Moment of Truth
I would sit on a rock in our yard and watch Jesus, my oldest brother, nurse an injured bird or other small animal, while James, Joseph, and Simon, the second, third and fourth oldest sons, assisted him with little splints and poultices made of cooking dough or clay. Occasionally, I would look on with alarm as they force fed little creatures or applied herbal medicine to their wounds. I didn’t understand why Jesus didn’t play normal games with us and why I was always left out. Had it been my age that kept me from participating? Had it been that spark of rebellion I often showed when confronted with Jesus high-handed ways? Perhaps he sensed my disbelief and hostility toward him. Recently, Jesus had given my brothers nature lessons. I tagged along at times but remained in the background, wishing they would pay attention to me. As I stood in the background, he would show his brothers nests filled with birds eggs, burrows of mice and rabbits, an assortment of insects, intricate spider webs, and countless bushes, flowers and trees that caught his eye. For each plant or animal he had a name, which was a miracle in itself. Even now, with everything I have learned about my oldest brother, I wonder how a child, even Jesus, knew so much.
I had been too young at the time to understand what happened in Jerusalem, but I remember the commotion among the pilgrims leaving the city. After eavesdropping many times upon my parents’ conversations, I learned, among other things, of Jesus exploits in the Temple. It appeared as though he discussed aspects of the Torah with a group of priests and scribes and comported himself quite well. A witness, who joined our procession home, told us about a little tow headed boy with blue eyes, who confounded the holy men. My parents knew who this prodigy was. Where had he learned the names and habits of creatures when he was so young? How could he, a mere child, discourse with the learned men of Jerusalem? Who had told him these things? As a mere child, Jesus knew more than I would learn in a lifetime, and yet, in my childish ignorance and arrogance, I grew to hate my oldest brother for always being the center of attention.
It would have been different if Jesus had been like the rest of us. Many times, as he began talking strangely or stopped to stare up at the sky, we would wait until his mood had passed. Often this tried our patience, so we shook him until he tumbled back down to earth. Until Jesus began treating sick animals, James, Joseph, and Simon often made fun of him during such lapses. Though they pretended otherwise, we, his mortal brothers could not understand him. There were times our father and mother were, themselves, totally mystified by Jesus actions. Many of our neighbors thought he was deranged.
He wasn’t normal. He could never play hide-and-seek or any of the other childhood games, as other children did. This was, it was explained to us by our father, because Jesus couldn’t tell a lie. When it was his turn to hide like everyone else, he would immediately show himself when the seeker called his name. The “let’s pretend” games of Israelite versus Philistine and Roman versus barbarian we children played, for that matter, were too devious for Jesus, since they required pretended stabbings, playing dead, and making shrill, warlike sounds. Because of his sanctimoniousness, none of the children wanted Jesus on their teams. When exploring the countryside, he would lag behind us, wrapped in his thought, and then appear suddenly in our midst to keep us out of harm’s way. He would not allow any daring-do or mischief in his presence and might tattle on anyone who broke the rules, such as trespassing in neighbors’ gardens or picking their fruit. He would never bear false witness, cheat or cause another’s pain, and yet he always seemed to ruin everyone’s fun. Self-righteous and, sometimes it seemed, without apparent fault, he nevertheless made us feel inferior, even sinful or wanting, in his presence. Was this not wrong? Was his role as spoil sport and tattletale not a sin?
And now this, I told myself, as memories of Jesus played in my head—Jesus, the animal doctor! When he was around, the children of Nazareth shunned us. Because of this ritual each day, I was deprived of my brothers’ companionship. Those play times I was not with my friends at the rabbinical school, doing as we pleased and sneering at Jesus’ antics, I would sit on my rock witnessing, without realizing it, a prelude of what would happen that incredible day.
The list of God's creatures treated by Jesus and his brothers, I observed, included everything from the family goat to various birds, rats, and mice. Once when they attempted to treat an injured dog, our father returned from his carpentry shop and drove the poor beast away. James, Joseph, and Simon, however, in utter disobedience, treated the dog anyway and searched Nazareth until they found it a home. Jesus, who wished to do no wrong, had been torn by this duplicity.
I still remember that day, with mirth, when Papa scolded Jesus and my other brothers for disobeying him and Jesus’ response when he threatened to beat all four of them if they ever did it again. “I must tend to my Father’s creation,” Jesus had replied cryptically. Even now, with all my years of reflection and greater understanding, I am amazed at his boldness.
Jesus had, he believed, obeyed a higher will, which seemed to mock his earthly father’s authority. With our mother’s interfering hand, however, all Papa could really do was sternly rebuke Jesus for setting such a bad example to his younger brothers and give the four of them extra chores around the shop.
“It is better to obey God than man,” Jesus had replied, after being handed a hoe by father and told to, in fact, do God’s work.
Often, because I was so well behaved, Papa would walk over and pat my head. At the same time, it was evident to the rest of us that he wanted to strike Jesus at times, but something always stayed his hand. If it had been James, Joseph, Simon or even myself defying his will, he would cuff us soundly when mother wasn’t around, but there was something very different about Jesus back then. That this would prove to be a understatement in the years ahead, brings a smile to my face...and a frown. Jesus different? On that special day, which I’ve catalogued as “the Incident of the Sparrow,” we would begin to see just how different our older brother really was.
As I watched Jesus frantically trying to bring life back to a dead bird, I shifted uneasily on my rock, partly because of the bee sting I had received on my rear the previous day but also because I knew this time Jesus, even by his standards, was going too far. James, Joseph, and Simon thought so too.
It was hot in Nazareth that day. The sky was cloudless and the radiance from the whitewashed buildings surrounding our small house stung my eyes. As the morning sun brimmed the treetops and flooded the garden, I was lulled into drowsiness, so I shut my eyes against the light and troubling spectacle unfolding before me this hour.
“The sparrow is dead, Jesus,” Simon, the youngest of the physicians, exclaimed, “let us bury it in our animal cemetery. What you do is unclean!”
“No, no, this is different than the others,” wept Jesus. “This one’s still alive. I can’t fail now. I will blow the breath of my Father into him. Like the others, I’ll make him live!”
James, who had been acting as chief assistant, was taken back. “What do you mean ‘I’ll make him live?’ We’re a team, are we not?”
“Yes, Jesus,” Joseph, our father's namesake, rose up and glared down at him, “you think you’re so special! You said ‘my father’ before when we treated the dog. Joseph, the husband of our mother, Mary, is our father, is he not?”
“I have two fathers!” Jesus finally confessed, a troubling expression falling over his face.
“What? What did Jesus say?” I bolted suddenly off my rock, rubbing my eyes.
I was not dreaming. It was common knowledge that one didn’t feel pain in dreams. The pain I felt on my rear end was still quite real, and yet I could scarcely believe my eyes or ears. Though I was just eight years old, I knew a blasphemy when I heard it. Fortunately for Jesus, Papa was in town repairing the rabbi’s roof. Our mother, who rarely ever interfered with Jesus experiments but would take issue with this, had not yet appeared. Unlike all the other times I sat as a bystander and merely watched Jesus strut around, I decided it was time to take action against my oldest brother. I wanted, as I wanted the last time when Papa threatened Jesus, to see him beaten soundly for what he did. How could we, his younger brothers, who were jealous of Jesus, possibly have understood who or what he was? All that we saw was an eccentric, sometimes entertaining misfit, who was always saying and doing strange things.
That day, however, I was witness to the development of an immediate rift between Jesus and his brothers: James, Joseph and Simon. I, for my part, was not as jealous of Jesus as my brothers and even our little sisters were at times. We resented the special treatment he received from our parents, but since I was the youngest son, our father had treated me special too. I, alone, looked like our father and even had, according to our mother, some of his traits. Perhaps because I was so young and small, I seldom had many chores other than making up my pallet and feeding Elijah, our pet goat. It was our mother who forced our father to treat Jesus in such a special way. Until this fateful day, we didn't really know why. Now added to my other brothers’ jealousy of Jesus was fear, but I hated Jesus for his bossy and sanctimonious airs, nothing more.
That day, after jumping off my rock, I ran straight to the rabbi’s house. I recall a certain wicked feeling of self-righteousness puffing me up. I was going to get even with my big brother now. Jesus was going to pay! He was going to get punished severely, maybe even beaten finally for his efforts to bring back the dead bird. I didn’t care what our mother thought, and I wasn’t concerned with my brothers’ change of heart. I was doing this for myself. I could just imagine what both rabbi Joachim and my father would think when I told them what I saw. Did not the rabbi quote Leviticus in the Torah when he cried out Suffer ye not a witch? Clearly, Jesus, who fancied himself some sort of sorcerer, was addled in the head. Looking back over the years, I wonder if the Evil One had not entered me, at least momentarily, that hour. Yet it appeared to me, as a bolt of revelation, that the moment of truth for Jesus had finally come.
The main road in Nazareth was filled with Roman soldiers that day, so I slowed down to a shuffle, since the Romans distrusted running Jews. Through the dust thrown up by horsemen, I could see the silhouettes of their helmets and fluttering capes. What these several dozen legionnaires were doing in our small town I had no clue, but even the presence of the Romans could not deter me today. When I reached the rabbi’s humble house, I saw my father on his ladder, pulling a rotten log from the roof.
The rabbi, a portly fellow with a long gray flecked black beard, was this minute explaining to Papa why the Romans were in town. Except for the admiration I had for soldiers, I could care less about the latest gossip. I listened for only a few moments until, after squirming, fidgeting, and signaling my father unsuccessfully with my hands, I interrupted their conversation with my report.
“Cornelius is looking for brigands who ambushed a caravan,” the rabbi chatted, while stroking his beard. “They seem peaceable enough. Now if those fellows ambushed Romans, they’d be here with blood in their eyes.”
Papa looked down thoughtfully from his work. “I’m not worried about the Romans, Joachim. Cornelius is an honest man. It was much worse the last time they were here.”
“Tsk-tsk, I remember that time.” The rabbi looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun. “That Judah caused us much trouble. Men hung from crosses throughout Galilee—some of them from our town. It was an awful, Joseph. Many wives became widows in Galilee. I heard they crucified a few women too.”
“Judah was a murderous revolutionary,” Papa nodded, wiping his brow. “Those men who attacked the caravan last week killed only Jews. “. . . .Well,” he grunted, holding a nail in place, “that’s why we need Romans. Don’t worry, rabbi. They’ll clean it up, just like last time. Oh it isn’t pretty—a terrible sight, but those bandits will get the point.” “Then, down the road, a new band of murderers and thieves will arise and bam!” He crashed his mallet onto the nail. “More bandits and (bam-bam!) more crosses, until the roads are once again safe!”
Rabbi Joachim gave him a sour look and shook his head as Papa hammered in another nail. What a dreadful subject, I thought, making a face. Though it made me shudder, my curiosity was prickled. I had never seen a crucifixion. My parents made sure we children stayed put at such times. In spite of their brutality, the fact that Romans were protecting Galileans seemed important to me. I, for one, admired soldiers more than the country bumpkins in this small town. I had heard Papa talk about Cornelius before and seen the commander upon his great white horse, galloping majestically down the road. Nevertheless, time was running out. I had enough of this chitchat. I wanted Papa to catch Jesus in the act.
“Jesus is blowing into a dead bird’s mouth!” I cried out in desperation.
“What?” Papa looked down from his ladder.
“Oh, hello little Jude,” the rabbi said, patting my tangled mat of hair. “Now, what is this nonsense about big brother Jesus?”
My father didn’t think it was nonsense. The mallet fill out of his hand that moment, barely missing the rabbi’s head. “Oh my Lord,” he mumbled frantically, “he’s at it again!”
“I don’t understand Joseph,” Joachim gave Papa a suspicious look. “Little Jude is serious about this? Jesus is blowing into a dead bird’s mouth? That is unwholesome, Joseph. Jesus must be addled in his head!”
Papa ignored the rabbi’s rebuke. More nimbly than I had ever seen him before, he climbed down the ladder and, with my little hand clutched in his, practically dragged me back to or house.
“Joseph,” Joachim called after us, “slow down. You’re frightening the boy!”
“I’ll be back soon to finish the repairs,” promised Papa, forging ahead.
Wincing in pain but afraid to speak, I looked up at my perspiring father, cringing at the panic my words caused. Guilt for my betrayal of Jesus but also glee filled me when I considered what Papa might do.
“Are you going to beat Jesus?” I finally asked.
“You don’t understand, Jude.” He looked down after releasing my hand. “…You’re too young,” he struggled to explain, “… Jesus is not like you. He’s special.”
“So am I Papa,” I said, my lower lip quivering, “you said I was your favorite son.”
“I should not have said that,” my father said with recrimination. “That’s between you, me, and God.”
“Why does Mama treat Jesus so special,” I asked him as he re-clasped my hand more gently and led me slowly up to the house. “. . . Jesus said something funny Papa. He said he had two fathers. Aren’t you his only father?”
“I think it’s time that we try to explain,” Papa announced just as mother peeked out of the entrance of the house.
“What’s wrong Joseph?” her lilting voice carried only minor concern.
“Jesus is starting to know,” he said with a shrug. “ . . . He mentioned his father. He’s trying to revive a dead bird.”
“Oh dear me!” she gasped.
Emotion was rarely displayed on our mother’s serene face. Papa once told us in confidence that she had not allowed herself to be upset about anything since they fled to Egypt, so her expression underscored the seriousness of this event. I know now, with great reverence, that I was a witness to history. Jesus had been on the brink of performing his first miracle for us, and all I could think of was the punishment he rightly deserved. I knew almost nothing of the episode in Egypt except the fact that it had happened right after Jesus was born. Now, in spite of our parents promise to the Almighty, something the rest of us would find our about later, the truth was seeping out. Papa and I didn’t know how serious the matter had become, however, until we entered the backyard garden area and spotted Jesus crouching over the dead bird. James, Joseph, and Simon were standing several feet away wringing their hands and shaking their heads as their older brother continued to blow the breath of God into the dead bird.
“Jesus, stop this at once!” Papa shouted angrily.
“Oh dear me,” Mama kept saying as she wrung her hands.
Out of nowhere, my twin five year old sisters, Abigail and Martha, ran to her, squealing with delight at this funny scene. By now, after all the agitation in Jesus hands, the bird should have been a lifeless, twisted mass, but something beyond our comprehension happened that would forever change our lives. With the bird cupped in his large hands, Jesus giggled with delight, looked back up to the heavens, and thanked his Father, God. That moment my brothers, sisters, and I believed he was quite mad. In his peculiarly deep, though child-like voice, he said: “Fly away sparrow. Fly to my Father’s kingdom and tell Him I know the secret!”
“Secret, what secret? Did you tell him Mary?” asked my father, flashing her an accusing look.
“I told the boy nothing,” she shrugged, comforting the twins, whose mood had turned to fear. “Jesus is playing a children’s game.”
Opening his hands now, Jesus held his palms upward, in a cruciform position. The tiny sparrow as quickly flew away, its chirp signaling its thanks to its savior, Jesus, and as faint as distant starlight to the world also signaling Jesus’ future mission on earth. Everyone except me, the youngest brother, stood there in the garden area in shock. I just felt very tired of all this. I wanted a fig and some fresh dates. I wished my older brothers would pay attention to me.
“That bird was dead!” cried James.
“Nah, it must’ve been unconscious.” Simon had come to his senses.
I tended to agree with Simon. I was not impressed in the least and looked up hopefully at Papa, wondering if Jesus would get punished now. James, Joseph, and Simon looked back at our father in bewilderment and dismay. The twins, who hugged their mother’s thighs, hid their faces in terror. Mother and father exchanged worried, though knowing, looks as Jesus watched the sparrow fly out of sight.
“Ho-ho, Simon must be correct,” Papa told us unconvincingly, “only God can bring back the dead.”
“But he was dead,” Joseph, the third son, argued quietly. “He died in Jesus’ hands!”
At that point Jesus looked down with a frown. It seemed as if something was about to escape his lips. “. . . Something is shaping in my mind,” he murmured. “. . . I see things. . .”
“Don’t say it!” Mama ran to him and cupped his mouth. “Dear God, you’re only a child!”
She said something else to Jesus we couldn’t hear. When Papa was at his wits ends with Jesus, she had a way of breaking into our brother’s mental cloud and bringing him down to earth. Suddenly, as the oldest brother’s face contorted and he began to weep, we were all reminded that, in spite of his high-minded ways, our big brother Jesus was not yet a man. He had only recently turned thirteen. Despite the traditional notion that boys were subject to the commandments at thirteen, Jesus was still a child. But he was also something else that would dawn on us slowly with each year of our lives.
“Should I tell them?” Mama looked questioningly at her husband now.
“No, let’s keep it short,” He dismissed her with a wave. “You and the twins run along and begin our afternoon meal. After I tell the boys our secret, Jesus and I are going to have a man-to-man talk.”
Jesus wiped the tears from his face and gave us all a winning smile. His moods changed like cloud formations, Papa would often say. Three of the younger brothers were both enthralled and fearful for this secret they hoped to hear. I was disappointed that Jesus would not get into trouble again, but at least he would be scolded for what he did today.
Papa now sat Jesus on my rock, which I gladly relinquished. Suddenly the oldest child looked very small to his brothers—a mere boy cringing under his father’s glare. Until I dared speak again, our father remained silent, gathering his thoughts.
“Tell us Papa,” I said innocently, “why does Jesus claim to have another father?”
He sighed raggedly, whistled under his breath, and reached down and patted Jesus’ head.
“You don’t mind me telling them, do you?” he asked Jesus gently.
“No sir, I don’t,” he brightened, a strange exaltation in his blue eyes.
“Of course you don’t,” Papa murmured through the corner of his mouth, “you just couldn’t keep it to yourself, could you?” “…. All right, it’s like this,” he began, looking around at us all. “Jesus did have another father—”
“Who? Who?” James, Joseph, and Simon cried.
“Uh, that’s a secret,” he replied dubiously.
“A secret Papa?” I looked at him in disbelief.
“Yes, Jude, I adopted Jesus when he was just a babe.”
“What does ad-dop-ted mean?” Simon made a face.
A Galilean fisherman would have said that Papa was in troubled waters. I sensed his predicament at a more elemental level. As young as I was, I knew Papa was lying. A secret about a secret; that’s what it amounted to. It was absurd! As everyone else, I had always sensed that Jesus was odd. Often our mother and father treated him differently than their other children. Jesus had seemed to hold a special place in their eyes. Papa’s words filled us with suspicion, and yet I sensed that he was hiding an even greater secret….What could it be?
“Children, there are many reasons why parents adopt children,” he tried to explain.
“Name one,” I challenged, searching Jesus’ face.
“Well, adultery is one of them,” Jesus offered artlessly, gathering together his medical paraphernalia.
Papa’s mouth dropped and eyes popped wide. He could scarcely believe his ears.
“Oh, I heard the rabbi say that in the synagogue,” Jesus said calmly. “A man may marry a woman to protect her reputation, especially if she was raped.”
“Jesus, shut up!” Papa whispered now, but with my precocious ears I heard his words and drew close.
“I don’t understand.” I looked back and forth between Papa and Jesus accusingly. “Why did Papa ad-dopt you? What does adultery mean, and what is raped?”
“I think it’s time for Jesus and I to take a walk,” Papa announced lamely taking Jesus’ hand.
James, Joseph, and Simon didn't know what to think, and like me, stood there shaking their heads as our father and Jesus walked away. I, for my part, was greatly disappointed. Once again Jesus had not been punished. When they were out of earshot, James whispered something to Joseph and Simon and the three crept after the pair, while I sulked a moment on my rock.
“We’re going to find out what’s going on,” James explained simply, motioning for me to come along. “Keep your mouth shut Jude. If Papa sees us eavesdropping, he’ll whip us good!”
“He never whips Jesus,” I snarled.
“Yes,” whispered Joseph, “and we’re gonna find out why!”
Our father had taken Jesus into a small clearing near the olive grove. On a nearby hillock covered with mustard bushes, we planted ourselves. We were able from our vantage point to see the two speakers as well as clearly hear everything they said.
“Now tell me Jesus,” Papa said firmly, looking squarely into the youngster’s blue eyes, “what exactly do you remember of your past?”
“Why have you lied to us?” He looked at Papa accusingly. “You say I am adopted and I’m not your son?”
“Yes,” Papa studied Jesus carefully. “. . . You really don’t know, do you?”
“Know what?” Jesus pressed. “What is the secret you don’t want us to know.”
“Wait a minute,” our father waved off his question. “If you didn’t know about your adoption, what was all that nonsense about your two fathers?”
After studying the blank look on Jesus face a moment, Papa sighed with relief it seemed, bent forward and kissed Jesus’ forehead. A surge of jealousy now filled me. Had Papa lied about this too? Was Jesus, not I, his favorite son?
“Forget it, my son…” He spread his palms. “You’re too young…You wouldn’t understand. Believe me, God does not want you to know—not yet. You must finish your childhood. It’s not yet time.”
“Time? What time?” Jesus looked at him in disbelief. “…. I have these dreams. I don’t understand them.”
“I have had dreams too,” Papa reached out and embraced his eldest son. “Once, long ago, He told me that I must believe your mother, and I have believed her ever since…. The Lord shall be obeyed!”
“What dreams Papa?” Jesus looked up through Papa’s beard. “What did he tell you and mother?”
As I watched him look down at Jesus, we, his younger brothers, held our breaths. To my shame now, I felt only jealousy at that point, and I sensed that James, Joseph and Simon were jealous too. Though we failed to comprehend then, the great secret between our parents and the Almighty was at that moment almost unveiled.
“…I cannot say,” Papa said finally, looking down into his face. “….Please trust us, Jesus. Your mother is a simple woman. For a long time, I thought Mary had forgotten what happened to her and only I was burdened with memories of those events. But much of those details are a blur to me now too. It’s as if the Lord has done as the baker in town, who places his best loaves in the back room to cool, then forgets them as he continues to bake more bread.”
“Bread,” Joseph whispered with a snarl, “now he’s talking about bread.”
“I get it,” James murmured. “...The bread is our thoughts!”
“But what does all this mean?” I muttered in bewilderment. “Why is he talking about bread?”
Jesus grew exasperated, as did we. “What Papa?” he asked in a constricted voice “What is in the back room?”
I began to wiggle from boredom. At that point Simon whispered in my ear “There’s bread in the room!”
“What donkey droppings!” Joseph muttered to himself.
For a moment, as we whispered amongst ourselves, we thought we had been overheard. Papa seemed to look quizzically up at the hillock and mustard bushes in which we hid, but then his attention was drawn back to Jesus’ face. Suddenly, to our amazement, Jesus eyes seemed to blaze in the sunlight and his face glowed as if from inner heat. Papa drew away, made the sign to ward off the evil eye and pulled his cloak over his face, a custom we Galileans picked up from the Arabs in our land. I would understand Jesus’ “magic” clearly in later years better than James, Joseph, and Simon, but his behavior during this period had mystified me. I had no patience with my oldest brother. If it had not been for James grimy hand on my mouth, I would have broken into giggles at such a sight. It seemed to me that Papa had grown frightened of Jesus’ spooky appearance. Mama would have scolded him for such superstition. This struck me as humorous, but I saw no amusement in James, Joseph, and Simon’s eyes. They had made the sign too. When the effect faded and the shadow of a sudden cloud rolled overhead, Papa scanned the sky in disbelief. At that point, I made the sign to ward off the evil eye myself.
“It’s the Evil One,” we could barely hear Jesus say.
“There were no clouds in the sky today,” my father declared in a constricted voice. “ Jesus, I know you can’t lie. Why did you call upon your Heavenly Father today?”
“Heavenly Father?” I whispered into James ear. “What does this mean?”
James frowned angrily, his hand clamping back onto my mouth. Jesus took several moments to formulate his reply. Joseph had to go to relieve his bladder, and Simon was so afraid he would get caught he was whimpering to himself. Just when the four of us had decided that we had heard enough, Jesus answered our father and was asked one more question that would haunt us all for years to come.
“I remember flashes, like lightning—on and off,” he explained, pressing his temples as if in pain. “These thoughts frighten me. I don’t know why I called upon the Heavenly Father. It just flashed into my head.”
“All right Jesus.” Papa signaled him to stop. “I’ll have to be satisfied with that answer, but I need to know something, my son. . . . Did you really bring back that dead bird?”
“Yes, father,” he looked unwaveringly into Papa’s eyes, “through my Heavenly Father, I brought him back.”
“So it’s true,” Papa said, raising his eyes to the clouds. “…. It has begun!”
The dark cloud passed on and, in fact, soon evaporated in the sun. We backed away slowly from the crest of the hillock and ran swiftly to our house.
This day of discovery, which made us even more confused, brought we, the four younger brothers, closer together. James, Joseph, and Simon had taken me into their confidence and seemed to respect me more for making a stand. At least this is what I wanted to believe. As we ran back to our home from the clearing, we felt a bond that we had not shared before—I especially, since I had always been excluded in the past. James, Joseph, and Simon had decided, against my arguments, as we scurried into the yard and took up positions of workers instead of eavesdroppers, that our brother was a magician or sorcerer, who did not know his own powers. His confusing answers to our father had proven this. This apparent ignorance on his part made him even more strange and dangerous in our minds. We now feared him and wondered what our father, for his part in the mystery, was keeping from us now. The very notion that Jesus was the Son of God and, for that matter, the Messiah had not yet occurred to us. Such revelations are difficult enough for adults. We were children, not Pharisees, rabbis or Sadducee priests; Jesus’ ambiguous relationship to his heavenly father, was too complex for us to comprehend—too complex, in fact, for even Jesus precocious thirteen year old mind, and yet we sensed that there was something far more serious about this than the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth.
This we knew for sure: Jesus was either a clever trickster or he had great powers.
“When Papa returns with our older brother,” counseled James, “he will see us sweating.” “Let us be working like so,” he made motions with the rake. “Mother’s herb garden can be one our chores!”
“I will find the hoe,” cried Joseph.
“I will fetch the shovel,” Simon exclaimed.
“And I will use the spade,” I said, looking down and searching for weeds.
As Papa and Jesus entered the garden, Jesus frowned at the four of us but said nothing. We understood immediately that he knew, but our father, who smiled with pleasure at our endeavors, gave me a pat on my head, as he often did, and returned to the rabbis house to finish repairing his roof.
I was his special son again, and yet I distrusted Jesus even more after what happened. Let my superstitious brothers believe what they want. For me, he was a trickster. When Papa was out of earshot, Jesus walked over to where I sat pulling weeds and handed me the spade. My father had made this tool for us. It was fashioned especially for our small hands. I did not believe Jesus’ act was another miracle, even though he appeared to bring the spade out of thin air.
“Tell us,” James paused in his raking to ask, “are you a sorcerer?”
“No,” Jesus laughed softly as he sat down on my rock, “I’m not a sorcerer.”
“A magician then,” Joseph leaned thoughtfully on his hoe.
“No, not a magician,” Jesus delighted in their awe.
“What exactly are you then,” challenged Simon. “Did you really bring that bird back to life?”
As they continued to interrogate our oldest brother, my rage at this puffed up braggart reached its peek
“You’re a liar!” I shot up to my feet. “You’re no different than us. You just want everyone to think you’re special, but your not. You’re not! You’re not! That bird wasn’t dead, and you were hiding the spade behind your back! I hate you! I hate you! I wish you would go away!”
“Someday I will.” Jesus eyes blazed and face seemed to radiate with that same inner heat.
“He did it again!” cried both Simon and James.
“Our brother Jesus is possessed!” Joseph concluded, making the sign to ward off the evil eye.
Five signs in one day was all I could take. I ran from the garden and our house and continued to run past the Roman soldiers riding down Nazareth’s main road. The soldiers did not bother me as Papa had warned, and yet I grew fearful of my own flight and slowed down when I reached the stone bridge. Where did I think I was going? I was only eight years old. I looked down into the dried creek, distracted by this marvel: a beautifully constructed Roman bridge in the middle of nowhere, which is where Nazareth seemed to be. Right now I needed such a distraction to slow the pace of my mind. I stood there my head pressed forlornly against the smoothly worn handrail, peering sadly down into the dry creek bed below.
My father had once said to me that Rome’s roads and bridges were her strength; once established in one of their provinces such as Judea and Galilee, they restrained and enslaved the inhabitants, since Roman legions could march freely throughout their conquered lands. But why would they bother with this corner of the earth? Why in this dusty, out-of-the-way outpost, had they build this beautiful bridge? As an eight year old boy, I could not understand the grand design of Rome nor could I yet grasp the subtleties of nationalism nor the passion of our faith, but I had my own secret desire to be a soldier like the legionnaires I had seen marching through our land. I did not know much about Rome then, except for the armored legionnaires who rode past us on the road. I would never have admitted it to my parents or brothers but I admired them very much. I also wished I could travel to far off lands.
It was at this moment of reflection that one of the great events of my life occurred on the bridge. The shadow of a horseman fell over me as I stood there looking down from the handrail into my thoughts. When I reeled around, prepared again to run, I saw the silhouette of a mounted Roman warrior against the sun. I could not make out his features yet until he shifted in his saddle and I caught the glint of armor and sparkling dark eyes. Soon I realized that I had nothing to fear. My eyes focused into the shadows upon a familiar visitor to our town. It was none other than Cornelius, the commander of the Galilean Cohort. My father told me that he was an honest and likable Roman. He had learned Aramaic, our language, understood our customs and, unlike many soldiers, treated us with respect. I often thought about him when the subject of being a soldier entered my mind, and yet I had never met him until today.
Here he was in the flesh!
“Ave, little Jude,” he called down in my tongue.
“Hello sir, I’m sorry I ran,” I blurted, feeling tears well up in my eyes.
“Why do you flee?” he asked, dismounting quickly from his horse.
I didn’t know how to answer this question. Was it simply because I was angry with Jesus and my parents? Had I been ashamed of my actions or was I merely confused? I wasn’t sure. As we faced each other north to south, instead of east to west, the shadow disappeared and I beheld the tallest and strongest Roman I had ever seen. His well-muscled arms were bare, displaying battle scars here and there, and he had a long jagged scar on his cheek. He wore mailed armor on his chest and a red cape around his neck. His breaches also had armor plating, as did an iron band on both of his wrists. His helmet, which impressed me most of all, had a red plume running down its center, which indicated his rank. He was, I had been told, a prefect, who commanded an entire cohort of men. With his short sword slung around his neck and a dagger in his belt, he seemed ready for combat, and yet a warm, friendly smile broke his chiseled face. He told me that I should go home and not worry my good father anymore. He handed me a silver denarius, with (I found out later) Caesar Augustus stamped on one side, enough to buy a week’s worth of pastries from the baker’s shop. But I would never spend this coin. I would treasure it always, hiding it with the other curios and artifacts picked up along life’s way. I could not know the role Cornelius would someday play in Jesus’ life or what the coin would mean to me someday. Though I did not have a word for it then, the strength and countenance of this Roman, even reckoned at my tender age, made him seem noble, even god-like, to me. While Jesus would be admired, though feared, by his brothers and sisters, I would grow to admire Cornelius, Prefect of the Galilean Cohort.
Though my father had talked about the Legionnaires to us at times and had pointed him out to me as he road by, I had never met such a warrior before. I walked back to our home, still upset about my brother Jesus, but with something new and inexplicable boiling inside my head. I did not want to be a rabbi as my father expected Jesus to be or a scribe as James and Joseph wanted to be. I was going to be soldier just like Cornelius. I would someday go to far off places that they would never know, . . . perhaps even Rome!
When I approached my home, everything seemed to be back to normal. Papa was back working on the rabbi’s roof, and I was sure my mother and sisters were baking and cooking for our next meal. As I passed through the gate and into the garden in front of our house, however, I could hear my brothers arguing in the backyard, so I ran to the corner of our house to eavesdrop, my heart hammering in expectation, freezing in my tracks as I stood at the edge.
“So, you don’t deny that you are possessed?” James said accusingly.
“. . . I’m possessed by the Holy Spirit,” Jesus searched for words.
“Holy spirit. What spirit is that? God? Are you saying you’re his son? You’re mistaken, Jesus!” Joseph said with scorn. “Admit that you are a magician. We can accept that. Don’t try to make yourself out as holy. You’re our brother, born from our mother. I don’t care who your other father was!”
“Can you turn bread into gold?” asked Simon with a grin.
I couldn’t help laughing at their words. Simon was half serious. Both James and Joseph could accept Jesus being a magician, even a sorcerer but they would never accept him as having a heavenly father as he claimed, especially if that made him the Son of God. I, for one, accepted none of these possibilities, for I believed that our eldest brother was a fake and charlatan, who was also quite mad. I didn’t believe he had brought a dead bird back to life. I had seen how he put little splints on small animals legs and fed them various gruels. Many of them had lived, but many of them had died. The dog he had saved had merely been starving, until my brothers fed it and found it a good home. As Jesus tended the garden, swept out the carpentry shop, and fed a stray cat, my brothers followed him around, asking him one question after another (Can you change water into wine? . . . Can you make it rain? . . . Why don’t you turn us into blocks of salt like Lot’s wife?). Jesus wouldn’t answer this time. After suffering my brothers’ interrogation, he fled into the house into my mother’s arms.
“Jesus, what’s wrong?” I heard her coo.
“They hate me,” he wept. “Why am I different Mama? Why can’t I be like other children? All I wanted to do was save one little bird.”
“Ah but Jesus,” we heard her reply softly, “soon you’ll be a man. Someday, when the time is right, God will tell you what to do.”
This was too much for me. It appeared as though Mama, like Jesus, was soft in the head. As James, Joseph, and Simon stood there craning their ears, in various stages of astonishment, I yawned with boredom, picked up a stone, and tossed it at a bird flying overhead. In barely an hour, I watched my oldest brother bring a dead bird back to life, learned that he was adopted, and met a Roman commander on a bridge. I decided, after meeting Cornelius, that when I was old enough I would run away from this backwoods town, perhaps even join the army, in order to see the world. That nonsense about Jesus being God’s son was just too fantastic to believe. There was just so much information I could digest. One of the most important episodes in Jesus and his family’s lives, which I recorded reverently in later years—the healing of the sparrow and the revelation of Jesus’ true father—had been dismissed outright in my childish mind. Perhaps, with the help of the Evil One, himself, I had convinced myself that he was a trickster and fake. Deep down in my heart, however, in that place Papa called the back room, I knew the truth. I would spend much time trying to escape it, including those flights of fancy that took me to places far away from home, but Jesus would not give up on me. He had planted the seed. Like it or not, it would grow slowly in my soul.