Like Cain and Abel, the Booth brothers exemplify this choice
Have you ever heard of Edwin Thomas, a master of the stage? During the latter half of the 1800s, this small man with the huge voice had few rivals. Debuting in Richard III at the age of 15, he quickly established himself as a premier Shakespearean actor. In New York he performed Hamlet for 100 consecutive nights. In London he won the approval of the tough British critics. When it came to tragedy on the stage, Edwin Thomas was in a select group.
When it came to tragedy in life, the same could be said as well. Edwin had two brothers, John and Junius. Both were actors, although neither rose to his stature. In 1863, the three siblings united their talents to perform Julius Caesar. The fact that Edwin’s brother John took the role of Brutus was an eerie harbinger of what awaited the brothers — and the nation — two years hence.
For this John who played the assassin in Julius Caesar is the same John who took the role of assassin in Ford’s Theatre. On a crisp April night in 1865, he stole quietly into the rear of a box in the Washington theater and fired a bullet at the head of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, the last name of the brothers was Booth — Edwin Thomas Booth and John Wilkes Booth.
Edwin was never the same after that night. Shame from his brother’s crime drove him into retirement. He might never have returned to the stage had it not been for a twist of fate at a New Jersey train station. Edwin was awaiting his coach when a well-dressed young man, pressed by the crowd, lost his footing and fell between the platform and a moving train. Without hesitation, Edwin locked a leg around a railing, grabbed the man, and pulled him to safety. After the sighs of relief, the young man recognized the famous Edwin Booth. Edwin, however, didn’t recognize the young man he’d rescued.
That knowledge came weeks later in a letter, a letter he carried in his pocket to the grave. A letter from an army general thanking Edwin Booth for saving the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. What an interesting twist of history that while one brother killed the president, the other brother saved the president’s son.
Edwin and John Booth. Same father, mother, and profession — yet one chooses life, the other, death. How could it happen? I don’t know, but it does. Though their story is dramatic, it’s not unique. Abel and Cain, both sons of Adam. Abel chooses God. Cain chooses murder. And God lets him. Abraham and Lot, both pilgrims in Canaan. Abraham chooses God. Lot chooses Sodom. And God lets him. David and Saul, both kings of Israel. David chooses God. Saul chooses power. And God lets him.
Peter and Judas, both deny their Lord. Peter seeks mercy. Judas seeks death. And God lets him.
In every age of history, on every page of Scripture, the truth is revealed: God allows us to make our own choices. And no one delineates this more clearly than Jesus. According to him, we can choose: a narrow gate or a wide gate (Matthew 7:13–14) a narrow road or a wide road (Matt. 7:13–14) the big crowd or the small crowd (Matt. 7:13–14) We can choose to: build on rock or sand (Matt. 7:24–27) serve God or riches (Matt. 6:24) be numbered among the sheep or the goats (Matt. 25:32–33). God gives eternal choices, and these choices have eternal consequences.
Isn’t this the reminder of Calvary’s trio? Ever wonder why there were two crosses next to Christ? Why not six or 10? Ever wonder why Jesus was in the center? Why not on the far right or far left? Could it be that the two crosses on the hill symbolize one of God’s greatest gifts? The gift of choice.
The two criminals have so much in common. Convicted by the same system. Condemned to the same death. Surrounded by the same crowd. Equally close to the same Jesus. In fact, they begin with the same sarcasm: “The two criminals also said cruel things to Jesus” (Matthew 27:44 CEV). But one changed.
One of the criminals on a cross began to shout insults at Jesus: “Aren’t you the Christ? Then save yourself and us.” But the other criminal stopped him and said, “You should fear God! You are getting the same punishment he is. We are punished justly, getting what we deserve for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43)
While we rejoice at the repentant thief’s change of heart, what about the thief who didn’t have a change of heart? Wouldn’t a personal invitation from Jesus be appropriate? Wouldn’t a word of persuasion be timely? Does not the shepherd leave the 99 sheep and pursue the one lost? Does not the housewife sweep the house until the lost coin is found? Yes, the shepherd does, the housewife does, but the father of the prodigal, remember, does nothing. The sheep was lost innocently. The coin was lost irresponsibly. But the prodigal son left intentionally. The father gave him the choice. Jesus gave both criminals the same.
There are times when God sends thunder to stir us. There are times when God sends blessings to lure us. But then there are times when God sends nothing but silence as he honors us with the freedom to choose where we spend eternity. And what an honor it is. In so many areas of life we have no choice — we didn’t choose our family or our natural abilities — but what an honor to have the choice of our destiny. Have we been given any greater privilege than that? And one good choice for eternity offsets a thousand bad ones on Earth. The choice is yours.
How can two brothers be born of the same mother, grow up in the same home, and one choose life and the other choose death? I don’t know, but they do. How could two men see the same Jesus and one choose to mock him and the other choose to pray to him? I don’t know, but they did. And when one prayed, Jesus loved him enough to save him. And when the other mocked, Jesus loved him enough to let him. He allowed him the choice. He does the same for you.