Return of the Romans
We began to worry when Papa and his friends hadn’t returned from Cornelius’ headquarters. It seemed obvious that they had camped overnight with the Romans, and yet, previously, after inspecting the remains of Abbas’ band, it had been less than a day’s journey back to town. What was taking them so long? The thought that they might have ran into trouble on the road began to consume our thoughts as morning turned to noon. After leading Uriah and me into the carpenter shop, Jesus gave us each clamps and little pots of glue and patiently instructed us in the method of fastening legs to seats. Uriah was quite messy at first, but, watching my careful hand, managed to glue and clamp together his own stool. Though bored with such work, I did my best to outshine my friend by fastening legs to two stools, but Jesus had glued together four stools before I was finished and was already assisting Simon with his work. While Mama kept the twins busy in the house, James, Joseph, and Simon, as Uriah and I, were assigned tasks of a descending order of difficulty. James, who considered himself an apprentice carpenter by now, shaped table legs with shaver and plain, while Joseph, still a trainee, sawed and rough worked pieces, which Simon sanded and Uriah and I glued together with supervision. During our daily routine, we frequently glanced at the road. Mama stuck her head out the window at one point, her hand shielding her eyes from the sun, hoping to glimpse Papa and his friends on their mules, safe and sound. But the sun sat high in the sky, the noonday meal must be prepared, and there was no sign of Papa or his friends.
When Mama called us to lunch, our hearts were heavy. The look on her haggard face—a mixture of concern, exhaustion, and irritation that her husband was dallying on the road—caused Jesus to embrace her and whisper into her fragile ear “Don’t worry, Papa’s on his way.” Having overheard this bit of prophecy, I brightened immediately yet didn’t share my knowledge with my brothers and friend. Jesus had been the last one of us to enter the house. Was this another revelation or had he looked out from our front yard and seen travelers on the road? Regardless of how he did it, I was confident Papa would clamor into house within the next few moments.
When Mama suggested sullenly that Jesus give the blessing for our food, Jesus stood up dramatically and asked, “Why not have Papa give the blessing himself?”
“What’s he talking about now?” grumbled Joseph.
“Behold!” Jesus marched over to point out of the kitchen window. “The Romans have returned!”
All of us managed to cram our heads into the kitchen window and witness a grand parade. At the head of a procession of legionnaires, riding with Longinus, himself, were Papa, Ezra, and Odeh, grinning with embarrassment as townsfolk looked on. Jesus was right—the Romans were back! Unfortunately, the clamoring of hoofs and bark of officers awakened, with alarm, our normally sleepy town, stirring the natural distrust and dislike from Jews. Though many sound-minded citizens were glad the Romans had returned, a procession of Syrian dancers, acrobats, and jugglers would not have produced a more hostile reaction from some of the Nazarenes who stood along the sides of the road.
“We don’t need Roman watch dogs again in our town,” Aden, one of James’ estranged friends, shrieked.
“Let Jews govern themselves!” a more treasonous response from Uriel, Joseph’s onetime friend, rang out.
Neither of these youths would have anything to do with our family because of our heresies and collaboration with Rome. After their outbursts, as Longinus, always vigilant, set his face into a frown and Papa, Ezra, and Odeh climbed nervously off their mules, a spat of hoots and catcalls short and to the point followed, causing many of the Roman legionnaires to shout angrily at the ingrates. When the warning was given by Regulus, one of the optios in charge, “Disperse, back away, so help me, I’ll give you the flat of my swords,” a restless silence fell over the hecklers, except one gravely voice, an old man just arriving on the scene.
“Murderers!” He cried. “You killed my brother Ezekiel. Ezekiel wasn’t a bandit. Why did you kill my brother?”
“Uh oh,” Uriah pursed his lips.
“Who said that?” Longinus shouted, reigning in his horse. “Bring me that man!”
“I remember hearing about that incident,” Jesus murmured thoughtfully. “That’s old Nathaniel. Ezekiel was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those were troubling times.”
“You Roman pigs!” Uriel screamed in a strangled voice. “You solve everything with a sword!”
Other idlers we had not heard from shouted their protests. Aden, the first to heckle the Romans, was also screaming “Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!” in mindless rage.
“James and Joseph,” Mama threatened, “I can see that look on your faces. Don’t you dare say one word. I forbid you to run out there to be with your friends.”
“They’re not our friends anymore,” grumbled Joseph, “but they’re right; the Romans are pigs and murderers!”
“We’re not stupid Mama,” confessed James. “Those Romans are in no mood for protests. I’m worried about Nathaniel and our onetime friends. I’m just glad Isaac and Jeroboam aren’t in that group.”
Mama whispered praise to James for being sensible. After Papa and his friends dismounted, they stood by the gate looking on helplessly as Longinus men scuffled with the old man and his supporters. At that point, Mama and Jesus left their perch and ran to open the front door. In a most menacing voice, strange to her delicate throat, she absolutely forbade the rest of us from entering the yard. Since Jesus was not much older than themselves, James and Joseph thought this was unfair, but Simon, Uriah, and I were quite happy standing on the sidelines as the Romans began busting the protestors’ heads.
Papa signaled ‘halt’ to his wife and oldest son. Mama and Jesus paused in the middle of the front yard, as he erupted in heated conversation with Regulus, who stopped only inches from his face. It was a heart-stopping interval, causing James, Joseph, Uriah, and I to gasp aloud. We could see Jesus restraining Mama as she wrung her hands. I grew numb. The whole world seemed to reel around me as I imagined Papa getting himself killed.
I could hear him yell “That wasn’t necessary, Regulus. Those men didn’t have weapons. Why did your men have to rough them up?”
“Stand away Jew,” the optio blared, sticking out his jaw. “We can’t allow insurrection to smolder in Nazareth. Your neighbors forgot we’re protecting this town!”
Longinus shoved his way between the two combatants, asking Papa to go into his house and ordering the onlookers to go home. Through the mulling bodies of townsfolk, which included the parents of Aden and Uriel, I glimpsed legionnaires surrounding the malcontents, their shields raised and swords drawn. Because I couldn’t see them, I assumed that Aden, Uriel, and the old man had been beaten to the ground. Uriah, whom I discovered was nearsighted, squinted his eyes fiercely. In a constricted voice I explained to him what I saw. James and Joseph stood behind us, gnashing their teeth, beside themselves with a feeling of helplessness and rage. Simon had snuck out of the house, ran around the back way, and was watching the commotion when the altercation between Papa and Regulus began. We could see him in the shadows of the garden. Wide-eyed and mouth agape, he bolted up and ran back into the house. Ezra and Odeh must have slipped away during the commotion. Making scooting motions, Papa herded Mama and Jesus back into the house. As soon as they were safely inside, James slammed the door shut, bolted it then dashed over to shut and lock the kitchen window too.
“That’s not necessary James,” Papa exhaled, sliding onto the bench. “They’re not going to attack our house. They just wanted to scare us. Those foolish boys got a few knocks on the head and Nathaniel got off with a bloody nose.”
“What happened Papa?” Joseph asked fearfully. “Why did they do that? Weren’t they supposed to hunt down the remnants of Abbas band? That was the reason you went to the Roman camp.”
“Oh, they’re going to look for the bandits,” Papa said, stroking his beard. “Unfortunately, a few days before we visited the Roman garrison, there was an uprising in Sepphoris because of Gratus’ harsh hand. Longinus lost several men; one of them was Regulus’ brother Aulus. The Romans were going to return anyhow. Our visit just hastened matters along.”
“What about Priam and Falco?” I blurted excitedly. “Did they kill them too?”
“No,” Papa answered curtly, “those soldiers were stationed in Sepphoris where the uprising began.”
“Dear me,” Mama cried, her hand flying to her mouth. “Is Aunt Elizabeth all right?”
“They’re not mad at Jews, Mary. They’re mad at Romans.” Papa replied indulgently, patting her hand.
“Are they going to stay after they find Adam and his friends?” Joseph probed anxiously. “Will they be stationed in Nazareth again—watching our every move?”
“I don’t know,” Papa replied testily, “and his name isn’t Adam; it’s Jesus Bar Abbas. That’s what the Romans call him. If they catch those men, they’ll not wait to crucify them like those fools in Sepphoris” “Your friend is lucky, Jude.” His dark eyes focused on me. “They’ll kill the bandits outright when they’re caught. Longinus won’t bother carting them back for trial.”
“Adam’s still a child,” Mama clucked with disapproval.
“Hah!” Papa exclaimed. “That child—the son of a bandit chief—robbed and killed innocent travelers. The crucifixions of his father’s men incited hotheads, like Aden and Uriel, to attack Romans indiscriminately. Thanks to children like Adam, there’s an angry bunch of Romans in our town.”
“They would have come anyhow to look for insurrectionists,” reasoned Jesus. “They once came here looking for rebels after the rebellion. Let’s not forget the last time when they came as protectors.”
“Yes, but this is a small scale event,” snorted Papa, “—more like a tantrum.” “Not over important matters such taxes like in Judah’s rebellion,” he added with disgust. “Their protests over Rome’s unscheduled inspections of their town was a ridiculous pretense. The real issue was those brutal executions by the roadside. Longinus told me that the city fathers of Sepphoris, like Nazareth, have been complaining because they’re no longer protected full time by Rome. How ironic! What a waste of good Jewish lives!”
“We are an impatient, unruly people,” Jesus muttered to himself.
One day Paul would utter a similar complaint after being roughed up by self-righteous Jews. No one could disagree with Jesus’ statement. It was, as my Roman friends would say, res ipsa (it goes without saying). As though a shadow fell over my brother, he sighed deeply, his eyes closing tightly as if he were in deep thought, and he prayed silently to himself. As every other bad thing in life, Jesus took this personally. Already, though I couldn’t yet put into words then, he took upon the sorrows of the word. At times such as this, I wondered if, in spite of his divinity, he might be possessed—perhaps by an angel, in place of a demon. (Now there’s a thought!) Feeling great fondness for my oldest brother I sat down beside him, listening to an argument break out between Papa and Joseph and James.
Worded differently, perhaps, it struck me that Papa said the same thing as Jesus. Slamming the table with his fist, he growled, “When will our stiff necked people learn that this isn’t the time to rise up against our oppressors? That moment will arrive with the coming of the Messiah. It’s pure madness for club wielding Jews to attack heavily armored, mounted Roman soldiers. If Aden, Uriel, and Nathaniel had so much as rake in their hands, they’d be killed on the spot!”
“They didn’t deserve to be roughed up like that,” protested James.
“Why did the Romans seize them?” objected Joseph. “Why didn’t they let them go home?”
“They’re lucky.” Papa wrung his finger. “Longinus just wants to frighten them. He’ll let them go when they apologize for calling his men pigs. They weren’t the only ones heckling the soldiers. They’re the only ones that got caught.”
“When will the Messiah come?” I whispered to Jesus.
“At the river,” he murmured dreamily, “when the prophet calls.”
What nonsense, I thought smiling tolerantly at him. One day I would understand his prediction. James and Joseph hadn’t heard Jesus enigmatic answer, but they found Papa’s words unjust and sat grumbling to themselves.
“Aden and Uriel’s parents lost relatives in the rebellion,” argued Joseph. “Nathaniel lost his brother to those Roman pigs.”
James winced at his brother’s disrespect. Papa rebuked him for attacking the people who protected our family and town in the past. “Would you bite the hand that feeds you? Though their ways seem stern, so was the Israelite Joshua against the Canaanites, who slaughtered women and children along with men to fulfill God’s purpose, as did King David against his enemies, many of whom were innocent victims of his greed and lust. God allows the good to perish with the wicked. Sometimes, to protect us, he even makes our one-time enemies our friends.”
“You are saying that God is unjust?” Joseph looked at him in disbelief. “King David was punished, was he not? The Canaanites worshipped false gods and deserved to be destroyed.”
“Wrong on both accounts,” Papa smiled slyly. “If you’d read your scriptures, you’d know that King David punished himself when he did evil deeds, by throwing ashes on his head and praying. Some punishment! If any other man had committed even a smidgen of David’s offenses, they would have been put to death, and yet God personally struck men dead in the Torah for much lesser crimes.” “God’s ways are mysterious,” he reminded him. “Otherwise how can you explain God allowing Joshua to slaughter innocent citizens? Life is harsh, Joseph. The Lord’s methods are severe. Our stiff-necked people failed to heed the prophets, so the Lord sent foreign armies to punish, disperse, and turn us into slaves. With a Persian King, we were set free, so that we could one day be ruled by Greeks and then Romans, who, until our own kings proved incapable of doing so, allowed us self-rule. The Romans have proven to be the most tolerant of our masters. Unlike the Babylonians and Greeks and like the Persians they at least respect our religion. Many Jews have become prosperous and famous citizens of Rome. With the exception of Galilee, which is filled with highwaymen and rebels, a traveler can go almost anywhere in the empire and be safe.” “Look at your oldest brother and his friend Joseph of Arimathea.” He pointed to Jesus. “Except for the storms God quelled, not once did he write to tell us of dangers on the road or at sea. Yet look at what trouble your friends are brewing up in our own town.” “You will have nothing more to do with those troublemakers, Aden and Uriel.” He made a sweeping gesture. “I forbid you to see them or invite them to our house!”
“Aden and Uriel already shun our house,” Joseph scowled. “Thanks to the Romans and our many heresies, we don’t have many friends.”
“Then you should’ve made more friends,” Papa counseled sternly, “ones who accept you for yourselves, not the fair-weather sort who fill your head with foolish, dangerous thoughts.”
“I still can’t believe they called the soldiers pigs,” remarked James. “I’m just thankful they’re still alive.”
“Until you met boys like that, you and Joseph never spoke rebellion in our house.” Mama reached out and gripped his wrist. “I agree with Papa. We must not question the Lord’s will. The Romans have protected us against our enemies as surely as the shepherd watches over his flock. Because of the Lord’s will, four hundred innocent children were killed by Herod just to save our son. Unlike Herod, Rome ruled us then and now with a firm, yet just hand. How long we shall be ruled I don’t know, but I believe that they’ve protected our family and town because of our son. No Roman ruler could be as wicked as some of our kings. Most of them are but simple men.”
“What if Aden, Uriel, and Nathaniel had been killed today,” Joseph persisted stubbornly. “Would you say that then?”
“What if! What if!” Papa waved dismissively. “It didn’t happen, Joseph. The important thing for you to remember is what the Romans could’ve done. They could’ve beaten those fools severely or even killed them, as they did in Sepphoris after being attacked.” “In this house,” he cried shaking his fist, “we keep our heads and rely on wisdom through prayer, not loose words.”
“Rebelling against Rome is rebelling against God!” I exclaimed, jumping to my feet.
Somewhat startled, Papa and Mama laughed softly at my outburst. Though James had a blank, confused expression and Joseph frowned severely, Jesus gave me a hug, an inspired look growing on his face. Uriah looked at me proudly and Simon nodded his approval with sleepy, half-shut eyes. Only Joseph, Mama’s troubled son, sat in dark gloom over what happened today.
I was glad the Romans were back. In spite of the problems it created in our house and town, I hoped that they would stay. I was not completely sure about James approval of them now, but it seemed as if most of our family agreed with what Papa had said. There was really no way of knowing how many thieves and murderers were out there in Galilee during these troubled times. I just hoped Adam was wise enough not to come back looking for more gold.