It is hard to imagine a more ironic, more chilling dramatic exclamation than the confession of Jesus’ executioner, “Surely, He was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54). In The Soldier, David Kitz gives a name to the Roman executioner – Marcus Longinus. Then he gives us an hour-by-hour account of the week in Marcus’ life in the run-up to the fatal hammer blows that drove spikes into Jesus’ broken body.
As I began to read The Soldier, I wondered if it would be a fascinating documentary of the last week of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. Fascinating it is. The sights, sounds and smells of the Jewish Passover week come to life, from the noisy, smelly commerce in sacrificial animals to the literal river of red sacrificial blood flowing through the temple aqueducts.
Political forces delicately dance in Jerusalem. High Priest Caiaphas, Samaritan King Herod Antipas, and Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, cordial but venomous enemies, vie for control of the holy city. We see and hear the week unfold through Marcus’ eyes and ears. He fears for the very lives of his men as tumultuous crowds swell Jerusalem. Two were recently murdered by Zealot terrorists. Crowds quickly become mobs, and only the iron discipline of his small garrison insulates the city from disaster.
The Soldier soon becomes more than a documentary. Marcus becomes a man we know intimately as husband, father and brave military officer. We see his family and career jeopardized by the mental anguish of post traumatic stress disorder. Horrific visions of bloody murders populate Marcus’ dreams at night and force contemplation of suicide by day.
Jesus rides into this mix of professional anxiety and personal anguish on a donkey. From a great distance He picks Marcus out of a crowd of thousands and speaks audibly to him alone and to him specifically, saying, “I have a future for you.” During the week, Marcus is repelled by Jesus and drawn to Jesus. He fears Jesus’ power over the crowds. He is the dumbfounded eye witness to Jesus’ healing miracles. He rejoices while Jesus humiliates moneychangers and Pharisees. He hopes Jesus will be acquitted by Pilate. He feels almost personally betrayed when Jesus might have saved Himself, but deliberately does not. Ordered to crucify Jesus, Marcus does so obediently and resolutely.
I could empathize with Marcus. Like Marcus, I was a career soldier. Like him, I had superiors I admired and those I did not. I had peers who were my friends and those I loathed. I worried about missions I was given when they endangered subordinates I was responsible for, and, admittedly, when they jeopardized my career if they failed. Unlike Marcus, I have not literally whipped my Savior and pierced his flesh with nails. But like Marcus, my personal sins have caused Jesus to suffer pain on the cross.
The Soldier is a two-fold page turner. It is better than an exciting read. Those of us blessed with a lifetime of church have heard the story of Christ’s trial and crucifixion as often as our lives have seen Easter Sundays. We have read the Biblical account, in all four gospels, many times. Yet, as I turned the pages of The Soldier, eagerly, I also found myself compulsively turning the pages of the Bible to sort out exactly which details of that week Kitz lifts literally from Scripture and which tidbits his imagination supplies. The blend is seamless. For instance, the lame boy Christ heals in Scripture becomes Kitz’ Lucas, a three-dimensional character twice cursed by the world and twice miraculously loved by Christ. What Christian author hopes for more than for it to be said that his work sends readers scurrying into the pages of the Holy Bible?
We are all Marcus. All of us, like Marcus, have heard Jesus promise us a future. We have all been drawn to Jesus and been afraid of Jesus; we have rejoiced with Jesus, and we have all felt alone when our lives spiraled out of control in sin and remorse. Jesus has stretched out His hands to all of us, and, like Marcus, we have all driven spikes into them. When we read David Kitz’s The Soldier Who Killed a King, we too, confess, “Surely, He is the Son of God.”
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