In the weeks following the Romans’ return, Longinus assigned the optio Regulus and his men once again to our sector with the same three shifts and another squad of mounted sentries to patrol all four sectors of Nazareth, as well as the perimeter of town. Because of the recent uprising and the fact that the bandits were still at large, it was expected that there would be more Romans in Nazareth than before. The Roman guards, who performed lazily and loosely the last time, seemed much more organized. Regulus inspected his patrols more often, Longinus, in turn, checked on his four optios, and, we were told the prefect Cornelius, himself, would frequently review the soldiers patrolling Sepphoris, Nazareth, and other Galilean towns. The main difference, of course, was in the attitude of Regulus toward Papa and the other elders in Nazareth. During the altercation in front of our house, he had referred to Papa and the rest of us as Jews, as if the word were an insult. Clearly among Regulus and many of the soldiers patrolling our town, we had lost our status as allies and friends. We were now troublesome Jews. Papa promised to make peace with Regulus, who was, he believed, upset because he interfered with the optio’s job. We all believed, however, that it was much more serious than this. Once again Jews had needlessly attacked and killed Roman soldiers. The fact that it happened in Sepphoris made no difference to Regulus, whose brother had been murdered by the same kind of rabble he saw outside our house. So, from the beginning of the new occupation, we were careful, as were most Nazarenes, to remain friendly to the Romans but to keep out of their way and avoid congregating in groups more than three or four.
Almost as important to our lives as the Romans’ return was the condition of Michael, whose death-like state in the back room had made us almost forget he was in the house. While Simon, Uriah, and I continued to learn the craft of carpentry, poor Michael hovered over Gahenna neither alive nor dead. Our friends trickled back one-by-one partly because of our renewed fame, partly from curiosity, and partly from the begrudging notion that I had tricked them out of their gold. Because Papa and his friends had brought the Romans back to Nazareth, they were esteemed by many townsmen, who were more afraid of rebels and bandits than soldiers and a minority of hotheads, who believed our family were traitors and sycophants of Rome. We all knew what being a traitor meant. As he explained our situation with our guards, he defined for Simon, Uriah, and my benefit, what sycophant meant: a flatterer who said things he didn’t mean in order to be favored by other men. I had done that before with my parents, brothers, and friends, but I sensed that it was much worse to be a sycophant as an adult than as a child.
Often I thought about foolish things. During times of trial, I mostly daydreamed about my great white horse and imaginary Roman friends. I would become a knight, with sword, spear, and shield. I would have a shiny helmet like Cornelius, Longinus or Regulus, fancy armor on my chest, and sturdy boots on my feet. When I felt Papa suddenly shaking my shoulders, I tumbled back down to earth. I had stopped listening after he defined the word sycophant. I didn’t have a clue to what he was talking about now.
“Jude,” he said irritably, “are you all right? Are you having another episode like before? Get your head out of the clouds!”
Mama’s face loomed in front of my eyes: large blue eyes in her infantile face. I blinked, smiled foolishly, and followed Papa, Simon, and Uriah to the shop where Jesus was supervising James and Joseph in the cutting of hardwood.
“Easy with the ax, Joseph,” Papa quipped. “Are you pretending that’s me?”
“No,” Joseph replied, setting the ax aside and wiping his brow, “I’m pretending its one of the soldiers who attacked my friends.”
“That’s not funny,” Papa said, taking the ax from Joseph’s hand. “You’ve got to have a clear mind when you’re doing something like this.”
“He was joking Papa.” James gave his brother a worried look. “We know the Romans mean business this time.”
Papa handed James the ax. “I’m glad you’ve come around!” he exclaimed, giving him a pat.
Without explanation, Joseph was given a sander and led to a stack of legs. Papa began showing Simon, Uriah, and I what he wanted us to do. Jesus had a quiet conversation with Joseph as he half-heartedly did his work. In spite of my dislike of carpentry, I wanted to please Papa, so I rough sanded the splintery table top with great gusto, until I got a splinter in my thumb. Seeing the tears well up in my eyes, Papa took my shaver away from me and pointed disgustedly to the house.
“Have Mama pull the splinter out,” he called, as I trotted up to the house.
“He did that on purpose,” Simon grumbled.
“Come back and finish your project when it’s out,”
Papa called in a singsong voice.
“He’s a slacker,” protested James, “just like Simon.”
Yes, I’m a slacker, I thought as Mama appeared with a sewing needle and jar of medicine, but I was also a dreamer and planner. After the ordeal today and the many calamities for our family beginning with the rescue of the widow and her son, I had no intention of staying in this backwater town. My plans, which included my magnificent white horse, were fixed. More than ever I wanted to travel and see the world. I was not quite so certain about becoming a Roman knight. Though I admired Cornelius and Longinus, I had seen a dark side to their men, starting with the uprising in Sepphoris and its effects in Nazareth as Regulus let loose his company of men. Only yesterday, Uriah and I had seen Falco and Priam rough up Seth, one of James and Joseph’s friends. I was glad my brothers had been absent during this event. James and Joseph were in the shop. As Uriah and I picked weeds, Simon had probably been idling in the backyard or asleep under a tree. Falco and Priam had just been on their patrols in our sector of town when Seth said something to them. Uriah and I couldn’t hear the words, but the guards reacted quickly, Falco grabbing Seth by the collar and shaking him violently as Priam growled into his face “a curse on you troublesome Jews!” I couldn’t blame the Romans for losing their temper. I didn’t want to believe that Priam meant what he said. I was certainly not troublesome to them nor was Simon, Uriah, and most of the citizens of our town, who did everything possible to treat them with respect. But there was a difference in our protectors I couldn’t put into words. Their smiles were guarded, and they avoided eye contact with us whenever they passed. Until the resentment blew over, we were counseled by Mama and Papa to stay out of their way. We would have to be careful around Regulus, too, because of the murder of his younger brother by angry Jews.
Along with my dread of Mama’s needle, the incident in Sepphoris and its repercussions in front of our house weighed heavily upon my mind. I tried not to cry when she dug out my splinter. It was so small, she had to squint and bring my hand directly under the sunlight entering the kitchen window. With patient tenderness, it was out and a drop of medicine sprinkled on my thumb before a tear had a chance roll down my cheek.
A question came to me, as she sent me on my way. “Didn’t Papa once say that the punishment should fit the crime?”
“You are talking about those men who are being hung on crosses outside of Sepphoris,” she observed thoughtfully. “Yes, Jude, those men stoned those soldiers to death. They should likewise been stoned, but that’s not the Roman way.”
“What’s the Roman way?” I sighed heavily. “. . . . I thought I knew.”
“The Roman way, my son, is to rule harshly but justly as Papa said. They have, as matter of policy, made examples of those foolish men.”
“I don’t understand Mama,” I said, shaking my head. “Cornelius is a good man and so is Longinus. Why would the prefect feel he has to make such cruel examples, and why would a just man like Longinus carry it out?”
Mama kissed my forehead but shoved me gently toward the door. “Long ago, when villagers scorned me, your father told me that such men are true to their natures, and that it’s only the will of God that raises us up and divides our natures from beasts. These words were hard for a simple woman to understand, until I suffered the flight into Egypt and heard what Herod did to the children of Bethlehem just to kill one child. The years of suffering and abuse from our own people, those terrible months when our charity to the widow and her son ultimately brought Rome to our town, have taught me that there are good and bad Romans and good and bad Jews. Sometimes, as Papa said today, the will of God works in the Gentile as well as the Jew. If we compare hardnosed soldiers hanging malcontent Jews on crosses to a Jewish king murdering innocent children or our own neighbors wanting to crush our bodies with stones, who is worse—Gentile or Jew?”
Greatly impressed by Mama’s wisdom, I hugged her one more time, feeling the tear roll finally down my cheek. How could I have ever thought my mother was simple? In one sweeping statement she redefined the will of God as well as Jesus had done, himself. As I look back, I’m certain that she had God-given wisdom too. It troubles me, as I recall her intelligence and insight, that Papa and my other brothers didn’t see this. She was dependable and even saintly, but rarely did she shine as she did those moments after the splinter was dug from my thumb. I would learn one day that she was the mother of Christ, but on that day as I returned to my project in the shop I knew only that Mama had great wisdom in spite of her simple ways.
The fact that I shared in the mysteries gives me strength as I sit in my Persian cell. As I dip my quill into its precious ink well, I can see, through my mind’s failing eye, through the prism of time, as if it were yesterday. The day had begun with great excitement but simmered down to a mundane and, in my thinking, boring routine. Mama returned to her duties in the house, supervising the twins, tending to her patient in the back room, and looking ahead wearily to her visit with the ailing Joachim and his unstable wife. With much easier lives, my brothers and I, aside from our chores, could look forward to loafing the rest of the day. Even Papa and Jesus would, if the workload was on schedule, take walks into the yard, idly discussing the business while munching on figs, plums or grapes. Not so for poor Mama, whose work was never done.
When Simon, Uriah, and I received Papa’s nod of satisfaction for our plodding efforts, we ran into the house for lunch just in time to see Mama drag her tired bones through the gate and shuffle slowly up to the house.
“Why can’t Hannah take care of the rabbi?” I boldly asked, as she stumbled for the door.
“From the mouth of children comes wisdom,” Papa quoted an old Jewish adage.
I remember reading the Letters to the Hebrews and seeing this passage. It strikes me as significant that Paul, a onetime Pharisee, shared this adage with Papa. In spite of the new books such as Paul’s Letters, righteous men often dipped into the old books for basic truths. What impressed me very much about that moment was that Papa finally put his foot down about Mama stepping in to help the unstable Hannah, who had failed to take care of her husband, herself. I had by my question, as my Greek friends would put it, opened a Pandora’s box.
“Look at you Mary,” he protested, gripping her elbow to give her support, “you’re exhausted and ready to drop. This is going to stop—today!”
“You don’t understand Joseph,” she explained testily. “I must help poor Joachim or the poor man would starve and die of thirst.”
“What?” exclaimed Papa, helping her up to the door. “How bad off is the rabbi? Is he unconscious? What’s Hannah been doing all this time? Where are their relatives? Are you the only one in town taking care of that man?”
“There were other women at first,” Mama tried to explain as Papa led her into the house. “Hannah’s moods have driven them away,” she added, as he seated her at the table. “The rabbi is conscious but he stares motionless at the ceiling. As I have done for Michael, I tend to him the best I can, but it’s Hannah who needs watching the most.”
“This is dreadful!” Papa shook his head. “Where are Hannah and Joachim’s brothers, sisters or cousin, who should step in now? That’s Jewish custom, Mary, is it not? Are they orphans? Why are you the only one to step in and help them out?”
“I don’t know.” Her head shook as if she had palsy.
“And that no account Michael in the new room,” he said, shaking his fist. “What are we going to do with him?”
Simon, Uriah, and I, thanks to the open window by the kitchen, had heard everything. Uriah was sobbing quietly. Simon cursed the rabbi under his breath as our parents talked, but I felt only pity for his fat little son.
“Uriah,” I whispered, giving his dark curls a pat, “she won’t let your father die. It’s not your fault what kind of parents you have, but don’t blame Papa for losing patience with them. Your father hurt his business and almost ruined our reputation in town. Now, in spite of everything, Mama’s doing your mother’s job!”
At one point, as we listened to Papa scold Mama for not tending to her own health, she broke down and wept. My heart went out to her. Tears gathered in my eyes. “What shall we do with poor Uriah?” she wailed softly. “His father’s not responding. His mother’s a wreck. What about poor Rhoda, Uriah’s little sister?” Though Mama’s last question was distressing, I tried to comfort Uriah, who must have felt like an orphan, himself. James and Joseph, however, were not so charitable. After catching the gist of the conversation, Joseph threw a tantrum in the yard.
“Rhoda?” He slapped his forehead. “Not only are we adopting Uriah, we’re adopting Rhoda too? Father Abraham, we need a bigger house. We don’t have enough room!”
Mama’s lamentations and Papa’s consolation prevented them for hearing Joseph’s outburst, but he was close enough to the road to be overheard by passers-by. As he aired his grievances, Simon and I tried to shush him. James, who had been quietly gnashing his teeth, reached out to clamp a hand on his brother’s mouth. After eavesdropping, himself, from afar, Jesus ran over to see what was wrong. Joseph resented James’ effort to silence him. As they tumbled into the garden, it looked for a moment as if they were fighting. Grabbing them by their collars, Jesus yanked them up to their feet.
“What’s the meaning of this?” He asked in a shrill whisper.
“Haven’t you heard?” cried Joseph. “Where going to have a new sister.”
“Keep your voice down.” Jesus looked back self-consciously at the road. “Our neighbors are watching, and the Romans are back in town.”
“Well, it’s a distinct possibility,” James said in a muted voice. “Joachim is deathly ill and Hannah’s minds addled. Where else are Uriah and Rhoda going to go?”
“Listen you numbskulls. We don’t need dissention in our family. We have enough problems without our neighbors hearing our business. Joachim and Hannah’s health is not your concern,” he said, shaking them by their collars. “The only thing you can do to help Mama is pray and trust in God’s will.”
“It’s his fault.” Simon pointed accusingly at Joseph. “James was just trying to shut him up.”
“I know.” Jesus nodded. “It’s what came after Joseph’s outburst. The Romans are men of action. That kind’ve of commotion is worse than words.” “Control yourself,” he looked squarely at Joseph, “it’s not the Romans who care about our problems. They’re worried about order. Many of them think we’re troublesome Jews.” “Worry about our eavesdropping neighbors,” he tossed his head, “not the soldiers. Rumors can be as deadly as swords.”
Jesus gave James a pat on the back after releasing him but held Joseph’s collar a moment, gazing into his eyes. James brooded in the garden, as Simon and Uriah sat down on the bench munching on figs. I drew close to Jesus, perking up my ears. “Jews, not Romans, shall bruise the Son of Man,” he murmured, so faintly I’m not sure anyone else had heard. We had, of course, heard him say strange things before. What concerned us these moments is what Mama had told Papa. That moment, as Joseph walked away, Jesus sprinted into the backyard to pray. If we ever needed the power of his prayers this was such a time. James and Joseph were right, however: we didn’t need any more occupants in our house. Uriah had been difficult enough to warm up to. I couldn’t imagine trying to cope with his sister. Her tantrums, he once informed me, lasted for hours. She would bare her teeth and try to bite anyone in the room. Joachim had once attempted a demon expulsion on her only to be badly mauled. Uriah said nothing after hearing Joseph’s tirade, but I could see great apprehension in his eyes. I wouldn’t hear Jesus’ prophesy about the Son of Man again for many years.
Lunch was a depressing affair. James and Joseph were in surly moods. The condition of Joachim and his wife loomed as a dark cloud. Except for Jesus, my family was plunged momentarily into silence. For the first time ever Uriah was silent too. The one ray of light, though it caused little enthusiasm among us, was Jesus announcement that he had prayed very hard for the health of Joachim and Michael and asked God to set Hannah’s mind straight. He didn’t promise anything in his prayers. Everything, he reminded us, depended upon the Lord, and yet I believed Jesus had the power to change events if he so wished. He felt the Lord’s presence as he prayed at his favorite rock. There were, he enumerated, many Nazarenes touched by our prayers and Mama’s healing hands—Samuel, Nehemiah, Uriah, Joachim, Michael, and others in the past. Left off Jesus’ list, because Uriah was present, was Reuben—the greatest miracle of them all. Most of Mama’s patients, not all, had recuperated, but that was God’s will. Jesus admitted the perceived injustice in allowing an old man to live and an innocent child die, but we mustn’t question the Lord. Even more unfair it seemed was the fact that the wicked prosper and righteous perish. I knew that, in the first instance, Jesus was comparing Samuel’s longevity to Nehemiah’s death and that, in the second instance, he was referring to the greater issue of why god fearing people suffer and many times die at the hand of evil men. I wondered as he tried to explain God’s mind whether Michael would be counted among the wicked and whether Reuben’s new beginning added his name to the Book of Life. In spite of Jesus unwillingness to defy God’s will, he had a revelation those moments. He lapsed into silence a moment, blinked his eyes, and looked blankly into space.
“I prayed very hard for Joachim,” he said slowly. “He’s in the Lord’s hands, as is his wife Hannah, whose affliction is of the mind, but when I asked God to cure Michael I felt a warm breeze blowing over me. I think, in a greater sense, Michael’s greater affliction like Hannah and Mariah, his mother, is of the mind. The Evil One has left much wreckage. Like the storm crashing over a ship, however, it shall not prevail. When the storm passes, the ship, though tossed about and damaged, will still be afloat. Michael is still afloat, hovering between good and evil and dark and light. Only time will tell how much damage has been done.”
“Excuse me.” Joseph leaned forward. “You’re saying that Michael’s going to live?”
“Yes.” Jesus nodded faintly. “The question is how. I never believed he would die.”
“Michael’s worse off than Joachim,” James replied boldly. “How can you promise such things Jesus? You keep telling us about God’s will. Aren’t you tempting the Lord?”
“You misinterpret what I said,” he chided gently. “I never said I promised; I said I prayed that it would be God’s will. What is meant by ‘tempting the Lord,’ is asking for things that are irrational and unrealistic—”
“Such as expecting Michael to get better?” James tossed his head.
“He will live,” Jesus clarified, “not necessarily better.”
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” replied James, “that he might stay this way forever.”
“What about Nehemiah?” challenged Joseph. “You prayed for him too and he was on death’s door, yet he died. He was worth saving, Jesus. Michael isn’t. You once told us to pray for needful things. Michael’s not needful. He’s more dead than alive.”
“That’s precisely the point.” James looked questioningly at Jesus. “At least Joachim comes to once and awhile and Reuben had a wound Mama could treat. Michael just lies there wasting away from the Lord-only-knows-what, causing Mama grief. The question is ‘how long will he be this way: a week, a month, a year, forever?’ ”
“No-no, my sons,” Mama’s voice trembled, “though their afflictions are not the same, there’s no difference between treating Reuben, Joachim or Michael. It’s the Lord’s will. Michael’s in a dark place right now, but trust me—he’s alive. There’s hope. Reuben, like Nehemiah, was actually much closer to death, and Abner believes the rabbi is merely recovering from a stroke. With proper care, such a condition can lessen, even be cured. I believed Jesus when he said Michael’s demons are gone, but they’ve left wreckage behind themselves, only time can heal.”
“So!” Joseph gave Jesus a challening look. “It’s practical to save a scoundrel, and impractical to save an innocent child?”
“You’re dense,” Jesus said, tapping his forehead. “We just discussed this: ‘the good die yet the wicked live.’ Lamps glow in the windows, Joseph, but there’s no one to answer the door.” “I stand at the door and knock.” He tapped Joseph’s forehead several more times. “Listen with your heart next time, not your mind.”
“Listen with your heart?” Joseph backed away with annoyance. “What rubbish.”
“You talk in riddles,” James grumbled. “It’s just plan absurd.”
“Was asking the Lord to save Nehemiah im-practical?” I stumbled with the word. “You helped save a thief, our onetime enemy, but you couldn’t save him.”
“It was God’s will.” Jesus gave me a hurt look.
How many times would I hear this? We seemed to be ganging up on Jesus again. We had, in fact, broadened the subject to include all of Mama’s patients. No one, however, thought to mention Uriah’s miraculous recovery. Of course, Uriah didn’t linger on as a patient either. He was up on his feet within hours, hungry as a goat. I chewed on my lip and looked at my half-eaten plate of food.
“Sorry,” I mumbled under my breath. “It’s so hard to understand.”
“That’s all right,” murmured Jesus, “I know your heart. It’s basically pure.”
“Pure?” muttered Joseph. “That little sneak-thief pure?”
“I said basically.” Jesus shook his head. “Jude’s not perfect. No one is.”
“Pure is an absolute.” Joseph frowned. “Like black and white and good and evil.”
Until that moment, Papa had sat patiently on his bench, and had not interrupted the discussion, but Joseph’s obstinacy was the final straw.
“Nonsense,” he suddenly erupted, “you sound like a Pharisee. God is the only absolute in this world. No one understands His purpose. Why did he afflict a good, blameless man like Job with boils and destroy everything he had? Didn’t Joshua murder Canaanite children along with their parents to fulfill God’s will? You better go back and read the Torah, Joseph. It’s filled with examples of righteous men, such as Job, as victims to evil designs.”
Jesus might as well have been speaking Egyptian to Joseph, but Papa’s words caused him to squirm uneasily on the bench. He was not used to having the Torah used against him. James, in spite of his own words, now had a troubled expression on his face. Mama just looked very tired. As we thought about what Jesus and Papa said, Mama excused the twins, ordering Simon to escort them into the front yard. It was a signal that our meal was over, but Uriah remained sitting at the table, his dark little eyes filled with illumination.
“I remember something,” he called out excitedly. “Listen everyone. . . . After the scorpion bit me and I was laid on this table, I nearly died—just like Reuben. It just didn’t take as long. When I was asleep, I saw Jesus in my dream. Wasn’t that strange? It’s like he cured me from afar. If that wasn’t a miracle, what was?”
Joseph flashed James a dubious look. Papa and Mama smiled.
With the greatest affection, Jesus walked over and embraced my friend. “Uriah, little rabbi, you have the purest heart of all, but trust me: It wasn’t your time. Like Reuben, it was the Lord’s decision, not mine.” “But make no mistake,” his voice rang out in the room, “it’s a God-given truth: the good die with the wicked and evil sometimes triumphs. . . . in this life. The righteous get their reward in the next life. Uriah had been given a glimpse of paradise. The Lord was saying to him: ‘life doesn’t end with death!’ ”
I felt a twinge of jealousy that moment as Uriah gave Jesus a hug. The fact that Jesus called him little rabbi had given him special status. I was simply “little Jude.” All that other “stuff” I would write down reverently in a different frame of mind. That day, after being reminded of Jesus divinity, I had grown terribly bored.
“Are you mad at me?” I asked, sticking out my lower lip.
“Not at all,” he said airily. “I would like Simon, our little rabbi, and my inquisitive brother to follow me into the hills. It’s been a long time since we had ourselves a good walk.”
“Be careful Jesus. The Romans are in a bad mood,” Mama called anxiously, as we followed him out of the house.
I felt much better with my new title. Inquisitive, I was certain, meant I was smart. Considering the fact that he didn’t want to be a rabbi, Uriah’s title was actually an insult. With Papa’s stern coaxing, James and Joseph rose up and shuffled across the floor. As I held open the door, I heard Joseph whisper to James, “another nature hike. Maybe we’ll find another dead bird.”