The Problem Child
In spite of Jesus’ claim that Michael was my brother, Michael didn’t act like a member of our family. For a very long time, as my father attempted to rebuild his reputation in Nazareth, his business was limited to townsmen waiting for woodwork or repairs to their homes. He was forced to travel to nearby communities where, on less hostile ground, he and my older brothers repaired fences, broken furniture, and roofs. Inexplicably, my brothers transferred their blame for Mariah to her son. They wouldn’t dare tell Michael how they felt or physically mistreated him. My parents, who treated him kindly enough, would not allow that. James and Joseph’s silence, however, spoke loudly to my friend. During our chores, at our meals, in our free time, or when Papa, Jesus, James, and Joseph returned from doing carpentry or repair work, they acted as if Michael wasn’t even there. Other than myself, only Simon, who joined me in helping Mama in the garden when not sanding wood or sweeping out the shop, gave Michael any recognition. For Simon, however, it was a begrudging acknowledgement, much like he gave my other friends. I thought my brothers, particularly James and Joseph, might get over it after awhile, but it only got worse. There was, I must admit, one advantage to this situation. As the youngest son, I had been given the least amount of respect from my brothers. For once in my life I was not at the end of the pecking order in our house. That place was now taken by Michael, the witches son.
Of course, when Papa and Mama were watching them closely, James and Joseph were polite to Michael as they were to Uriah and Nehemiah. It was, however, the same forced politeness they showed Cornelius and his men when my parents were around. Otherwise, they glared and snarled at people they didn’t like, which sometimes included me. Often James could be reasoned with, but Joseph held grudges, and he would never forgive me for me wanting to be a soldier for Rome. I showed partiality to the “enemy,” as he saw it, which was true in many respects. I admired the way the mounted sentries galloped down the road, commanding respect, if not awe. Occasionally, I would catch Cornelius, himself, ride into town on his big white stallion, lash its reins to a fence post, then climb majestically off his horse. Because of our neighbors and my brothers’ resentment for the Romans, I remained in the background, watching him remove his shiny helmet to wipe sweet from his brow. Along with his flowing red robe, and glistening armor, the plumed helmet was the trademark of the Roman officer. Of everything that made him a Roman knight, though, I admired his white horse the most. I had wondered those moments whether or not Cornelius visited other sectors too. I couldn’t hear what he said to Papa, but it probably had something to do with the town’s security. After the fire and his encounter with Mariah, he had taken special interest in our corner of Nazareth. Papa would look self-consciously around as they chatted, aware of the implications. Already we were considered an eccentric family by our critics; now we had become collaborators with Rome.
All things considered, therefore, it wasn’t merely the fact that Jesus was considered a heretic and our family harbored a witch and had adopted her strange son, our relationship with the Romans caused mounting resentment from townsmen. Because of recent agitation in Sepphoris and neighboring towns, attacks upon caravans and travelers by Abbas and his band, and the recent crisis caused by Reuben and his men, Roman presence in Nazareth had grown that night before Mariah’s flight to Jerusalem from an occasional squadron of soldiers sent from the Galilean Cohort to a permanent occupation force in our town. Ezra, who paid us a rare visit, told Papa that the prefect, himself, had warned the elders against civil disobedience. They had never found Reuben and his band, but Cornelius promised the elders that he would arrest and hand over for judgment to the procurator in Jerusalem the next troublemaker or townsmen caught with a torch. The events surrounding the rescue of Mariah had much to do with the Roman occupation in Nazareth, since it resulted in the actions of Reuben and the fire at Mariah’s house, but the reasons for a military presence, it was obvious, ran deeper than local agitators running amuck. Added to the offense taken by the rabbi and his crowd for my brother’s heresies and parents aid to Maria, was the blame heaped on us for the Roman presence in our town.
Though I was ignorant of the long-term effects of association with Romans, I knew that most of Nazareth’s citizens felt safer in their hands. I was, for my part, quite satisfied with this state of affairs. Cornelius, who I admired greatly, appeared to be our personal protector, and I was quite happy that we would never see Reuben and his friends, Josiah and Asa, again. Of course, I was thinking as a child. The prefect might be able to make the townsmen behave, but he couldn’t force them to do business with Papa. It would just take time, Papa promised, for his friendship with Ezra to mend and for his customers to return. I believed him, especially when Jesus promised the same thing, himself. At this point in my life, I could care less about the general unrest in Galilee or the bandits recently reported on the roads. Except for my brothers’ attitude, everything seemed to be getting back to normal in our home.
Then one day, as Jesus, James, and Joseph returned home after repairing Samuel’s roof, resentment for Michael erupted in our yard. It began with smoldering looks from the second and third oldest son. As Michael stood dejectedly beside me, I asked as politely as possible, “Why can’t you be nice to our new brother?” Such a mild question, I recall, resulted in a terrible storm of words from Joseph and James.
For a moment, there was silence in the garden. Exhausted from his many labors, Papa was the first to enter the house, so James and Joseph waited a moment in order to answer my question. Jesus stood beneath the fig tree, a suspicious look on his face.
“That son of perdition,” James snarled, “will never be my brother!”
“Per-dish-un?” Michael made a face. “What does that mean?”
“It means your mother’s a witch,” exclaimed Joseph, “and you’ve ruined Papa’s business in town!”
“Yes,” growled James, “and it’s gonna get worse the longer you stay!”
“That will be quite enough,” Jesus snapped, grabbing James by the collar. “In the first place, the Lord, Himself, has placed Michael in our care. You two should be ashamed for not welcoming our new brother.”
“What are you gonna do,” Joseph sneered, “tell Papa?”
“No,” Jesus turned swiftly to Joseph, pulling him up to his face. “If you as so much as frown at Michael again, you shall answer to me!”
We could see mother’s frowning face at the window. Papa stuck his head out the door and asked us what was wrong. Not wanting to admit what they had said to Michael, however, James and Joseph never told Papa about the threat Jesus had made. It was, I realize now as I recall Jesus anger during his ministry at the moneylenders in the temple, his first outburst of righteous anger. That moment I grew even closer to my older brother, though I was disappointed that he didn’t throttle them both on the spot.
“I have spoken,” he dismissed them finally. “Go in peace. As long as you live in this house, you’ll abide by the Lord’s will.”
James and Joseph were furious at Jesus’ words. I wasn’t sure whether they feared Papa’s anger at finding out they were mistreating Michael or if they were affected by Jesus’ warning, but they fled the scene, running around the garden, down the path that lead through the olive orchard and into the hills. Placing a hand on our shoulders, Jesus smiled gently at us, muttered “amen!” and then, as Michael and I discussed this wondrous event, disappeared suddenly as he so often did, appearing again, I’m certain, somewhere in the hills or on the Shepherd’s Trail. I didn’t know whether James or Joseph had fled into the hills, themselves, and I didn’t care. This would be disobedience in Papa’s mind—a serious breach of his authority, but, of course, I reminded myself, recalling the incident of the sparrow, Jesus answered to a ‘higher authority.’
I felt comfort in the knowledge that Michael and I, as well as our family, now had four protectors: Papa, Cornelius, Jesus, and, most importantly, God. How could we not feel safe under the protection of such guardians?
With nothing left to do after finishing our chores, Michael and I amused ourselves by teasing the twins awhile as they picked vegetables from the garden. Neither Abigail nor Martha talked very much. Until recently, when they had warmed up to Jesus, I had begun to wonder if they had not grown addled or mute. Suddenly, as we peeked over a bush and pelted them with pebbles, Jesus reappeared. Abigail and Martha would never have told on us. No harm was done, and in fact the twins giggled foolishly, as the seeds bounced off their blond heads. But Jesus was not amused.
“Jude, come forth,” he beaconed with a crooked finger.
“Uh oh,” Michael swallowed heavily, “he caught us!”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, shuffling from the bush.
“You too, Michael,” he called, with a chuckle, “don’t try to hide. Adam and Eve made that mistake, and look where it got them. “That’s it my brothers,” he gripped our shoulders again.
Michael and I stuck our lower lips out, as Abigail and Martha stood there giggling at us.
“Now tell them you’re sorry,” he said to us. “You know it’s not right to tease our little sisters.”
“Sorry!” I chimed.
“Sorry for what?” Jesus laughed softly. “You can do better than that.”
“We’re sorry for throwing seeds at your dumb heads!” I exclaimed.
“But they’re laughing at us,” Michael pointed out, “and you’re laughing too!”
“Come on my new brother,” he ruffled Michael’s hair, “tell the twins you’re sorry too.”
“All right,” Michael threw up his hands, “I’m sorry Abigail. I’m sorry Martha. I’ll never throw seeds at you again.”
Our parents were standing in the doorway smiling tolerantly at our antics. Jesus patted both our heads, tweaked our cheeks, and took us aside as the girls continued to pick vegetables for Mama’s stew. Standing back thoughtfully and folding his arms, he commended us for our remorse. I was relieved that he was not angry with us, as he had been with James and Joseph, yet Michael seemed upset. It was that same unreasonableness he had shown with our friends Uriah and Nehemiah. Even when he was obviously wrong, he found it difficult to admit it without resentment. I would soon learn how serious this personality flaw was in Michael, but for the moment I accepted the mild rebuke from my oldest brother. The very next thing he said almost startled me, for it was as if he had read my mind. Without telling Michael, whom I knew would not approve, I had the urge to talk to Uriah. I heard Papa tell Mama that Joachim had snubbed him again as they passed each other on the road, but perhaps the rabbi, like his son, secretly wanted to make amends with us. I expected no peace from Nehemiah’s household. His aunt had acted quite addled in the head. Now, as Michael and I stood before Jesus listening to his suggestions how we could better occupy our time, he interrupted himself, with an incredible idea.
“After you help the twins bring vegetables in to Mama, why don’t we walk over to Rabbi Joachim, so you and Michael can make peace with he and his son.”
“What?” my mouth dropped in disbelief.
“No way,” Michael folded his arms. “He called my mama a whore.”
“I know,” Jesus sighed, “and Nehemiah’s aunt thought she was a witch.” “But all that is behind us,” he reminded us. “Mariah will be starting a new life. The town will not blame Michael for the suspicions they had for his mother, unless he acts guilty and hides in our house. We must all go forth with our heads held high in Nazareth. You both must look the rabbi and his son directly in the eyes.”
Michael ran away into the hills. The idea didn’t really appeal to me either, and yet I felt that Michael was overreacting again. After a short while of assisting Simon, the twins, and me pick and clean vegetables for mothers stew, Jesus bent down and whispered for my ears only, “Come, let’s go. Michael doesn’t want to visit the rabbi’s house. Perhaps he needs more time.”
“But I wanted my friend to be there,” I protested softly.
“No, Jude,” Jesus shook his head emphatically, “you don’t want Michael to come along—not yet. Please, my little brother, before evening falls.”
Simon, who had no desire to visit the rabbi either, followed the twins into the house. As Jesus took my hand, however, Papa’s voice stopped us in our tracks. Walking up to Jesus with a troubled look in his eyes, with mother not far behind, he clasped both of our shoulders.
“Jesus,” he said gravely, “we’ve suffered much for your sake. I know what you and Jude must do. We must all, as a family, make peace with our town, but in spite of Cornelius’ promise of protection, many townsfolk believe we gave sanctuary to a witch. Most of them, Joachim included, think you’re in league with the devil or touched in the head. Our guards can’t be everywhere during their watch. They’re not going to be much help after you get yourselves ambushed, maybe stoned!”
“Yes,” Mama joined in, “many of those ruffians resent the Romans; they’d just love to catch you unawares. I haven’t even seen our guards yet. Until they settle into a routine, you boys stay put—at least until Cornelius or one of his officers returns.”
“Believe me my parents,” Jesus replied with great conviction, “no one will dare harm us—not with the Lord watching our steps. I thought you trusted my judgment. Didn’t God send rain down from heaven upon Mariah’s burning house and protect our house from those who blamed us for her escape? Didn’t I, with the Lord’s guidance, lead you, Papa, Ezra, and my brothers through the hills and into my cave?
“True, all true.” Papa spread his palms. “I can’t argue with the wonders my tired eyes have seen, but all it would take would be one errant rock thrown from concealment, and you or Jude could be injured. You might even get killed. Didn’t Moses write “thou shall not to tempt the Lord?” The saintly prophets were murdered by jealous and suspicious Israelites, who didn’t understand their mysterious and miraculous ways. We all know you’re special Jesus, but you mustn’t take chances. Wait awhile longer until this mood dies down—at least until we’re comfortable with our guards.”
“Papa, Papa,” Jesus said gently, “you don’t understand. It’s hard for you to see what’s in my mind. I can barely understand it myself. But I would never tempt the Lord. He guides my every step, even now, as Jude and I go to the rabbi,” “with your permission,” he added quickly. “I would never disobey you or go against your will.”
Mama shrugged her shoulders with resignation. Papa thought about Jesus’ words a moment and looked down at me, as if I had something to say, but I didn’t, because I had great misgivings about visiting the rabbi and his son. I thought that Jesus was very brave, considering the rumors spread about him in town, and yet I wasn’t so sure that we would be welcome in Joachim’s house or that we might not get ambushed as my father feared.
What came out of my mouth was therefore a great surprise to me, as I looked up into Papa’s eyes. “I have an idea,” I said faintly. “Jesus and I don’t have to go by ourselves.”
“What?” His mouth dropped. “You want me to come along?”
“Humph.” Jesus frowned. “That might be a good idea, Papa. We could all make a goodwill jester at the same time.”
“Jesus,” Papa stroked his beard nervously, “I spoke harshly to the rabbi the last time he was in our home. I practically threw him out of our house. I might be less welcome than even you!”
“Please Papa,” teased Jesus, pulling his arm, “don’t be afraid. I’ll protect you.”
Jesus was going to protect Papa—how things had changed! I giggled hysterically at the prospects ahead. Mama and the twins, who had been listening to our conversation, broke into light-hearted laughter.
“Where’s Michael?” asked Papa as the three of us reached the road.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking back nervously, “he might be in the hills. That’s where James and Joseph went.”
“What?” Papa cried. “They’d better not!”
“No,” the all-seeing Jesus said, shaking his head. “They’re sulking in the orchard. Michael’s sitting beside the pomegranate bush in the backyard.”
Mama must have accepted Jesus’ argument that God would watch over us. I had seen her eyebrows raise when Jesus said he would protect us. A smile played on her lips as she turned, with the twins in tow, and walked back to the house. Who needed the Galilean Cohort? We were protected by God! I wasn’t sure whether Papa really believed this, but I think Mama did. After what I had seen so far, so did I. Jesus glanced back at me as he led the way, but he said nothing. As I walked, as calmly as possible, I tried to do as Jesus said and hold my head up high. Papa looked defiant, as our neighbors gathered in their gardens and front yards to stare at us, while my oldest brother, always proud, strutted down the road. When we reached the street leading directly into town, we could see Noah, a recluse, standing in the doorway to his small house and on the corner where an ancient fig tree towered above the ground, an assortment of idlers lurking nearby in the shade. We were thankful that we didn’t have to pass through the center of Nazareth, and yet our greatest fear lie ahead of us when we reached our destination—the rallying point for the town’s vigilantes and where Uriah and Nehemiah had betrayed our friendship that terrible day.
“Now let me do the talking.” Papa sighed. “When I knock on the rabbi’s door, stand in back of me. If he sees your face Jesus, he might explode. He considers you to be a heretic and blasphemer. And Jude, Joachim might still be angry with you for corrupting his son.” “I know that’s not true, Jude, and we know that Jesus isn’t a blasphemer, but let me greet him first, all right?” He looked back for our acknowledgment.
Jesus nodded. It was certainly all right with me. Though respecting his powers, I had great misgivings about our visit. As we waited in the background, Papa rapped gently on the door he had built for Rabbi Joachim and for which he had still not received payment. My saintly father was often paid with smiles instead of livestock, produce, or coins. Like all the other men in town, Joachim would pay when he felt like it. Papa believed in the honor system, and he had too big a heart to make a fuss about his fees. Perhaps, I told myself, that is why Joachim wasn’t answering the door. When I aired my thoughts to Jesus, he agreed. That was, he explained in a whisper, why our family was so poor. After that explanation, Jesus lapsed into troubled silence. We both sensed that the rabbi wasn’t going to answer the door.
“Maybe he’s at the synagogue,” I offered lamely.
“No,” Jesus shook his head, “there’s no synagogue today.”
“You think he’s afraid of Papa.” I frowned severely.
“I think he’s afraid of the truth,” sighed Jesus, “but it’s me he’s afraid of, not our father. The Lord must bring him to his senses. It’s enough that he knows we came.”
After watching Papa stand patiently at the rabbi’s new door, I realized how much I despised that fat little man. He had, though he pretended otherwise, incited the townsmen against Mariah. I also despised his fat little son, whose treachery (or so I thought) helped fuel the conflagration following my friends’ and my visit to her house. Since we stopped attending synagogue, the rabbi had slandered Jesus because of what happened that day. Though my original thoughts have been transformed in my chronicle into an adult train of thought, what happened this day helped shape my views on religion, as primitive as they were at ten years old, making me the apostle I am today. Not only did the narrow-minded rabbi and those hypocritical townsmen spurn my father for helping a widow and her son, but they shunned him now as he attempted to make peace. Most of them would not do business with him. The townsmen would not let their children play with my brothers and I. They were, my mind searched for the words, unforgiving as well as vengeful, and the rabbi, because he was a holy man, was the worst of them all.
I wouldn’t grow up to be like my neighbors, I promised myself. As I turned on my heels, I also vowed to one day leave this backwoods town and never return. Only the restraining hand of Jesus kept me from running all the way home.
“We must support Papa,” he said, pulling me along by my collar. “When the rabbi answers the door, he won’t invite Papa in. The mind of the Lord is incomprehensible. When the rabbi does open the door, he will rebuke me, not Papa. That’s when his problem begins.”
I flashed Jesus a worried look. “What problems? How do you know that?”
“He told me.” Jesus pointed dramatically.
“Of course,” I said, following his finger up to the sky, “. . . God. Did He tell you what kind of problems? Is he going to punish Joachim if he doesn’t make peace?”
Jesus sensed my misgivings, but I couldn’t help it. I thought he had misled us this time. Why couldn’t he perform another miracle that would change the rabbi’s mind? Now, he seemed to be implying that this was part of God’s plan. The rabbi wouldn’t forgive my father or Jesus. He probably blamed me for corrupting his son. Nevertheless, as I dragged my feet, I felt a twinge of excitement. Jesus—or God—seemed to have something up his sleeve. Papa looked back at us before he knocked one more time.
“Come along,” Jesus prodded, “and you’ll see.”
“All right.” I stuck out my lower lip. “But I’d rather go home!”
Suddenly the door opened and Hannah, Joachim’s portly wife spoke. She peered out just enough to expose her identity, an unfriendly gesture in itself, but it was her words that caused Papa to fly into a rage.
“Joachim is sick and does not wish to see you.”
“Joachim is fine!” Papa’s voice rumbled. “As I passed by today, he was chatting like a magpie to Gideon. He ignored me then when I waved to him, as he has been doing for several months. But he will ignore me no more, Hannah. I wish to make peace with Nazareth, and I will begin with the rabbi of our town!”
Hannah slammed the door shut. Papa began pounding so fiercely on the door I thought it would shatter. Several of Joachim’s neighbors stood gawking on the road, as I wept for my father. Jesus was praying feverishly now. When his fists failed to work, Papa shouted at the top of his lungs “Open up Joachim, you coward! What kind of rabbi turns the town against an old friend? You’re a hypocrite! You don’t deserve to be the rabbi for our town!”
Jesus had stopped praying. There was a strange light in his eyes and glow on his tanned face. Suddenly, a great gust of wind blew through the hills, forcing the eavesdroppers to shield their faces from dust churned up in the road and prevent their garments from blowing over their legs. Some of the townsfolk were almost blown as tumbling weeds down the road and screamed in rage and fear through the swirling dust. I noticed with amazement that the small area where Papa, Jesus, and I huddled together was unaffected by the gale. Papa gave Jesus a suspicious look, both a frown and a smile playing on his bearded face. I was laughing hysterically at the spectacle, while Jesus, who did not appear to be finished praying, opened his eyes suddenly and pointed a straight unwavering arm at the house.
“Rabbi, come forth!” He whispered faintly.
“What did he say?” Papa looked down at my grinning face.
“He’s gonna give the rabbi what-for!” I shouted above the torrent. “I hope God sends lighting bolts down and cooks them all in that old house!”
Jesus now spoke in a loud adolescent voice “Lord God, if it be your will, bring peace to Nazareth. Lift the shadow of the Evil One from this town!”
By now there was only a handful of gawkers on the road leading into Nazareth. The wind continued to blow, the dust swirl, and the rabbi’s house rattle violently, as we three stood safely in a vortex in the midst of the storm. Just as suddenly, however, the commotion stopped. A dead calm, as I had seen on hot summer days, followed. Slowly, the door creaked open, a plump bearded face poked out, eyes popped wide in fear. One by one, following the rabbi, Joachim’s small family—Hannah, Uriah, and little Rhoda—filed out into the daylight. To accent this event, the sun had begun to set, so that the evening shade made Jesus shadow stretch for many paces toward the house and the small remnant of townsfolk scurry a safe distant from the bewitched house.
The implications, I now realize as I look through the lens of time, were unmistakable, though we couldn’t understand it then: the message of my oldest brother would one day spread over the earth. For now, however, he was my wondrously eccentric brother and Joseph bar Jacob’s remarkable and unpredictable son. That was enough for us. The question was, as I studied the terrified expressions on rabbi Joachim and his family’s faces, ‘how would the rabbi react?’ Had this knocked some sense into his fat head? Or was he such a self-righteous and embittered man, it would, in fact, take a bolt of lightning to make him see the truth?
I had preferred a more fiery awakening, but all Jesus could muster up was a dust storm that swept spectators away and shook the rabbi and his family out of their house. For a moment, as the little fat man turned and motioned for his wife and children to go back inside, Hannah, Uriah, and Rhoda shook their heads, too shaken to return to that spooky place. So the rabbi did the next best thing and prodded them into the backyard, out of earshot for what came next. I glanced back, after hearing muted conversation, and saw a few more brave souls returning to eavesdrop on this event. Samuel, the Pharisee, had come the closest, a look of wonder on his perspiring face. In back of him were Habakkuk and his wife Rachel and two Roman soldiers further on, slowly riding by on their steeds. As Jesus and Papa stood side-by-side, with me wedged safely between, Joachim swore an oath at Uriah who snuck back into the front yard to wave at me, turned swiftly on his sandal, his turban hanging rakishly over one eye and, in uncontrolled rage, pointed an accusing finger at Jesus.
“Son of perdition! You have bewitched my house, but I refuse to be intimidated in my own yard. If you strike me dead, you do it in front of witnesses. Will you destroy the whole town for one misbegotten witch? Do the demon armies of Beelzebub miss Mariah so much? What are you proving by this demonstration of your black art?”
Papa had reached his limit of patient and charged Joachim as he stood there waiting for Jesus to reply. Both Jesus and I attempted to restrain him, Jesus grabbing his waste and me grabbing his arm, but Papa drug us along with him, until getting a grip on Joachim’s tunic. As he sent one blow into the rabbi’s screaming face, I watched in hysterical humor as Joachim’s turban fell off to expose a baldhead. Fortunately for the rabbi, the legionnaires arrived just in time to prevent our father from doing Joachim great harm.
“Papa, stop this at once!” cried Jesus.
“Priam,” a big burly Roman barked, “grab the fat man, and I’ll take the other.”
“Be careful Falco,” a second beefy, square-jawed man cautioned, “this man’s
Cornelius’ friend, Joseph bar Jacob—the man, whose house our men guarded that night.”
I felt dizzy after hearing that. I great sigh escaped by laboring lungs now that it seemed as if Papa would not be arrested. After the two Romans pulled them apart, however, Joachim wrung his finger at Papa and swore unintelligibly awhile. Looking back over the years, I still chuckle at this hypocritical little man, who had shown his true colors when put to the test. During that fateful hour, in front of spectators, we witnessed a new low even for him.
“Soldier, I want that man arrested for disturbing the peace,” he now turned his wrath upon our father.
“You slandered my son’s good name!” growled Papa, his fists still doubled up with rage.
The Romans, cursing under their breaths, each gripped one of Papa’s arms. Joachim now gave the two soldiers a complete outline of the events leading up to this hour, from the discovery that Mariah had given wine to his son to the disclosure that she was a witch. For good measure, he added the episode of Jesus putting out the fire, but gave Satan credit for my brother’s diabolical powers. Glancing over at him, the two legionnaires listened intently to his fantastic tale.
“Please Priam and Falco, his argument is with me!” Jesus looked beseechingly at the soldiers.
“So you’re Jesus,” Priam murmured with awe. “Why you’re no more than a colt.”
“Is it true what this fellow says?” asked Falco, a cynical look on his bronzed face. “Are you a sorcerer? Was that woman your father saved really a witch?”
“Mariah was sick from wine,” Jesus explained, glaring at Joachim, who cowered behind Priam’s back. “I merely pray for guidance and follow God’s will.”
“You—a mere child—claim to be the Son of God,” the rabbi accused, spittle flecked on his beard, “but you pray to the devil and follow Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies!”
“Who told you he was the Son of God?” Papa’s mouth dropped in disbelief. “Jesus never made such a claim. How dare you, a man of God, spew this filth about my son praying to Beelzebub!”
Falco told us to be silent a moment. A third rider had appeared on the road during this discussion. I wished Cornelius were here but it appeared to be one of his officers he had left in command. Unlike the first two who tied their horses’ reins to the rabbi’s fence, the third soldier, a younger and more dashing man, galloped into the front yard garden, trampling everything in his way. Joachim made a face and we could hear Hannah wail, but the officer, who seemed important because of his cross-wise plume, looked down at the rabbi with utter contempt. Following behind the horseman came a crotchety figure we recognized at once.
“Is this the one?” He called back to Samuel.
“Yes, centurion.” The old man cackled nervously. “He’s not a bad fellow, just excitable. No need to punish anyone for a little disagreement. Please sir, this is not a riot or insurrection; its an argument between friends.”
Who was he talking about? I wondered. The rabbi was no longer our friend. Had Samuel betrayed us or had he merely been questioned by the officer on the road? The answers to my questions came quickly, when the officer dismounted and handed Falco the reins.
“My name’s Longinus,” he announced, gripping Papa’s forearm, “centurion of the Galilean Cohort. Samuel told me about you. You’re Joseph the Carpenter. These must be your sons.”
“That’s correct,” Papa replied, nodding his head, “Jesus and Jude. The centurion’s well informed.”
“Samuel told me about many of your neighbors.” He glanced back at the idlers on the road. “This one must be Joachim, the rabbi.” He placed his hands on his hips. “I’ve heard about you. You’re a rabble-rouser. I’ve been told by eyewitnesses and eavesdroppers that you also slandered this man’s son. The prefect warned me about men like you. Joseph bar Jacob, because of your fellow conspirator’s treachery, is under the protection of Rome.” “Listen up, all of you within earshot,” he bellowed in a rich baritone voice, “I know you’re skulking out there somewhere. Anyone harming a member of his household will answer to me and Cornelius, Prefect of the Galilean Cohort. There will be no more disturbances in this backwoods outpost on my watch.” “…. Is that understood Joachim, the rabble-rouser?” he inquired in low voice, taking the rabbi aside. “I’ve had a belly full of self-righteous, trouble makers like you. You stand up holier-than-thou in your synagogues yet preach murder when anything disagrees with your dogmatic little world.”
Joachim was nodding bleakly but said nothing more, as the centurion turned to Papa and looked him squarely in the eyes.
“Joseph, you must hold your temper. I would do the same if he slandered a son of mine. But the next time come and see me if you can’t wait until the prefect is back in Nazareth. It would be a good idea, I think, if your son were to visit an uncle or aunt far away from this town. If this is not possible, keep a tighter rein on him, until this mood blows over.”
“Thank you centurion,” Papa replied grimly, “after today, we shall need Rome’s protection for sure!”
“Yes, of course.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Cornelius and I are meeting with the elders tomorrow. He’s already talked to many of them. The guard posts are manned, and mounted sentries patrol your town. We Romans are sticklers for details. Right now our manpower’s spread thinly, but Abbas, the bandit chief, and the unrest in Nazareth have made this corner of Galilee important. The prefect’s especially worried about what happened to your family. Of course, it’s not the only reason why we’re here. As you probably noticed we’ve had our eye on your town for quite some time.”
“We’ve noticed.” I nodded eagerly. “I first met your leader, Cornelius, on the bridge. He came in person to our home. He’s our friend!”
“Ho-ho, so you are.” He looked down with mirth. “The prefect told me about your meeting. Thanks to his visit, I’m in charge of this backwater town.”
He was smiling when he spoke in jest. Joachim’s neighbors, however, were alarmed by this scene. This Roman meant business. Looking past Papa at the spectators, the centurion’s smile faded. “Attention!” he shouted at them. “Spread the word to your friends and neighbors: until Nazareth’s safe, expect patrols day and night and around-the-clock. Get used to your guards. Show them common courtesy. Be nice! Officers are assigned for each sector of town to oversee each watch and report disorder, but I’ll be making the rounds frequently, myself. Mark my word: I know who the hotheads in Nazareth are. I’ll be paying particular attention to this part of town.” “I want no unlawful assemblies,” he cried out in a booming voice. Behave yourselves. By Jove, you’ll treat my men with respect. Rome is watching. There’ll be no more anarchy against your neighbors or disrespect for Rome!”
With the exception of Samuel, the Pharisee, the small crowd dispersed. The old man stood by the roadside, as Joachim’s neighbors scuttled back home. After a silent signal from their leader, Priam and Falco began walking toward their horses. An awkward silence followed as the centurion gripped his reins and whistled to his horse.
“Keep an eye on your children,” he counseled Papa, “especially your oldest son.”
Papa reached up in the Roman manner once again as a show of respect. Jesus followed Papa’s example. The centurion bent down to grip Papa and Jesus forearms one-by-one and, because I couldn’t reach far enough, shook my hand. Turning his black stallion sharply to the left afterwards, he clopped through Hannah’s spice garden, broke down her fence, and galloped grandly back down the road. When I looked back at my brother, he had that special look on his face. Nodding faintly to himself, it appeared as if he was once again praying. Now, as I write down this episode, I wonder if he had not prophetically recognized Longinus, the officer who would one day be assigned to keep order in Jerusalem during that terrible night when everyone, even I, ran like frightened sheep into the night. This moment, however, I found myself admiring the centurion’s military manner and great black horse. I stood there trying to decide whether I wanted a big white horse like Cornelius or one like Longinus, when I felt someone shaking me gently.
Papa was saying “Jude, Jude, come along boy. Are you okay son?”
“Huh?” I blinked several times.
Looking around, as a sleeper awakening from a dream, I couldn’t see the rabbi or his family anywhere in front of their house. Because of the rabbi’s humiliation, they were all probably cowering in the backyard. Samuel hung back timidly on the side of the road, watching us, as he leaned wearily on his staff. I felt very tired after all this commotion, and was ready for a nap. Perhaps interpreting my mood as trauma, Papa gave me a fatherly hug, took my hand, and led me back to our house. Jesus followed moodily behind, so very quiet that Papa glanced back several times to ask him if he was all right. I shudder at how shallow my child-like mind had been. After meeting Longinus, all I could think of again was becoming a Roman soldier and having a fine horse. Jesus, who had the God-given ability to see in the future, had seen that dark day at Golgotha when Longinus looked up at him on the cross and said, “Truly, this is the son of God!”
Samuel, whose ancient legs could barely support his crotchety frame, called out thinly in the evening air “Jesus! Jesus!” Still half-believing he had informed on us to the Romans, Papa told us to ignore him. He swore to Jesus and I that he would never speak to any of the town elders again. As we reached our house, however, we looked back and saw the old man still hobbling down the road.
“Joseph, may I talk to Jesus?” he called, out of breath and ready to collapse.
“Papa, Samuel’s not well,” Jesus said, looking back with concern. “Let us hear what he has to say.”
“They can all go to Gahenna for all I care!” growled Papa.
Without asking for permission, Jesus ran to Samuel to help him the rest of the way. Knowing the heart of Jesus, Papa sighed heavily, and met them at the gate. When we passed through our door, Papa was begrudgingly supporting Samuel’s other side. Samuel’s face was ashen, his breathing labored, and he seemed ready to collapse. I had entered first to tell mama about Jesus latest miracle, but also to sneak a honey roll before dinner. Mama caught me in the act, playfully slapped my hand, and did a double take when she saw Samuel, the Pharisee, being escorted into the room. Papa and Jesus sat him gently down at the table and mama placed a cup of water in his shaking hand. Standing back to study our guest, we waited for him to speak. He had gone to a lot of trouble to talk to Jesus. Papa had a terrible feeling, he would later confessed, that our lives were about to change.
“Samuel, are you all right?” Mama finally asked.
“Age, that’s all,” he wheezed, “time is my enemy now. I was coming to your house to tell you about my nephew Joseph of Arimathea. But then I was caught in a dust storm and I heard Joachim screaming those foul things.”
“You didn’t inform on us?” Papa eyed him suspiciously.
“You heard the Roman,” Samuel waved impatiently, “he went straight for the rabbi. The Romans hate his kind. You thought I was spying on you, eh? Well, I wasn’t. On my way to your house, I heard Joachim’s voice. I had to get close enough to hear him clearly, but I want you to know I don’t believe a word of it.”
“You don’t?” Papa sat down next to him. “. . . What do you want Samuel?”
In remarkable clarity for someone who had moments ago seemed to be on his last legs, the old man reached across and took Jesus hand. “Joseph, because of my standing with the elders of this town, I’m going to tell them just how special this young man is. Whether they listen to me or not, is another matter, but I believe that Jesus is in danger here. One day, when the Romans aren’t watching your house closely, Reuben and his thugs might reappear and do him great harm, but it’s not merely Reuben I fear. There are many young men, not just old ones, who believe what the rabbi and the elders say about your oldest son.” “ I don’t, of course” he looked back at Jesus, “but I’m just one voice among many. Things will never get back to normal for you and your family with this controversial youth in your midst. I heard what the Roman said to you about Jesus leaving Nazareth. He’s right Joseph. And I have just the solution for you now.”
“Don’t tell me,” Papa groaned, glancing at Jesus, “Your esteemed nephew, Joseph of Arimathea.”
“Yes,” Samuel nodded obliquely, “but you left out rich nephew. I wrote to him about Jesus, and he wants to meet him. That was months ago after I visited your house. Dreadful night that was. Now, time is of the essence and I have taken the liberty of sending another message to my nephew, asking him to come soon. He is a Pharisee but also a merchant and travels all over the empire. Jesus will learn many wondrous things and he’ll be safe.”
“Samuel, I think I know him.” Jesus studied the talkative old man. “I remember someone greeting him in the temple. He was there in the audience as I talked to the religious teachers in Jerusalem.” “Papa,” he turned to our father, “it’s good that I go with him. I’ll come back some day, and by then, with men like Samuel and Ezra’s help, the mood in Nazareth might have changed.”
“Has the Lord told you this?” Mama wept softly.
“Yes, Mama.” He reached up to clasp her hand. “I have,” he searched for the words, “these feelings. . . But when I heard Joseph of Arimathea’s name, I knew instantly who he was
. . . He’s part of the plan.”
“What plan?” I frowned. “Why does Jesus have to go with that old man?”
“My nephew’s not old,” Samuel cackled. “I’m old. Jesus, I’m afraid I won’t be around when you two return.”
“You will live to see my mission begin.” Jesus gripped Samuel’s gnarled hand. “Please watch over my family.”
“I promise,” Samuel’s eyes, already watery, swam with tears, “until my last breath.”
As we sat considering Samuel’s offer and Jesus strange words, Michael entered the house, carrying a gnarled limb resembling a club. Not far behind Michael, Simon, James, and Joseph arrived, one-by-one. Before plopping down on a stool, Simon, rude as always, immediately asked mother what was for dinner. “Stew and biscuits,” she answered with a frown. James and Joseph were in a bad mood, as they had been when they left, but this time James, the last to enter, clutched his head as if he had been injured. Waving his club, Michael announced hoarsely, “They won’t bother me anymore!”
My parents gasped. Mama’s hand flew to her mouth. Simon, who had obviously arrived from a different direction, also seemed shocked. But I knew Michael, and I wasn’t surprised. Not having heard his side of the story, I suppressed a smile. Papa immediately fetched the club, opened the door, and threw it into the yard.
“Michael,” he bellowed, “is that true? Did you hit James with a stick?”
“Yes,” Michael answered calmly, “he and Joseph threw rocks at me, so I ran up to Jesus’ cave. I found this club in there, and when James tried to enter I popped him. I’m sorry but I’d do it again. The townsmen wanted to stone my mother, but James and Joseph aren’t going to stone me!”
“Is that true?” Papa confronted the boys. “Did you throw rocks at Michael? Why would you do such a thing?”
“They were small stones,” Joseph explained lamely. “We were just teasing him. We didn’t mean any harm.”
“Let me see that,” mother said, pulling James hand away. “You’re not bleeding. Humph, it doesn’t look so bad.”
“What about you Michael?” Papa studied Michael, as he and Simon sat devouring a bowel of grapes. “You don’t look harmed.”
“I’m a good dodger,” he said through a mouthful of grapes.
With the mention of his cave, Jesus had smiled at Michael. The thought of James and Joseph chasing the wily Michael and then Michael popping James with his club caused Simon and I to burst finally into laughter. Soon my parents and the twins were laughing along with us. The only ones not laughing were James and Joseph. Michael, wiping his mouth with his sleeve, grinned foolishly and blushed. Samuel, the Pharisee, not knowing what to make of our family, smiled faintly.
“How did that club get in your cave?” I whispered to Jesus. “Did you leave that there?”
“The Lord will provide,” Jesus gave me one of his folksy witticisms.
“Then its settled,” Samuel, the Pharisee, began to rise from his stool.
“I suppose so,” Papa replied wearily. “Much has happened today. Mama, why don’t we find another place for our new friend?”
Samuel shrugged in submission. Mama stood up after hugging Jesus and went around hugging everyone in the room, except James and Joseph, who sulked at the far end of the room. When she reached the Pharisee, she hugged his frail bones more gently before he settled back on his stool. For a moment, I wondered, after watching Mama’s actions, if she had lost her wits but soon realized that she was merely showing her support for Jesus. So, in this spirit, I rose up, gave her a hug, then walked over to my estranged brothers, James and Joseph, and hugged them too. With these displays of emotion, everyone laughed again—a forced, embarrassed chuckle this time that belied what we really felt. This was a bittersweet moment. Even Simon and Michael could see this. Jesus was reaching another milestone in his life. A great Pharisee was going to take our oldest brother to distant lands. For this I admired him very much and vowed to one day do the same.
“Joseph, my husband, the Lord has great things in store for our oldest son,” Mama announced bravely. “We will meet with this man from Arimathea. If Jesus wants to learn great things, I will not stand in his way.”
“Neither shall I,” agreed Papa, patting Jesus’ head.