A Turning Point
Elizabeth’s relatives departed Samuel estate without Mama’s sickly aunt, none the wiser about Samuel’s mysterious guests. When Elizabeth was feeling better, she and John also returned home, which was just as well since John had no desire to attend Gamaliel’s school. In the following months, I tried to put the gold I had lost and guilt I felt out of my mind, but it followed me like a shadow. Since I had began hording treasure, it felt as if the Evil One was dogging my trail. My routine had been simple until Gamaliel’s school began in Samuel’s house. Before that fateful day, I would arise in the morning with my family, eat breakfast, work in the shop and garden, have lunch, and then romp freely in the yard and hills until suppertime. Once in a while when no one was looking, I would check on my treasure. Because Uriah and Simon had always been close by, it would always be a quick glance. A few times I merely brushed the pot with my knuckles as we looked for ripe berries. No one had been the wiser. For all I knew, though, it could have been emptied before the day Michael ran away. Now, with Papa’s business increasing and our efforts divided between school and carpentry, there was little time for play except on the Shabbat and when Papa’s orders for furniture were finished. Even then, when Simon, Uriah, and I had time to ourselves, it was not the same. The lure of the yard and the hills beyond, which had become synonymous with treasure for me, had lost its luster. Childish games such as tag, hide-and-go-seek, and rock toss no longer filled the void. Something else, I realize now, was missing, more complicated than mere treasure. There were other, greater, treasures of the heart and the soul. The memory of Nehemiah, the most loyal friend I would ever have, still haunted my thoughts. In spite of how he turned out, I also missed the adventuresome spirit of Michael and even the brief friendships with Caleb and Horib’s sons.
I still had Uriah as a friend, of course, but it wasn’t enough. Uriah was changing too.
My last glimpse of Longinus riding away on his great black horse was a constant reminder of what I wanted to do with my life. He was, I can say in retrospect, the consummate soldier, containing in his person all the noble qualities I envisioned in a Roman knight. This was, I now believe, true for the optio Regulus and, though we seldom saw him anymore, Cornelius, whose report to the governor, was the reason for the Roman protection of our town. On the other hand, I had learned that there was a dark side to Roman soldiers. They were unpredictable at times, disrespectful and mean-spirited one moment and cheerful and uncaring the next. In many respects, Priam and Falco, though I still had some fondness for them, were typical of Nazareth’s guards. Unlike the shining examples of Cornelius and Longinus, they were the kind of legionnaire I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to become lazy and shiftless. I well probably never forgive them for roughing up Boaz, Jethro, and Obadiah and the disrespect they showed us that day. Nevertheless, all things considered, I was glad that the Romans had returned. I looked forward to meeting Priam and Falco on their rounds and seeing the centurion and optio riding by again. Neither Simon nor Uriah had been particularly close to Nehemiah and had never been fond of the Romans like me, but I longed for those carefree days. I had seen Simon, like James and Joseph, smile with satisfaction when they heard that Michael was gone. I couldn’t blame them. We had hoped, with Michael gone, that our lives would return to normal. I was happy to see our protectors back, but it was not the same. The murder of Regulus’ brother in Sepphoris, the reception given to the Romans upon their return, and their treatment of Caleb and Horib’s sons had soured the mood. James and Joseph would never accept their presence in our lives, especially after that incident in town. Yet the Romans, my fair-weather friends, and the events preceding our Coming of Age were not to blame. Something abstract and intangible, I could not put into words, had changed the course of our lives.
We never talked about it. It was just there: an awareness that we were somehow different. It seemed that Samuel and Gamaliel had been correct about our transition after the ceremony at Samuel’s house. We were no longer children. Gamaliel’s expectations for us—to start behaving like young men instead of children—was being fulfilled each day. For me it was far worse than it was for the others, for I had lost more than my childhood. I had lost my gold. I can’t believe that Simon ever knew about my treasure. Surely he couldn’t have kept that to himself. Yet, there were times when I was sure he would finally ask me point blank “whatever happened to your pot of gold?” Fortunately for me that moment never came. Gradually, as we grew into our roles as carpenters in Papa’s business, our exploits evolved clearly from childhood games to youthful adventures, which included accompanying Papa on his business trips to Sepphoris, Caesarea, and Jerusalem.
During such trips, which amounted to holidays for us, we helped Papa unload furniture for customers and load up on lumber and supplies before returning home. Success for Papa’s business had provided me with the opportunity to learn about the surrounding world. I could see in their eyes that James and Joseph felt the same way. Uriah was dead set on becoming a carpenter, and so was Jesus, who would inherit the business if Papa died, but the rest of us had no intention of spending our lives in our backwoods town.
In our mutual wanderlust, my three brothers and I shared common ground. Now that I think about it, the most important development during this transitional period was James and Joseph’s begrudging acceptance of Simon, Uriah, and me as associates, if not equal partners, in Papa’s carpenter shop. Because of the old prejudices lingering in Nazareth, neither their friends nor Simon and my onetime companions came around very much. Most of our friends’ parents only spoke to Papa when he was called upon to repair a roof or piece of broken furniture. In spite of these intervals, the healing was slow. Our house remained out of bounds. This would change when we became adults and, as Paul would one day write they “put away childish things.” By then, of course, the old hostility ignited by Rabbi Joachim over my family’s protection of Mariah and her son, Papa’s feud with the rabbi, and the distrust townsmen had for the oldest son would be things of the past. Papa’s business was gradually but steadily wearing down the prejudices of townsfolk. Jesus handling of the carpenter’s shop impressed many doubters. The fact that Mama was nursing Joachim, our onetime enemy, and that Samuel, a respectable Pharisee, had taken us under his wing also helped strengthen our standing. The most important factor in the rehabilitation of our reputation, however, came from without, rather than within, our small town. This event came a few months after the Romans returned to our town. Gamaliel had invited his cousin Aaron to take over the synagogue in Nazareth until Joachim’s health returned. I know now, of course, by hindsight, that Joachim’s health would not return. When, many years in the future, Jesus returned to town as a preacher, instead of carpenter, Aaron would still be Nazareth’s rabbi.
He arrived one afternoon at Samuel’s villa in the company of legionnaires, a jubilant event, in spite of the reason for the soldiers’ presence. There was, Longinus shouted hoarsely, a new band of brigands in Galilee, led by Abbas’ son. When I heard this startling news, I gasped from sheer surprise rather than fear. After my incredible experience with this young man, I still considered him my friend. I could almost admire this daring fellow for his audacity. He had only been a year younger than Jesus when he disappeared from our lives. Now here he was, by my calculations, barely seventeen and leading a new gang of thieves. When Longinus spoke to the assembly and politely shared wine with townsmen and his men, the Romans held the public’s interest. There was a minority of men grumbling about their show of force and a few hotheads, silenced by threats from the majority in the background, grumbling to themselves, but the very name Abbas struck such fear in our town. A collective sigh of relief could almost be heard when Longinus promised that an increased number of mounted sentries and perimeter guards would be stationed in Nazareth, along with the existing forces, both day and night. Though I respected the foot guards tramping through our town, nothing impressed me more than mounted knights. With the news that Cornelius Cohort was guarding the cities of Galilee more stringently, we knew what this meant to our daily lives. Longinus ended the festivities with a curt reminder that the rules we Nazarenes followed before were even more important now. There would be no unauthorized congregations greater than two persons at night, since Roman soldiers found it difficult to distinguish bad Jews from good Jews, especially in the dark. I didn’t see our onetime guards Priam and Falco, but I glimpsed Regulus in Longinus’ detachment. Lately, we hadn’t seen much of our daytime guards. The reason for this had never been made clear. I said a prayer that moment that everything would return to normal: Priam, Falco and the other guards marching up and down the Shepherd’s Trail, more sentries, as Longinus promised, galloping through town, and my onetime gang reassembling and hiking merrily through the hills.
When the Roman detachment had rode off and the dust cleared, Aaron, the new rabbi of Nazareth, stood there, scrolls crammed under in his arms, barely five feet tall, the smallest rabbi I would ever know. The contrast between such an impressive figure as Gamaliel and this slight man would have been humorous had it not been for the final words from the centurion’s mouth: “there will be no disrespect shown toward my men as there was last time. We shall respect you Jews. You, in turn, shall instruct the hotheads in your midst that all acts of civil disobedience shall be dealt with harshly in the severest fashion.”
After almost falling off his animal, Aaron had climbed awkwardly off the large mule loaned to him by the Romans to await his turn for the audience’s attention. He was, in the dust and commotion, a mere shadow, whose impact upon our town could never have been imagined at this inauspicious moment. Word had gone out that he would arrive with the soldiers (for his own protection), yet we had almost forgotten about the traveler in their midst. Though it didn’t seem like it at first, the realization occurred to us when he began to speak that two momentous things had just happened in our town: the Romans were increasing their forces in Nazareth and our town once more had a rabbi. The rabbi’s thick, black beard and forehead locks almost hid his small face. The words that came out of Aaron belied his small size.
“Greetings citizens of Nazareth,” his voice boomed resonantly. “My name’s Aaron bar Hammon. My home, like you, was once in Galilee. I’ve traveled to many lands seeking the ultimate truth, only to return home and realize it was here all along. Traveling to Rome, Greece, and Egypt, I’ve been a stranger in a strange land. But I’ve returned. Our faith, I can attest, is best felt in our holy land. Here Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses molded our people into a great nation. From a distance, when I saw the lovely hills of Nazareth, I felt as if I was home. I shall raise a family here; the Lord willing I shall be buried here. I shall, in my lifetime, do my utmost to help your children and their children know and love our history and language as much as me. If you will allow me, I would like to have the old synagogue remodeled and enlarged so it will accommodate a growing congregation. I shall use my own funds. Like yourselves I am willing to invest in our city. Your will, as citizens of Nazareth, share in this growth. We shall work together and pray together. Please let me know your thoughts today or tomorrow. As God’s servant, I am your servant too. The shepherd needs the goodwill of his flock.”
The crowd broke into cheers and surrounded the little rabbi, who had stolen their hearts and imaginations. I was much taller now, but I couldn’t see above the townsmen’s heads, so I ran back to the entrance of Samuel’s estate and climbed up on one of the great stone vases to look down upon the speaker, now taking questions from the crowd. The questions, which came from several different townsfolk and his clever answers, summed up in my mind the type of teacher and spiritual leader Aaron bar Hammon would be.
“What sort of things will you teach our children?” a man cried out.
“From the word of God and the hand of Moses shall they be taught.” Aaron answered promptly.
“Tell me rabbi,” a second man stepped forth, “why would a stranger, whom we don’t even know, rebuild our synagogue?
“My family’s wealthy.” Aaron explained with a shrug. “Money, in itself, means little to me. I wish to share my inheritance with all of you, my new friends.”
“We know why we’re here,” a third voice rang out, “we were born and raised here, but why would a worldly man of learning like you stay in this backwoods town?
Aaron replied dreamily, “A town is as small or large as the heart of its people.”
There were many such questions, some of which were more crudely put. One warty misshapen fellow, who seemed to be drunk on wine, asked the rabbi why he was so short? This brought a ripple of laughter in the assembly. Many people were suspicious of Aaron’s intentions. I heard one elder grumble to himself, “This man is either a fool or addled in the head.” Most members of the crowd of men, though, gave the rabbi respectful and fond looks. In less time that it took for the Roman detachment to ride into Nazareth and reestablish itself, Aaron had won over our town.
Samuel, we were later told, had been overcome with exertion and was escorted into the house before Aaron gave his speech, but Mordechai, the chamberlain, appeared suddenly on the scene during the question and answer session to rescue the rabbi from the inquisitive townsmen. Upon closer inspection, as Aaron followed Mordechai into the house, he had large piercing gray eyes, finely carved features beneath his flowing beard, and tiny delicate little hands. If his beard and hair on his head were trimmed properly he might be considered handsome by women’s standards, but he was so very short. He talked ceaselessly, rephrasing what he had said before, to make his point. His quick, decisive gestures were puppet-like as he chattered to the townsmen, and yet when I closed my eyes, the voice I heard might have belonged to a big burly man, rather than this dwarf.
During the feast served in his honor, at which many of the town’s elders were invited to attend, Papa took a liking to this strange man. Aaron shared none of the dark prejudices of Joachim, the previous rabbi. The subjects of Mariah and her son Michael and Jesus onetime eccentricities were never brought up. As I listened to the rabbi discuss his views with Papa on the Torah, he sounded tolerant and reasonable, very much like his cousin Gamaliel. The fact that Aaron shared his cousin’s observance of the great Hillel’s teaching caused a few eyebrows to raise among conservative elders, but everyone appeared to like his enthusiasm for our town, especially since he would pay for the repairs to the synagogue himself. Samuel had promised to do this but never got around to it until the subject was brought up during the meal. Naturally, he offered to share the cost, and, not to be outdone by Aaron’s willingness to invest in our town, even promised to repair the stone bridge over Nazareth’s dried up stream. It was plain to see that Aaron’s sterling presence in Nazareth had already effected changes. If his deeds were as good as his words, the new rabbi would fill the void left by Joachim’s illness.
As I write the chronicle of my family, I know that another important character for Jesus future ministry had entered his life, but that first day after his arrival in Nazareth, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Aaron talked far too much for my liking, using lofty sentences and exaggerated gestures far out of proportion to his words. Jesus, who had been seated across from him, found the rabbi amusing. I think he had seen through the rabbi’s pretensions. As a mere youth, though, I was more influenced by his physical movements than his complex verbiage. When the rabbi was not talking about world architecture with Papa and that trivial, many faceted chatter with other diners, he was discussing fine points from the Torah with Jesus and Samuel: the Jewish conception of heaven, the nature of Satan, free will, and natural sin.
As always, I ate heartily as did Uriah and my four brothers, while Tabitha and my sisters had spoiled their appetites by stuffing themselves with sweat meats before the meal. This time, with two rabbis and a table full of Pharisees and town elders present, it was impossible for us to sneak a swig of wine. Jesus was positioned across from us, watching our every move. When the dinner was over and the men and their wives retired to the garden, many youths naturally gravitated out the front door and into the nearby woods to flee from serious discussions. This was not the case for members of my family. Because of the implications of many of our old enemies sharing wine with Papa and the new rabbi’s friendliness toward him, we felt we had a stake in their conversation, so we tagged along after Jesus, who was caught up in a polite argument on Isaiah’s controversial passage about the universal God. Samuel, who might not have been feeling well, disappeared after the meal. Papa and Ezra were quite tipsy at this point or they would have steered Jesus away from this topic. I was delighted by the young rabbi’s good-natured criticism of Jesus central ideas: the universal god and salvation for Gentiles.
“Let me get this straight,” Aaron said, laughing softly to himself, “you believe that God is universal and the Romans and Greeks should share our covenant with God.”
“I think, if they discard their paganism and wish to join, God will accept them. Did he not accept Ruth, the Moabite and many gentile converts already? Is he not already a universal God.”
“No,” Aaron replied, shaking his head, “he is a Hebrew god. To join, one must become a Jew first, convert second. The vast majority of Gentiles will not convert to our faith because of the mutilation that is required, the dietary requirements, and change of lifestyle. To call him a universal god, dilutes our position as the Chosen People.”
Though it was plan to everyone listening that the rabbi politely disagreed with Jesus’ views, my oldest brother had once again stirred up controversy among conservative Jews. Upon hearing this exchange, the elders grumbled to themselves in dismay. Even Gamaliel, who encouraged an open-minded approach to studying the Torah, found the implications of Gentile converts to Judaism to radical to accept.
“If the Roman or Greek thought like us, it would be one thing,” Gamaliel replied thoughtfully, “but Aaron is right: we—Jews and Gentiles—makeup two different worlds. There’s no question that God, who created the heavens and earth, is universal, but throughout our history He never once called Himself anything more than the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites. After the Flood, God singled us out continuously. Did he not command our patriarchs to wipe out the pagan in the land bestowed upon us? Our scriptures were not written for anyone but early Hebrews or conquering Israelites.”
“You believe that only Jews merit salvation?” Jesus frowned.
“What is this word salvation?” Aaron shook his head. “You seem to be talking about a brand new religion Jesus.”
“No,” Jesus responded quickly, “the word might seem new, but not the religion. There were men taken up for their righteousness to prove the existence of paradise. Elijah and Enoch were rewarded this way for their goodness. I believe that when other good, faithful people die, they can also share heaven with the Lord.”
“Be that as it may,” Aaron heaved a pent-up sigh, “the Lord’s ways are mysterious, but our history is Jewish and its laws are black and white. Perhaps our Messiah will bestow God’s good graces upon other peoples of the earth, but until then they remain Gentiles—outside of the covenant with our Lord.”
Jesus set his jaw. His eyes blazed as they had in the orchard. “Consider Adam and Eve, Noah and his sons, Methuselah, a roving priest, and the righteous Enoch, who escaped death when God took him straight up to heaven. These people were not Jews. They were descendents of Noah, by definition Gentiles. In fact, there’s no evidence in the Torah prior to Abraham’s covenant, that dietary restrictions, mutilations, and lifestyles differed from the pagans at all. The only thing that mattered back then was faith.”
Aaron uttered a nervous laugh. Gamaliel stroked his well-oiled beard. Everyone else, including myself, gasped at this apparent heresy.
The little rabbi was being much to gentle with this young man, Gideon muttered to Habakkuk. Mama tried unsuccessfully to sway the conversation to Samuel’s lovely plants. Samuel’s enchanting garden had been the light conversation of the women during our feast. The spectacle of Jesus angering townsmen and spoiling the mood caused all of us, even the complacent Uriah, to mutter protests in the background. Sensing, though not quite comprehending that Jesus was uttering blasphemies, Ezra frowned fiercely, while Papa gave many of them challenging looks. Mama and Naomi, who had enough trouble with their drunken husbands, pulled them both aside and scolded them. A few of the other elders, who were also in their cups, were also restrained by their wives, as the argument was joined by Habakkuk and Gideon, who had not drank as much wine.
“Jesus is speaking heresy again, like he did before,” Gideon said accusingly. “We don’t cast pearls before swine.”
“No, no,” Habakkuk disagreed, “all that traveling has made him sympathetic to the Romans and Greeks. I’ve met many good Gentiles, even among the Syrians. Why shouldn’t righteous Gentiles merit heaven?”
“Because,” growled Gideon, “they’re unclean. Romans are pigs!”
“No, that’s unfair!” Jesus shook his head. “You don’t know our guards. Many of them are good men. Not all Gentiles are bad. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the words of Isaiah: ‘This is the plan determined for the whole world. His hand is stretched out over all nations.’ ”
“That’s taken it out of context,” snorted Gideon. “Your twisting God’s words.”
“No, he’s not.” Habakkuk glanced at Aaron. “I remember reading that. Isaiah also promised believers heaven. Surely, you remember that.”
“Yes, I do.” Aaron smiled with amusement. “Isaiah has said many strange things.”
Some of the other elders nodded at this recollection. The wives, always more tolerant than the men, agreed heartily. Mama grinned happily at this scene, in spite of Papa’s condition. Ezra’s frown faded, perhaps because he was drunk. Though Jesus was making a great impression upon the rabbis and guests, Ezra and Papa would remember little about this evening.
Simon, James, Joseph, Uriah, and I, however, clapped our hands with delight.
Gideon and only two of the other men disagreed with Isaiah’s words. Of all of Jesus youthful confrontations with tradition, I remember this one especially because of its impact on his reputation in our town. A consensus was established between townsmen at Samuel’s feast that changed his status from heretic to free thinker (as Hillel had been, himself). Those townsmen who agreed with Isaiah appeared to outnumber those who didn’t. Even the normally narrow-minded Joseph was happy to see Jesus prevail. It was never made clear to me whether or not Hillel, in fact really agreed with Isaiah on the salvation of Gentiles or if the elders and rabbis actually accepted Jesus notion of a universal God, but no one could challenge the authority of the greatest of our prophets after Moses. After bringing up the subjects of universalism and Gentile salvation espoused by the sage and hearing the rabbis and Gideon’s disagreements, Jesus very wisely gave Isaiah the credit for this notion, whose wisdom Gamaliel and Aaron couldn’t deny. What had seemed like a precarious subject, had therefore become a quarrel between interpretations of controversial passages, the two halves of Isaiah, who prophesized the traditional Messiah for Jews, but also believed that God was universal and was here for the Gentiles too.
Not mentioned in their conversation was the most controversial of all the conflicts in Isaiah’s writing: the passage about the Suffering Messiah. Very wisely, Jesus avoided this subject during the discussion. Though it had troubled him before, it made no sense even to him. The truth about this passage, like his divinity, would not be revealed until his mission began.
Everything had begun with Samuel’s generosity in hiring Gamaliel as our teacher, but it was Gamaliel’s success in bringing a rabbi to our town to replace Joachim, that did most to repair my family’s standing in our town. Yet, because of Samuel’s friendship with us, it was all set in motion. Nazareth’s synagogue would be reopened for worship and its children and youth would learn to read, write and learn our people’s history and laws. This fact alone helped bring factions of our town—those friendly to my family and those unfriendly to my family—together once more. Several people, who had not attended the feast for Aaron and who had not spoken to Papa for years would, when they had the chance, thank him personally for this event, though Papa, himself, had known nothing of Gamaliel’s invitation to the young rabbi. Papa was drunk during the feast and could barely recall his name. The reason that they gave Papa some of the credit for Aaron coming to Nazareth, which was a major factor in the healing process, was the immediate friendship Aaron struck up with my family. Independently wealthy as his cousin Gamaliel, he requisitioned Papa to manage the building of a house for him in the hills near Samuel’s estate. This would give many of the young men in town employment and keep us busy for quite some time, while the rabbi remained a guest, as Gamaliel, in the Pharisee’s house. Several additional carpenters, whom Papa had befriended in Sepphoris and Nain would assist him, as well as masons and furniture makers from nearby towns. Not only did this put coins into Papa’s money box, but it helped repair the friendships he had with townsmen and made him even more popular with his friends. To improve his business and, though he wouldn’t admit it, impress his clients, Papa remodeled his carpenter shop so that a large portion of it could hold furniture and supplies. During the rare periods of bad weather in Nazareth, we would be able to work inside the shop. A platform, with a woven awning, was built outside so that we didn’t have to saw and sand boards in the hot sun or suffer a downpour of rain. A cobblestone path was also created, leading from the road directly to the shop, a signpost by the entrance proclaiming to the world “Carpentry done by Joseph and his sons,” though Jesus would inherit the shop if Papa died.
The rapid changes in our lives moved at a dizzying pace. Along with constructing Aaron’s house, a growing number of customers were requesting repairs and new furniture. Except for the Shabbat, there wasn’t a day when sawing, sanding, and hammering wasn’t heard in our shop. The most important material change in our lives, however, was our expanded and renovated house, that, when Papa’s work crew had finished, would boast two additional rooms, an enclosed kitchen, and a large hall upon entering an archway. For the first time since the burning of Mariah’s house—a day also burned into my family’s memory, my parents actually entertained guests. Some of the same people, who had vowed never to set foot in our house, supped with us and shared Papa’s wine. Gradually also, the townsmen’s children were drawn back into our home, which, in the months following the arrival of the Romans and new rabbi, included James and Joseph’s old friends as well as Simon and my old gang.
Uriah, my brothers and sisters, and I were at various levels in Gamaliel’s class. Having learned the basics of Hebrew and memorized important passages from the Torah, James, Joseph, and I were at the most advanced stage, while many of our fair-weather friends, who would be attending Aaron’s synagogue school, could barely read. Simon still saw the Hebrews symbols backward and, despite Gamaliel’s method of reading from the end of a sentence and holding a mirror up to reverse the text, had learned very little. Uriah was not too far behind James and Joseph, his only problem, Gamaliel discovered, being his lack of interest. Tabitha, who proved to be a fast learner, had surprised everyone, but my twin sisters, Abigail and Martha, seemed too scatter-brained to learn very much.
Gamaliel had promised to teach me Greek and Latin when I mastered Hebrew, and a period would be set aside for special tutoring after school. This period, of course, never came. While Gamaliel continued to teach us awhile longer, Aaron became the official rabbi of our town. Because our synagogue had been greatly enlarged, the young rabbi’s class could accommodate a large number of students. One day, as work commenced on the synagogue, our teacher informed us that he would be leaving Nazareth soon and that his cousin Aaron would finish our education. We could scarcely believe that we would be losing our privileged status and would be joining the general population of students in Aaron’s class.
James uttered a wounded cry. “It’s not fair! We haven’t learned enough. Why’re you leaving so soon?”
“I’ve been here over a year.” He sighed heavily. “Your feet are set on the right path. My cousin will lead you now; he knows as much as me. It’s good that you’ll be in a classroom with more students. The townsmen are grumbling about Joseph’s family getting special treatment. You can show off how smart you are to those fellows. Your town needs a full time rabbi; I never planned on filling such a niche.”
“You promised, you promised!” I said, my lower lip quivering.
“Now Jude,” Gamaliel gave me a warning look. “Something unforeseen has come up. Someday I’ll return. You’re in good hands with Aaron. He’s a fine teacher!”
“But we don’t want Aaron,” Tabitha wept openly, “we want you!”
I looked around the table in disbelief. “Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz will be in Aaron’s class. They don’t like us. They’ll beat us up.”
“At their own peril!” Jesus called from the back of the room.
Jesus gave me a comforting smile. Gamaliel’s promise to teach me Greek and Roman had been our secret, but I think Jesus knew. Stifling a sob, I turned away and stared at my writing tablet. In Hebraic, I had written liar, liar!, quickly rubbing it out with my thumb. James and Joseph sat there arguing with the teacher as I sank further into gloom. Simon, who was doing poorly in class, was not as upset as me, nor did I expect to see tears in Abigail or Martha’s blue eyes, but Tabitha was sobbing uncontrollably and Uriah, to my surprise, was on the verge of tears. All I could think was that I wouldn’t learn Greek and Latin, which I needed for my travels in the world.
“Students, please believe me.” Gamaliel raised his hands in appeal. “Aaron’s a fine teacher. You heard him speak at Samuel’s feast. I know of no one more knowledgeable of the Torah.”
“He’s a dwarf!” Joseph scowled. “You can barely see his face.”
“That has nothing to do with his abilities.” Gamaliel shook his head with disappointment. “The greatest teacher of them all, Hillel, was bald and blind in one eye. Judge a man by his deeds. Beauty’s but a fading flower.”
“I’m sorry,” Joseph groaned, “I meant no disrespect. It’s not him. It’s his oversized class. We don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of numbskulls. His class is going to be huge!”
“He’s right,” James protested. “Aaron will have his hands full. He won’t give us special attention.”
“James, Joseph, Jude.” He walked, with hands clasped, across the floor. “I’ve given you the direction. You know how to study the scriptures. Aaron will find time to help you with your Hebrew. Now that you know the symbols and basic sentence formation, you’ll be far ahead of the others. All I’ve done is guide you, as Aaron will do. Practice, memorize, and vocalize what you know.” “I shall return, when I’ve taken care of my business.”
“What business?” I jeered. “Isn’t Nazareth big enough for you?”
“Nazareth is a lovely town,” answered Gamaliel, “but I do what I must I do.”
“What?” I looked at him challengingly. “Tell us what?”
Gamaliel remained silent. We would learn later that Elijah, the rabbi’s brother, had been arrested in Sepphoris and thrown into jail. The students would not find out what Elijah had done to get into trouble, but it had evidently embarrassed our teacher very much. I would hear about the details of Elijah’s crime when Paul of Tarsus related the story to me after Gamaliel’s death.
Elijah had attacked an important citizen in a drunken rage. Because of Elijah’s status in the city, the magistrates accepted the fine offered by Gamaliel with the stipulation that Elijah leave Sepphoris and not return. The week in which Gamaliel was forced to return to Sepphoris and pay Elijah’ fine was followed by an additional period of time required for he and his siblings to resettle their recalcitrant brother in another town. Gamaliel would, in fact, return briefly to Nazareth, but on the day he left our town, leaving us to join the horde of students in Aaron’s class, the only members of my family present at his send-off were my parents, sisters, and oldest brother. Of the many things in my life that I am ashamed of are the words I had said to him in class and the fact that I talked Simon and Uriah out of being at the send-off. James and Joseph were also absent, as was Tabitha who, because of conservative attitudes, would not be admitted to synagogue school.
Though the class was, as James and Joseph feared, far too large, much of our dread about Boaz, Jethro, and Obadiah was unfounded. Jesus, who would sit in class frequently, had warned Aaron about these students. He promised each of them that they would suffer the consequences if they said so much as an unkind word to us. Aaron reminded all of the students at the first day of synagogue school that we were once again under the rule of Rome. All congregations outside of school or worship services would be immediately censored. Everyone knew what the Romans meant by “censored.”
Our first day with Aaron as teacher was a long-winded affair, and not a word had been said about learning Hebrew or, for that matter, Latin or Greek. Before I had even shown up that day, I had preconceived notions about the little rabbi. In Samuel’s house our small class had been given a diverse and liberal education, some of which would have disturbed the elders of our town. The synagogue was open to daily, even hourly, scrutiny, by any citizen dropping in off the street. Because of those narrow-minded graybeards, Aaron would have to watch what he said. There would be no more philosophical speculation not covered in the Torah. Because it was felt that girls didn’t need much education and there was barely enough room, Tabitha, my sisters, and the other girls in town, would not be attending school. Right at the very beginning, I was also predisposed against the atmosphere of the classroom, itself. Since we showed up late, Uriah and my brothers and I were seated in the very last bench. So that the sixty-five children and youths could get better acquainted, the young rabbi had everyone stand up and introduce themselves. He wrote each name on a special list, insisting that we give our full names, such as Judah bar Joseph and Uriah bar Joachim—the same irksome custom practiced by Gamaliel, our previous teacher. What’s worse, he asked us, as we were standing, what we wanted to do with our lives. Because of the reaction I might receive, I said nothing about my ambitions in seeing the world and, when my turn arrived, replied lamely, “I shall work in my father’s shop.” Since Jesus was present the first hour, there were no catcalls when Uriah and my names were called. Everyone was familiar with Judah the Galilean, who caused Rome’s wrath to fall on our people, and the reputation of Uriah’s father. It seemed like a pointless exercise in class. Most children assumed they would follow in their father’s footsteps. Yet how many of these students, I wondered those moments, actually wanted to spend their entire lives in this backwoods town? Nearly everyone did as I did and said exactly what they thought their parents would want to hear. Some, with thick tongues, like the slow-moving Boaz, stuttered and stammered when they tried to explain their goals, and several students simply drew a blank when asked to stand up. The gaps in ages in the class, which didn’t help, were great. The youngest students were six years olds, younger than my sisters Abigail and Martha, while the oldest, James and his friends, who felt out of place in this crowd, were sixteen. Such a disparity seemed to bode ill for the younger students, until Aaron divided us into groups. The topmost group, which moved up to the front of the class, would contain everyone from the age of 12 to 16, which to my great relief included me. I’m not sure whether or not Aaron had taken into consideration the fact that Gamaliel had already placed James, Joseph, and me into one group.
After listening to the classroom chatter, I realized that some of the youths thrown in with James, Joseph, and myself had little comprehension of the Torah. Simon, unfortunately, was among this group. Aaron’s divisions made more sense for the younger students, whose age range of six to eleven was where my sisters and Tabitha would have fit in, but placing the dull-witted Boaz, Jethro, and Obadiah into our group simply because they were in our age range overlooked the fact that they were practically illiterate, while James, Joseph, and I already knew Hebrew and could recite from the Torah. Though they were older than Uriah and me, Boaz, Jethro, and Obadiah belonged in the six to eleven group in ability, along with most of the other youths, including Simon, who was also lumped into our group. Unfortunately, Simon, who continued to see everything backward, required special attention he wouldn’t receive in any group. After listening to James and Joseph’s protests, however, Aaron explained, with a giggle, that we could help teach these oafs. He would appoint Jesus, as his assistant and even pay him, if he agreed, and might even place James, Joseph and me into the same positions if we wished.
It was obvious that Gamaliel had bragged to his nephew about James, Joseph and me. This explained why he didn’t include Simon in his offer nor Uriah, who had worked very hard the last week in which Gamaliel taught our class. I wondered fleetingly that moment if Gamaliel had given me special praise because of my perfect memory. Perhaps our teacher was merely being tactful by lumping James, Joseph, and me together, but I frankly didn’t care. Despite his favorable beginning at Samuel’s house, Aaron was on the wrong path. The future of our class seemed bleak. His suggestion that we act as his assistants was so absurd we broke into hysterical laughter as we discussed it after school. Jesus might have scolded us for not responding more politely to Aaron’s offer if he had been on watch, but he had walked home to help Papa in the shop. This is where we would find refuge from the expected jeers of our classmates.
Unfortunately, neither Jesus nor the Romans who were supposed to protect us from our enemies, were around when we exited the synagogue. Considering the threat, it was a long walk to the carpenter’s shop. I had no faith in James or Joseph protecting us from Jethro, Obadiah or Boaz, who had a score to settle after being disciplined by Falco and Priam. They were also, I was certain, still sniffing around for their share of the gold. Fortunately for us, a trio of legionnaires galloped past as we dashed down the road. One of the riders, whom I recognized at once barked, “Slow down lads. What’s the hurry? Are you being chased?”
“Not yet,” mumbled Simon.
“It’s Caleb and Horib’s boys,” blurted Uriah
“What? Those ruffians again?” Regulus looked down at us.
“Hello Regulus.” I stopped to salute. “Where not afraid, as long as you’re on patrol.”
“He would say something like that,” Joseph grumbled to James.
“Oh, isn’t that cute,” I heard one of the other optios remark, “a proper little soldier. Is that the one who wants to join the army?”
“Yes, a fine little fellow.” Regulus grinned wryly. “Remember what we said about assemblies?” He added good-naturedly, spurring his horse.
A cloud of dust was kicked up as he galloped toward our house. The other two optios sat awhile on their mounts as Regulus reined in his horse, dismounted, and led his stallion up to the hitching post. In the distance, emerging from our front yard, were the shadowy silhouettes of two of his men. As the dust cleared, I recognized Priam and Falco at once. To James and Joseph’s great annoyance, I saluted them too. Priam and Falco returned my salute, but gave the others unfriendly looks.
Regulus, who had been the first to speak, talked almost exclusively to me. “I heard your synagogue’s open for business again. I met that new rabbi. He sure talks a lot. He’s the smallest Jew I’ve ever seen but a vast improvement over that last scoundrel.” “Whatever happened to that fellow?” His eyes shifted to Uriah. “Heard he was sick—had some kind of stroke.”
“That’s right sir, Uriah’s living with us,” I piped eagerly.
I was very excited by this meeting. Uriah, who prickled under the optio’ scrutiny, shrugged, a scowl registering on his face. Elbowing him in the ribs, I said from the corner of my mouth, “These people are here to protect us. Don’t be rude. Answer the optio!”
“Owe,” whined Uriah, “that hurts.”
“How’s your fine parents?” Regulus winked at me. “I heard your mother’s still nursing Joachim, your family’s onetime foe, her aunt, and Samuel all at the same time. Vesta, be praised
—that woman’s a saint!”
“Yes sir,” I replied enthusiastically, “ and Papa’s business is doing much better. His shop’s been expanded and builders are working on our house.”
Glancing around at our small group, he frowned at James and Joseph and gave Uriah a curt nod. I remembered Longinus words after Papa’s confrontation with Joachim: “the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Jesus would remember these words too. Priam and Falco would accompany the optio as he checked up on the hill and perimeter guards. I was glad of the added protection in Nazareth. I wondered then, after Longinus announcement, how many more men Regulus had to supervise. As if they had not been paying attention to the optio, Priam and Falco gave almost the same amenities as Regulus had done moments before.
“Jude,” Priam said gruffly, “how’s your little mother doing?”
“Healthy and fit sir,” I chimed promptly.
“And your Papa?” Falco grinned slyly.
“My father’s doing quite well.” I nodded pertly.
“He’s always been polite.” Falco waved dismissively, “but we know how he really feels. Like all Jews, he hates us. But that mother of yours has a pure heart. I could see it in her eyes.”
“Aye.” Priam nodded reflectively. “A soul could drown in those eyes.”
“So your parents are taking care of the rabbi’s son,” Falco eyed Uriah. “How’s the poor man feeling?”
Uriah, feeling my elbow again, replied, “Don’t really know sir. He just stares into space.”
Priam and Falco found this amusing, and chuckled to themselves. Simon giggled with discomfort, as Regulus gave his head a pat. I placed my arm on Uriah’s shoulder to comfort him. This time, to my relief, James and Joseph remained respectful but silent, as the three Romans looked, with great scrutiny, down at our group.
“Are you learning anything useful in the synagogue?” Regulus frowned thoughtfully. “I hope this rabbi is better than the last.”
No one responded to his question. Once again, I stepped forward as my family’s goodwill ambassador and piped, “We just started school. Aaron plans to make James, Joseph, and me his helpers since we have learned to speak Hebrew and can read from the Torah.”
“Ah, a leader is born!” Regulus cried with delight, as if my brothers didn’t exist. “Let’s hope you become a priest, not a revolutionary like your namesake Judah, the Galilean.”
Why, even in jest, would Regulus say such thing? It wasn’t funny, and yet I laughed hysterically to myself. I should have added to my answer, “Being Aaron’s assistants will make us outcasts among our people.” James, Joseph, and Simon were glaring at me. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of my answer to Regulus or what the optio said. My name was a curse upon me! I had sounded enthusiastic about Aaron’s offer. Though I would never admit it, secretly I wanted to show off my intelligence to my classmates.
Plunged into my thoughts a moment, I awakened to friendly banter. The attention had turned to Joachim’s son.
“And why didn’t the teacher make you an assistant?” Priam was teasing him. “You think being a rabbi’s son, you’d outshine the carpenter’s sons.”
“I just want to be carpenter,” complained Uriah. “Why do I have to learn all that stuff?”
“You should be thankful that you can learn that stuff.” Simon socked his arm.
“There now,” Falco snickered, offering Simon the handle of his sword, “give him a proper whack!”
“That’ll be enough,” the optio scolded his men wryly, “we don’t want folks to think they’re consorting with Romans.” “You boys give that new rabbi a chance,” he counseled us. “As my Jewish mother once said to me, ‘learned man is less dangerous than a fool.’”
Regulus, Priam, and Falco laughed at something the optio added under his breath then, giving us curt nods, bid us good day. In spite of the wisdom in Regulus’ words, there was, I sensed, an underlying bitterness, perhaps even contempt for us conveyed by he and his men. As they continued on their way, the other two optios sat there on their mounts a moment staring coldly at us before jerking their reigns and galloping down the road.
“Peace be on the house of Jude,” one them called out derisively as they galloped off. “May your Jewish god help us guard this outpost. Spread the word to your friends that Rome is watching them this hour.”
“I will,” I cried out impulsively. “Peace be upon our Roman protectors. May they always guard our home!”
I immediately regretted my foolish words. That man was being sarcastic. Not a word had I said about the Romans guarding the remainder of our town. Too many times in the past did it seem as if our corner of Nazareth was an island in a strange, unfriendly land. I hoped Jethro, Obadiah and Boaz, who were probably slinking on our trail, had at least heard what Regulus said. When the Romans were out of earshot, James, Joseph, and Simon ganged up on me, with words of rebuke, until Jesus appeared in front of the shop.
“You sound like you actually want to be Aaron’s little helper,” Simon sneered. “All of the students will hate you and us too!” He punched my arm.
“That’s not the issue,” Joseph took his turn. “Who care’s about our numbskull classmates? Jude’s a traitor to our people. Did you hear what he shouted out for all to hear?”
“Yes, Jude,” James’ voice trembled. “Are you that much of Roman lover that you’d turn the town against us again?”
“No, of course not,” I responded angrily to both accusations. “That’s ridiculous!” “You really think I want to be waylaid by students after school?” I looked at Simon. “I’m sorry I got a little excited about our guards,” I then turned to Joseph and James. “I was just being polite. You certainly weren’t. You can’t act like that anymore, either of you. The Romans are here to stay. They’re protecting us against thieves and murderers. Why am I traitor for seeing that?”
“Because,” spat Joseph, “you’ve always loved Romans since they came to our town. All that talk about being a Roman soldier and seeing the world. Bah, I think you want to be a Roman—period! You’ve forgotten what the Gentiles have done to our people. I bet when you leave our home, you’ll forget being Jewish and eat forbidden food!”
“Joseph! What’s going on here?” Jesus called from the path leading to the shop.
“He’s an embarrassment to our family,” James pointed accusingly at me. “He fraternized with the Romans in front of the town. Did you hear what he said?”
“I don’t see anyone on the road,” Jesus replied irritably. “I thought you were changing James—opening that trapdoor mind.” “And you Joseph.” Jesus gave him a gentle cuff. “You’ll never change!”
It was the clearest prophecy. Joseph would never change. James, of course, though he remained stubbornly conservative, became a disciple as myself. Those moments, however, I would never have imagined that my second oldest brother would one day write one of the sacred books collected by Luke. Jesus questioned all of us for several minutes as we walked down the path. Papa was still away on business with Ezra, but Mama had been drawn to the commotion, Tabitha, Abigail, and Martha peeking fearfully around her skirts. My mind wandered again to a vision I had not thought of for quite some time... my white horse, galloping down an endless road, but this time I wasn’t so sure it would be as a soldier. There seemed to be something fundamentally flawed about that vision. Perhaps I just wanted to escape from what seemed to be a dead end town and boring fate. When Jesus shook me gently and looked down squarely into my eyes, I was crying softly. Uriah was patting my shoulder to comfort me, and Simon was on the verge of tears.
“All I said was ‘I hope the Romans always protect our house.” I squirmed under Jesus scrutiny.
“There-there,” he whispered close to my ear, “the Lord protects our house, not the Romans, but I know what’s in your heart.”
“My heart is black as sin,” I murmured, looking away.
“Aaron’s going to make James, Joseph, Jude, and you his helpers.” Simon stated bluntly. “I can’t stand that big class. Why do we have to go Jesus? I can’t read. I’ll never be able to read. When I look at the words they get all jumbled up in my head. ”
“Don’t worry, my brothers,” Jesus placed his arms around Simon and me. “The Romans will be here for a long time.... Simon will one day be able to read.”
“What about you Uriah?” he asked, bringing Uriah into our circle. “Are you happy in Aaron’s class.”
“I hate it!” Uriah sniffled. “I want to be like you Jesus. I just want to work in wood.”
Now Uriah was crying. James seemed conflicted with emotions—anger and shame, but Joseph looked on with disgust.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calmed Simon, Uriah, and me with these haunting words, “Uriah, I don’t believe you’re capable of hating anything. Your heart is pure. Trust in the Lord. Some day, you’ll make your mark on the world as Jude, though his road shall take him far from home. Simon, remember what I said. You have a great future too, but, in His inscrutable way, the Lord’s testing you. Be patient all of you. Aaron has come to Nazareth for a purpose. I know that now.” “James and Joseph,” he added almost as an afterthought, “your fears are unjustified. Look around you and tell me who’s prowling about: Boaz, Jethro and Obadiah—a few rude and ill-mannered children. With the Romans on watch, the road is clear; let them do their jobs. They’re just following orders, just as you do when Papa gives you a chore. James—open your heart. I see your future intertwined with mine. Joseph, your brother, will remain steadfast to the Torah, but you must remember the living word.”
“The living word?” Joseph made a face. “What in creation is the living word?”
“Uh oh, Jesus is talking strange again,” Simon teased in a singsong voice.
“What did you mean our paths are intertwined?” James scratched his head. “Does that mean I’m going to work as carpenter for you all my life?”
“What about me?” Uriah looked eagerly up at Jesus. “I wanna work with you Jesus all my life.”
“And so you shall,” Jesus ruffled his locks. “We’ve already talked about the living word.” He turned to Joseph. “It’s simply the revelations God has been giving the prophets and other righteous men. Is that so hard to understand?”
“Well...no.” Joseph’s frown faded.
“How can I have a great future if I can’t even read?” Simon asked, tugging on Jesus sleeve.
“Trust me.” Jesus winked.
Simon, who understood Jesus immediately, beamed. “Oh yes, the living word!”
I knew I was next in line for answers, but Jesus moved on then to a greater issue.
“Remember this one thing,” He raised a finger and looked up to heaven, “the Lord, not Rome, protects us from evil. The greater evil is your deeds, not the imagined threats you see in the shadows. The Romans have guarded us against men like Bar Abbas, not against the Evil One, whom you should fear the most.”
In one short session, Jesus had foretold our futures, though, as Paul of Tarsus would have said, it was through glass darkly. I know now what Jesus’ words meant. James and I would join Jesus apostles. Uriah and Simon would also become followers one day, and Joseph, in his own way would serve the Lord too. The details of our futures remained undecided. What was obvious to me that day was that Jesus knew exactly what I had been up to. I was certain that his last words were a personal stab at me for my subterfuge and deceit. Leading us back down the path to our assigned chores, he remained silent a moment, until he felt my hand in his. At that point, he slowed our pace. The others sauntered ahead of us, glancing back with suspicion, as he looked into my heart.
“Are you mad at me Jesus?” I wept again.
“Jude,” he whispered so faintly I could barely hear, “the Lord is testing you the most—more than Simon, more than Papa. Gold is a terrible craving. Yet your treasure is safe. Mama told me something this morning before leaving for Joachim’s house. To prevent Jethro and Obadiah from stealing it, she placed it in a secure place.”
My mouth fell open in amazement. “Then Michael didn’t steal it!”
“No, he didn’t.” Jesus continued to stare with disappointment at me. “.... Michael believed that no one in this town would ever accept him because of his reputation. The feeling of being trapped in Samuel’s house, the hatred shown by your brothers, and his own guilt were too much for him. That same night he met John, he probably made his get-a-away. He had accumulated a store of bread and water and hidden it in the hills for that day. This time, however, because his relatives wouldn’t accept him, there was no place for him to go, so he came back, as dirty and misbegotten as he was the last time he returned.”
“He’s back?” My eyes widened in disbelief. “He’s in the house right now?”
“Yes.” Jesus heaved a sigh. “Even Michael didn’t know about your gold. Mama grew suspicious one day. Perhaps the Lord moved her to search the wall and relocate your gold, but its secure now. Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz were seen lurking on the road awhile back, looking over at our house. Mama thought she heard voices in the backyard when we were at school, so she moved it to a new location.”
“Where? Where?” I clapped my hands with glee.
Jesus groaned in disbelief. “That’s blood money Jude. Abbas, his son, and their gang robbed and killed travelers for that gold. Jesus Bar Abbas hasn’t forgotten about the treasures in the pagan shrine either. Your greed has addled your wits. Can’t you see the dangers in this?”
“Yes,... I’m sorry Jesus,” I whimpered pitifully, “so where’d she put it?”
Even now, the thought of my pot of gold being safe gave me a heady feeling. Jesus shook me very hard now. I could see tears in his blue eyes. It was, as I look back in time, a low point in my battle with the Evil One.
“You must apologize to the Lord, not me,” he said, wiping his eyes, “but not now,” he scolded, as I closed my eyes and began praying.
“Yes, I shall pray and make an offering in the temple,” I mumbled deliriously.
“This is very serious Jude,” he explained, motioning for me to follow him from the path to the garden. “You don’t need to go to the temple to make amends to God. First you must change your thinking. Word’s are hollow without a contrite heart.”
“Yes-yes, I’m a bad person,” I confessed in a rush of emotion. “I should’ve told you, but I kept thinking about what I could do with all that gold. If only I hadn’t met Adam. All that gold he’s hidden—waiting there in the shrine and in the wall.”
“Come inside,” Jesus pulled me along. “This isn’t for Uriah or our brothers’ ears.”
“Where’s Michael?” I murmured to Jesus. “I can’t believe he didn’t steal my gold.”
“It’s not your gold,” Jesus said, thonking my head. “It was never your gold!”
I looked into the shadows of the room. Mama was standing by the window, her light brown hair glimmering in the rays of the afternoon sun. I could hear the twins romping in the backyard, but Michael was nowhere in sight.
As if he had read my mind, Jesus told me that Michael was in the orchard, meditating upon his sins. As soon as possible, he explained to me, Michael must go into hiding again. If the Romans saw him they might not recognize this rascal but the townsmen had long memories. It was actually safer for him to be in the backyard than the front. A rare note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice emphasized how disgusted he was in the latest turn of events. Mama uttered a bitter laugh, as the three of us sat at the table.
“I don’t know who’s worse now,” she said wearily, “Michael or you.” “Please explain to me Jude why you continued to horde that gold. You know very well where it came from—the very people the Romans are protecting us from, thieves and murderers.” “Answer me,” her voice rose shrilly. “Where did those coins come from? Who gave you that gold?”
“Adam has hidden Abbas’ gold in the shrine,” I confessed. “I’m certain he put the gold coins in the wall too.”
“We thought the bandits came back for their gold.” She clutched her forehead in despair. “Why didn’t you tell us about this horde? What if they come back looking for those coins?”
“Jesus said you hid it.” I gave her a confused look. “If what you said is true, shouldn’t you put it back?”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she snarled uncharacteristically. “I hid your loot to keep Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz from finding it. Now there’s gold in a pagan shrine?”
“Mama,” Jesus said, patting her knuckles, “now that the guards are back, I don’t think those boys would dare come into our backyard.”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Are you suggesting I put it back? What if those bandits come back looking for it?”
“When I say that the Lord is watching over our house, no one, even you Mama, are totally convinced that this is true. So, let’s consider the possibility that, as instruments of the Lord, our Roman protectors will keep both the bandits and Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz away from Jude’s gold.”
“But it’s not Jude’s gold.” Mama’s nostrils flared. “That wicked Adam has brought a curse upon our family”
“It’ll be all right,” Jesus consoled her. “With the Romans here, you don’t have to decide at once. The larger issue is Jude’s lust for gold. I’ve been sitting here thinking about this.... I think, in his immaturity, he dreams of great things, but is torn by his greed. Jude, in spite of his coming of age, is very much a child. To put the gold back right now might be a great temptation to him, but now that we’re on to his tricks he’ll most likely leave it alone. On the other hand, if you don’t put the gold back, you will have removed temptation entirely. The question as to what we should do with this stolen loot we can decide another time.”
“So,” I blurted foolishly to Mama, “where’d you hide it?”
“Hah! Wouldn’t you like to know,” she laughed softly. “I think we’ll leave it just where it’s at.” A mischievous gleam appeared in her eyes. “What do you think Jesus? Do you think I found a good hiding place?”
“Yes.” Jesus sighed heavily. “No one will find it there.”
A possible location flashed like a beacon through my mind: cloaca-cloaca-cloaca. Mama was a simple soul. What better place to hide it, along with Papa’s coins. That’s the first place I would look. If that proved false, I would look for freshly dug mounds of dirt in the front and backyards.
“You’re not going to tell the others, are you?” I asked light-headedly. “Uriah’s a blabbermouth, and Simon might just go dig it up.”
“Under no circumstance are we to let this slip to the other boys,” Mama directed sternly. “Papa knows, Jesus knows, and I know. No one else.”
I felt strangely relieved. Much of the temptation, as Jesus predicted, was lifted from my mind. My treasure was safe! Jesus was torn by what appeared to be a lie by omission. When he tried to explain his feelings about this, however, his mother replied, “Thou shalt honor thy parents is a commandment too.” Pacing the floor, his hands clasped behind him, Jesus muttered to himself, shook his head, and then gave Mama a searching look.
“What on earth are we going to do with all that gold?” I heard him mumble to himself.
“It’s just a little pot of coins,” I said petulantly. “Why all the fuss?”
“Have you tried to lift that, Jude?” Mama frowned at me in disbelief.
“No,... it was just there,” I answered, shaken by the implications of her words.
“Well, it took two trips for me to relocate the gold. That’s a tidy some, Jude.”
She gave me a studied look. “About the gold in the sanctuary—where you going to retrieve that later too?”
“No, certainly not,” I presented an indignant expression.
“Let’s hope so.” She exhaled deeply. “That’s no place for a god-fearing Jew.”
Another stab of guilt struck me that moment. Though she must have been especially upset with me for consorting with Adam to hide treasure in that pagan holy of holies, she said nothing, which was exactly what I did when James, Joseph, Simon, and Uriah entered the house.
For once I didn’t fear Jesus inability to lie or Mama’s loose tongue. Our only sin was keeping this dark secret.... The question was ‘for how long?’
“When’s lunch?” Simon piped. “I’m as hungry as a horse!”
“Oh no,” She groaned, clasping her forehead, “I forgot to fix the noon meal!”
“I’ll help you whip something up.” Jesus, always the dutiful son, sprang to his feet.
Naturally, to show my contriteness, I followed Jesus’ movements. I expected some form of punishment, but this matter appeared to be closed. A strange, unsettling euphoria overtook me. Perhaps, I reasoned dazedly, this was best. I might not know where my gold was, but at least I knew it was still there, hidden somewhere in the house, cloaca, shop, or one of the yards. At some point in the future, I might be cured of my greed and shake the feeling of remorse I carried. On the other hand, before I ventured off into the world, I might discover where Mama hid my gold and use it to finance my trip. Looking around the room at Uriah and my brothers, as I carried the small loafs of bread Mama had baked to the table, I felt a sense of unity with my parents and oldest brother for the big, dark secret we shared. The twins frolicked into the room, led by Tabitha, who was carrying a basket of freshly picked fruit. While the girls arranged the figs, plums, and berries in the center of the table, James, Joseph, and Simon gave me suspicious looks. Even Uriah, always trusting, asked if I was in trouble again.
“No,” I answered, after some deliberation, “we chatted about the new rabbi.”
“I don’t like him.” Uriah made a face. “He reminds me of my father.”
“He’s a dwarf!” Joseph snarled.
I didn’t agree with Uriah, but I nodded my head. I had to say something. Uriah was the last person on earth who should know about by treasure. It seemed I was a liar as well as a thief, but I felt some comfort in having at least one friend in our house. Because of my fraternization with the Romans, James and Joseph were on the outs with me again. I’m sure Simon didn’t care one way or another; yet, if he, James, or Joseph got wind of my treasure they would snatch it up themselves. I remembered awhile back, when Mama told us about the gifts of the Magi. The greed that registered in James and Joseph’s eyes was every bit as strong as my own. This is why my conscience didn’t bother me that much. Jesus and Mama believed that temptation had been removed from me, but it didn’t remove my longing for gold.
With Papa away on business, I had once less critic. Since he must have known about my subterfuge before he departed and shown no anger whatsoever toward me when he left, I felt as if I had nothing to fear. The matter had been left entirely in Mama and Jesus’ hands. Mama had not exploded in righteous anger as she often did with Joseph and James. For that matter, Jesus appeared to have put the subject behind him before the afternoon prayer. Not a word was mentioned about my misdeeds. To my great surprise, also, neither Mama nor Jesus said a word about Michael. I had been so absorbed with my own dilemma I had almost forgotten about my old friend. Most of us were relieved that he was gone. Before Jesus stood up to utter the Shema, however, we heard a knock at the back door.
“Oh yes everybody,” Mama said nonchalantly, “Michael’s back.”
“What?” Joseph’s mouth dropped. “Are you serious?”
“He arrived this morning while we were at school.” Jesus explained, walking calmly to the door. “Be polite my brothers. He was lost, perhaps he’s still lost, but he’s returned. Please welcome back our adopted brother.”
“Good grief,” James uttered a wounded cry, “I thought we were done with him!”
“Remember,” Simon said mockingly, “he’s our brother.”
“He’s not my brother.” Joseph shuddered. “Nehemiah was, Uriah might be, but Michael will never-never be my adopted brother!”
Uriah and I smiled bravely at each other as Michael re-entered our lives. Michael mumbled a brief apology for his conduct and promptly sat at the end of the table—a place where Papa sat when he was here. The mood was so hostile toward him Jesus immediately began his prayer, perhaps with a thought to quieten the mood.
I will not document Jesus prayer this time. There were so many prayers given by my older brother, most of which I recorded in my chronicle. After a long rambling petition that, summed up, asked God to forgive his brother’s intemperance, watch over our family’s interest now that Michael was back, and bring Papa safely home from his trip, Jesus gave a blessing for our food. I will never know whether or not the intemperance he spoke of was meant in a general sense for James and Joseph’s attitude or for my current frame of mind, but it was clear how worried he was about Michael’s return to our house. Though cloaked in lofty words, it was plain to all of us that he admitted to the Lord, Himself, that Michael was a threat. Any reasonable person would have called our acceptance of Michael madness. When Jesus finished his prayer, a question and answer session followed as we began our lunch.
“Why did you run away?” I asked, looking down the table at him.
“To find my mother.” He answered through a mouthful of cheese.
“Well,” Simon snarled, “did you find her?”
“No,” he answered with a shrug, “no luck at all. She wasn’t with her aunt. They threw her out last summer, so I searched Jerusalem and the beggar haunts.”
“That’s dreadful!” murmured Mama.
“All right,” Joseph’s voice trembled, “so why did you come back?”
“No where to go.” Michael shrugged again.
“Michael,” James took his turn, “how many times do you think you can upset our family and come sauntering back like this? You’re an embarrassment to us. We don’t trust you. Who knows what you’ll do next!”
“There’s nothing out there for me anymore,” Michael confessed, after taking a long swig of juice. “I don’t want to find my mother now. She’s either dead or among Jerusalem’s untouchables.”
Michael’s words made me pity him that moment. What he spoke was said calmly, without emotion, and yet it explained much about why he acted the way he did. His mother had damaged him, perhaps in ways we couldn’t imagine. That Michael would ever change seemed impossible that day, and yet he promised us, as we continued to question his behavior, that this was it—his last flight. “I will do better,” he mumbled, staring moodily at his plate. “I have but one mother now—my mother of the spirit. Mariah, my birth mother, by her actions, abandoned me long ago.” “I promise to stay in hiding,” he added self-consciously, looking around the room. “Someday maybe the town will forgive me for my actions—whenever that might be. Until then I’ll lay low in Samuel’s house or live like a hermit in the woods.”
Hearing his words and looking into his haunted eyes, I fought back tears—partly for resentment that he was such a thorn in our sides. Tenderhearted Uriah wept openly, though, perhaps thinking of his own birth mother and wondering if his father would ever recognize him again. All of the recipients of my parent’s charity—Maria, Michael, Nehemiah, Reuben, Uriah, and Tabitha, not to mention the remaining sons and daughters—flooded into my mind abruptly, causing my head to reel with the wonder of it all.
My parents and oldest brother were, if nothing else, saints. Jesus had to share his parents with a constant stream of orphans and castaways. Instead of a quiet life as a carpenter with his wife and son, Papa adopted four more sons and two girls. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, opened his house to a disreputable woman and her son, making enemies of most of the town. When our chief enemy was found wounded in the hills, Mama, to Papa’s dismay, nursed him back to health, as she would do for Mariah’s incorrigible son when he returned. Now, after trying to keep Deborah’s son alive and failing, Mama has taken in permanently Joachim’s cast off boy, and, not so long afterwards, Tabitha, who, like Uriah, has remained with us ever since. Not counting Adam’s temporary shelter, Mama has taken personal care of two of our enemies, nursing them back to health. Taking care of Reuben, the most foolhardy of my parents good deeds, would have made us criminals in the eyes of Rome.... Now, once again, Michael was back.