A cast of thousands

The Bible is full of characters who seem to play minor but memorable roles.  Here’s a case in point, a single sentence given to us as the soldiers lead Jesus away to be crucified:

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross (Matt 27:32, NIV).

With his typical brevity of detail, that is all Matthew tells us about Simon of Cyrene.  Like Matthew, Mark and Luke give him one verse each, and John doesn’t mention him at all.  It’s not much to go on.  But there is food for thought here nonetheless.

Jesus was no doubt in a weakened state.  He may not have eaten since the fateful Passover meal with his disciples (Matt 26:17-35).  The fact that Peter, James, and John had fallen asleep in Gethsemane (26:40-46) may tell us just how trying the day had been, and there is no indication that Jesus been given any opportunity to rest throughout the entire subsequent ordeal of being arrested, dragged before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and then Pilate.  And most importantly, having been handed over to the soldiers to be scourged (27:26), Jesus would likely have lost a significant amount of blood.

It was apparently customary for condemned prisoners to carry their own crosses (or perhaps just the horizontal crossbeams) to the place of execution.  Given the soldiers’ predilection for cruelty (Matt 27:27-31), I imagine they would have forced Jesus to do this if it had been at all possible.  To conscript someone else for the task was not a matter of mercy, then, but expediency.  Simon happened to be at the right place, at the right time: the soldiers plucked him from the crowd.

Cyrene was a Greek city in northern Africa (Libya).  Many Jews lived there, descendants of those who been scattered throughout the Middle East by centuries of war and political upheaval.  Simon may have been one of these Jews, in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, a seeming bystander to the divine drama.  One can only wonder how he reacted when the soldiers laid hold of him and forced him to fall in line behind Jesus, carrying his cross (Luke 23:26).

And then Mark adds a uniquely odd note: Simon was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21).

Um, excuse me?  How is that relevant?  Maybe we should also know what he had for breakfast that morning?

A reasonable explanation: scholars suggest that Mark must have expected his readers to already know who Alexander and Rufus were, much as you or I might give familiar personal reference points when telling someone else a story (“You know–that’s Alex and Rufus’ dad”).  The two men, in other words, may have been prominent in the growing Jesus movement for which the gospel was written, perhaps even leaders in the church.  And to me at least, suddenly Simon seems like less of a mere walk-on.

It is, of course, impossible to know.  But it intrigues me to imagine a man going about his business and who, without warning, is dragged bodily into the Jesus story, with consequences that cascade into the next generation and beyond.  The gospel itself seems to be populated by a cast of thousands just like Simon, people whose own stories continue to the glory of God behind the scenes.

Perhaps it sounds like someone you know.