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A Life for a Life

This is an old story about two brothers who lived in Spain, many years ago, when law courts were not so careful as they are now.

Luis and Sebastian were twins, and their home was a flat roofed white house outside the walls of a little mountain town. Their parents had died, but had left them a small inheritance, and the boys lived on in their own home. They were so alike that no one in town could tell them apart.

But as the years passed, the boys developed differently. Sebastian held a good job; he was kind, steady and hardworking, and everyone spoke well of him. But Luis was lazy and would not work. He cared for nothing but pleasure, and spent every evening drinking and gambling, often not coming home until early morning. In vain Sebastian begged him to leave his bad companions and make a fresh start. Luis just laughed.

It was late one night, and the full moon shone on the white walls of the town. Sebastian sat at the window, strangely uneasy, his eyes fixed on the white ribbon of road that led to the city gates. Luis, as usual, had not come in, but somehow tonight his brother could not sleep.

He spotted the running figure even before he heard the beat of his feet, and he went to the door. Luis was running alone, and pushed past him into the house. By the light of the lamp his face showed deathly white, and his clothes were torn and blood-stained. He trembled so that he could hardly speak.

"Oh, Sebastian," he panted, "hide me! Hide me! They are coming to take me and it will be death for me!"

"What do you mean?" asked Sebastian, running to the window. Sure enough, a crowd of people were surging from the town gates, running… running towards the house.

"We drank too much," cried Luis. "We fought… I didn't mean to… he fell back and died. Oh, Sebastian, hide me! What shall I do?"

But Sebastian already knew what to do and was tearing off his tunic. There was not a moment to spare.

"Put on these clothes and give me yours," he commanded. "Quick! Stop trembling. Now run out of the back door, and up into the hills, and don't come back for a long time…run, brother, run!"

Truly, they were only just in time. Already the noise of shouting and running feet was at their gate. A moment later, the town guard, followed by an excited crowd, burst into the house, and drew up short in front of Sebastian. He stood very still, breathing fast, his hair disordered, dirt on his hands and face, wearing the torn, blood-stained tunic. They handcuffed him but he offered no resistance.

He walked quietly back to the town jail. A few days later he was tried and condemned to death for murder.

Nearly all the men of the town crowded into that courtroom to gaze at the prisoner. When the trial was over and the spectators sat in the wine houses discussing the case, they all said the same thing:

"How quiet he stood! He did not say a word to defend himself, nor did he plead for his life, nor did he seem afraid." "You saw for yourselves the blood stains on my tunic," he said. " I have no defense."

"And where was that fine brother of his?" asked others. "Why was he not at the trial? Nor was he at work this morning. Is he ashamed of his brother, that he lets him die alone?"

But no one knew the answer to that one, and a few days later, Sebastian was executed. A life for a life.

Luis hid in the mountain villages for many weeks. He changed his town clothes for a peasant's outfit and worked for a farmer all through the harvest season. At first he never dared leave his lodging: night after night he would wake trembling, dreaming of those terrible running feet. But as time went on he grew bolder. He bitterly regretted killing his comrade and longed to see his brother again. "Perhaps they will have ceased to hunt for me now," he thought. "Next market day I will go down, disguised, to the town and try to speak to my brother."

He had grown a beard and stained his face, and no one could have recognized him. Dressed in peasant clothing he joined a crowd of muleteers and went to market. While the bargaining was at its height, he joined a group of bystanders, and started chatting. Gradually he drew the conversation round to the recent murder case.

"I hear the wretched fellow got away," he said. "Are they still searching for him, or have they given up?"

"Given up?" replied his companion, turning to him in amazement. "Our militia never give up! They caught him the same day, tried him the same week, and he died two days later. There's justice for you! Strange thing is though, there was a brother who disappeared the same day, and has never turned up since… some say…"

But no one ever heard what some were saying, for Luis gave a strange desolate cry and ran from the market place. Half-blinded with tears, he somehow managed to reach the Governor's house and almost forced an entrance. When the Governor appeared to see what the commotion was about, Luis fell at his feet.

"You have killed an innocent man," he cried, over and over again. "It was I, not my brother. Now take me too, for what have I got to live for now?"

The governor withdrew. After much discussion, he returned.

"The law says, a life for a life," he announced. "If your brother was innocent how could we know - his tunic was covered with blood, and he refused to plead. The case is closed. Go, and keep your mouth shut, and see that you make no more trouble."

But as Luis turned blindly away, the Governor spoke again. "Stay," he said suddenly. "You are the only brother of the executed man?"

"Yes, yes. There is no one else."

"Then I have a letter for you. The prisoner wrote it hastily and left it in my care just before he died. I will fetch it for you."

Seated in the old home, where he and his brother had past so many pleasant evenings together in childhood and early boyhood, Luis wept and wept. It was nearly sunset before he opened the letter. It was very short, and he read it over and over, until it was too dark to see the writing, and he knew it by heart.

"My dear brother," ran the letter. "This morning I shall die, of my own free will, in your blood-stained tunic. Now I beseech you to live in my clean tunic. I send you my love and God bless you. Sebastian."

And Luis understood. The waster, who had lived for himself and fought and murdered, must be counted as dead in prison. The man who had loved and suffered and sacrificed must go on living. It should be so. He sat thinking till the early light glimmered in the room. Then he rose and flung off his dirty disguise. He washed and dressed himself in clean clothing, as Sebastian would have done, and went out to meet the new day.*

Jesus, like Sebastian, has put on our sin-stained clothes. By placing our faith in him and in his death and resurrection as God’s only way of forgiving our sin, like Luis, we are putting on His spotless clothes. By his grace, we are declared righteous in God’s sight and are given a brand new life to live for Him.

If you want to know more about who Jesus is, about what he has done, or about this brand new life, please contact us.

* “A Life for a Life” chapter from A Young Person’s Guide to Knowing God by Patricia St John - edition published 2000, reprinted 2008, 2009 and 2012 - used with permission of Christian Focus Publications