucky on August 14, 1936. Rainey Bethea was led to the gallows having been convicted of the robbery, rape, and murder of seventy-year-old Lischia Edwards. It is estimated that 15-20,000 people made the journey to Owensboro to witness the hanging.
Although we have no way of knowing the exact number of people who stood beneath the cross of Calvary the day Jesus died. Luke tells us it was “a great multitude” (Luke 23:27 ESV), the same Greek word (plēthos) used in Hebrews 11:12 concerning God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in number. At any rate, it was a large crowd of people, a sneering and jeering mob heaping insult upon insult, loudly and boisterously mocking the Son of God. The difference between Jesus and Rainey Bethea though is this; Rainey was admittedly guilty, Jesus was not. Rainey confessed to his crime, Jesus had committed no crime to confess too.
Among the crowd, according to John’s gospel (19:25-26 ESV), Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross; the disciple whom he loved was there with them too, all watching the Lord’s agonizing last moments. How they must have felt I can only imagine, especially his mother. Little doubt her life was a train wreck, a mangled mound of emotions few will ever know or understand.
I once stood in the room with my son and his trembling wife as they held their sweet lifeless baby in arms failing of strength, unable to understand why. It was my loss too, my grandson, but my pain and there’s was different. I had not carried him for nine months as she had. I was not the expectant father collecting little boy baseball gloves and footballs in anticipation of future little league games with Daddy’s little man. None-the-less, my heart was broken and my pain real. In spite of that being true, the last person on earth I would expect to reach out to me at that moment would have been my son. He had his own cross to bear at the moment. I suppose the same might be true of those few supporters who stood at the foot of the cross that dark day so long ago. Mary wanted to be there for her son, as did the others, to bear a small cup of comfort, a show of solidarity.
Amazingly, though, that small cup of comfort didn’t work its way from the ground up, but from the cross down. The gaze of his swollen eyes drawing his mother’s attention in the direction of John, the disciple he loved, Jesus said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son;” then to John he said, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27 NLT). What was Jesus saying?
As history is noticeably silent concerning Joseph, the husband of Mary, his death must be presupposed. Given his half-brothers did not believe on him at the time, Jesus’ mother’s well-being was his concern at the moment, not himself, and he looks to her care committing it to John, the disciple he loved
Is it not a bit mind-boggling? That Jesus could, or even would, look to the needs of someone else in that moment?
As I recall the worst episodes of pain I have experienced in life, not once in those moments was my thoughts on anyone or anything other than myself, and I certainly wasn’t praying good or future usefulness over my tormentor. I cursed that ladder I fell from; I spoke damnation over the things that inflicted the agony my body went through, and my minuscule afflictions (though great to me at the time) could never be compared with the torturous sufferings crucifixion wreaked on Jesus.
Not long ago I sat with a patient listening as he recounted his six-year fight with rectal cancer. In vivid detail, he described various treatments and their side effects. Although not everyone will have the same experiences and should not disregard a doctor’s recommendations based on one man’s story; he told of his bodies’ reaction to one particular procedure causing an unusual infection to set up in his buttocks. “The pain was excruciating”, he told me. “Positioned on my hands and knees, my butt sticking up in the air, needles were inserted to drain the accumulating pockets of puss. I screamed, for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, I shrieked in pain; I yelled out, I cried. It was the absolute worst experience of my entire life”, he explained. “Being naked wasn’t an issue”, he added. Whatever sense of pride, shame or modesty I may have had at one time had been taken from me long before”. “What was your feelings towards the medical staff”, I asked. “They can all go to hell”, he snapped back. “That’s exactly how I felt,” he said plainly.
His thoughts and mine speak to the norm, the way most people react when others force intense pain on us. But not Jesus, to the end his thoughts were of others, his care and concern was for everyone but himself. How big is that?
On a personal note: That Jesus would care for me at all is irony; that he would at the worst possible moment of his life, on the darkest day in human history, when bearing in his mangled body the full force of God’s wrath for the sins of mankind look down in concern for me – unimaginable. But, that is what happened, the way it was, the way it is.
“Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders,” Psalm 55:22 (The Message) tells us, “he’ll carry your load, he’ll help you out. He’ll never let good people topple into ruin”.
“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).
“Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8 NIV).
Whatever you may be going through at this or any other moment in life, always know and never doubt, God cares for you, he is a rock upon which you can stand in hope against hope, “an anchor for the [your] soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19 NIV).
I gratefully acknowledge Community Life Church (c|Life) teaching pastor, Casey Coats, whose message on Sunday morning, February 21, 2016, inspired me to write. Casey found a needle in the haystack and used it to stitch together a beautiful tapestry of God’s love for mankind found in Jesus. This message is part of the current sermon series titled, “Last Words from the Cross” and can be viewed at clifec.com later in the week.