Sermon in the Garden
While Longinus and his forces watched over Nazareth, the remainder of Cornelius’ cohort continued to chase a growing band of outlaws in Galilee, who swore allegiance to Abbas, a bandit chief. This news from Regulus, the optio in charge of our sector of town, upset my parents very much. The new menace, though it loomed large in the Roman officers’ minds, had seemed like a distant threat when we first heard about it. Reuben, who had become almost a legend in our town, was quite another matter. Aside from earlier reports of he and his friends attacking travelers on the road to Jerusalem, he hadn’t bothered us personally after that night when he threatened our family and house. After waiting for so long, without seeing or hearing about Reuben, it seemed as if he had made an idle boast. There hadn’t been any sightings of him for quite some time. During our visit to Sepphoris, however, we had seen him with a band of men lurking in the shadows like jackals and, on the road back, watched them gallop past us in the direction of Nazareth. After Regulus report about Abbas and his men, Reuben became significant again. Where were he and his men now? Were they simply hiding in the hills surrounding Nazareth as we had once feared? . . . Or had they, as Falco suggested, joined Abbas, as many of the other bandits had done?
For a short while, rumors of more bandit atrocities caused panic in our town. Fearful of being ambushed, no one traveled on the road leading out of town. In spite of Roman protection, most townsfolk stayed put in Nazareth and many became shut-ins, afraid to leave their homes. Even with sentries patrolling the road, we saw few idlers walking past our house. The hills surrounding Nazareth, which provided excellent hideaways, were especially unsafe, so Papa forbade us from leaving our backyard. Fortunately for Nazareth, the Roman presence was strong and the Roman garrison was close by. Unlike Judah the Galilean’s rebellion many years ago, which caused the Romans off guard, our prefect Cornelius acted quickly and in a few weeks after Regulus’ first report to the householders in his sector, the optio brought us welcomed news. Abbas had killed, plundered and spread fear in many Galilean towns, but now, exclaimed Regulus, showing a rare burst of emotion, the bandit chief was dead. Longinus and several hundred soldiers from Cornelius’ cohort had killed a large number of bandits in a nearby town. Abbas had been identified among the dead. Only a handful had escaped into the hills. Papa was anxious to know whether Reuben and his gang were among the dead laid out for inspection in Cana or were among the bandits who escaped that day. When Regulus suggested that a few townsmen might inspect the dead bandits, themselves, Papa, without hesitation, volunteered.
The following morning we watched Papa mount a Roman mule and follow two of Regulus’ men out of Nazareth to the site. Because of the lingering threat of bandits hiding in the hills, Jesus and Mama were forbidden by our guides to go along, but Ezra and Papa’s new friend Horib were allowed to ride along. Jesus, who had lived through much worse hazards, felt somewhat miffed, but stood amongst his brothers as an obedient son. Viewing the dead bandits would be an unpleasant task for Papa and his friends, but it was necessary for all of our peace of minds. Though there had seemed to be an entire army of bandits out there, the only ones that seemed to matter to us now were Reuben and his band. Jesus closed the shop early to keep an eye on his brothers and my friends. All of us, including many idlers who had heard about the massacre of Abbas’ men, waited anxiously for the news when they returned.
To take our minds off the wait, Jesus chatted with those around him. Many in the crowd pricked up their ears. Upon hearing Joseph’s controversial son speaking, the town elders were drawn to the chat, using the occasion to test Jesus frame of mind. According to the rumors circulating, Jesus had changed his ways. He hadn’t been seen wandering around in the hills talking to himself for quite some time, and yet there was gossip from those doing business with Papa and snooping around our house that Jesus had expressed some strange notions learned on his trip. Had his journey with Samuel’s nephew made him even more a heretic? Had he really changed? These questions and many more were whispered back and forth as they closed in like jackals around my brother.
This observation, as most of the others, which I write in hindsight, is based upon Jesus’ own reflections. At the time, I was more concerned about Papa’s trip to Cana. Although Mama was worried about what he might say, she motioned patiently for everyone to gather in the garden area as Jesus sat on his favorite stool, glancing around serenely at the adults and children congregating in our yard. His voice was a youthful prelude to the sermons he would give to the multitudes in Galilee. As he searched his vast catalogue of thoughts, the elders, young men, their wives, and children in the assembly stirred expectantly. There were certain topics Jesus must not talk about. We, his family, cringed, wondering if he might blurt out that belief he brought back with him from his trip with Joseph of Arimathea about Gentile and Jews sharing a universal God.
Breaking the silence, as he gathered his thoughts, Ebenezer, a Pharisee critical of our family, suggested slyly, “Give us a sermon Jesus, as we while away the time.”
“Very well.” He sighed heavily. “What would be appropriate?”
“Something like our rabbi might give.” Ebenezer snapped his fingers. “Show us what you’ve learned!”
“You mean from my travels?” Jesus frowned.
“Yes,” Gideon, a town elder, gave him a crafty smile. “Tell us about your adventures in Greece and Rome.”
“He also went to Gaul, Cyrene, and Egypt,” I blurted thoughtlessly. “Jesus was at the top of the Pharos lighthouse and his ship almost sank—”
“You don’t want to go there!” James’ hand clamped over my mouth.
A slight elevation in our front yard gave Jesus a vantage point above the crowd. Looking over of the heads of the elders at the uneducated mob, he cried out in a clear, resonant voice, “Riches, glory or peace of mind—which would you choose? The answer seems obvious, my friends, but is it? All people can attain paradise if they live righteous lives, but the road is strewn with the bones of well-meaning men. The surest road, though the hardest, is peace of mind. To attain this state requires assurance of God’s grace, given by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, it is the natural inclination of man to better his lot. Yet, at which point is he living comfortably or just amassing wealth? Success can be an end itself and the quantity of gold his chief goal. For the rich man, therefore, the road is unsure. It’s difficult for him to find God’s grace. Greed and selfishness are roadblocks detouring him off the path of righteousness. The Psalmist wrote ‘See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his wealth.’ The most dangerous road, of course, is glory, which often includes power, wealth, and fame. It takes a special kind of soul to travel this road, for it also leads to hell. I have learned in my travels that most people, though desiring riches and acknowledgment from others, also desire peace of mind. A few crave glory. Only a few righteous men will settle for only peace of mind in God’s grace, and yet the Lord is merciful, knowing the frailty of men. A man’s faith, the most important requirement for paradise, must be accompanied by good works—the proof of man’s righteousness, which must far outweigh the evil he has done. How far? You ask. A righteous man will know in his heart what is enough, just as an unrighteous man’s conscience will prickle him when he has slighted the widow and orphan in his care.”
A smattering of applause followed as Jesus paused. He had that certain look when God was talking to him. Fortunately, he no longer acted strange at such times. He could listen to the Lord without closing his eyes or staring slack-jawed into space. Most of the townsfolk not clapping, nodded in respect, if not scratching their heads in puzzlement over his fancy words. Several town elders gave him begrudging acknowledgement by frowning and stroking their beards. Ebenezer, his phylacteries rocking to and fro, ambled up, a snarl playing on his face.
“Hah!” He tossed his head haughtily. “Was that it? I was hoping you’d give a real sermon, like you were in the temple—something deep but with points of the law.”
“I wasn’t finished.” Jesus glared at the Pharisee. “I was gathering my thoughts. I’m not reading from a scroll, Ebenezer. It’s called a pause.”
Ichabod, a local merchant, stepped forth, chuckling under his breath. “What was your point? It went right over my head.”
Patiently now, Jesus explained to Ichabod, and anyone else who missed the point, the gist of his speech. I think these men were being sarcastic. So far, Jesus had comported himself well. There would only be a handful of dissenters in the crowd. This I think, upon reflection, was partly due to ignorance. After climbing up on my rock, I could see many dull-witted expressions in the crowd. Looking back now, I am amazed at how dense most of these Nazarenes were. Even I, a child, understood the importance of his words. In one short sermon, he had given his audience a choice between wealth, power or peace of mind. Looking at this simple scale, one could see the increasing prospects of obtaining paradise or increasing prospects of going to Gehenna or hell. Jesus implied that most folks, who scratched and saved for a living, as my parents had done most of my childhood, were closer to heaven than the wealthy and status conscious elders in our town. God’s grace was slanted toward the poor, if they were faithful and lived good lives. Jesus had also reminded the townsfolk of their mistreatment of Mariah and her son Michael by alluding to the widow and orphan. In both cases, because of their influence and power over others, he was singling out the overbearing elders in our town.
“Thank you.” Ichabod bowed, and backed away.
“Did I clarify myself?” Jesus asked, as the merchant disappeared into the crowd.
“Yes-yes,” Ichabod called back quickly, “greedy men aren’t going to heaven.”
“And God favors the poor!” a woman shouted from the crowd.
“No, madam,” Jesus shook his head, “God favors the righteous. It’s just easier without the baggage of wealth.”
“Wealth is baggage?” Gideon’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that what you said?”
Jesus studied the swarthy, shifty-eyed elder. “Weren’t you listening? I explained it twice!”
“You’re an impertinent young man,” snapped the elder. “How dare you preach to us!”
“Now-now,” Ebenezer laughed good-naturedly, waving a hand, “we asked for a sermon. What did you expect?”
“A discussion about his travels,” Gideon huffed, “not this lecture against wealth!”
“It’s not against wealth,” Jesus cocked an eyebrow. “God rewards the righteous. Wealth’s not the issue, Gideon—faith is. It’s just very difficult for men who hoard gold.”
Habakkuk, a venerable Pharisee, now hobbled forward on his cane. “So,” he said in a gravely voice, “a rich man, if he’s faithful, can be righteous. The question is ‘is there virtue in being poor?’”
“God rewards those who have faith and give alms to the poor, which is righteous,” Jesus explained patiently. “He doesn’t reward success in itself nor does he admire wealth. A poor man, with a contrite heart, is not tempted by a rich man’s greed.”
“Is it so righteous to be poor?” asked Habakkuk. “Solomon was rich, so is Samuel, the richest man in town. Are their chances any less than the working poor? Do poor men, who strive all their lives, really have peace?”
Raising two fingers, Jesus frowned. “Verily I say unto you, it’s as easy for a rich man to go to heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
One day these words would strike the priests and Pharisees as a thunderclap. That moment, however, it sounded like an exaggeration. It seemed so silly I couldn’t help giggling. Many of his listeners also laughed at this jab at the rich.
“You’re saying Samuel’s damned?” Habakkuk recoiled in horror. “And Solomon’s in hell?”
“No,” Jesus replied, rubbing his jaw, “not if they’re written in he Book of Life. No one knows whose name’s in the book—not you nor I. Not Solomon with all his riches.”
“Humph,” Ebenezer made a face, “I never heard of this book. Is this from the Torah? Where did you find this book?”
“Psalms and Ezekiel,” Jesus answered promptly. “Read it yourself; I didn’t make it up. Didn’t King David write ‘Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous?’ Like the Roman optio mustering his guards, God has a roll call, in which are called the righteous on Judgment Day. All people He created are recorded in the Book of Life for life ever after. To be absent from this book means everlasting death.”
“Mmm,” Habakkuk pursed his lips, “I’ve read something like that. This is a little out of context, though. In general, God will divide the goat from the sheep. It’s this business about a rich man passing through the eye of a needle that bothers us, Jesus. I’ve never read that.”
“This,” Jesus’ said faintly, “wasn’t written by men but revealed by the Spirit, the living Word of God.”
Because I stood very close to him, I heard his words. I’m not sure whether Habakkuk or anyone else was so fortunate. I was very proud of Jesus. God spoke to him that moment, and yet, he didn’t bat an eye. That enigmatic smile he shared with his family and with his disciples in later years played on his face as he turned back to the crowd. Without further delay, avoiding Habakkuk’s questioning eyes, he resumed his sermon.
“Harken to the words of Solomon!” He raised his arms. “For those who love Proverbs lend an ear: ‘Better is a poor man who walks in righteousness than a rich man who is perverse in his ways. He who keeps the law is a wise son, but a companion of gluttons shames his father. Woe to the rich man who increases his wealth by interest and craftiness at the expense of others.” “The law is clear on this.” He paused to glare at Gideon, Ebenezer, and others in the crowd. “A rich man’s first duty is to those less fortunate: the day laborer, widow, orphan, and the poor. If he fails this, his prayers are an abomination. Though he thinks he’s wise, a poor man, who has understanding, will find him out.” “Who then is wise?” He looked across the assembly. “When the righteous triumph, there is great glory, but when the wicked rise, men merely hide. He who conceals such transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Blessed is the man who fears the Lord and walks in righteousness, but he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity. The righteous man will be delivered, while he who is perverse in his ways will trapped by his evil desires.”
“Woe also to the man who toils by the sweat of his brow.” He now scanned the uneducated members in the crowd. “He who tills his land will have his share of bread, but for the man who follows worthless pursuits poverty is his reward. Remember: the faithful man will abound with blessings, whereas he who strives only to be rich will be cursed. A miserly man, thinking only of wealth, doesn’t know that want will come upon him too. He who rebukes such a man will find more favor than he who flatters him for his own end. For a greedy, miserly man, who trusts his own mind, causes strife. In the end he’s cursed, while he who trusts in the Lord, who walks in wisdom, and gives to the poor, is blessed. He shall not want, and his life is enriched.”
To Mama, James, Joseph, Simon, and my great relief, there were no outcries against Jesus’ words, only grumbles from the elders surrounding Ebenezer, Gideon, and their friends. Several of the humble folk, though, asked him to explain some of his discourse, which was filled with flowery words I barely understood myself. Of course, Jesus wasn’t finished yet; he had only paused again, this time to take questions from the crowd.
“Jesus,” Eleazar, a neighbor of Joachim shouted, “should a man of little means give to the poor? What if its his last mite?”
“Everyone gives what they can afford,” Jesus replied. “But alms to the poor wasn’t the point, Eleazar. Nazareth has no beggars in town. I was talking about the effect of wealth and self-importance upon our souls. An impoverished spirit is much more wretched than physical poverty. In this way all levels of men can transgress, not merely the rich.”
“What did you mean by ‘a man who trusts in his mind causes strife?’” Ichabod called from the congregation. “And ‘he who walks in wisdom will be delivered?’”
“It means,” Jesus said, looking directly at Gideon and Ebenezer, “that educated men are not necessarily wise if they’re puffed up with themselves. Vanity is the surest road to hell!”
Jesus answered several more similar questions. Some of the questions showed how uneducated Nazarenes were of their religion, but I could detect very little hostility in his listeners. Upon closer inspection, which I write in retrospect, it appeared as though he had deliberately picked a proverb, occasionally reworded for clarification, that seemed fair-minded to both rich and poor. Not only did he warn rich men about taking advantage of laborers and the working poor, but he warned those who labored and sought only wealth that they could be punished too. He also included in his denunciation learned men such as the Pharisees, with shallow wisdom, and many of the elders in Nazareth—the flatterers, who condoned the actions of such men. Of course, in Nazareth, there was no dire poverty and there were only a few rich men and several near-do-wells who were trying very hard to be rich, but the message couldn’t be clearer to anyone who had listened with comprehension to his speech. In brief, God favors no class. The deeds of men are weighed more heavily than merit, as Jesus would say when I was a disciple. Fortunately for Jesus that hour, the uneducated working poor of Nazareth had a limited understanding of his words, for he saw shortcomings in them too.
Jesus sermon had awakened many of the townsfolk from boredom and the doldrums affecting all crowds. Only a few town elders and Pharisees were offended by the implications of his words. This time he had quoted scripture to them to back up his sermon. For the less educated elders, not as familiar with Jesus’ quirks, it sounded pretentious and condescending (words they might not have understood but felt). As Jesus clarified his speech to several men and women in the crowd, Habakkuk remained standing by his side. A second elder, Ephraim, a longtime customer of Papa, also emerged from the crowd and remained stationed nearby. There were concerned looks on the older men’s faces, contrasting Jesus’ placid expression. I noticed other men and women looking on with concern, too, including Caleb, the new tanner, whose sons Jethro and Obadiah had recently become Simon and my friends.
“Don’t worry my friends,” he said, inclining his head, “I’ve said nothing unique. It’s true, the Psalmist and Ezekiel, himself, spoke of the Book of Life, and Solomon counseled both the rich and poor. The question of righteousness, heaven and hell are common themes. If I’ve spoken heresy, so have the prophets, their scribes, and King Solomon, himself.”
“I’ve talked to Samuel,” Ephraim announced candidly. “He spoke highly of you. He considers you a friend. You’re a fine speaker, Jesus. This is no more questionable than other issues among learned men.” “Take my advice, though,” his voice dropped low, “stick to points that aren’t controversial. You’re not going to change those men’s minds.”
Jesus laughed softly. Habakkuk, who stood alongside of Caleb, gave my brother a worried look, and yet my heart swelled at the sight of three townsmen standing beside him now.
Gideon ambled back through the unwashed bodies, a small number of supporters at his heels. “You consider Jesus’ words significant?” He scowled darkly. “This mere youth, who goes on a voyage with a rich merchant and comes home thinking he has all the wisdom of the world? Who is he to spout wisdom and religious niceties to us?”
“Are you offended by the Psalmist, the prophet Ezekiel, and King Solomon’s words?” Jesus calmly asked.
“No, he’s offended by you!” Old Ethan shook his staff.
“Who are you to act so high and mighty?” Gideon wrung his fist. “You think traveling with a rich merchant makes you better than us?”
“You asked for a sermon.” Jesus shrugged. “That’s what I’m giving. Would you prefer I were mute?”
Before Gideon could answer or Habakkuk, Ephraim, or Caleb could advise him against further controversy, Jesus called out in a loud, clarion voice “Heed Solomon’s warning: ‘He who had everything, admitted in the end that he had nothing. He didn’t have the peace of mind of the poorest fool on earth. Who then is rich? Who really is poor? Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What does a man gain by his toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, hastening to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north. Round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits it returns. All the streams run into the sea, though the sea isn’t full, to the place where streams flow again. All things are full of weariness. A man can’t utter it, the eye isn’t satisfied with seeing it, nor the ear filled with its hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, for there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing which is said, See, this is new? No! It has already been in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after.’ As King, Solomon applied his mind to seek and find wisdom—all that is known under heaven, he failed, just as you shall fail. ‘I’ve seen everything that is done under the sun,’ he cried, ‘and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind. What is crooked can’t be made straight, and what is lacking can’t be numbered.’”
Looking up at the sky, Jesus dropped his eyes while staring into space as he concluded this portion of his sermon. “Verily I say unto you,” he began, raising two fingers, his eyes closed. “Solomon had all the wealth and all of the wisdom a man could have, but he wasn’t happy. For wisdom, in itself, is madness and folly, just as gold, for its own end, is ruinous in the eyes of God.”
Jesus, who had all knowledge, despised it when it became a stumbling block to faith and pure understanding. This was, I believe, the greatest irony in his character. Clearly, his words had focused upon the self-possessed Pharisees and near-do-well elders, but this time, as before, he was reminding everyone of what was important in our lives. So typical of a narrow-minded and half-educated townsman, however, Gideon took issue again with his words.
“Let me get this straight.” He cleared his throat. “You’re saying that Solomon’s wisdom is for naught?”
“No,” Jesus answered quickly, “Solomon said it. I expounded upon it. Read it yourself.”
“Is that true?” Gideon glanced back at Ebenezer. “Did Solomon say this?”
“Yes, in deed,” Ebenezer laughed wryly, “that and more.”
“He didn’t have that one important thing.” Habakkuk looked into Jesus unwavering blue eyes. “Peace!”
“All right, that’s very good,” Gideon waved impatiently, “but what about all that other stuff, Jesus: that book and what you said against rich men. All of our kings and our priests have been rich. Are they in Gehenna? Is paradise filled only with poor men and fools?”
Jesus folded his arms, his eyes narrowing in thought. “....Most of the great men in our history—the judges, rabbis and prophets—were poor by our standards, not all were wealthy. But you fail to understand what I meant, Gideon. It’s the love of money, not the ownership, that binds us to Satan. Since the tendency to love riches is strong in the wealthy, they are in great danger. Also in great danger are those seeking influence and high standing and those men, who use the holy scrolls, to keep other folks in their place. Knowledge, like gold, is useless without peace of mind. That is at the heart of Solomon’s words.”
This seemed reasonable even to Gideon, who had ran out of arguments against Jesus words.
“Did I answer your questions?” Jesus asked, as the elder made his way through the crowd.
“Yes, indeed,” he called over his shoulder, “you’re friend Joseph of Arimathea trained you very well.”
It might have been sarcastic, but coming from his chief critic it was enough. In subdued tones my brother’s three advocates counseled him as he stood in prayer.
“Jesus,” Ephraim whispered, as Gideon, Ebenezer and their friends retreated to the edge of the crowd, “this is a good stopping point. You’ve made excellent points. Except for the Pharisees, who argue about everything, these folks are thickheaded. The majority of them don’t understand your fine words. Most of our town elders’ minds are clamped tightly shut. Please Jesus, no more controversy.”
“I agree.” Habakkuk placed a hand on his shoulder. “The townsfolk have been patient and supportive of you, but they’re on edge waiting for your father to return. There are many chapters of the law and prophets not so controversial. You’re not the one for small talk, Jesus, but this is an art you should learn.”
“Hopefully,” Caleb added his mite, “Joseph will return soon and calm our fears.”
“The Lord talks to me.” Jesus studied the three men, shielding his eyes from the sun. “I never know when He’ll speak.”
I wanted Jesus to tell them about the wondrous things he had seen and done abroad. I must have opened my mouth or made a sound, because, no sooner, had these thoughts came into my head, than James hand was clamped over my mouth. Joseph, also intuitive, shrilled into my ear, “Silence, you little fool!”
At this point, Jesus discourses seemed to end. It began at Ebenezer’s insistence and ended with a nod of recognition from him. Old Ethan, one of Jesus’ earliest critics, stood near the road, leaning on his staff, his eyes blazing in the sun. There were several conversations in the audience, some of which had been generated by Jesus sermon, and others, I won’t recount, which were complaints about the long wait.
“Frankly, this business of the book is frightening,” Ichabod’s wife was saying to Naomi, Ezra’s wife. “Even King Solomon wasn’t safe. Would Jesus include my husband’s desire to make a profit evil?”
“I think not,” offered Malachi, the potter. “There’s no virtue in being poor. Is it so wrong to have nice things?”
“That’s not what he meant,” I said indignantly. “He was talking about all peoples—rich, poor, Gentile, Jew—”
Once again a hand clamped over my mouth. Breathing down my neck, James warned, as he gripped my collar, “Gentile and Jew? Are you insane? Nothing about the Universal God—you understand?”
I couldn’t believe what just came out of my mouth. It was, no thanks to me, a miracle that Jesus had kept his most important belief to himself.
The crowd was growing irritable because of the wait, a few listeners still grumbling to themselves but most of them impatient with the delay. Many of them wondered why the town rabbi wasn’t represented here. “Where’s Joachim?” they mumbled. “Why isn’t the rabbi here? ….What’s taking Joseph, Ezra, and Horib so long?” No one really expected the infirmed Samuel to show up. As Jesus continued his discussion in a muted voice with Habakkuk, Ephraim and Caleb, Jesse, an orchard grower, walked over to Mama, who stood chatting with Naomi and Ichabod’s wife.
“Mary,” he interrupted rudely, “what’s this nonsense about the Book of Life and his criticism of ambitious men? Jesus is treading in deep water.”
Again Jesus shielded his eyes from the sun as he focused on Jesse. “Speak to me, yourself,” an edge came to his voice. “I’ve said nothing not stated by the Prophets and our Kings.” “All of you,” he spoke to the crowd, “take time to read our sacred scrolls. There’s nothing contentious in my words.”
In the background Gideon and his friends frowned but said nothing. Ethan continued to glare fiercely, and Ebenezer was no longer certain how he felt. Jesse, who had always thought he was a clever fellow, called out, “When you cast your net, make sure there’s fish, not snares, in the water.”
Jesus would say something like this to his chief disciple Peter, yet didn’t reply. It was obvious that he had created hard feelings today, but the danger had passed. Only a small number of listeners had taken issue with his words. Jesse, who had heard Jesus detractors mumbling under their breaths, was in a position to estimate close-up the reaction of the crowd.
“I’m not a learned man,” he confessed to Jesus. “It’s not your words; it’s your tone that bothers the Pharisees and elders. They think you’re a know-it-all Jesus, which you are. I’ve never known someone so young able to carry on this way. You make them feel guilty because they aren’t righteous but mostly because they don’t know as much as you. One day Jesus, with your knowledge, you’ll do great things!”
Jesus gripped Jesse’s shoulder in appreciation. With that statement, that everyone within earshot could hear, Jesse joined Habakkuk, Ephraim, and Caleb, in Jesus’ circle of advocates. Though Ebenezer had backed away earlier from confrontation, he stood in apparent solidarity with Gideon and the other elders now as Jesus began preaching again, a look of uncertainty on his face.
“Man does not know his time,” he said, looking first at Jesse then at Ebenezer, Gideon and their friends. “Like fish which are taken in an evil net and birds which are caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. He who sows the good seed and casts the pure net is the Son of Man, but verily I say unto you that Elijah has already come, and they didn’t know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will suffer at their hands...”
Jesus continued on this line of thought for several moments, first quoting Daniel’s discussion of the Son of Man, “I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven...”, which was, I know now, a prediction of the coming Messiah, but was, in Ezekiel’s scroll, simply another term for a righteous man. Nevertheless, Jesus most controversial declaration had begun with a verse from Ecclesiastes and ended in a message recorded later in Matthew’s scroll: a prediction of his own end. In hindsight, it seemed strange when spoken to such an ignorant throng. Why had he added this enigmatic part? Even the Pharisees, Habakkuk included, couldn’t grasp the true meaning. That understanding would not come to us for many years.
It was as if Jesus was rehearsing for a latter day. Buoyed by his moderate success with his fellow Nazarenes, his ear constantly turned to God, he moved out into the people for a short while, answering questions or just chatting whimsically with the crowd. Though there were a few men and women muttering disapproval under their breaths, most of the townsfolk mulling in our garden and in front of our house, looked at Jesus with a newfound respect. Perhaps, after all these years, they realized Jesus wasn’t insane or driven by Satan instead of God. Yet few of the people, other than a handful Pharisees and town elders and Mama, herself, understood the substance of his words. He had, James admitted to Joseph, spoken like a rabbi and teacher, but the subjects were too deep for most members of the crowd. They understood snatches of his sermon that applied to themselves, not the ultimate meaning, which even I, his brother, scarcely understood. Already as they gazed out at the road in expectation of Joseph, Ezra, and Horib’s return, they appeared to have lost interest.
Looking around reflectively over the heads of the crowd, Jesus closed his eyes a brief moment before speaking. “....Reuben’s not a problem for us. The bandits are not a problem. The Romans, whom many of you still distrust, are not a problem either. The Lord, in His infinite mystery, has sent us protectors. Since their arrival, He and the soldiers have watched over our town. Mark my word, as long you have faith and trust in God, Nazareth will be secure—Romans or not. I shall pray for this town every day of my life, but you must pray too.”
“Are you implying,” Ethan bolted forth through the crowd, “that we are under God’s good grace because of Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son?”
“You have said it,” Jesus answered, looking unwaveringly into the old man’s blazing eyes.
Habakkuk, Ephraim, Jesse, and Caleb, as many of the others, didn’t know what to make of my brother. It rankled Old Ethan most of all. It seemed as though everything Jesus said or did upset that old man, whose opinion of him would never change.
“Bah,” he grumbled aloud, “prayer from this heretic blasphemer is no better than a curse!”
With those words, Jesus stared coldly at Ethan, who was now the sole dissenting voice in the crowd. A sudden breeze, too faint to cause concern, stirred the beards and garments of the townsmen. I felt it. Mama felt it. I think my brothers, Habakkuk, Ephraim, Caleb, and Jesse who stood close to Jesus now, felt it too. Old Ethan backed away, without another word, shaking his head and muttering under his breath as he took his leave. Only a few idlers followed his example as he walked home. The remainder of the crowd would stay on to hear the news from Cana and what other strange thing Jesus might say.
“Whom do you think is safer,” he asked them then, “the wiseman, rich man, or fool?”
“The wiseman?” a man answered from the crowd.
“You would think so,” Jesus exhaled, running a hand through his hair, “but you haven’t been listening. What was that other sin almost as great as greed?”
“Vanity,” Habakkuk answered, looking reflectively at the ground.
“The wiseman, rich man and fool all face judgment,” Jesus resumed in a rising voice. “Though the wiseman may be a great teacher and rich man may, with his money, do great things, the Lord looks into our hearts more than our deeds. God’s fool, though scorned for his disinterest in wealth, fame, and power, needs only to share what he has with the poor and be faithful and his chances are greater than the most generous and influential of men.”
“Does God punish our pride?” Habakkuk eyebrows knit. “Are fine things evil and satisfaction with our merits wrong?”
“Habakkuk,” he replied sympathetically. “We all respect success, if it’s earned fairly, but do we admire a rich man, if he lacks faith? Understand, faith is not ritual and custom. It’s measured by strength and endurance, not by its showiness or knowledge of the law. Success, fine vestments, and phylacteries, without true faith are unfinished business—dough without yeast, which, in the eyes of God, becomes unleavened bread. As yeast makes dough rise, the Holy Spirit prepares us for death. The reward for a selfless soul—God’s fool—and all humble men, who are righteous, though rich or influential, is eternal life. We are judged first by faith, not deeds. It’s quite possible to be judged charitable for the alms of one mite.”
“Well,” Habakkuk said, toying with a phylactery, “I might be an opinionated old dawdler, but I’m not rich. I’m certainly not great.... But I get the point.”
Ephraim smiled wanly but slipped into the crowd. Caleb mumbled to himself, as he walked away, muttering “words, words, words, so many words.” Moments ago, Jesse had slipped away too.
“You have nothing to fear,” Jesus whispered to Habakkuk personally.
I could barely hear him, but it was the look in his eyes that spoke loudly now.
“Are you saying that I’m in that book?” Habakkuk’s voice trembled.
“You have said it.” Jesus gave him a knowing look. “Most of these fine people are.” He motioned to the crowd. “You have God’s yeast. I’m sorry for your discomforts. Your burden’s not fear of death, but physical pain.”
Realizing how difficult it was for Habakkuk to stand on his ancient legs, Jesus apologized for his thoughtlessness, offered him his stool, then stood there chatting with him as the crowd mulled impatiently in front of our house. I pricked up my ear in order to hear what my oldest brother said next, but he was talking exclusively to Habakkuk now, no one else. It was strange for my brothers and I to see such a friendship develop. Habakkuk had constantly complained of his painful joints and hobbled about on a gnarled cane. That he found the energy to join the assembly in front of our house in the first place had been significant, for, in deed, many of the townsfolk and elders had stayed away. He was, Jesus would explain later to me, a seeker: that rare soul constantly looking for the truth. Truth was more important to men like Habakkuk than all the wealth and power in the world. One day, of course, we would all know that Jesus was the truth. That day, we saw a small miracle: another Pharisee befriending our oldest brother, a youth, who had, in many peoples minds, caused a rift in our town.
Mama gave Habakkuk a mug of pomegranate juice, and turned to frown with dismay at the men and women trampling her garden as they waited for the news. There were mixed feelings about what Jesus had said. The crowd seemed evenly divided in their acceptance of Jesus now, though most of them appeared to have had more resentment for the detractors in their midst. It seemed, at first, to his family as if he had gone back on his word to keep his head out of the clouds, and yet all he had done was entertain us while we waited for news from Papa and his friends. Unfortunately, matters had gotten a little out of hand. Jesus bent down that moment and whispered something to Habakkuk in Hebrew instead of Aramaic, which was the language of Galilee. Because Habakkuk was slightly deaf, he cupped his ear, so Jesus said it aloud enough for those standing close him to hear. Many Galileans spoke Greek, but the rustic inhabitants of Nazareth had little understanding of their ancient tongue. Though Papa had tried to teach us our sacred language, what Jesus said sounded like gibberish to me. Fortunately, no one had heard this muted exchange.
For a while, until Papa and his friends returned, Jesus chatted with Habakkuk and other members of the crowd. Except for this polite talk, and the sound of Abigail and Martha playing in the garden, a silence settled over the congregation. Caleb, Ephraim, and Jesse reappeared by Jesus’ side. To Mama’s satisfaction, most of the people—supporters and nay sayers alike—seemed impressed with how Jesus comported himself. The children, including James, Joseph and their friends, had been generally well behaved as Jesus spoke. Even the cynics, Gideon, Ebenezer, and their friends stood in respectful silence those final moments, more concerned now to hear what Papa, Ezra and Horib had to say when they returned. Habakkuk smiled and nodded his head as Jesus turned and walked arm-in-arm with Mama into the house. We shall never know what he said in Hebrew to the old man. It was between Jesus, Habakkuk and God, but I was quite certain Habakkuk’s mind was filled with that peace Jesus told us would lead to everlasting life.
For several moments after Jesus discourses, the townsfolk loitered in our yard waiting impatiently for Papa to return. It was but a short journey to Cana—barely five Roman miles, and yet it seemed to take forever. During the interval Jesus’ long, rambling sermon seemed to teeter on the brink of heresy but remained, in the final analysis, within orthodoxy, robbing the notables in our town of more reasons to resent our family and its favorite son. If Reuben and his gang were reported dead, there would be great joy in Nazareth. With his God-given ability to see into the future, Jesus probably knew already whether or not Reuben and his band were alive, but that day, while we waited to find out, I was as anxious as everyone else. James, Joseph, Simon, and our new friends stood with me next to the road, murmuring expectantly under their breaths. A large number of people had given up and gone home. Hearing the clop of horses and seeing shadowy silhouettes break through a cloud of dust, the remaining townsfolk suddenly cheered as Papa, Ezra, and Horib rode up on their mules. Jesus and Mama ran out of the house with the twins on their heels. Habakkuk stood there silently, leaning on his cane. An inscrutable smile had replaced the troubled look on his withered face.
“Did they get them?” Jubal, Gideon’s friend, cried excitedly. “Are Reuben and his gang dead?”
Following Jubal’s question, it seemed as if everyone was shouting out questions at once.
“Please,” Papa said wearily, “let us dismount and shake off the dust from the road.”
Ezra and Horib also looked pale and weary, as if the experience had drained the three men of energy. Without further delay, the two Romans accompanying Papa and his friends turned their mounts sharply and galloped back down the road. Surrounded by the crowd, the three men passed through the gate and shuffled to the house, staring grimly straight ahead. I can’t vouch for what was in everyone else’s mind, but I knew it was bad news. Standing on my favorite rock in the yard with Ezra and Horib directly below, Papa held up his arms for silence and announced in a loud, hoarse voice:
“Men, women, and children of Nazareth, I have good news and bad news to impart. The good news is that Abbas and most of his gang of thieves and murderers are dead. The bad news is that Reuben was not among the dead. There were several bandits rounded up after the massacre. Though I saw Reuben’s original cohorts among the captives, Reuben, himself, was not in this group. Longinus told me that these men will be crucified to remind others not to trifle with Rome.”
“Where’s Reuben?” a lament of voices rose up. “Will he come back with more men?”
“People!” Papa cried out impatiently. “I was told by one of the captives that Reuben was badly wounded. He might be dead by now.”
A few of the townsfolk cheered, but Papa shook his head and waved off this lackluster emotion.
“I have more bad news,” he chose his words carefully. “Because Cornelius is satisfied with the military results and feels that the cohort has fulfilled its obligations to my family and our town, he ordered Longinus to pull out most of his men. Falco and Priam will guard our house for awhile, a small detachment will continue to inspect the perimeter of Nazareth’s hills, and sentries will make their rounds through Nazareth’s main street, but the Roman presence will continue to shrink now that they feel the threat is gone. Behind Cornelius decision was the heavy hand of the governor of the province, so we mustn’t blame the prefect or centurion. Longinus was very disappointed when he gave Ezra, Horib and me the news. He’s worried that Reuben and Abbas’ son might gather together the fugitives and wreak vengeance on Nazareth without our protectors.”
“Abbas has a son? That’s just great!” a member of his audience groaned.
“Well, that’s all I can tell you.” Papa heaved a sigh and stepped off the rock.
“Thank you Joseph,” Habakkuk called out, leaning shakily on his cane. “I find this to be a vast improvement over the odds we had before. It seems to me that the Romans have a tender spot in their hearts for us.”
“Yes, I agree,” Malachi, the town potter, came forward. “If Reuben is wounded, he won’t be much of a threat. I can’t believe Longinus will abandon us now.”
“Humph,” Yochabel, Malachi’s chubby wife commented, “that other fellow, Abbas’ son—he couldn’t be that old. Do you think he might be a threat?”
“Falco and Priam will kill him!” I cried.
“No, Jesus will protect our house,” Mama murmured, patting my head.
As the crowd broke into arguments over Papa’s news, Jethro and Obadiah, who were close enough to hear what my mother said, looked at each other in puzzlement. Habakkuk, hearing Mama’s words, embraced Jesus that moment. I will never forget what the old man said.
“Jesus will one day save us all!”
I felt such a close bound with my family those moments. While our neighbors and idling townsfolk trickled out of our yard, scratching their beards and heads, Mama invited all of our friends into the house to have lunch with our family. As I held Habakkuk’s free hand and helped him into the house, I looked back to see an incredible sight. There silhouetted in the afternoon sun was the portly outline of Uriah—the first friend I made after attending synagogue school. I ran back to embrace my old friend. In the background, I heard my parents call greetings to Uriah and James and Joseph make the same intolerant sounds. But Simon came forward to embrace Uriah too, and Jesus placed his hand on his raven black hair, as if in blessing.
“This is our friend,” he said to his sneering brothers James and Joseph. “He was lost from us, but now he’s back. Peace be upon Uriah, son of Joachim. You will always be welcome in Joseph bar Jacob’s house.”
As we all crowded into the kitchen to eat a lunch of chopped fruit, bread and cold lamb, we could not all fit on the benches of the new table, so we insisted that our guests be seated first. Jesus, James, and Joseph scurried outside to retrieve the stools used for the old table. Even after this measure, several of us still had to stand. A short blessing over the food was made by Papa before we began eating. As I stood between Uriah and Jesus, eating a piece of lamb between two slices of bread, I explained to Uriah what had been going on today and then invited him, as I chewed, to join my band. He promised to sneak over as often as he could, and he asked Jesus to pray that his father’s hard heart would soften, so that he and I could once again be friends. Jesus gave him a troubled look but nodded his head.
Most of our guests left after finishing their meals. To James and Joseph’s irritation, though, Boaz and Jonah remained seated at the table. With the exception of Ezra’s family, a few of the other families, and perhaps my new friends, most of those who exited were of the fair-weather sort. I could hear Papa and Mama talking about the congregation in our yard today. It was, they agreed, a good thing for our family because it had, despite the controversy over Jesus’ sermon, brought the town closer together. We had all been reminded that we shared, if nothing else, a common bond: our town’s security, which seemed in doubt now.
“There’s something I forget to tell our neighbors,” Papa said after a long swig of wine. “Ah yes, very strange, very strange indeed.”
“Tell us Papa,” I called light-heartedly, watching Uriah wolf down his food.
“You’ve had enough wine,” Mama whispered, as Papa drained his cup.
Papa was becoming tipsy. “The boy, Abbas’ son, had the same name as you,” he looked quizzically over at Jesus.
I shall never forget Jesus’ response. It was as if he already knew the answer. The room, abuzz with worried chatter, grew suddenly silent except for his reply: “Jesus Bar Abbas. . . . History shall know that name.”
“Abbas son?” Ezra muttered in disbelief. “He must be just a boy!”
“Yes,” agreed Papa with a yawn, “he should be about Jesus’ age.”
Jesus tilted his head and shut his eyes, as if he was listening to God. “. . . . He was old enough to ride with bandits and rob and murder unsuspecting travelers. He’s more dangerous than Reuben. Reuben is only a bandit. He doesn’t purposely kill. Abbas was a Roman hater, like Judah, the Galilean. The fruit is often the same as the tree.”
“How does he know these things?” grumbled Ezra. “Longinus never told us that.”
“Jesus talks to God,” Jonah announced innocently. “I learned this from Jude.”
“Really?” Boaz frowned. “I didn’t see his lips move.”
“His lips don’t have to move,” Simon explained thoughtfully. “Jesus told us we can pray inside our head.”
I looked up at Jesus and smiled. As if to cover up this lapse, Papa boasted to Ezra and his wife Naomi about how hard Jesus was working in the shop. It was true that, since Nehemiah’s funeral, Jesus had worked harder than anyone else in our family. Papa’s clients and our neighbors had seen this. By now Ezra must have noticed this too. But it seemed obvious to me that Jesus, though not wandering in the hills, was always talking to God. . . . He was just quiet about it now. Except for an occasional sermon like the one today, he would keep his divinity to himself until the Baptist’s call. Much would happen to our family before that day.