Who Is Simon of Cyrene?

A Detective Story

Luke 23:26

Matthew 27:32

Mark 15:21


Who is Simon of Cyrene? And why is he included in the gospel stories? He occurs only in one verse in each of Luke, Matthew, and Mark. In all three he was compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry the cross of Jesus when Jesus no longer could manage it. Luke tells us only that he was “coming from the country.” Matthew tells us nothing. But Mark who was notoriously terse in his writing strangely enough gives us more information than either of the other two. He reports that in addition of Simon coming in from the country he was also the father of Alexander and Rufus.

That’s all of the objective information that we have. With so little information and only one momentary action, why is Simon mentioned at all in any of the gospels, let alone all three?

So now begins the detective work of finding out who Simon was and what happened to him. And once we paint a credible picture of Simon we can ask what impact there was on his spirit and heart when he was forced to carry the cross and witness Jesus’ execution. And finally we can apply his experience to our lives.

So we need to examine the few leads that we have. We know that Simon is from Cyrene. Cyrene was in North Africa in the country we call Libya. It was an ancient Greek city and in Jesus’ time it was ruled by the Romans. And further Cyrene had a Jewish community. Now we have to speculate. Most likely Simon came to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Temple for Passover. Male Jews were encourage to go to the Great Temple at least once in their lives. Remember also that Jesus was crucified during the Passover season.

Chances are in Cyrene very little, if anything, was known about Jesus’ ministry. Simon probably learned about Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem. What he was told would have been determined by whether he was with people sympathetic to Jesus or people who were against Jesus. Nonetheless, like anyone else, on this Friday before Passover, Simon was curious about what all the excitement was along the road. He went to see … and by his bad luck … or really God’s intent … he was drafted by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross.

It’s doubtful he was pleased. Chances are he had no opinion about Jesus. He saw a criminal – indeed a rebel – being hauled off to be executed… a common site in the Roman Empire. It was exciting, but just a passing event … until the Roman soldier tapped him on the shoulder with his sword.

It’s a safe assumption that Simon was not happy. He came to worship at the Temple, the center of Judaism – probably a once in a lifetime event for someone who lived far to the west. Now he has to carry this heavy cross for some miles for a criminal.

But just possibly something happen along the way and at the crucifixion that changed his life.

The Gospel of Mark identifies the sons of Simon: Alexander and Rufus. The gospel would not have mentioned them unless they were important to the Christian community. If Simon’s sons were first generation Christians, then we can speculate that Simon never went home.  Further St. Paul in his letter to the Romans asks the readers to greet Rufus and his mother, as the chosen of God (Romans 16:13). We can’t be sure, but it is likely that Paul is referencing the son and wife of Simon. And in this may lay the reason that the gospels included Simon: He was a convert whose family was prominent in the Christian community and among that community he was famous for having relieved Jesus of his burden of carrying the cross.

What changed Simon of Cyrene we can never know. Possibly, even likely, he arrived in the Holy Land months before the Passover. Possibly he had friends or relatives who gave him … and his family (if had already married and had children) a place to stay during the length of their stay. Possibly their host family was interested in Jesus and so Simon knew more than we can speculate. Did he then take pride in carrying the cross and was not angry? Probably not, since the gospels would most likely want to say as much. All of the talk about Jesus would take time to sink in with Simon and now it was too late – Jesus was going to his death. Most likely Simon now didn’t want to be involved.

Yet Simon remained in the Holy Land and his family became true followers of Jesus. Eventually they would go to Rome to evangelize the Romans. What happened?

Even though Simon was forced to take up Jesus’ burden, our detective work indicates that he, along with his family, eventually embraced that burden and carried it through their lives … the burden of living and witnessing to a way of living that the powers and principalities wanted to destroy.

I suspect that we all have experienced unwanted burdens. An auto accident, a cancer diagnoses, losing our job, a child getting into trouble, getting robbed and on and on curses us with unwanted burdens that affect our lives deeply. We naturally become angry and anxious. We feel our lives are turned upside down. And we have to work through the days to come to adjust to the ramifications of such unexpected burdens. Even once the burden is resolved, we can be left with residual anger and anxiety. We rarely find anything worth while in having carried such a burden.

But encountering such burdens is part of being imperfect humans in an imperfect world in a chaotic age.  Often we feel very alone in our burden. But we all live in a community of humans and often we can find help to get through these experiences. Our family of course is there to help us. But there are also support groups and social workers. And there is the church where much love lives.

And we can lean into God. God moves through our lives in the events we experience and in the feelings that we have and in the interactions we have with people. If we are prayerful and attentive to God’s presence in our lives we can find much support from God, knowing that we will live through the burden by God’s grace.

If we are consistently attentive to God in our lives sensing God in our thoughts and prayers almost constantly, the reality of God becomes an ordinary part of our lives. We will find our lives are richer and deeper. We are never alone and we will sense that. We will see and feel the world not as centered on ourselves, but as a web of love and hope even when we can see no possibility for either. We can thank God every day and find our lives are more thankful. We can call upon God for the small problems in our lives and sense that hope is there … always.

And then when we are faced with an unwanted life affecting burden we will sense God’s presence carrying us through it. We are more likely to survive the impact of the burden and come out of it more sound emotionally and spiritually than if we didn’t involve God in our efforts to cope. And our imperfect lives in an imperfect world will find more joy than if we ignored the gift of God’s presence.

But I think what happen to Simon is different from this. He was randomly forced to carry Jesus’ cross. It wasn’t something that necessarily would uproot his life, like a cancer diagnoses.  Rather it was much like jury duty – just an inconvenient one time chore Roman law required of him. When he arrived at Calvary with the cross, he could have just handed it over to the executioners and walked away … never to be mentioned in the Gospels. He need not turn his life upside down because of it.

But he did turn his life upside down. Something happened to turn him to Jesus. We will never know what happened, but from our detective work, something did … and carrying Jesus’ burden turned his life towards a new world that utterly changed his life.

Maybe we can call Simon’s burden a divine burden. He relieved, even if forced, Jesus from that burden. Jesus had been tortured so badly he no longer had the strength to carry his own cross as was the Roman requirement. Jesus wasn’t the only prisoner to sustain such tortures, since the Romans had developed a protocol for pulling someone out of the crowd to take the cross.

And this time it fell to Simon. From a Roman viewpoint he was just a random man who looked like he had the strength. But God guided that Roman guard to Simon and by doing so set in motion the conversion of not only Simon, but his family who would work to establish the Christian community.

There can be times when one of us may find a burden thrust upon us out of the blue. Not a burden that arises from our living our imperfect lives, but a burden that has no apparent connection to us. For example, one of us witnesses a crime and reports it to the police. Now out of nowhere your life is affected. You are called to court to describe what you saw. And it could just end there and be a momentary disturbance in your life. But if you are tuned to God’s presence in your life you may notice that the victim needs comfort and help. You reach out to them. Or God may have a more challenging idea. Maybe the perpetrator needs help … after all he (or she) is a human being too. And you are in place where you can help with the criminal’s reconstruction.

Imagine your own possibility: Sometime God just may ask you to step out of your routine life and reach out to somebody that you unknowingly are in a position to help … and, like Simon, you are so moved to respond your life is forever changed.

Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …