Jesus rode beside me for the remainder of the journey home. For the first time I could remember, he talked to me as he would to an adult. He had heard James and Joseph talk foolishly before, but he was troubled with Papa and John’s bloodlust. Referring, I assumed, to Reuben and his gang, he said “he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword”—words he would one day utter to his disciples on that terrible night. On the road back to Nazareth, however, they flowed from the mouth of a mere youth, whose wisdom was far beyond his years. In quiet murmurs, we discussed Nehemiah’s health. When Jesus reminded me to pray for his recovery, I was comforted, because Jesus couldn’t lie. It seemed as if Jesus was saying that Nehemiah would be all right, but he had never said this. As he trotted ahead to chat with Papa, I was filled with hope. I very much expected that Nehemiah’s health would improve in spite of the dire report. Jesus wouldn’t let me down.
When we reached Nazareth that evening, we rode straight to Samuel’s estate. After dismounting, we quickly scurried into his house. I was quite anxious to hear news of Nehemiah’s health. I knew that Papa, Mama, and Jesus’ concern was as great as mine. The mules and donkeys would be returned the following morning and were placed in temporary care of Samuel’s husbandmen. The chamberlain promised that Priam and the German guards would be fed by Samuel’s servants. Afterwards, the Germans would return to Sepphoris but Falco and Priam would be asked to wait and escort his home.
Almost immediately, as we gathered in the atrium to await news, Abner walked solemnly down the hall, weeping servants by his side. My first thought was that something had happened to Samuel, since the old man would have done his best to greet us at the door no matter how he felt, but as the physician approached us in the corridor, we could see Samuel emerge from Nehemiah’s room, carrying a small lamp. The old man blew out the candle and sat the lamp on a small round table nearby. I may not have been a Pharisee or rabbi but I had absorbed enough tradition to know what that meant. . . . Nehemiah was dead.
I was only behaving as a child during this crisis, yet a twinge of shame falls over me now as I recall my reaction to this news. I had learned nothing from watching my brother perform miracles and listening to the magic of his words. Bereft of senses, I managed to circumvent Papa and Jesus’ outstretched arms, open the great door, and flee into descending night. I was already into the orchard before I realized how dark it had suddenly become. I stood there crying, feeling lost and alone.
“Jude, my brother” Jesus called, “where are you?”
“Jesus,” I responded weakly, “. . . you lied to me. You cured a dead bird, a Pharisee’s son, and saved an old woman’s life, but you couldn’t save one little boy. ”
“That’s not fair,” Papa cried out, “Jesus would never make such a promise to you!”
I could hear the hurt in Jesus’ voice. “I asked you to pray Jude. Nehemiah’s health was in God’s hands, not mine. He walks with the Lord in God’s house.”
“Words!” I shrieked, taking flight. “I wanted another miracle and all you give me are words!”
Footsteps sounded behind me that seemed to reverberate with the hammering in my chest. When I looked back, Papa and Jesus were gaining ground, until they caught up with me. Papa held a lamp. Behind them, I could make out the faces of James, Joseph, Simon, and John. I was angry with Jesus for not saving my friend. All I could think of was that Nehemiah was dead. I could hear them all talking to me. Papa tried to console me, as did Jesus and John, but James and Joseph were cursing me under their breaths and Simon just stood there scratching his head.
“Is he dead? Is he really dead?” I kept muttering to myself.
“Yes, my son,” Papa pulled me gently to my feet.
“I want to see him. . . . I want to make sure,” I said, clutching Papa’s hand.
“Then why did he run away?” Joseph grumbled to James.
“He’s not himself,” John spoke kindly. “He needs closure. We should let him see his friend.”
“No,” blurted Papa, “he would not want to see Nehemiah now.”
On that note I broke into uncontrollable sobs. My legs buckled, and I felt Papa gathering me up in his arms and carrying me back to our house. Everyone agreed that we could not stay much longer in Samuel’s home while the servants prepared Nehemiah for burial the next day. It was too late to organize a funeral tonight. It was already dark and it would take several hours to bring our friends together for the gathering. I remember being set on my wobbly legs between Papa and Jesus as we walked home. Jesus was silent during this period, but, as Papa prepared a simple meal of bread, fruit and juice, Jesus sat on stool talking, as I lay on my pallet, explaining why his prayers hadn’t saved Nehemiah’s life. It was Nehemiah’s time. . . .The Lord decides who lives or dies. . . . He was in paradise now. . . . Someday I would see him again. . . . All fine words, which I readily understood, but found repugnant in my frame of mind, so I turned my back to Jesus and pretended that I had fallen asleep.
“He’ll come around, Jesus,” Papa called from the kitchen. “We know you did all you could. We prayed very hard. God made His decision, and we must abide by His will.”
“I will pray for Jude,” Jesus replied gravely.
Hearing what I felt was utter nonsense from Papa and another example of my oldest brother’s self-righteous attitude, I finally exploded.
“Pray? Don’t pray for me. Praying doesn’t work. We prayed for Nehemiah and look what it got us. Elizabeth is barely alive and Samuel’s practically on death’s door.”
“What about Uriah?” James challenged.
“What about him?” I jumped up on my feet. “You, James, certainly didn’t pray for him. You hate Uriah. You and Joseph hate all my friends. No-no, this praying thing only works if the Lord wants it to. That’s what Jesus says, but I can’t accept that. Why would God want Nehemiah to die? He’s still ten years old. Why did He take our birth parents during the plague? He took our brothers and sisters too. Mama said he allowed Herod to kill hundreds of children just to get at one child. Is even Jesus that important? Why didn’t God strike Herod dead? What kind of God is this, who takes good people and leaves bad ones, like Reuben and his men to roam the earth?”
“That’s enough Jude.” Papa was suddenly shaking my shoulders. “You’re not yourself tonight. We understand this. But you mustn’t question God’s purpose or your brother Jesus’ judgment, which comes from God. This is irreverent, even blasphemous.”
“Really?” I looked at him angrily. “I barely understand all those words. I, more than anyone, trusted Jesus’ judgment and look what happened. Nehemiah’s dead. Why did Jesus get my hopes up? My friend suffered all this time just to die like all the other victims of God.”
Papa raised his head to strike me as I stood my ground. I could see the smirking faces of James and Joseph in the kitchen. John and Simon stood in the background dumbfounded, while Jesus raced over to stay Papa’s hand.
“No, Papa,” he cried out. “Jude speaks as a child. He has been wounded deeply. “Jude.” He looked down at me with compassion. “I thought you understood the nature of prayer, but you don’t. I don’t think our brothers do either. Prayer opens a dialogue with God, that’s all.”
“What is a dia-logue?” Simon made a face.
“It’s when you talk to God.” Jesus smiled gently. “Do you remember what I told you about this Simon?”
“Yes,” he nodded pertly, “ ‘clear everything out of you mind and picture a clear blue sky.’ ”
I was in no mood for a religious discussion but kept my peace. I could see James and Joseph huddled in a corner with John, whispering slander into his ears. Shamed by Jesus’ defense of me, Papa walked over and gave me a hug. Jesus gave me a probing look that moment too. Dropping my chin onto my chest, I felt his eyes boring into me, as if he was reading my mind. With his eyes raised heavenward, he gave a short, heartfelt, eulogy for Nehemiah, as if to present Simon with a perfect example of a prayer. He gave an outline of Nehemiah’s virtues, some of which I didn’t know about my self, asked that the Lord take care of our beloved friend, then wound up the eulogy by thanking God for sharing Nehemiah with us for this short period of time. Jesus had begun changing the mood of the room. When I look back upon this hour, it seems as though Jesus had been rehearsing all along for the day he would begin his greater mission on earth. The night we discovered Nehemiah was dead, I thought Jesus was a failure and a fraud. Everything I heard so far seemed to be blotted out by my anger and sadness at Nehemiah’s death. . . .Then John, who would one day be called the Baptist, asked Jesus a question that would define the very nature of prayer.
“Jesus, my cousin.” He stepped forth suddenly. “You said that prayer is merely a dialogue with God. Does God answer our prayers, if we pray really hard?”
Jesus, who had been in silent prayer, opened his eyes, looking heavenward, as if waiting a reply. After a pause he spoke to all of us.
“. . . . Prayer can move mountains, if the Lord wills it, but you must to talk to God, not men, as the hypocrites do. When you talk to God, don’t beg or demand results. The answer he gives may not be to your liking, but it’s final. There should be no revisions after amen. God’s ways are mysterious, and we mustn’t question his will or tempt his patience with selfish requests. When we talk to him, we must always add, toward the end of our prayer, ‘if it be your will.’ God will do what’s best for us, not always what we want. We can’t demand a healing or change of fate; we can only ask and hope for a miracle or more subtle change.”
John gave Jesus a troubled look. “What’s the use of praying if God has already decided upon our fate?”
“Prayer is not just for us.” Jesus placed his hand on John’s shoulder. “It’s for our family and friends. It’s unselfish and obedient to God’s will. It reinforces our faith and so reinforces us. Our faith, in turn, strengthens prayer. God will not, at your request, make you swifter or smarter than others, though these are God-given traits. He might grant you health, but never ask Him to make you richer, more important or better than others and never pray for trifling things. What you do to make your mark in the world has been decided already by God. How good that you do is up to you.”
Jesus was speaking for the ages, but he was, this moment in time, speaking for his family’s benefit, including Papa and Cousin John. I suffered from spiritual blindness those moments, however, and, I was deaf to our faith. Once again, as Jesus had said to me before, I was ‘kicking against the goads.’ Today my ears have been unstopped and the scales have fallen from my eyes, but I still believe that God is inscrutable. Why would He spare an old man, but let a little child die? That night I could see doubt on everyone’s faces, including John’s. A dialogue, which I now understood, was opened that puzzles me even now. From the nature of prayer, Jesus would talk about the Word and God, Himself, but this time the question would come from James, one of Jesus’ critics.
“What is God’s will?” He asked thoughtfully. “Are you saying we can’t change God’s mind?”
“Yes,” answered Jesus, “I’m saying that exactly, for God is unknowable. We have freewill, but our fate is written in the Book of Life.”
“What’s that?” Joseph shook his head. “Is that in the Torah?”
“Yes,” Papa replied, shaking his head. “Moses wrote about this as did Daniel, but I’ve never understood what it meant. Are you saying that we’re predestined for Paradise or Gehenna regardless of our deeds?”
“The Word is unfinished,” Jesus’ voice dropped low. “The Book of Life unfolds continually, foretelling all of the deeds of mankind, good and bad. In its margins are the names of the righteous who have earned eternal life.”
“Heresy,” mumbled Joseph.
“It doesn’t make sense,” muttered James.
“Word,” Papa murmured, “. . . . I’ve heard you mention this before.”
John was affected the most by Jesus’ words. Papa had not heard my murmurings and was looking at Jesus in disbelief.
“Jesus,” he gently scolded, “we know you’re special and have God’s ear, but speak plainly. Sometimes you’re difficult to understand. If I have problems with you, James and Joseph certainly well? In your letters, you spoke of many strange things, but what did you mean by the Word? You spoke of it as a living thing.”
“It is a living thing,” Jesus voice rose a notch “—a continual revelation from God.”
“Living words?” John seemed astonished. “Can words be alive? The Torah was written by men. Our faith was sealed by God.”
“Religious men write scripture,” explained Jesus, “but faith can’t be sealed. It isn’t dead like parchment or stone. The words in the Torah were inspired by God, yet the Word, spoken by the righteous is the living, unwritten, testament of the Lord.”
“So,” scoffed James, turning away, “now you’re a prophet!”
“Did God or Beelzebub tell you this?” Joseph uttered with disdain.
John shook his head in wonder. As James and Joseph exchanged looks of scorn, my head swam with Jesus’ statement. Even the normally indifferent Simon was amazed with Jesus words, and Papa, who had overheard Joseph’s remark, brought calm to our house, with a loud booming voice.
“Enough!” He demanded, looking around the room. “Jesus has always talked to God. We’ve seen him do miracles and heard him say strange things. Joseph—your brother is not a heretic or blasphemer, for saying strange things. He might very well become a prophet, as James suggests, but not yet. It’s not his time. Jesus is still a youth. He’s not yet sixteen years old! We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? Jesus is not like us. He is, I’m convinced, touched by God. Jude, in spite of your anger because Jesus didn’t save Nehemiah, you have the highest regard for him—much too high. In order to prove himself, you expect him to perform continuous miracles. Though he must obey God, he’s constantly worried about hurting your feelings. Of all my sons, I think he loves you the most.”
That moment I looked across the room at him. Jesus frowned thoughtfully at Papa’s words. Papa brought Simon and I together. Placing his hands on our shoulders, he gave us a quiet blessing. “Simon,” he said, afterwards, “Jude needs your friendship more than ever now. Forget all this lofty thinking, Jude. In the morning, go with Simon into the hills as children, romp, sing, play. You’ll grow up soon enough.” “As for you!” He looked back at Joseph. “Don’t let me hear you ever say such a thing again!”
“All right,” replied Joseph calmly, “I shall obey you, if Jesus obeys God. You have taught us, by words and example, about our faith. Obediently, I’ve read the Torah, learned the rituals, and practiced our tradition. Until the healing of the sparrow, we, your five sons, were all equal. We didn’t know about Jesus’ ancestry or that we were only adopted sons. Now, we are to believe our brother, whom we saw eat, sleep, and bleed, is not mortal like us but is a miracle worker, born of our mother, though he speaks heresy and does not practice our faith—”
“Silence!” Papa held up his hands to fend off the truth.
Word for word, Joseph had spoken what James, Simon, and I felt all along. In stead of being angry with Joseph, Papa dropped his hands, reached out and embraced his third son. Joseph wept bitter tears a moment and was released by Papa so Jesus could embrace him too.
James, who had once resented Jesus as much as Joseph, came forward, a troubled look on his face. “Our brother is a miracle worker. I believe he is blessed by God. But Jesus is talking about a new religion—a different book. Does he know more than the prophets, rabbis or priests?”
A defining moment had come, once again thanks to James. Jesus closed his eyes briefly and exhaled the words. “You have said it. All of the faithful can be made rabbis. Those, who but pray for guidance, are prophets if they listen to God in the same way that true believers can act as priests. The Word is in the righteous, whose names are in the Book of Life. ”
Papa gave James and Joseph a warning look not to disagree. Joseph had spoken. James had spoken. Jesus had spoken. Now Papa would have the last and final words: “Jesus, I’m not your critic. I know you wouldn’t lie. If these things are in your head, they must be God sent, but you must never repeat this to anyone outside of this house!”
“Until I hear the voice at the river, it remains our secret,” Jesus promised, looking across the room at John.
“What river is this?” asked his cousin.
“The Jordan,” Jesus smiled with bewilderment. “. . . . What a strange thought. I have been having flashes all day, but this just came into my head.”
“Are you having a revelation now?” Papa seemed to gasp.
Jesus nodded slowly, his gaze locked upon John’s eyes. Papa threw up his hands in despair, and then called us all into the kitchen for our simple meal. James and Joseph sat on each side of John at the table. I was so very tired, as I plopped down next to Simon, I was close to falling asleep. Simon was already nodding off. I had heard many wondrous things tonight. My head swam with the Book of Life, the Word, and all the other concepts Jesus had imparted to us after he began talking to God. I was still upset that he hadn’t saved Nehemiah’s life, and yet I felt ashamed of the feelings I had. That Papa was encouraging Simon to be my playmate and we should not concern ourselves with all this deep thought seemed to exonerate me from my sin, but I had wronged Jesus as much as Joseph and James. In the years ahead, as our oldest brother fell into the roll of carpenter, I would fight the temptation to ask him for miracles, looking back with nostalgia at the time when Jesus, my brother, was a heretic and blasphemer, performing miracles and saying strange, wondrous things.