Straw Judge

The glint of cold fire in her eyes warned the sentinels to stand well out of her way. Claudia strode down the hall to the inner chambers of the procurator's mansion. Silent anger etched clearly into her face. Her head high, raven hair streaming down her shoulders, and her gown flowing with each of her movements, she whisked by the servants and soldiers who stood tensely at attention.

Abigail, Claudia's Jewish handmaiden, walked quickly behind her, struggling to keep pace with her Roman mistress. She seemed embarrassed at Claudia's display of petulance. The truth was, such scenes occurred frequently in the household of Pontius Pilate. Claudia, his wife, was known for her outbursts, and this evening was no exception.

Nor was the cause a new one.

"Postponed!" She spat the word out.

"But, mistress," Abigail implored, "surely you can understand why your husband cannot leave Jerusalem during Passover."

"I understand that Passover is just an excuse to avoid taking me to Rome," she fired back without looking over her shoulder at Abigail.

A guard snapped to attention and swung open the ornately carved door of Claudia's bedchamber. Claudia swished angrily through, followed closely by Abigail. Without a word the sentry pulled it shut, leaving the two women alone.

"The least he could have done would have been to send me to Rome with an escort."

"Pardon me, mistress, but soldiers are needed here at Passover time. An escort couldn't be spared."

"Passover again! Is that the excuse for everything? So what if a few rabble-rousers slip in with the sheep? Good Roman steel will keep them in their place. But you sound as if you side with my husband. You are my servant, after all."

"Forgive me, mistress," Abigail said, her eyes downcast. "I meant no disloyalty to you."

Claudia didn't even hear. She walked to the window that overlooked her private courtyard and hugged herself unhappily. Black clouds scudded across the moon's face. She hated this wilderness so far from the delights of Rome. "I'll never escape this pesthole," she whispered between clenched teeth.

Abruptly she turned to Abigail and motioned toward her wardrobe. "I may as well go to bed. With all these Jews here, it's unsafe to go about after dark."

She watched to see if her remarks elicited any response from Abigail. But her servant's face remained irritatingly passive and unreadable.

"Attend me, Abigail."

Her handmaiden brought an expensive bedgown for Claudia's approval, then helped her mistress out of her clothes and into the gown. Claudia continued her abusive remarks, always without response from Abigail. Just as she slipped between the silken bed coverings, she fired one parting shot. "I can't understand you Jews. You're so uncivilized. You believe in a God you can't even see!"

A faint tinge of color crept into Abigail's face. Claudia smiled to herself. Jews felt very defensive about their ridiculous God. Disparaging comments about Him never failed to evoke some kind of response.

"Pardon me, mistress," Abigail said. "Will that be all?"

"No," Claudia answered smugly. "You are to watch with me here and keep the brazier lit throughout the night."

That will teach her to side with my husband, Claudia thought. Abigail bowed stiffly, then extinguished each of the torches and candles that lit the room. The last thing Claudia remembered was Abigail closing the courtyard window and settling herself in one of the chairs in the darkened room.

Claudia woke several hours later, but it was not a pleasant awakening. In the guttering light from the brazier, she wondered dully at her inability to move. Her breath came in short gasps, and the room seemed unbearably warm. The creeping miasma frightened her.

"Abigail," she choked out. No answer. "Abigail, come help me!"

When her servant did not respond, Claudia lifted herself painfully on her elbow and peered from under the bed hangings. In the dimness she could just see Abigail's form slumped in a chair across the room. Although she could not see Abigail's face, hidden in the shadows, she knew intuitively that Abigail would not answer her cry for help, perhaps because she could not.

Claudia fell back on her bed, her strength drained, breath coming hard. What was wrong? Why couldn't Abigail normally a light sleeper, hear her? And where was the guard who stood his post outside her door?

As if in answer to her questions, a shaft of moonlight penetrated the courtyard window, and to Claudia's surprise she found her breathing easier, her mind clearer. The room cooled abruptly, though no windows or doors had been opened. The fire in the brazier danced quietly without a sound.

Close beside the brazier's flame stood a man, the moonlight splashing across him. Or was the light coming from him? Claudia could not be sure. "Who are you?" she demanded as she clutched the bed coverings to her throat and sat up. She hoped the intruder had not noticed the shrillness of fear in her voice.

Clad only in a filmy white robe, a band of gold about his head, the intruder stepped to the foot of Claudia's bed. He did not bow or kneel and didn't seem at all impressed by Claudia's tone of voice. "I am a messenger," he said, "from the 'God you can't even see.'"

The mockery of her words struck her harder than the man's voice, which hung like thunder in the room.

"My merciful Lord, the One God, has sent me to you with a message of great urgency."

"Where is my guard? What have you done to my servant? And how did you get in here?" Claudia blurted out brazenly. The look in the messenger's eyes told her that the message had more importance than her questions. Yet he answered them politely, and Claudia wished she'd never asked them.

"Nothing has happened to your guard or servant. You are dreaming--and yet more than dreaming. You will see what is real."

Claudia asked nothing more. When the messenger beckoned her to follow him, she left the bed without even bothering to reach for her robe. He turned toward the courtyard window, and as he did Claudia had the curious sensation of feathers brushing across her arm, though she saw nothing. The messenger swung open the windows and mist roiled in over the sill. It took several seconds to clear, and to her surprise she saw no courtyard.

"Look," he commanded. "Your message is beginning."

A Man stood in the murky mist, his back to Claudia. His clothing had been ripped from His back and shoulders, exposing huge red welts, flayed skin, and wounds oozing blood. A mock crown of thorns had been jammed onto His head, and ropes bound His hands tightly behind Him. Mocking laughter and obscene taunts echoed crazily in the air, but He seemed not to hear them.

Claudia turned back to the messenger, shaken. She found him weeping soundlessly. Tears cut coldly down his cheeks. "Who is this Man to you?" Claudia asked, unnerved by the messenger's sorrow.

"He is my Master," he said. Then in a voice like a dozen trumpets, he exclaimed, "He is the Son of the One God!"

Gaping incredulously, Claudia stared at him. When she found her tongue, she snapped, "He's your Master? And you stand here, not lifting a finger to help Him? What kind of servant are you that you would allow such a thing to happen to your Master?"

"I am forbidden," he said in tones that wept, "to rescue Him from His ordeal. I would gladly offer myself in His place, but I and others like me were refused."

"Offer yourself? You make it sound as if He is some sort of sacrifice!"

"You understand correctly. A sacrifice for all. You cannot save Him, but you can be saved."

"I don't understand." Claudia shook her head. Too much was happening too fast.

"Look again through the window. This is your warning."

The Man still stood silently in the mist, back toward them as before. Claudia had yet to see His face, but His wrists, chafed and bleeding from His bonds, spoke of much rough handling. Another man stood beside Him. Though The fog partially obscured him, Claudia could tell from his dress that he was a Roman of high rank. As the air cleared she saw with horror her husband's face. He seemed confused, angry, yet strangely drawn to the Prisoner.

Claudia had often privately joked about her husband's job, laughing scornfully at his ability to choose the side that paid the most. She knew he had no scruples in legal matters.

The phrase she used to describe him, "Straw judge," she was careful never to voice, though, for Pilate could not tolerate opposition.

Pilate wheeled suddenly and shouted into the mist, "I find no guilt in this Man!"

A horrendous clamor of disembodied voices screamed back at him. Jewish voices.

"We have laws, and by them He deserves to die!"

"You're no friend of Caesar's, to let a self-proclaimed king live and threaten Rome!"

"Kill the rebel! His blood is on us and our children!"

Pilate beckoned. A servant boy appeared from the mist, bearing a silver wash basin. He had a towel draped over his arm. Pilate washed his hands thoroughly, seeming unaware that the water had turned bloody red. As he wiped his hands on the towel, he turned back to the Prisoner.

"I'm washing my hands of this whole affair," he said. Then, as an afterthought, he asked, "Are You really a king?"

The Man who had stood silent and straight through all, finally spoke. "I AM."

Pilate's mouth dropped open at the use of the Hebrew name for God. Understanding flickered in his eyes then disappeared as he turned away. He set his jaw stubbornly.

"What will happen to your Master?" Claudia asked.

"Look again," the messenger responded.

Shadowy figures of Roman guards seized the Prisoner and jerked Him around to face Claudia and the messenger. The blood that trailed down from His forehead had mingled with the cold sweat in His beard. Yet His face held a serene innocence and stateliness that she could not fathom.

Claudia's eyes were drawn to the Prisoner's eyes. Deeper and deeper she looked, until nothing else remained. She recoiled suddenly at what she saw in His eyes but could not shake free of their gaze. A Roman cross stood out against a pitch-black sky torn by lightning. The thunder meshed with the sounds of shivering earth.

The Prisoner Himself hung on the cross in the throes of agony beyond anything she could imagine. Almost indiscernible at first, a single voice, chuckling evilly became louder and louder until it filled the dream and blocked out the other sounds.

But when the Prisoner lifted His head and looked up into the sky, the laughter halted as if cut off. Claudia could see that He was gathering His strength for one last effort. His chest heaved. Blood dripped from His wounds. Tears and sweat stained His face. Yet He seemed oddly undefeated. Then the Prisoner called out three words.

"It is finished!"

Claudia heard a tearing, ripping sound, and the scene before her blurred. When it cleared again she had the impression that a long time had passed. Strange structures along the skyline confirmed her suspicion. Even so, the two scenes were strikingly similar.

Lightning arced from vicious black clouds. The earth trembled and split apart. Crowds of people--some calm, some nervous--looked up. Overhead the clouds dissolved and colored streamers of light poured out upon the people. The light spread everywhere. No shadows remained. Claudia caught a glimpse of its source: the Prisoner, now draped in exquisite robes.

She couldn't bear to look. The light hurt too much. A mob of crazed people surged suddenly around her. Screaming and stumbling, they tried to escape the light. Hands over their eyes, they rushed blindly upon her. Only then did she realize that she, too, was part of the mob.

The ground quaked beneath her, slamming her down on the parched soil. People stumbled over her and cursed, then a stab of pain cut through her as one of them kicked her in the side. The earth shifted, cracked, and opened up. Claudia fell headlong into the darkness, screaming.

"Mistress, mistress! You're safe. Wake up," came a familiar, soothing voice.

Claudia found Abigail stroking her head with a damp cloth. The guard stood at a respectful distance from her bed. The messenger, the Prisoner, the fleeing mob had all gone. Claudia wept openly and hugged Abigail with relief.

"Mistress, you must have had a horrible dream," Abigail comforted her.

"It was more than a dream," she echoed the messenger's words. "What news is there from the judgment hall?" she addressed the sentry.

The soldier came to attention but replied with a hint of boredom, "Nothing to trouble you, my lady. Just some Jewish fanatic on trial for sedition and treason. He'll be condemned and executed soon, I believe."

Claudia surprised them both by demanding parchment, quill, and ink. Almost in a frenzy she scribbled out a message:

"Have nothing to do with this just Man. I have suffered many things because of Him in a dream this night." She gave the note and her signet ring to the guard.

"Go quickly to my husband. Let no one delay you or stop you, by my authority as the wife of Pontius Pilate. Give him this message."

"Yes, my lady," the soldier said and rushed from the room.

"Mistress!" Abigail exclaimed. "You're still trembling!"

"With good reason," Claudia sighed. "Time is running out for all of us."

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Him - Straw Judge
Copyright 1990, written by Kenneth Fields