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Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

Our Brother, The Good Shepherd

 

 

 

That afternoon, as we attempted to finish a table began that week, Jesus dismissed us suddenly from our chores and, raising his staff dramatically, led us from the shop.  Uriah wondered if this might be another one of Jesus’ nature hikes.  It was, now that I think about it, a prelude to his role as the Good Shepherd.  It had been a long time since he had treated us to such a hike.  Neither James nor Joseph argued, in spite themselves, since it meant no more work for us today, and yet we all felt uncomfortable when Jesus walked ahead of us, his shaft clunking the dirt and free arm around Michael’s slumping shoulders, talking in a muted voice as we tagged along.

“Is this a good idea Jesus?” James called through cupped hands. “We’re suppose to be hiding him, not exposing him to the world.  What if someone recognizes him?  How could we explain his presence so near to our house?”

“Like I explained,” Jesus replied irritably, “it’s the front yard—the probing eyes of townsmen we should worry about, not back here where our guards protect us from trespassers.  I doubt if Falco or Priam will remember Michael.  Eventually, Michael will have to come out of the shadows.  It’s just a matter of time.”  

What did I care? I thought with a sigh.  Jesus knew what was best.  All that mattered was that the focus was off me and on Michael.  I would just as soon it stay that way from now on.  Michael had realized, once and for all, that there was nowhere else to go.  My feeling of gratitude for this distraction didn’t blind me to the troubles that lie ahead for my family and myself.  Michael’s very presence threatened our reputation in town.  Although he listened intently to Jesus scolding, I had seen no visible sign of love or affection from him for my brothers and me.  Something was missing in Michael’s manner, or perhaps it had never been there.  We couldn’t trust him, no matter how much Jesus prayed.

Lagging far behind Jesus and Michael, we discussed this familiar scene: Jesus, staff in hand, counseling Michael.

 “You’d think our to brother was Moses, himself, the way he carries on,” James grumbled under his breath.

“He won’t give up,” Joseph replied from the corner of his mouth. “For Michael to change his ways will require divine intervention!”

“Another miracle?” James snorted. “Even Jesus must see him as a lost cause!”

Simon saw it differently. “You can call a goat a lamb, but he’s still a goat!”

James and Joseph laughed.  Simon had said it best.  Uriah, as he did with so many other things, took him literally.

“What’s wrong with goats?” He wrinkled his pudgy nose.

“What they’re saying,” I explained, as I watched Jesus raise his staff and point to the sky, “is that Michael will never change.  This might be his last chance, Uriah.  I hope for all our sakes that he will.”

“I just hope Samuel will take him back.” James sighed.

At that point, Jesus whirled around, startling us half out of our wits.  The other half not frightened by his sudden burst of anger was embarrassed that he had overheard our remarks.  It should have been obvious to James, Joseph, and Simon that Jesus had eyes and ears at the back of his head.  Though he was silent, he looked at each one of my brothers separately for what they had said.  Uriah and my words were not mean-spirited and yet he seemed to look into our hearts, too, his disappointed expression encompassing us all.

“This is so typical of my brothers,” he spoke scornfully. “You’ve learned nothing living in our house.”

“Excuse me.” James frowned irritably. “We’ve learned a lot about Michael.  None of it’s good.”

“You’ve not learned charity nor compassion,” Jesus replied loftily. “Michael is homeless and friendless.  The sin of the mother should not be visited upon her son.  His worse enemy has been himself!”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” whispered Uriah. “Is he also talking to me?”

Joseph grew belligerent at Jesus’ defense and took Simon’s tact.

“A jackal remains jackal.” He folded his arms.  “He’ll never change.  He doesn’t deserve another chance.  How many times are we going to let him come crawling back?”

Jesus had revised Moses words: the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons.  Upon remembering Gamaliel’s lectures on the Torah, I uttered a nervous laugh as his voice rang out on the trail.

“You’ve always been mean-spirited toward anyone not sharing your narrow-minded views.” He pointed accusingly at Joseph first. “You hated Nehemiah and Uriah too.  You treated Reuben as if he was a leper though he was transformed before our eyes.”

“Reuben wasn’t transformed.” Joseph snarled. “Can a leopard change his spots”

Once more Joseph was using Simon’s tact.  I hoped he was wrong about Reuben.  Ignoring Joseph’s reply, Jesus more gently scolded James and Simon for not accepting Michael and giving him a chance.

“You never liked him.” His gaze took in James and Simon. “Ever since Jude befriended Michael, the shadow of his mother, colored everyone’s opinion of him—the whole town turned against the widow and her son.  But you, my brothers, were yourselves orphans and castaways—the recipients of our parent’s charity and love.  All of my siblings were fortunate to have two caring parents, something Michael never had.”

“Jesus knows a lot of big words,” Uriah whispered to me.

“We’re not a typical family,” Jesus now spoke to us all. “I thought you knew this.  God has blessed our house many times.  He expects more from Joseph’s sons and daughters.  I expect more from my brothers too.”  

A realization came to me as his voice echoed on the trail: the Romans were afoot.   With my sharp ears, I was the first to hear commotion on the trail.

“Hey, Jesus,” I tried to get his attention, “we don’t want them to hear this.  Remember: we’re not suppose to congregate!”

“He’s right,” James said, glancing down the trail, “they’re quite strict about that.  I still think Michael should hide.”

“Priam and Falco won’t consider our family a congregation,” Jesus laughed softly. “You just want to change the subject.”

Jesus was right, of course about our family, but not one of us agreed with Jesus about Michael this time.  Perhaps James was correct; Michael should go back into hiding and stay put, and yet I wasn’t worried about our guards.  To these lazy fellows, all Jews looked the same.  Just that moment a familiar pair appeared far down the trail.  We could never be sure about their moods.  Out of habit, Michael disappeared into the nearby woods, which pleased James, Joseph, and Simon very much.  For a brief moment, I saw concern register in Jesus’ eyes.

“Hey everyone,” Uriah cried, in a loud whisper, “they’re coming up the trail.”

“I can see,” Jesus replied testily. “You have nothing to fear.” “It’s our friends,” he reassured us “We’re practically on our own property.”

“Not quite,” said Joseph, pointing to the tree line, “unless we back up a ways.  Out here were just a bunch of Jews.”

Our small group followed Joseph’s example and backed up until we reached the tree line, the demarcation line of our property.  It seemed like such a foolish gesture, especially with Jesus in our midst.  It didn’t matter if our guards caught sight of Michael.  The story about Mariah, the witch, and her delinquent son might be old news to townsmen, but our guards had never seen him up close, only heard about his misdeeds.  Why had he fled?  After Priam and Falco’s treatment of Boaz, Jethro, and Obadiah for trespassing in our yard, James and Joseph were distrustful, though respectful, of this pair.    

“Don’t worry, we can still trust these men.” Jesus waved to them in greeting. “Peace be upon our friends, Priam and Falco,” he called warmly. “Nazareth is grateful for Rome’s watchful eye!”

Since Jesus didn’t lie, I assumed that he at least half believed those ingratiating words.  Jesus, of course, I would learn as a disciple, was friendly to everyone, even prostitutes and tax collectors.  That day, however, upon seeing those familiar guards, it didn’t matter to James and Joseph that the Romans were protecting us; the old notion that Jesus personally collaborated with Romans grated at them.  I could see it in their eyes.  Simon’s dull expression merely hid his true emotions, and Uriah, though he might trust Jesus, shared my other brothers’ mistrust of the Romans in our town.

To show my solidarity with Jesus and Rome, I ran in greeting to Falco and Priam.  “Vale!” I shouted the Latin salutation.

I could hear Uriah ask Jesus what that word meant.  A short conversation followed in

which I asked the two, crusty old Romans if this morning found them in good health and they asked me if Mama had anymore of that fine Greek wine.  This response, so typical of the uncouth Romans, caused me to look back worriedly at Jesus, for I was certain Papa, if she hadn’t hidden it a secure place, had drank the last drop.  James and Joseph were frowning severely at me, but Simon merely yawned at this interruption, quite used to my fondness for all things Rome.

            “We’ll have to borrow some wine from Samuel,” Jesus reassured them lightheartedly. “I’ll check with our parents.  Perhaps, the next time you drop by, we’ll have a supply.”

            “That would be nice.” Priam grinned. “One can never have enough wine.”

            “Why don’t we slaughter the fatted lamb.” Joseph snarled.

            “That does sound good,” Priam seemed to lick his chops, “though I prefer pork.”

            “We don’t have a fatted lamb.” Simon made a face. “We just have a mangy goat.”

            “I think your brother was joking,” said Falco, ruffling my hair. “I think it’s called sarcasm.  Right, Jude?”

            “Right!” I nodded foolishly.

“Now some of you mother’s fine bread would do,” he said, winking at me. “Some of that chopped fruit would be fine too.”

            Uriah almost salivated at the thought. “I love lamb.  Mary puts herbs and all kinds of spices on hers.”

It appeared that our long-winded lecture from Jesus had been cut short—at least for the moment, as Simon, Uriah, and I ran ahead to pilfer food from the kitchen.  It was just like old times again, I thought happily, remembering my great white horse.  I was happy and content that things were like they were before.  Even though Gamaliel had thought I was a prodigy, I remembered my onetime goal of seeing the world, perhaps in the service of Rome.  In my effort to reach the house first, I tripped over a stump, picked myself up giddily and tried to catch up.   Even Simon was caught up in the mood.  Before the plodding Uriah and I had a chance to enter the house, he had already grabbed up an armful of bread and a flask of juice—all intended for our supper.  Prudently, I removed half of Simon’s load and also removed the choicest of the chopped fruit.  Priam and Falco wouldn’t know the difference.  The juice, of course, would not satisfy the guards’ thirst.  Papa’s stash of wine, if it existed, was far too well hidden to be found, yet I hastily checked the cupboards just to be sure, then, elbowing Uriah aside, dashed out of the house.

I was getting tired of Uriah following me all the time.

“You’re face is purple.” I snapped irritably. “You’re going to drop dead if you don’t lose some of that fat.”

“Jude, Jude,” he called breathlessly, “I saw Regulus on the trail.”

My irritation for Uriah quickly subsided. “Regulus?” My breath caught in my throat. “Where’d he come from?”

“I dunno.” He shrugged, taking part of my load. “He came out of nowhere, like he always does.” “Listen,” he said, as I dragged him behind a bush, “he’s sounds angry about something.”

“Shut up Uriah.” I whispered, placing a hand on his mouth.

Fortunately for us, daylight shadows had camouflaged our bodies.  

“Where is he,” we heard Regulus shout, “the red haired youth known as Michael?  Tell me the truth Jesus.  I heard that you can’t lie.  Is your family harboring this lad?”

All I could think of at first was Jesus was wrong—the Romans did recognize Michael, but it turned out to be more complicated than this.

“What did he do now?” Jesus asked in a dull voice.

“Oh no,” I groaned to myself.

“Shhh,” Uriah’s voice tickled my ear, “this is serious.”

“Wait a minute?” I shook him away. “Why’re we hiding?  We haven’t done anything wrong.  This makes us look guilty, like Michael.  I wonder what he’s done.”

I was acting like a brazen coward.  Rising up light-headedly, I pulled Uriah up onto his feet.  As we walked sheepishly back down the hill, we could hear the offenses Regulus leveled against my faithless friend.  For a moment, I felt overwhelming anger for Michael.  Luckily, their attention was centered upon the enraged optio.  Evidently, during his short absence, Michael had been seen by Odeh, the shepherd leader, skulking in the back hills with a bag of treasure.  It was, Odeh swore, the tinkle and glint gold.  Regulus knew this because, as he confided to Jesus, the gold items had been found by the guards Gratian and Leto in the shepherds’ camp.  Odeh, as any crafty Arab, had quickly retrieved the hidden items and been beaten soundly by the Romans for his efforts.  When I heard the word ‘items’ I knew it wasn’t my gold coins.  They would not have tinkled; the sound of coins made a clinking sound and would have been too heavy for Michael—that rogue—to cart in one trip.   He had found Adam’s cache of treasure in the secret shrine, a treasure I had vowed not to retrieve.  My brothers were right about Michael.  That thief!  That cheat!  What if he knew where Mama had hidden my coins?  All the time, Jesus wanted us to feel sorry for him, he had planned to steal my gold and, when the time was right, take to the road.

Now I was thinking that it was my gold.  Quietly, in the safety of my thoughts, the truth slipped out.... I had always intended on sneaking back into the shrine in order to add its treasures to my loot.  I would have to if I couldn’t find my coins.  Guilt, anger, and a measure of fear caused my head to swim.  Since, as a good Jew, I wasn’t suppose to enter a pagan shrine, all that really mattered, I consoled myself, was that Michael had not found my coins.... Or had he?, the question stabbed me, as Simon and I handed Priam and Falco, the bread, flask of fruit juice, and bag of chopped fruit.  He could very well have seen her go to the wall, retrieve the gold, and re-bury it somewhere on our property.  Mama had never been a subtle person.

“You mustn’t be a burden on these Jews,” Regulus stopped to scold his men. “If they offer you a loaf of bread or mug of wine, that’s all right with me, but I don’t want you becoming a pest, as you did before.”

James and Joseph exchanged dubious looks as the optio helped himself to a loaf of bread, himself, and was the first to drink from the flask.

“Yuck!” He made a face. “What is this swill?”

“That swill is the finest pomegranate juice in Nazareth.” James explained coldly. “We were going to have that for our meal.”

“You see what I mean?” Regulus frowned insincerely at his men. “Next time, when they offer refreshments, ask them if they can afford to do so.” “You roguish fellows.” He thonked their helmets lightly. “You’re gonna give us all a bad name!”

I uttered a hysterical laugh, while Jesus gave the optio a searching look.  Regulus’ banter didn’t fool us.  Uriah had a worried look on his pudgy face as he considered his presence.  By now, James and Joseph were livid, and Simon, like myself, having given up most of our lunch, stared dumbly at the ground.

“Please believe me, Regulus,” Jesus returned to the subject, “we knew nothing of Michael’s actions.  I don’t know where he’s at.”

“Does anyone here know anything about this gold?” The optio looked around at the group.

“No!” We replied unanimously.

“Do you know where that thief is hiding?” He added in a growl.

“No!” We cried even more loudly.

Regulus nodded grimly at Jesus. “You, I believe.  I sense this in my bones.  But my bile tells me that your brothers know more than what they claim.”

As Falco and Priam finished off their refreshments, the optio’s hawk-like eyes searched each one of us for the expected lie.  Because of his fierce countenance, his mere presence was enough to instill fear in any Jew, but I was especially afraid.  My eyes darted every which way, in an effort to avoid his stare.  I was sure Regulus could read my mind.  I might even suffer Michael’s punishment when they caught him, for I was certain his fate was sealed.  Thanks to Jesus, however, the optio seemed half-convinced.  Once again, because of the circumstances, he managed to tell the truth.  Currently, none of us knew where Michael was at.  At this point, he could be anywhere in the hills.

Regulus searched our faces.  “One of you knows where that scoundrel is.  I can always tell when someone is lying by looking squarely into his eyes.”

James, the first to be intimidated, replied succinctly, “We don’t know!”

“That goes for me,” Joseph volunteered less boldly.

“Me too.” Simon slipped behind Jesus where Uriah and I stood.

Before Regulus caught my guilty expression, Jesus raised up a hand. “Believe me, Regulus,” he said in a commanding voice “none of us knew about Michael’s plans.  He did this alone.  We don’t know where he is, but knowing Michael, he could turn up anywhere.”

In this vague but truthful answer, Jesus avoided denying knowledge of the gold or where Michael was, stressing the fact we didn’t know.  Reaching around him indelicately, though, Regulus poked me with his forefinger growling, “What about you?  You’re his best friend.  If anyone knew what he was up to, it would be you.”

“No-o-o,” I whimpered, clutching Jesus’ sleeve.

“Regulus,” Jesus protested, “you’re frightening him.  He knows nothing of Michael’s actions.  Please stop this interrogation.  I thought we were your friends.”

For the longest moment, the optio and Jesus stared at each other, eyes unwavering, in breathless silence, until a remarkable thing happened.  Regulus imposing expression seemed to melt under Jesus scrutiny.  The spell broken, his gaze dropped to the ground.  I would see this again as a disciple when he saved a prostitute from stoning while he confronted a mob.  Now, in our youth, it was just one more marvelous event to store away in our thoughts.

Jesus had won the challenge.  The optio’ face flushed, embarrassed or shamed by his indomitable will.  Looking passed him at his guards, Regulus barked, “There’ll be no more handouts for you men.  Get back to your watch!”

Priam and Falco handed Simon the remainder of the food.  The juice Regulus and his men rejected lie discarded on the ground.

“Peace be upon Regulus, Falco, and Priam,” Jesus called as the Romans continued up the hill.

“Bah!” grumbled the optio. “That rascal better not be in your house.”

After a short pause, Falco could be heard asking “Are we on report sir?”

Whatever the optio told Falco was drowned in ribald laughter from the three.  It was obvious to us how insincere had been Regulus’ rebuke to his men, but his reaction to Jesus glare had been real, at least to Uriah and me.

 “They’re not our friends, Jesus,” whispered Joseph. “Why do you pander to those guards?”

“Michael’s in great danger,” observed Uriah. “The Romans crucify thieves.”

“No one’s going to catch Michael.” Jesus shook his head.  “I’m more concerned about Odeh.  It sounds like they roughed him up.”

“We could go down there and see if he’s all right,” suggested James.

“Are you insane?” Joseph looked at him in disbelief.

“Someone has to.” Jesus shrugged his shoulders. “James,” he called over his shoulder, “take them home.  I shall go down to check on our old friend.”

James, who heaved a sigh of relief, had sounded even less sincere than Regulus.  Simon, Uriah, and I had often spied on the shepherds, but it had been a long time since we visited their camp.  Though the threat of bandits had been removed by the Romans, the optio had been in a surly mood.  The other sentries, who guarded the hills had never been fond of us.  We all remembered Longinus stern reminder recently that there would be no unauthorized congregations.  Here, on the outskirts of Nazareth, were a bunch of youths congregating right after the Roman optio interrogated them about stolen gold.  No one argued with the oldest brother as he sauntered calmly down the Shepherd’s Trail.

“Well, what’re we waiting for?  You heard him.  Let’s go home.” James began trotting up the trail.

Without a backward glance, we were right on James’ heels.  After scurrying home, we discussed, in the safety of our kitchen, the strange series of events learned this hour.  Everyone agreed that Michael was a scoundrel.  This was the final straw.  The optio’s reaction, which we feared might be shared by the Centurion, himself, was caused by two factors: the Roman code—speak politely to the subjects before cracking their heads and the optio’s personal embarrassment that he had his men beat up an innocent man.  It was tradition and honor, James concluded thoughtfully.  Joseph saw it more simply as the Roman hatred for Jews.  I, who knew Jesus mind on this subject, suggested that it was a combination of all three factors: honor, tradition, dislike of Jews, but also guilt.  Like Jesus, I didn’t think the Romans were bad; they were, he once explained to me, creatures of habit, but they felt emotions like other men.  I couldn’t believe that Regulus was not ashamed of his treatment of Odeh, the shepherd leader.  I also wanted to believe that Priam and Falco were basically good, though not long ago, after their return, I had a seen a dark streak in their treatment of Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz.

The remnant of the food the guards had not eaten and the juice were placed back in the cupboard as we waited for Mama to return from Joachim’s house.  Mama was late today.  It was already noon, and she hadn’t returned.  When Jesus appeared in the doorway, my brothers expressed relief, though I had not given his absence a second thought.  I, more than anybody else, knew Jesus’ powers.  I was convinced that he had won a silent mental battle with the optio.  The Romans wouldn’t trifle with him, after all he had done.  They were convinced that he was a sorcerer, a notion his brothers once believed, themselves.  I agreed wholeheartedly with Samuel and my parents that Jesus had been touched by God.  Before shutting the door, he stood there, his back to the sunlight, his shadow stretching across the floor.  I had seen this phenomenon before when Jesus said or did something important.  The spell was broken when he sat down at the table.  He was perspiring, shaking with fatigue or anger.  Seldom had we seen him this upset.

In a dull voice he announced gravely “They blackened both of Odeh’s eyes, broke his ribs, and injured one of his hands.”

“Those beasts!” Joseph spat. “They tore up his camp looking for the gold.” 

“I can’t help wondering,” he said reflectively, “why they suspected that Odeh had the gold in the first place.  This troubles me very much.”

“I don’t understand.” James scratched the stubble on his chin. “Where’s the gold?  I thought Odeh saw Michael hiding it somewhere.”

“He saw him in the hills with the gold, but Odeh didn’t see him hide it.  The Romans still think he’s lying.  A detachment of Regulus’ guards have evidently been combing the hills.  I don’t think those lazy fellows Priam and Falco helped, but Leto and the others are in a nasty mood.  I promised them that I would go to Longinus, even Cornelius, himself, and lodge a complaint.  I would bring the town elders in, if need be, to make my case.  But Odeh was an innocent bystander who had witnessed the supposed crime.  I also told them that Michael had probably found that loot.  He’s not a thief.  He’s just stupid.”

Jesus voice trailed off that moment, as he glanced at me.  A realization gripped us.  We all knew that there were two separate caches of gold.  After telling Regulus he didn’t know where Michael’s gold was, how could he explain this him?  I knew exactly what he might do if need be, and had to bite down on my tongue to keep my peace.  Jesus couldn’t lie.  I tried to smile at him but my lips failed to move upward.  A hysterical giggle flowed out of my twitching mouth, as I looked at the ground.  That thieving, no good Michael!  My mind cried out.  He hadn’t changed.  He would never change!  Jesus might have to give up my coins to save Michael’s life.

“Jesus,” Joseph touched his shoulder, “what gold did Michael steal?  Was it the coins Jude found in the wall?”

“No,” Jesus quickly replied, “from what Regulus told us, the objects must’ve been the items hidden in the shrine.”

“Are you going to tell him about the coins?” James frowned. “That greedy Roman just wants the gold for himself.”

Jesus was momentarily torn.  “I know.” He sighed. “But it isn’t just that, James.  The gold he was talking about weren’t coins.   How can I explain the pot Jude found?  If I told him truthfully I didn’t know where Michael’s gold was, how can I explain the second store of gold.  Do I walk up to him and say, ‘We have gold Regulus; please leave our friends alone.”?

“But-but,” I stammered, “you can’t do that.  He’ll think you lied to him the first time.  We know you have to tell the truth.  Those coins might incriminate us, Jesus.  What if Regulus finds out about Adam—Abbas son?  That’ll get us into trouble!”

 “He’s right,” Simon, who had been dozing, came alive, “you can’t do that Jesus.  That optio isn’t stupid.  He’ll worm it out you.  You can’t lie!”

“You don’t have to tell him about the coins.” Joseph shook his head . “He’s looking for Michael’s gold.  Leave it at that!”

“Let’s not forget,” James raised a finger, “Adam once hid his stolen loot in the pagan shrine.  Who’s to say it’s not still there somewhere.  Jude and his friends had only his word that they were gone.  It’s even possible he hid it somewhere else, and Michael snuck in and stole them himself.”

Jesus gave me an enigmatic smile. “Don’t worry Jude.  Your loot is safe.  To give it to  that Roman would be wrong.  He’s not concerned about Michael being a thief; he wants the gold.  I would much rather we give to the poor than him.  It would also be foolish to tell him about your coins.  He would ask me where they came from.   With God’s blessing, I’ve artfully dodged falsehoods, but I would not want to test the Lord.” 

“Let Michael have his loot and leave,” I said, after some thought. 

My brothers nodded in agreement at this suggestion.  It was suddenly so simple and clear.  I would never be able to retrieve those golden objects.  With everyone watching, especially Jesus’ judgmental eyes, I could not change the hiding place nor was it likely, after Mama relocated my coins, that I would ever see that treasure again.”

“Is that what you want?” Jesus asked searchingly. “That would make Michael a fugitive, like Reuben had been.  On the other hand, if the Romans catch him, they might make an example of him.”

“If he takes it with him,” Simon piped, snapping his fingers, “its gone!”

“So is Michael.” Joseph muttered with a snarl.

“Well, we can’t force him out of his hiding place,” Jesus said resolutely. “We are, as the Psalmist said, between a rock and a hard place.”

“You can save him, Jesus.” Uriah’s head bobbed. “You can do anything.”

“I can’t change God’s will,” Jesus sighed heavily. “It’s in the hands of the Lord.”

With a heavy heart, I looked into his blue eyes, realizing by the silence that followed that we had all, Jesus included, written Michael off.  Unless, the guards caught him sneaking through the brush, Michael would retrieve the gold and make his getaway.  He would be a fool to return to Nazareth while the Romans guarded our town.  Knowing Michael, however, anything was possible.  He might walk this very moment through our back door.

 

******

Finally, as we sat quietly, wrapped up in our thoughts, Mama returned from Joachim’s house.  Jesus immediately rushed to the weary matriarch, leading her gently to a seat.  We were all weary of her long hours keeping Joachim alive, but, with Uriah in the house, we kept our displeasure to ourselves.

“Joachim is doing much better,” she volunteered blithely. “I think it’s time for Uriah to visit his father again.”

“I’m not going back there,” Uriah cried. “Please don’t make me go back!”

“Uriah.” Mama reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “Your father agrees with Joseph and I that you should stay with us.”

“Oh goodie,” he said, drumming his feet on the floor. “I like it here.  You’re my family now!”

Jesus shared her concern at this reaction but said nothing as Uriah carried on.  James, Joseph, and Simon sighed deeply at this reminder.  What came next, however, was much worse.  Her eyes downcast, Mama told us what she heard about Uriah’s mother and sister.  Evidently, Hannah was quite unstable, so her daughter might also be staying with us for a while unless Hannah’s sister Penelope took the child in.  When Joachim’s wife ran off with little Rhoda, she had taken all of Joachim’s savings and, during her stay in Sepphoris managed to squander the money, leaving she and her daughter at the mercy of relatives.  She became such a nuisance, she and her daughter were cast out finally and given just enough money for rental of two mules home.  Unfortunately, her in-laws are even more hostile to her, which means that she and Rhoda have no place to go. 

“In very real sense,” Mama confessed, “Hannah’s no better off than Mariah, since no one will take her in, but in her case she has a daughter to consider.  The woman’s addled in the head, so my sick aunt can’t take her in.  Your cousin John, who’s taken charge of her household, will accompany Hannah and Rhoda back with a Roman escort.  He’s turned out to be such a good son.”

“We get to see John again,” I clapped my hands. “When-when-when?”

“In a few weeks, but for only a short while.” Mama explained. “Micah, her physician, will be watching her closely now.  John will want to get back as soon as possible after his errand.”

“Are you suggesting that we take them in?” interrupted Joseph. “We don’t have the room.” 

“Rhoda’s a brat!” Uriah groaned. “My mother’s insane!”

“Now-now, Uriah” She replied with a frown. “I didn’t say that at all, Joseph.  It’s not so bad boys.  I think Hannah will be coming home to live in her own house.  I can watch her there.  I’m just not sure about Rhoda.  If we keep an eye on her parents, perhaps she can live with them.  After all, Joachim’s mind is clearing and he appears to be on the mend.  But Hannah professes great hatred for her husband.” “No one knew Joachim was beating her,” she added, patting Uriah’s wrist. “The Lord must help mend those troubled souls.  But that’s not your fault, Uriah.  The Lord has placed you in our care.” “I’m sorry my sons,” she looked around the room. “I know this a burden on you.”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Joseph grumbled. “Another mouth to feed.  Mama’s going to wear herself out now that Hannah will be back in town.”

“For once I agree with Joseph.” Jesus nodded at his brother. “You must rouse some of these lazy Nazarene women’s consciences.  Joachim was once the town rabbi.  Why aren’t they coming to his aid?”

“Naomi and her daughters help me once in awhile.” Mama shrugged.

“Well, that’s not enough,” Jesus snorted. “I’m going to talk to Aaron, our new rabbi.  As our town’s religious leader, let him prickle their consciences in the synagogue with one of his sermons.”

“That’s a great idea,” James patted his back. “Since Aaron going to be using us as his assistants in school, he can return the favor by coaxing some of them into helping Mama.”

I was roused out of my melancholy with my own bright idea. “Make it a daily practice, like our work in the shop.  They can take turns each week, but Mama needs to depend on their help.”

“Very good, Jude.” Jesus gave me sly smile, as he stood up and stretched. “You’re going to be all right.” “All of you will,” he added looking around the table.

“What about you Uriah?” Mama studied the rabbi’s son. “Is Rhoda really that bad.”

“She’s horrible!” His eyes filled with tears. “You don’t know what your doing, Mary. She’s not right in the head.”

“Are you talking about your sister or your mother?” Mama cocked her head inquisitively. “They both can’t be addled in the head.  Which one, my dear?”

Both of them,” Uriah wiped his eyes then folded his arms. “This is a bad idea, Mary.  Let her live with my parents, not here.”

I noted that Uriah called our mother by her name, rather than Mama, which, curiously enough, caused James and Joseph to bristle with irritation.  Simon, by now, was dozing in his seat.  There was no crisis too great to deprive him of a nap.  I envied easygoing Simon, who ate, slept, and whiled away his hours in a carefree manner.  Life was simple for him.

At just that moment Tabitha arrived in the kitchen, with the twins in tow.  A frown creased her lovely face.  “I heard what you said, Mama,” she declared, placing her hands on her hips. “Uriah’s right: Rhoda’s a brat.  There’s something wrong with that girl.” “One time,” she confessed with a sigh, “my uncle sent me with fresh bread to the rabbi’s house, and Rhoda, for no reason whatsoever, other than meanness, pelted me with goat dung.  Most folks don’t know her.  Her parents kept her locked up most of the time.  But it’s Rhoda who probably drove her parents mad!”

“How very strange.” Mama rose up, took Tabitha into her arms, and gave her a motherly hug.

Jesus smiled at this reaction, as did Uriah and I, but the twins innocent faces darkened with jealousy at this show of affection.  James and Joseph, who had never accepted Tabitha like Uriah, Simon, and I, shook their heads indulgently at this display.

“There’s something I must tell you mother.” Jesus expression became grave. 

The room grew suddenly quiet as he took Mama’s hand.  Tabitha and the twins joined us all at the table, as Jesus told her about Michael’s situation.  Mama nodded grimly but didn’t weep.  We had all wept enough for that rascal.  The twins were giggling amongst themselves. Simon, in fact, grinned with satisfaction.  The only one shedding a tear that moment was me, but not for Michael.  The implications of his flight were, I believed, greatest for me.  He had been a blight in our lives for a long time.  It galled me that they thought I was weeping for him.  I was, I confess contritely now, weeping for my treasure and the gold coins Mama had hidden from me.  I was certain that Mama would guard the coins even more closely now that Michael was out there lurking about.  The best thing, in spite of my misgivings, was for Michael to leave and never come back.  On this issue, everyone, even Mama and Jesus, were agreed.

If the Romans found Michael in our house and even on our property, we would be implicated in his misdeeds.  If he didn’t take his ill-gotten loot with him, that unrelenting determination of Roman soldiers, some of whom, had hunted Abbas gang almost into extinction, would find his hiding place just close enough to our property to cast suspicion upon on my brothers and I.  I was, of course, the most suspicious of anyone in our family.  If it hadn’t been for Adam showing me where he placed the treasure and Michael finding out, Michael would never have been tempted to retrieve it for himself.  As I thought about it those moments, while Jesus and Mama discussed our dilemma, I realized I was at least half to blame.  Because of me, Mama was made an accessory to my folly after relocating the coins.  I couldn’t blame Michael for this.

My mind turned to the Gifts of the Magi buried in distant Bethlehem.  A spark of hope filled me as Mama and Jesus prepared an afternoon meal.  Lunch was late today, and everyone, including me, pitched in to help.  That special feeling of family solidarity illuminated the shadows in my mind.  Look at us, I laughed hysterically to myself: we’re about to take in another waif, maybe even her mother, and we have to worry about stolen gold.  A strange, irrational excitement filled me as I considered our plight.  It was a good thing Papa hadn’t returned.  He would probably get drunk.  There were times when I craved a swig myself.  Then it hit me as a bolt of lightning.  As I showed Tabitha, Martha, and Abigail the safe way to chop some fruit, the realization filled me, as a warm, comforting wave.  We had Jesus!  The thought rang in my mind.  For a moment, as I lowered the knife to the chopping block, Tabitha stood there as I stared into space.  I remembered, as she shook my sleeve gently, all the times when darkness fell over our house—the ordeal of Mariah, the threat of Reuben and his men, the night that the remnant of Abbas band threatened our family, and many other lesser occasions when Jesus’ very presence seem to protect us.  That terrible night when the whole town seemed to turn against us Jesus had walked as a sentry around our house.  He had always been fearless and kept perfect faith in God.  When the Romans arrived, he remained a buffer between our family and the guards, from the many times he acted as our emissary to them to that incredible moment today when he stood up to Regulus, without uttering a word.

“Jude, Jude,” Tabitha called, as if through a long shadowy tunnel.

I awakened to her bright face, listening to the hum of voices around me.  In a low voice Jesus was telling Mama that Michael could not return this time.  He was in the Lord’s hands.  Uriah was groaning, and James and Joseph were complaining to each other about Rhoda’s possible arrival.  Simon had already nabbed a hunk of cheese and plum and was gobbling them up as he waited for lunch.  As the three girls looked up at me, I stopped and, in typical fashion, patted all three of their heads.  “Jesus will protect us,” I whispered to them. “Because of him, we are in the Lord’s hands.”

 

******

I was filled with mixed emotions when word came from Joanna, Ezra’s oldest daughter, that Michael had been reported sneaking out of Nazareth with nothing but the shirt on his back.  I had the satisfaction that Michael would not have the treasure, but now that he was gone, the Romans would search our property and the surrounding area relentlessly to find my gold.  Odeh must have taken great pleasure in the fact that Michael had ran into the desert again, this time without supplies and without the gold.  Of course, the wily Arab might know where Michael had buried the gold and return, in the dead of night, to confiscate it for himself.  Joanna, who was bringing Odeh an order for wool, had stopped below the hill to watch the shepherd guiding the Romans on the same narrow trail where Adam’s earlier treasure had been found.  Her description was unmistakable, causing the hairs on the back of my neck to prickle.  How could Michael have known about this path?  Odeh had the eyes of an eagle.  On this path, that wound further and further through the prickly underbrush, Odeh showed him the route Michael had taken while carrying his loot.  “So where is it?” Falco had cried, shaking the little Arab.  Fortunately for Odeh, the Romans found a recently dug hole a ways further, which was probably the same one Simon, Uriah, Boaz, and I had dug, ourselves.  Naturally, after this revelation, the guards searched the shepherd’s camp again.  This time, because of Odeh’s cooperation, there were no skulls cracked, though the guards thoroughly tore up the shepherds’ camp.  Of course, if Odeh had found the treasure, himself, he could have relocated it anywhere in the hills.  After several holes had been dug in the vicinity Michael was seen, Regulus ordered a thorough inspection of the orchard for the glint of gold or freshly turned dirt, managing to overlook the hidden sanctuary and Jesus’ secret cave.  Papa had told me how soldiers had built all of Rome’s roads, but I didn’t realize how much they loved to dig holes. The search, which lasted several days, enlisting all of the optio’s men, was an ordeal for me.  We could hear them shouting back and forth from dawn to dusk.  I was just certain they would stumble upon the chamber that Adam had put his treasure in and even find Mama’s hiding place for my coins.  Uriah, Simon, and I continued to spy on them as we had done in the past.  Unlike the last times we spied on the Romans, this was no longer a game for me.  I felt helpless, lost, and miserable, as the guards came closer and closer to the hidden shrine and then the wall.  In the past, Leto caught us near the orchard entrance to the shrine a few times and Priam and Falco saw me creep from my hiding place after checking on my coins.  At the time, nothing was made of these encounters.  During the exhaustive search, however, why had this slipped their minds?  How many times had I been spotted without being challenged by a guard?  So far, Regulus and his men, engrossed with the facts as they saw them, failed to see the obvious.  How could they not suspect me after I was seen snooping around the wall?

The next place that he and his guards visited was our house.  It had been just a matter of time.  By now, the greedy optio and his men were in testy moods.  This caused me great anxiety, but this time they had to contend with Jesus, who threatened again, before staring the optio down, to go straight to his commander if they ransacked our house.  Once again their eyes locked in a challenge that Regulus appeared to win.  Regulus personally inspected Mama’s cupboards and every corner of the room, while Priam, Falco and the other guards searched the shop and the front and back yard.  It struck me as ironic, if not careless, that they didn’t check the crumbling stonewall in the orchard or look down into the dark abyss where I discovered the shrine, in which gold had actually been.  These were obvious hiding places.  For that matter the cloaca seat, another place where I suspected Mama of stashing my coins, was, as I had prayed, totally ignored.  If she had placed the coins anywhere else, such as the garden or the shop, the Romans would certainly find them.  As it was, I became half-convinced that Jesus was using his God-given powers to mislead the guards.

Mama’s garden and both the yards were dug up in several places, equipment and furniture were tossed around in the shop, and our house was in disarray when they left, but the Romans had not seriously damaged any dishes, cups, furniture, or tools.  Regulus had, with a look of guilt, even dropped a gold solidus into Mama’s tiny hand.  When we were all certain that the Romans were out of earshot, we cheered and slapped Jesus back.

I joined Uriah, Simon, and Tabitha in a merry dance. “He did it!” we chanted. “He chased the Romans away!”

“He put a hex on him; that’s what he did.” James teased.

 “When will you all learn?” Jesus threw up his hands. “Not everything’s a miracle!”

“We know the Lord guides you.” Mama looked around the group for agreement.

Everyone nodded obligingly, except Jesus, who, in exasperation, stomped out of the house.  The moment had come, to our utter amazement, when the Romans gave up their search.  Whether or not Jesus’ threats or the apparent futility of this business stopped the hunt, we decided, in spite of his protests, to give him the credit on behalf of God.  That was the general consensus, though Tabitha confided to me later that she believed Jesus had magical powers.  It was difficult not to call Regulus’ decision to end the search a miracle.  What impressed us the most was the way Jesus stared down the steel jawed optio.  He had been bold, fearless, and resolute.

Though there was nothing to do in the shop, Jesus spent the remainder of the hour straightening up the mess the Romans made, while the rest of us went around the house and yards erasing signs of the search.  Stools were set right, disheveled pots—a few cracked or shattered, were placed back in the cupboard, and the floor was swept by the twins, as Uriah, Simon, and I in the front yard and James and Joseph in the backyard, covered up holes and attempted, as one group, to fix Mama’s trampled garden.  The damage was, by Roman standards, minor.  Everything settled back down to normal that day.  Uriah, Simon, and I ran around like children again.  The girls giggled happily, and even the normally surly Joseph, followed James example and joined us all in games of hide-and-go-seek and tag.  To make it a perfect ending to our day, Papa returned that evening, with a pouch full of orders, exhausted but bubbling with information about his trip.

So as not to ruin his cheerful mood, Mama downplayed the episode with the Romans.  Papa gave her a concerned look as she enumerated the week’s events, but let the matter drop as we congregated in the kitchen for his report.  He and Ezra were able to find clients in both Sepphoris and Nain.  We would be busy filling the orders he brought back for quite some time.  There had been, Papa heard, recent sightings of members of Abbas old gang in Galilee with a new leader, whom we knew was Jesus Bar Abbas, the great bandit’s son.  Roman officials and Jews would later know him simply as Barabbas, but back then, out of respect for Jesus we referred to him as Adam whenever his exploits came up. 

While at Sepphoris, Papa visited Elizabeth to inquire about her health.  Elizabeth had heard about Hannah and her daughter’s predicament from friends in town.  In no mood to deal with Joachim’s unstable wife and daughter, themselves, Papa and Ezra arranged, through the magistrates, an escort for Hannah, Rhoda, and her son John next week.  I looked forward to seeing John, but the return of Joachim’s wife and daughter greatly offset the good news.  Now that Michael was a fugitive of Rome, there was also a measure of melancholy about his flight, but mostly relief.  Even though, we doubted that the optio would press his case about the gold, Michael was now marked out by Rome as a felon.  Our family wanted no part of that.  Reuben had been unconscious when he was found and required a period of convalescence, but Michael was quite healthy and could take care of himself.  Even before the latest incident, his reputation as a troublemaker had preceded him, and Longinus had no patience for troublemaking Jews.  As I recall, from that day forward, Regulus looked at members of my family with a jaundiced eye.  Once in a while, he might smile at Papa and Mama or nod his head, but it seemed to be an effort for him.  Priam and Falco continued to mooch food off my parents and, on occasion, Longinus would drop by to chat with them in the front yard, but for a long time the optio was no longer our friend.  James and Joseph believed the Romans were just plain stupid.  They didn’t realize, as I did, just how careless they had been during the search, but stupidity wasn’t how I would characterize the guards.  The guards were, as I study this period in my life, like merciless, carefree children.  The same soldiers watching over Nazareth would, if told to by their commander, hunt down and crucify Michael and any other Jew defying Rome.  And yet they were honest, forthright, and a generally friendly lot.  In this regard I would find out one day that Regulus was no different.  Though his pride and ambition had been temporarily thwarted, I had no doubt that he would make sure my family was safe against bandits and scoundrels like Adam and his band.

 

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