Thieves in the Night
That night we waited anxiously at the kitchen table, listening for the sound of horses’ hoofs and clatter of armor on the road. We understood, after seeing Mama’s expression, that Michael’s condition was not any better: he would either live or die. It was not like our ordeal with Reuben, where an arrowhead was removed and Mama’s powder was added to the wound. As Mama explained wearily, Michael had no visible signs of disease or injury. His sickness was unknown; there was no telling how much damage it had done to his body and mind. A greater worry, of course, one that threatened our very lives, was those bandits roaming the hills. Having no idea when or if the Romans would return to Nazareth, we were trapped in our small house, at the mercy of desperate men.
Mama had quarantined the twins in the back room to shield them from our worldly concerns. When not tending to Michael, she was checking on Martha and Abigail or eavesdropping on us as she passed through. I don’t know where she got her boundless energy or, for that matter, how Jesus remained so cheerful at such a time. That night he was a source of optimism and spiritual strength. He reminded us, as we waited for the soldiers, that Rome would protect Nazareth, but the Lord watched over our house. To keep our minds off the dangers outside, he taught us a game he learned during his trip. From the back room where the twins played, he brought a piece of parchment, a quill, and Papa’s prized ink well which he sat carefully on the table. With light deliberation, he drew two horizontal lines and then bisected them with two vertical lines, so that there were nine boxes in the strange looking design. He then drew two symbols (a circle and plus sign) on the margin of the sheet, which would be used to identify players in the game.
“Is this more heresy?” quipped Joseph. “It looks like something Michael drew in the cave.”
Uriah and I frowned at Joseph. James uttered a sour laugh. Disregarding this attempt at humor, Jesus explained how the game was played. His positive and lively attitude had already begun to brighten our mood. Jesus would not allow us to get dispirited. It was clearly a children’s game, but during idle time I would play this game with the other disciples. The symbols chosen by each player could vary as long as they were not profane. The easiest ones to remember were the best, Jesus counseled. For our benefit, he had used circles and the Latin et or plus sign (+), but after the Crucifixion, we changed the et, which looked like a cross, to an X, the first Greek letter in the word for Christ. The object of the game was to outwit your opponent by entering your symbol inside a continuous set of squares either horizontally, vertically or diagonally before the other player blocked your moves by entering his sign. The player who enters three symbols in a row won the game. I understand such words as horizontal, vertical, and diagonal now, but back then it was enough for us that Jesus demonstrated on the margins of the sheet the directions we might take.
“I wanna be first!” I jumped up and down excitedly in my seat.
“All right, but be careful with the ink.” Jesus held the well protectively. “Let me fill the quill.”
Very carefully, thinking I was being very clever, I scrawled a circle in the center square, a totally different pattern from the sample he drew on the margin of the sheet. Jesus followed with a plus running diagonally from my sign, so I put a circle directly above my first entry, giggling foolishly at my move. When Jesus placed a plus left of the center symbol, I placed a circle above it, but Jesus countered with another plus below. Simon gasped. Uriah tittered nervously, as I took the quill. Seeing the danger of my next move, I blocked Jesus by putting a circle beside his plus. He countered with his last plus, ending the session with this block. Stubbornly, screwing up my face, I placed the final symbol in its square.
“What’s the point?” James sneered. “No one won.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Jesus said, ruffling my hair. “This game can result in a tie.” “It is, after all, the race that counts,” he expounded airily. “Have you not seen two runners reaching their destination at the same time or two archers hitting the center of the target?”
“No, never,” snorted Joseph. “There has to be a winner. What’s the purpose of a game or contest if there are no winners?”
“You’ve asked an important question.” Jesus looked around the table. “Many people think that winning is important, but life’s not a game. One day the player’s winnings will be interred with his bones. So much for the race! I believe that it’s the contest or, more accurately the ‘test’ of life that matters to God, and He’s the ultimate judge. Each of us has our limit; some can go further, while others can’t go quite so far. No matter. It is the running, the playing, and life’s decisions that are important. If we live up to our capacity and reach our personal limit, we have won our race, but we must ask ourselves ‘to what end?’ Was our efforts for the good of others or just ourselves? In God’s eyes it’s the goals reached at the end, which are weighed in the balance. Remember that life is a test for our souls, not a game of skill or chance.”
By now Jesus had lost everyone, except Mama in the room. Sitting down at the end of the table, she smiled knowingly at her oldest son. “Ah, so wise is our Jesus. What can also be asked James, is ‘how does one define winning?’ A philosopher and an athlete would have totally different answers.”
“This is logic, Mama, not philosophy,” Jesus responded grimly. “What profits a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?”
“Bah!” Joseph spat with great insolence. “Words—always words. We were playing a silly game.”
James muttered protests too, and Simon, so typical during our evenings, was falling asleep, and yet I sensed, in my precocious mind, that Jesus had said something very important this hour. Now, as I write down my thoughts, I remember him saying this again shortly before his crucifixion and death. How is it that even then, not yet twelve years old, I sensed but couldn’t accept who and what he was, harboring in my own craven soul lies and deceit, which he had most certainly seen in my eyes? Yet I said nothing, as Jesus handed the quill to Uriah. Instead of rebuke, he seemed to understand my youthful exploits. Cuffing me gently on the shoulder, he declared, “Good game Jude. You think like a Roman.”
Many Jews would have considered that an insult, yet I grinned with pride. It was no secret how I felt about the Romans. As I reflect upon it, my admiration for them was a great heresy, and yet that night, as bandits roamed our hills, their imminent return gave me a feeling of well-being. Until Papa returned with the Romans, Jesus would be our family’s protector. As James and Joseph took turns using the cloaca, with Jesus on guard, Uriah and I sat playing “squares” without a care in the world. It would be a long night. As I watched my friend deliberate on where to put the first sign, I stifled a yawn. In spite of his irritating ways, I had grown fond of Uriah. We had come along ways since our days in synagogue school. Though I could never trust his moods, I had grown fond of Simon too, but James and Joseph were like strangers to me. How would I feel about Michael when he awakened? Would I embrace him as a long lost friend—which was certainly a lie? Or pray that, when he’s able, he’ll leave us in peace? . . . Only time would tell.
Carrying a large lamp, Jesus entered the house with his brothers close behind. Uriah had lost the game soon after entering the first square. James and Joseph laughed heartily at his dumb expression. Simon awakened just in time to see Uriah make his final move. Instead of blocking my deadly line, he placed his plus in the top right-hand square, thereby sealing his fate.
“Uriah, you don’t understand this game,” Jesus said kindly. “You must block the other players move or you’ll lose.”
“Uh-uh, you said it didn’t matter,” he pointed out quickly. “You said it’s the playing that matters and that life is a test for our souls, not a game of chance or skill.”
“And so I did,” Jesus grinned, handing the quill to James. “You have taken the better portion.” “Most of my brothers didn’t understand that,” he added, giving me wink.
“I understand.” Uriah hung his head. “I’m always losing.”
“What you said about a man losing his soul,” I murmured, looking squarely into Jesus’ eyes. “I understood that, but what if the profit a man has is only a little sum...enough to buy himself a horse and a trip to Rome?”
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Jesus gaze became serious.
“No, not me,” I replied, shrinking in my seat, “I meant Michael, for he has many sins.”
As Jesus thought about this, James quickly made his sign in a square, arbitrarily as if it was of no concern to him. Jesus as quickly made his. The speed of the game set, James swiftly countered.
“We’ve talked about Michael, have we not?” He studied me awhile, as the game once again fell into a tie.
When I finally answered, he was handing the quill to Simon, as if he had decided to make the grumpy Joseph wait for his turn.
“Will Michael be different or will he be the same Michael who tried to steal Papa’s coins?” the words rushed out of my mouth.
“Michael has free will,” Jesus answered evasively. “That means its up to him. He’s in the Lord’s hands.”
Joseph stuck out his jaw. “How can it be up to him if it’s in God’s hands? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes,” James jumped in. “Those two statements cancel each other out!”
“Not so,” Jesus answered, watching Simon scratch a large et sign in the center of the nine squares.
“You copied me,” I pointed playfully.
I tried to get back into the spirit of the game. I thought I had changed the subject successfully to Michael, but Jesus kept giving me that look, as if to say “You’re not fooling me a bit!”
Simon lasted only a little longer than Uriah in spite of a sensible move. His problem, as always was concentration, worsened by drowsiness. When Joseph began playing the game, Simon’s eyelids began to flutter again, and Jesus was explaining to us the mysteries of God. As I listened to him explain the concept of damnation caused by original sin, I visibly trembled, wondering if I had, in my greed, taken a dark path.
“We, the children, are given the right to chose right or wrong in life. We aren’t Syrian puppets. Our paths can lead into light or darkness: Paradise or Gahenna. The Book of Life, which is part of the unknowable God, lists who will choose good or who will choose evil, so that even freewill is foreordained.”
“That’s nonsense,” Joseph stared at him in disbelief. “A Book of Life which foretells who is damned and who is not? Those town elders, who heard you speak, thought that was heresy. What if someone strives to believe and be good all their lives and their name still isn’t in that silly book?”
“You did say strive, did you not?” Jesus frowned severely at him. “True faith comes easily. Gahenna will be full of philosophers and fools.”
“Rubbish!” Joseph threw down the quill.
Ironically, he had placed the final et in the squares after Jesus continued blocking his every move. As he stomped off into the darkness, I felt a cold chill on his behalf, as if he had set his mind on a path that would in fact lead him into darkness. To this day, as I sit in my cell, I know not where this troubled brother is. James, on the other hand, seemed to make the first move that night toward his understanding of Jesus divinity, feeble though it was.
“How do you know all this Jesus,” his voice constricted. “I’ve heard nothing about this book. Where did you get this mixed up notion of freewill? . . . Is my name in the book?”
“Am I God?” Jesus reached out to grip his forearm. “Be not troubled my brother. One day you will know the truth.”
“Bah!” James uttered his favorite word, retiring to another dark corner of the room.
Even Jesus’ manner of speaking was different tonight. It was deeper, more precise. He had talked about this to the townsfolk gathered in front of our house that day we waited for news about those killed in Abbas’ gang. Once again he spoke of things not written in our sacred scrolls. I didn’t understand clearly yet, but as I write this chapter, I can say that, in his sixteenth year, he was experiencing his Godhood. The glow in his blue eyes, unlike ours, seemed to reflect an inner light, rather than lamplight, which I saw dancing in Uriah dark eyes. How ironic it seems to me that he asked James “Am I God?” James, as everyone else, shrank from the notion of Jesus’ divinity. Who could have imagined that he would, as a disciple like myself, write his own epistle one day? That moment, however, I was greatly annoyed with both Joseph and James. Quite possibly there were bandits outside of our house, yet, thanks to them, I felt dissension in our small island of peace. Without speaking, Jesus reached out to grip Uriah’s and my hand. The sound of our brothers’ sandals shuffling on the tile and those strange, unearthly mutterings in the next room belied the tranquility in Jesus’ gaze. After visiting the twins, Mama was back in the new room with Michael, whose demon could still be with him, thanks to Uriah’s interruption today. James and Joseph lurked moodily as jackals in the shadows, while Simon snored fitfully, in the throes of a nightmare, his forehead on his arm. Only Jesus was whole in spirit and mind. Aware of his special strength, Uriah and I huddled around him as would sojourners around a small but rising fire.
“Uriah, your father will recover from his sickness,” he promised, his eyes tightly shut, “and you, little brother, fear not. No matter where you go, you shall find peace.”
“Peace?” Joseph grumbled from the shadows. “In this house there is no peace.”
Uriah smiled uncertainly at Jesus’ prophecy. It must have been hard for him to discard the prejudices Joachim put into his head. For James and Joseph there was no excuse. I, on the other hand, had accepted Jesus wondrous gifts and felt great comfort in his words. I had judged him correctly: he knew about my exploit but, because of his faith in me, would let the matter drop. If the bandits didn’t find my pot of gold, did Jesus’ silence mean I could keep it? Perhaps God, like Jesus, was merely patient with me and there would be a reckoning one-day. The thought both comforted and discomforted me. A period of grace existed for me in which I could, at any point, reveal my treasure to Jesus or my parents. The thought made me shudder as I watched Jesus ink in a new set of lines on the sheet.
“Here’s a new game I learned in my travels,” he announced blithely. “I watched Roman soldiers playing it in Gaul. It’s much a harder game.”
“What do you call this one?” Uriah asked, studying the scratching on the sheet.
“The sailors on board ship simply called the game ‘clues.’ The soldiers called it ‘guess what.’”
“Jesus,” Mama stuck her head out to say, “the children must go to bed soon!”
“This won’t take long.” He waved lightly. “You’ll note,” he said, pointing to the lines he scratched on the sheet, “there are twelve spaces to be filled by the guesser. Each time I say ‘guess what’ you must try to guess what I have in mind.”
“This it like our game forty questions!” I clapped my hands.
“Yes, but this time I shall give you twelve clues to match twelve spaces. For instance, my clue might be animal, and you answer lamb. If you’re wrong I’ll begin drawing a stick figure,” “like so,” he demonstrated, drawing a primitive head on the margin.
“When do you say ‘guess what?’” Uriah asked perkily.
“It’s said after each clue. For example,” he pursed his lips, “I might say plant, then ‘guess what.’ You’re reply might be fig tree. If you’re wrong, I would add a neck to my man. If you’re right, however, you get a check in one of the spaces.”
“I get it,” I cried. “Now let’s play!”
Jesus turned around slyly, then, turning back quickly, held out two closed fists. “Each of you pick a hand,” he directed gently. “Whoever picks the coin, gets to go first.”
Swiftly, I tapped Jesus right hand, which in our tradition is the most correct hand. When he opened his hand, though, it was empty, which meant Uriah would go first.
“Oh well,” I exhaled, “this’ll go quickly.”
While Jesus called out hints to Uriah, after giving him the first clue, “animal,” Uriah continued to give the silly answers until the little man was almost finished while the spaces below remained empty. Before I had my chance to play the game, James yelped fearfully “bandits!” Jesus jumped up, Mama ran into the room, and Uriah hid under the table as I clung fearfully to Jesus’ hand.
“How do you know?” Jesus whispered, as James peeked out the back door.
“I can see light in the trees,” he answered breathlessly, quietly shutting the door.
Joseph sat down fearfully at the table, muttering, “This isn’t good. This isn’t good at all.”
“Turn down the lamp,” Mama ordered curtly. “That’s it Joseph. Now place it in far corner so there’s just barely enough light.”
Joseph followed Mama’s directions. All of us gathered by the open door peering out into the darkness. We could see several dark forms moving in the distant trees. Four lamps swung back and forth for a reason only I understood.
“How very indiscreet,” James commented. “What are they looking for at this hour?”
“I bet there looking for treasure” Uriah appeared suddenly by my side.
“Treasure? What’s he talking about?” Joseph looked down at me. “I thought that matter was settled. You know anything about this Jude?”
“Uh-uh,” I murmured, tempted to sock Uriah in the arm.
I could always depend on Uriah. An excited conversation broke out after he told them about Simon’s slip of the tongue.
“Are you looking for buried treasure?” Uriah quoted Simon verbatim.
“Really? Where? I thought he was joking,” Joseph sputtered.
“I heard Papa say something to Mama about that,” remarked James, “but I thought he was talking about the Magi’s Gifts. Is there really treasure in the hills?”
“I don’t know.” I stomped my foot. “If there’s treasure out there, they buried it themselves.”
“This isn’t good.” Simon’s voice trembled. “Pretty soon they’ll be heading straight for our house.”
Once again, Simon, in his ignorance, almost gave it away. I had been forced to deepen my lie, as Jesus warned Papa not to do, by flatly denying knowledge of the treasure. Worse still, my subterfuge had placed my family in danger.
“Let’s shut and bar the door!” Uriah wailed.
“Calm down everyone,” Jesus called in a muted voice. “Remember what I told you: the Lord protects our house!”
“Just the same,” Simon replied anxiously, “we need the sword.”
While Joseph bolted the back door, James made sure the shutters in the new room, large room, and kitchen were secured and front door was also barred. Simon ran into the back room and fetched Papa’s weapon. This action frightened Abigail and Martha very much. For a few moments we heard Mama cooing to the twins: “there-there, the boys are just playing a silly game.” I realized that moment that Mama was not above telling a fib. These were trying times for our family. Only Jesus was above the fray: cheerful yet indestructible, constantly giving us comfort and homilies to make us think. Undaunted, as everyone else quaked with fear, he led Uriah and I back to the table to resume our game. Soon James and Joseph had joined us, terror glowing in their eyes, while Simon stood holding the saber in his small hands.
“It’s going to be a long night,” observed Mama. “You boys should get some sleep.”
“Uh-uh, not a chance,” James shook his head vehemently.
“Is she serious?” Joseph muttered hoarsely. “Members of Abbas’ gang are out there looking for loot they buried near our home. There’s something just not right about this—not right at all.”
“Simon, place the sword in the corner, away from table,” Jesus ordered testily. “Joseph, shut up and play the game with us. It’ll take your mind of what’s outside.”
James watched Jesus draw legs and arms on the stick man as Uriah attempted to guess what. Charitably, I let James go ahead of me when Jesus finished Uriah off with the twelfth stroke: the man’s hair. Joseph seemed too frightened to concentrate on the game. As James took the quill, his hand was trembling, but he guessed correctly after the first clue—animal, so that, as Jesus directed, he checked the first space after writing below the twelve squares ‘small.’
“A small animal. Very good James.” Jesus inspected the sheet. “That narrows it down. Your second clue is ‘multi-colored.’ This is an easy one.”
“What’s the point of this stupid game?” James grumbled. “That could be almost anything—a bird, a bug, a lizard.”
He poised the quill over the sheet then groaned in despair as he mind went blank.
“Remember your first guess.” Jesus gave him another clue. “I said animal, and you said small. Now what sort of animal has many colors? Come on, you almost guessed the answer.”
James smiled sleepily. Simon was nodding off once more. I was getting sleepy too. As Mama sat down at the table, she yawned expansively, her eyes fluttering, half shut. It seemed to be a safe guess that Martha and Abigail had finally fallen asleep. Only Jesus and Joseph, who began pacing back and forth over the floor, were fully alert.
“How’s Michael doing?” Jesus asked, after giving James another clue.
“Resting peacefully,” Mama answered, dropping her chin to her palm, “but there’s no peace out there!”
Always placing our mother first, Jesus paused in the game to check on Michael as Mama dozed off and, after reporting in a whisper that he was sleeping peacefully, lead her gently to her pallet in the next room.
“Now don’t argue Mama,” he scolded gently her, “you need sleep. I’ll try to get Uriah and my brothers into their pallets. I’ll keep an eye on Michael. You need sleep. There-there, lie down. That’s a good girl. Pleasant dreams.”
That moment I remembered the little serpent Simon was playing with. I knew at once that the answer was ‘snake.’ By now, however, Simon was sound asleep on his arm, a drool escaping his parted lips. Though utterly terrified, Uriah had also given up his vigil and was curled in a little ball on the floor. James, like me, was fighting sleep but losing the battle, both of our heads nodding jerkily like two Egyptian string puppets. Even the high-strung Joseph was battling fatigue as he moved nervously around the room.
“Joseph,” Jesus called discreetly, “James is ‘giving up the ghost.’ Sit down and take his place. I’ll teach you how to play the game.”
“How can you be so calm?” Joseph looked at him in disbelief.
For a brief moment, as Joseph paced back and forth, I experienced that weightless sensation preceding sleep. Any moment, I suspected, I would awaken in another dreamscape. Would I be riding my white horse again? Would I see those dreadful crosses? As my head drooped lower and lower, Joseph’s agitated movements prevented me from falling asleep. Just before I blanked out, my head jerked up reflexively as Joseph gasped and raced across the floor. He was acting very excited, much like the night Reuben was brought to our house.
“Listen!” He pressed his ear against the door. “I can hear them shouting outside.
I think they’re coming up to the house!”
That jolted me into full consciousness. “Huh? Wha-happened? The bandits here?”
“Shhh!” Joseph waved his hands.
“Ezra was right,” murmured James. “They’re here!”
“Fear not,” Jesus whispered into my ear.
Tilting his head, he listened calmly a moment, his arm around Uriah and my shoulders. The voices, though faint, grew louder, as though the men were approaching our house. Jesus sighed deeply that moment and braced his shoulders, his eyes widening with resolve. Another crisis was upon our house, this time bringing imminent danger. Suddenly, to no one’s surprise, there was the expected hammering on the back door, followed by a familiar voice.
“Jude, Jude, where’s my pot of gold?” Adam shouted through the door.
“I knew it!” Joseph gave me an accusing look.
“Tell him,” Jesus directed sternly. “Where’s the gold?”
“In the wall, passed the berry vines,” I answered promptly, “near a small bush.”
“If it’s not there, I’ll be back.” he said threateningly. “You better be telling the truth.”
Before I realized it, everyone was standing there, arms folded or hands on hips, staring reproachfully down at me as I sat dejectedly at the table. I could hear the twins whimpering in the back room. For a moment, we sat in cold silence, broken only by frightened breathing, and then a barrage of questions and accusations caused my mind to reel, foremost of which was Joseph’s shrieking voice, “All this time, the little thief had it hidden practically in our back yard!”
“Jude, how could you?” Mama wrung her hands. “That’s blood money, stolen from murdered merchants and pilgrims.”
“He could and he did!” James gave a wounded cry. “The lying little sneak!”
“For shame,” wailed Mama. “For shame!”
“That’s enough everyone.” Jesus spread his palms. “We’ve got to keep our heads!”
As James and Joseph grumbled, Mama sat quietly at the table, shaking her head. Uriah rubbed sleep out of his eyes, Simon looked around the room in a daze, but Jesus just stood there looking down at me, a smile playing on his face.
“You seem to have a nose for gold.” He leaned down craftily. “You sly fellow. Saving that to buy a horse, were you?”
“Uh-huh.” I nodded obligingly.
With the exception of Jesus, my brothers became a united front against me. Uriah’s mouth dropped and eyes popped open, fully awake. An ‘I got you look’ grew on Simon’s sleep drenched face. “Ah hah!” He pointed excitedly. “I saw you sneaking around by the wall!” Uriah, like Jesus, however, seemed amused by my feat.
He wagged his pudgy finger at me. “You found that pot when you were hunting for berries, didn’t you? Then you moved it to a safer place. How many gold coins do you think were in that pot? Would you have given some to me?”
“Yes,” I answered, dropping my eyes.
Lying had become easy for me. The truth was, of course, I had no intention of sharing my gold. I expected some sort of punishment. Mama was obviously upset with me. As we sat around the table, however, wondering if Adam had found the loot, the matter seemed settled. The thought occurred to me that Adam might still leave a few coins in the wall to show his appreciation. It seemed more likely, though, that he would resent my subterfuge. Very likely, I told myself, he had found it by now and was slinking down the Shepherd’s Trail with his friends. I didn’t expect, nor want, him to return and thank me for telling him the truth.
All at once, as I sat suffering the scrutiny of Mama’s gaze, listening to my brothers muttering their disdain, there was a terrible commotion in the backyard much worse than before. This time we heard a raspy, guttural tone and another man screaming in a deep, hoarse voice “The treasure isn’t in the wall. Where is the treasure? Tell us where the treasure is or we’ll knock down your door and kill you all!”
Immediately, I looked at Jesus, as if to say, “Well, do something!,” while everyone else, including Uriah, looked at me, as if to say, “This is all your fault!” This was, I was convinced, my darkest hour, but my only concern those terrible moments, was that my family wouldn’t be harmed.
The relentless sound of “Bam-bam-bam-bam! Where’s the gold? Bam-bam-bam-bam! Would did you do with our gold?” continued as the back door hinges creaked and the wooden panels rattled ominously. Jesus stood up, turned to us, as we huddled in back of the room, and instructed us to keep silent while he dealt with these men.
“Jesus, be careful!” Mama wept.
“Use the sword,” Simon called breathlessly. “When you open the door, let’em have it!”
“Those who live by the sword, shall die by the sword,” came Jesus’ refrain.
Jesus took the lamp off the table. Removing the board, he threw open the door, capturing the scraggly faces of three men in the glow. In spite of our knowledge of Jesus, we half expected the men to rush in and hack us to death, but they just stood there mutely, staring at the silhouette of the oldest brother.
“I warn you,” Jesus spoke calmly, “this house is protected by the Lord.”
“Oh no,” James groaned, “not now.”
“He’s tempting the Lord,” Mama rocked back and forth. “Those men will cut him down.”
“Is there a Jude living in this house,” a third man, with an evil high pitched voice asked.
“I will speak for members of this household.” Jesus replied sternly. “If your gold isn’t where my brother put it, then someone else moved it.”
“Did you move that pot of gold?” Joseph shrilled in my ear.
“Yes, and that tickles.” I clamped my hands over my ears.
I wanted very much to shut out the world. Except for Jesus, my family and friend were united against me. All three bandits began shouting at Jesus at the same time: “Your little brother stole our gold! Where’s our gold! We’ll cut out your livers if you don’t give us our gold!”
In disobedience to Jesus’ command, Simon retrieved the large sword. Tapping frantically on Jesus’ shoulder, he cried, “Here, Jesus, take the sword!”
“Yes, Jesus,” Mama screamed, “please take the sword!”
“What are we waiting for?” the deep voiced bandit shouted. “Let’s make them talk!”
In all the commotion no one thought to ask where Adam was. For all I knew, the other bandits had killed him when they couldn’t find the rest of their loot. Three big, mean-looking, desperate men, stood ready to charge into our house, and Jesus refused to brandish the sword. In stead, he began praying as he had never prayed before, “Lord God, master of heaven and earth, defend us from these evil men. Stop them dead in their tracks before they harm my family. As you once protected your patriarchs, prophets and judges, protect this humble house from evil doers. . .”
Following his prayer, all we could hear was the footfall of the retreating men and then silence as Jesus stood with his back turned to us, the sword Simon forced upon him held limply in one hand, the lamp held high, signaling in my memory, a turning point in his life. Jesus had physically stood between good and evil, and he had won. As I half expected, in the midst of his prayer as he called upon the righteous anger of God, he managed, by sheer will or magic, to scare away three desperate men. None of us could see a glowing face or fiery eyes that might have frightened the bandits off, but it was impossible for us not to see this as a great act of courage on Jesus’ part, if not an outright miracle. Though thanking him profusely, Mama had called his act foolish, but the remainder of us, including Jesus’ detractors James and Joseph, praised his bravery in tempting God. Whether or not it was divine intervention or Jesus’ words that scared off the men, it had worked. If nothing else, James argued with Joseph, Jesus fierce countenance was a God-given power. No one could argue that our house wasn’t protected by God. On that wondrous note, everyone collapsed onto their pallets and slept through the night.
From this day forward, with occasional lapses caused by Jesus high-handed ways, James and Joseph, his one-time detractors gave him the begrudging respect he deserved. In the days ahead, I expected punishment of some sort, but I was not concerned about this. It was the suspicion and distrust for me, re-awakening afresh on everyone’s face the next morning, that made me feel like an outcast in my own house. I was in big trouble this time. As far as Joseph was concerned, I had outdone even Michael. Michael had only written blasphemies on a few walls, whereas I had hoarded blood money and polluted myself in a pagan shrine.
One question that remained in our minds, though no one asked, was “Where had Adam been during this showdown?” I wasn’t sure I really cared. Adam had, after all, led his cohorts up the trail and was at least indirectly responsible for them terrorizing our house. When I finally mentioned this to Jesus as he sat at the table basking in his family’s adulation, he prophesized again, declaring simply, “Adam fled.” That was all, there was nothing more, but it was enough for me. No one asked him where Adam fled to or if he would come back looking for the gold. Everyone knew I would catch it when Papa returned from the Roman camp. I would probably be getting extra chores for the rest of my childhood. Satisfied with that knowledge, James and Joseph gave me surly looks as we ate breakfast, Simon snarled at me a few times, and I was shunned even by Uriah when I tried to make conversation about last night. What we did eventually come back to, however, was where I had hidden the gold. At that point, I exploded in anger at Joseph’s accusation.
“You stupid fool. You actually think I’d lie to those bandits? I moved the gold to another location in the wall. That’s it, story’s over. I made a horrible mistake!”
“I don’t believe you!” Joseph slammed the table with his fist.
“I don’t either,” cried James.
“You know what,” Simon tried to sound intelligent, “I think he snuck back down and put it somewhere else.”
“That was so original,” I looked at Simon with disgust. “So tell me wise Solomon, when did I have time to go down there after we came up for dinner? Did any of you see me sneak back down there today? You were with me the whole time we picked berries, Simon. I moved the coins, right in front of your eyes, to another place in the wall. You were just too stupid to notice!”
I had never talked to my brothers this way. Mama scolded me mutely by wagging her finger, yet no one blamed me for my outburst. As we continued eating our breakfast, James, Joseph, and Simon continued to grumble. Uriah had smiled at me once but was busily gobbling up every morsel in sight. Only Jesus had been friendly toward me, and this morning he had lapsed into silence to, at one moment closing his eyes, as if in prayer or receiving a revelation.
“One of the shepherds took it,” he replied, opening his eyes, “. . . coming shortly before the bandits arrived, slipping past our house and creeping up to the road where a friend waited with two mounts. Odeh’s nephew had followed Adam when he hid the gold in the wall. When he saw the bandits in the distance, he knew it was time to fetch the prize. He must have investigated the remainder of the wall.” “. . . . From this day forward,” he added slowly, “. . . let’s us call Adam by the name he’ll be called by thieves and murderers, . . . Barabbas!”
No one questioned Jesus revelation this time. It all made good sense. A grin spread across my tear stained face.
“So, it wasn’t Jude after all?” Joseph murmured, scratching his head.
“Those thieving shepherds!” cried James.
“They did us a favor.” Jesus sighed with resignation. “Odeh claims descent from Ishmael, who once worshipped the Hebrew God, but the shepherds, themselves, are pagans, just like the Syrians, Romans, and Greeks. Like many roving folk, they’re an enterprising, practical people, with no qualms about nabbing stolen gold or treasure from a pagan shrine.”
James gnashed his teeth. “Stealing is stealing. If I had my way they’d be banished from Galilee—forever!”
“You’re taking this personal, James.” Jesus frowned thoughtfully. “The Arabs didn’t steal from us. They’re our neighbors. At worst, they stole from other thieves.”
“The Arabs aren’t leaving Nazareth,” Mama’s voice trilled. “It would hurt Ezra’s business. They’ve always been friendly to us. Abbas’ men are the enemies, James, not the shepherds. A handful of bandits can’t chase them away.”
“They’re thieves,” Joseph muttered.
“They took Jude’s treasure,” Simon grumbled under his breath.
“Come on Jude and Uriah,” Jesus beckoned, rising to greet the day. “Let’s take a walk.”
Because Jesus had ignored his other brothers, I felt special. Uriah, who had tried being angry with me, also felt special. As if nothing at all had happened last night, he chattered happily about being a carpenter and making all sorts of things. I was reminded as Uriah carried on, that he was, whether I liked it or not, my best friend.
Jesus placed his hands on our heads, as we walked toward the shop, and said something very strange. “Someday Uriah, you will be a rabbi like your father, whose trade will be carpentry. You will, as Jude, see much of the world, and work tirelessly for the Lord.” “You my brother,” he singled me out, gripping my shoulders sternly, “must give up foolish things. You have a great destiny too, but God, not Judah bar Joseph, shall decide your path. We are bound forever, Jude. You, like your friend Uriah, will serve the risen Lord.”
I never asked Jesus what he meant by those words. For years, as I worked in the carpenter shop saving up for the adventures ahead, it sounded almost pagan to me. One of the gods of the Egyptians, I learned, was Osiris who rose from the dead. The Greeks’ Phoenix was consumed by the sun’s rays, rising from the ashes into a new body to begin a new age. It would never have occurred to me that Jesus was talking about his own resurrection as the risen Lord. Uriah, the son of a rabbi, would have considered that heresy, as would Joseph and James. I don’t believe my parents, especially Papa, would have understood the subtle meanings of Jesus teachings, for it required a leap of faith hastened by God’s will. Even Nicodemus, wisest of the Pharisees, didn’t understand what Jesus meant by ‘born again’—the very heart of Jesus’ mission. When he tried to explain his relationship to the Father to his disciples, he said, “Before Abraham, I am,” an answer which still doesn’t make complete sense to me.
And that’s the problem: fidelis tripudio as my Roman friends would say—that leap of faith too wide for learned men and almost impossible for simple folk. Is it any wonder that a boy not yet twelve years old had problems with Jesus’ cryptic words? Increasingly, through each year of his occupation as a carpenter, the Lord would speak to him, stopping him in the midst of his work or leisure, his dreamy eyes closing then opening wide with revelation. I was never sure whether or not he was praying or listening to God. He was the greatest mystery of my life. And yet, because of my special gift, that day is catalogued away clearly in my memory as I sit writing my family chronicle, as a day, in Jesus’ shadow, when I began to grow up, unraveling in my own plodding way the identity of the mysterious stranger masquerading on earth as Jesus, my brother, who would one day become the savior of the world.