Letter from Sepphoris
One morning, not long after Samuel opened his doors to our family, Papa awakened in a cheerful mood. He seemed to be his old self again. After a modest breakfast of warm bread, honey and goat’s milk, we followed him out of the great doors into a new day. Samuel, as is the fashion of old men, cried out in parting “He-he-he, Joseph’s recovered from his love affair with the grape!” Mama, who thought she knew Papa best, was not amused. His behavior had been pure foolishness. He would always have the weakness that so many Galilean men had, but with Jesus by his side, how could he fail? Mama believed this until the end. The truth, however, was crueler than these gentle lies. Papa had not recovered from his love of wine. Even Jesus couldn’t stop Papa’s cravings for strong drink. It seemed to be God’s will to test our father, and yet he would return to supervise and expand our family’s business for many years with full vigor.
Papa’s energy was inspiring. I decided, after much soul searching, to ignore the pot of gold in the wall, until a more opportune day. When and if that day would ever come I didn’t know. The lure of my treasure proved to be a constant temptation for me during the first few days after Papa’s rebirth. This characterization of Papa’s state of mind was thought up by Jesus. It would never have occurred to any of us how significant the notion of rebirth might be. Jesus, of course, during his ministry, would take it to the next level: from a physical to a spiritual rebirth. One day, as John and I eavesdropped on his conversation with Nicodemus, we heard him explain to the Pharisee the warning and promise of salvation: “Except that a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In the darkness of my cell, I remember the words clearly and often compare them to Jesus’ youthful faith that Papa would stop drinking. I understand now that Papa’s drinking was a physical problem. The Messiah had come to save our souls. How could simple Nazarene folk have understood this idea when a great Pharisee found it difficult to comprehend? When Jesus first spoke of being born again, Nicodemus asked him how an old man, like himself, could be born a second time from his mother’s womb. I still marvel at my brother’s answer: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he can’t enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. The wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know whence it comes or wither it goes. So it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
Even at this hour, as I contemplate my fate, I am comforted by the reward of heaven and yet I find Jesus answer to Nicodemus hard to digest. During the period of time in my childhood when we lived in Samuel’s house and helped Papa in his shop, I gave it no thought whatsoever. Papa’s rebirth meant one thing to us: staying sober. For his family, Jesus was not yet a god.
To take my mind off of my gold—for I now believe he knew about it all along, Jesus devoted much of his time in training me to become an apprentice for Papa. Though he watched me the closest and was always hovering nearby, his supervision helped shape my brothers and friend into woodworkers too. Jesus, himself, never claimed to be a master carpenter, and yet he knew the business as well as Papa now. While Papa scouted the countryside with his friend Ezra, who also needed more clients, Jesus was totally in control of the carpenter shop. Inexplicably one night, in response to Michael’s petition to Papa and him, Jesus snuck Michael back to the house, so that he could be introduced to the craft of carpentry. Jesus had such a big heart. He saw good in everyone and wanted to give Michael another chance, but it struck everyone, including Mama, as a harebrained idea. Though Papa relented, it meant we would have to sneak him back to Samuel’s house each time we returned. It was important, Papa explained without great conviction, that Michael, like us, learn the craft. But Michael had to do his training inside the shop when he wasn’t in the house, which, from the moment he was spirited him back to the house, meant he had to be guarded both night and day.
Something else occurred during this busy week that made our lives even more burdensome. To show our appreciation for Samuel’s hospitality, we all volunteered to pick olives in his orchard—the profits to defray the cost of feeding our large family. Rueben would stay hidden, and so would Michael, since the path leading into the trees was visible from the road. Mama decided that we would also pick olives from the orchard in back of our yard, while we were in the mood. All of this would take place after the noon hour break, which meant we would be working almost continually each day until the picking was complete. Also added to Mama’s schedule, after a courier brought her a letter from Sepphoris, was a future trip to see her Aunt Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s only living brother, Zedekiah, dropped dead during a visit to her home. In addition to her grief, her son John was becoming quite a handful. He had no friends in Sepphoris and longed to run away and join a sect of wild men in the desert. Elizabeth, who was still seriously ill, needed the consolation of her family.
Other than the times he returned at night to our house, Michael had, until yesterday, obediently stayed put in his quarters. That day, after walking boldly into the orchard, he was scolded by the chamberlain and given two burly servants as guards. The expense and hardship this created for our host caused my parents great dismay. In an unguarded moment Samuel made a suggestion he thought would solve our problems here in Nazareth for good. Why not take the moody child with them to Sepphoris and let him stay with Elizabeth. No one knew him there. Samuel spoke querulously those moments, making it obvious that he considered Michael a liability in his household. Mama shook her head emphatically against this plan, but I could see Michael’s face brighten at the prospect of seeing the light of day. Papa nodded in agreement. James and Joseph were so enthusiastic about the idea they proposed a toast at the breakfast table “to Elizabeth’s adopted son.” Mama was reluctant to expose her aunt to this troubled youth, but the idea was supported at first by everyone else, including Jesus, whose two qualifications—Elizabeth must accept the plan wholeheartedly and she must be paid accordingly—seemed quite agreeable to Papa and us.
Simon, Uriah, Martha, Abigail, and I danced around happily as we thought of the pending festivities at Aunt Elizabeth’s house. Michael sat at the breakfast table with a blank expression as Papa and Mama discussed his fate. Jesus placed his hand on Michael’s shoulder and nodded at mother, as if to say, “It’s all right Mama.” When she saw the resignation in Papa and Jesus’ voices, her normally placid expression change before our eyes. She cocked an eyebrow, placed her hands on her hips, then a frown became fixed upon her lovely face. Her main concern, she explained to us, was that Michael would run amuck in Sepphoris as he had in Nazareth. She also feared that he would wander away as he almost did in Samuel’s orchard. Jesus was too trusting. I could see doubt lined in Papa’s face, after these words. Except for Jesus, the rest of us began having second thoughts too.
A change of mood settled upon us as we envisioned Michael in Elizabeth’s house running amuck. Mama flashed him an apologetic look as he stared blankly into space. “In his current state of mind,” she reasoned, “he requires constant supervision. He’s mind’s still fragile and unpredictable. He’s not ready to be lodged in a stranger’s house.”
“Elizabeth’s servants will keep an eye on him.” Papa pursed his lips.
“Yes, Mama,” Jesus said thoughtfully. “I saw one of them; Joash is a big, strong fellow.”
“But he’s only one man,” She replied, shaking her head. “Samuel has many servants. Joash can’t keep an eye on him all the time.” Looking around the room that moment, she avoided Michael’s gaze. “What if he steals from Aunt Elizabeth?” her voice hardened. “She’s bed-ridden. Her servants will have the authorities put him in jail. What if he tempts John into mischief as he did Jude?” “Forgive me Michael,” she said, throwing up her hands, “but you’re just not ready!”
“So you think he’ll misbehave?” Papa frowned.
“It’s possible in his state of mind.” She sighed.
“We’ll tie him up and lock him in one of Elizabeth’s rooms,” suggested Simon.
“Oh,” muttered Uriah, “this is getting scary.”
“It needn’t be,” she replied. “The earlier solution was quite simple!”
Jesus stroked the down on his chin. “Mama, I’ve prayed about this a lot. We must give Michael a chance.”
This time there wasn’t conviction in Jesus’ voice. He closed his eyes as if God might be talking to him again. His words, I noticed, had almost caught in his throat.
“Well,” Joseph offered, “you said he might wander off like he did before. That wouldn’t be so bad.”
Joseph had spoken most of our minds. Next to running amuck, this was, we were reminded, her greatest fear, and yet it was a solution to our problem. Mama’s argument had brought James, Joseph, Simon, Uriah, and I back down to earth. Papa scratched his beard and shook his head. “What were we thinking?” he muttered under his breath. “Mama’s right; we can’t take him along.”
“Yes,” James murmured, “he’ll ruin everything!”
Jesus nodded faintly to Mama, which, though unspoken, made it unanimous.
Michael looked up with a flicker of emotion that moment and shook his head. “No, I’ll be good. I promise.”
“Humph,” grumbled Joseph, “you haven’t changed. You’re just biding your time!”
“What?” Papa raised his bushy eyebrows.
“How can you say that after what he’s gone through?” Jesus asked in disbelief.
“I’m just being honest.” Joseph folded his arms. “Our family’s suffered because of him. What about what we’ve gone through? Doesn’t that matter? Now we have to worry about him stealing Elizabeth’s valuables and running amuck. It’d been better for us if he never returned!”
“Enough Joseph!” Papa exhaled, spreading his palms.
The angry edge in Papa’s voice told Joseph he had gone too far. As his mood darkened, Joseph uttered a hasty apology, which diffused Papa’s anger but didn’t stop him from scolding him severely for insulting our special guest. I tried to stop up my ears when I heard Mama jump into the rebuke, thinking how strange it was that my parents defended this troublesome youth against the convincing arguments Joseph and Mama, herself, just made. I saw Simon and even Uriah nod. James and I held our tongues those moments, but Joseph glared unrepentantly at our guest. Papa and Mama’s rebuke of Joseph for being inhospitable seemed unfair after what we had gone through with Michael and Reuben. Strangers, widows and orphans were one thing; Reuben and Michael’s stay were quite another. I agreed wholeheartedly with a Jewish adage Papa quoted during Reuben’s recovery: “a man’s family comes first.”
When my parents had finished reprimanding Joseph, I pulled my fingers out of my ears, opened my eyes and looked around the room. Despite my efforts, I heard most of what was said. Joseph acted as contrite as possible, lightly embracing Mama and receiving Papa’s blessing on his head. When they weren’t looking, however, he smiled slyly at us. Tabitha, with the twins in tow, scampered outside into the garden, while the rest of us stood around the table where the cause of our family’s discord sat calmly staring into space. Silently, Uriah, my brothers, and I presented a united front. James, always more diplomatic than Joseph, now stepped forth to speak our minds.
“Mama, Papa, Jesus. I respectively agree with Joseph,” his voice filled the silence. “Since Michael’s returned, a shadow hangs over our house.” “Look at him!” He pointed accusingly. “He’s barely said a word in the past few days. Why have we taken this rascal back into our house?”
“He’s sick,” Jesus offered gently. “When someone recovers from bodily disease and spiritual sickness, it takes more time. The body mends easily, but the mind, emptied of evil, takes longer to mend.”
“Nonsense,” Joseph muttered, too faintly for our parents to hear.
Everyone, even Papa (in his heart), agreed with Joseph. I looked up at my third oldest brother with newfound respect. Unlike the rest of us, he had never wavered in his views. One day that close-mindedness would work against him, but today it overshadowed Michael’s needs. Here, though bowing in parental respect, was our champion against outsiders threatening our family’s peace—be they Romans, criminals, or wayward youths.
Shoulder-to-shoulder, mind-to-mind, James, Joseph, Simon, Uriah and I glared at the source of our grief. Michael returned our look with a straight-faced expression. Simon made an ugly face at him, but Uriah just tittered foolishly as I studied my old friend. The thought occurred to me to air my own views, but James and Joseph anticipated the words building up in my throat.
“Michael’s mind is still healing,” James feigned sympathy toward our guest. “Look at him. He can’t help himself. Jesus said so himself. For his own sake, and the citizens of Nazareth and Sepphoris, he must come out gradually. Already, he’s allowed to learn the trade, though he must be ushered over in the dead of night. But he’s not ready to be around other people—not in his present state. He must stay hidden away in Samuel’s house until he’s ready.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, avoiding Michael’s stare, “but he’s right.” I looked around the room. “Michael needs more time!”
“So what can we do?” Uriah asked, as if on cue. “What if he runs away and becomes a bandit like Reuben?”
“Mama’s right,” snorted Joseph, “Samuel’s servants are capable of guarding him. They caught him sneaking into the orchard and drug him back. He’s not happy about it, but we’ll offer to pay Samuel for their services, ourselves. That might shame him into doing it for free.”
“Yes, yes, that’s a good idea.” I hopped up and down. “Samuel has big, strong servants like Joash. They can follow him everywhere and even be stationed outside his door. We could ask Reuben to keep an eye on him too.”
“Oh, we couldn’t do that, could we?” Mama appeared to consider the possibility.
“Why not?” Simon stomped his foot. “Michael will spoil everything if he comes along.”
“Wait a minute.” Papa raised a hand. “I’ve been thinking. For the sake of argument, isn’t a good idea to get him out of Nazareth? Samuel’s an old man. Already were taking advantage of his charity by bringing Uriah and Tabitha over. They weren’t even part of the deal. Now he has to provide special guards to watch Michael so he won’t run away?”
I couldn’t believe it. This was insane. Suddenly it appeared as if Papa was changing his mind.
“I think you’re right Papa.” Mama looked sheepishly at Michael. “We shouldn’t leave him there. I really haven’t seen any big, strong guards like Joash there, and Rueben’s not the one to watch that boy. You’re right Papa. It will be a burden on Samuel’s servants and our friend to have to watch that boy.”
“What burden?” James scowled. “We’ve only just begun staying at Samuel’s house. Today we’re fending for ourselves. This is something we should do as often as possible to lessen our host’s expenses, but that old man loves our family. He seems amused with Reuben. I thought he approved of Michael being under his roof. We—Joseph, Simon, Jude, and Uriah— trust Samuel’s servants to keep an eye on Michael while we’re gone. You and Papa should too.”
James, who had rebuked Michael before, sounded the most reasonable of us all. His respectful tone caused a smile to break Papa’s beard and Mama to thoughtfully incline her head.
“I mean no offense to our friend Michael,” she said, walking over to stroke Michael’s head, “but Nazareth has not yet forgiven his desecration of the synagogue nor the fact he is his mother’s son.” “This is unfortunate.” She studied Michael’s unresponsive face. “I would love to have seen the old Michael who first befriended my son, but, I must repeat, you’re not ready. James’s right; you don’t talk enough. I can’t read your mind. The safest place for you...and us is in Sepphoris with Aunt Elizabeth. Joash, once a rowdy youth himself, will know how to control you, though I hope Jesus is right when he says that you’ve changed.”
Mama had used James and Joseph’s argument against them. Ironically, she had also used it against herself. All of us, except the oldest brother, looked at her in disbelief.
“The question is,” Papa mused, looking at Jesus, “in what way has he changed? A storm is quiet until it gathers momentum. It’s unpredictable and, by its nature, dangerous for all those around it.” “I see nothing in Michael’s eyes.” He looked down at him. “But then I can’t see into someone’s soul like Jesus.”
Papa had merely tried to make a point. I was certain that moment that Mama had become addled in the head. James, Joseph, Simon, Uriah, and I howled in opposition, but my parents grimly stood their ground, shaky as it was.
Jesus, who had stood in the background listening a moment, now gave Michael his greatest defense since he came back into our lives: “During my journey with Joseph of Arimathea, I saw men and women afflicted with demons. Once, a rabbi in Rome named Othniel called out in the name of God an evil spirit. I will never forget the blank look on the woman’s face. Othniel told me that she had the mind of a child now. She might never be the same.” “Let us pray that Michael will return to normal someday,” he added, looking around the room, “but let us not judge him on his past sins. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the grace of God, even Abraham and Moses.” “Judge and ye shall be judged,” he preached, closing his eyes. “Forgive those who have trespassed against you, as the Lord has forgiven you. This is a blessed house—all those who are part of this family must set a higher mark than the rest of the world. What we do to the least of us, we do to the Lord, Himself.”
All of us, even Michael, who looked up with surprise, were shaken by his words. At this point, Jesus was not merely talking about Michael’s fate. He was using words he would one day say to the multitudes. I know that as clearly as the sun sets and rises, but that day, as we accepted our ambivalent mother’s decision, most of us still felt bitter that we would have to drag Michael along. I felt ashamed that I judged him harshly, but, after the way he had been acting, I didn’t trust him. I didn’t hate him as Joseph and James did nor did I fear his actions as Mama and Papa did. As Mama, I had wanted to see the old Michael return, but I sensed deeply he would become a terrible nuisance during our celebrations at Aunt Elizabeth’s house. Papa’s fear that a storm waited to burst forth in him might be a real danger, yet I was also worried that Michael would wander away in a daze and never be seen again. I wanted to tell him this now, as he gave me a vacant look, but I wasn’t sure it would even register in his state of mind. Mama sat next to him a moment but said nothing, as Papa motioned for all of us to follow him out the front door.
“Well,” Jesus called out cheerfully, “back to work. We have much to do.”
“I’ll finish up the tables,” Papa looked back at us, “you boys listen to Jesus. James and Joseph, you’re fine carpenters now, but you must accept Uriah into our group. If Jesus is busy, you must give Uriah guidance, like you do for Simon and Jude.” “Simon, Uriah, Jude,” he added sternly, “no more daydreaming and slacking off in your work. While Mama fixes us an old fashioned lunch, we’re gonna finish this order.”
“What’s Michael going to do this time,” Joseph grumbled, “whittle more scrapes and sand discarded pieces of wood?”
“What can he do, shut away in the shop?” chided Jesus. “With all that lumber in there, he barely has room for serious work. Hopefully, there will be a day when Nazareth forgives Michael and he can see the light of day.”
“Nazareth will never forget,” James murmured. “Many of those self-righteous townsmen, have not even forgiven us for our supposed sins.”
James had spoken for all us. I recalled Jesus sermon in our yard that moment. Gideon and Ethan had been his worst critics, but there was a large number of elders and Pharisees, many of whom were not present that day, who resented Joseph’s ‘heretical’ son and our checkered past. As we began our work, I thought about Michael’s problem that Jesus and James expressed, and it made me feel sorry, not resentful of Michael’s lack of energy. What was actually wrong with him? Had the casting out of demons, as Jesus had done, really addled his head? Or was he pretending? Was all this just an act, as Joseph suspected? Was Michael just biding his time?