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Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

An Eventful Day

 

 

 

In spite of our many concerns, these were heady times for our family.  The success of Papa’s shop soared after he brought so many orders back after his trip.  His friend Ezra grew successful too.  Because of their mutual success, their friendship was even stronger.  Papa’s estranged friends had returned slowly, and now, with his success, men he had once thought of as enemies greeted him on the road.  Though we heard nothing more about our ailing aunt until the arrival of John, Samuel’s health actually improved during this time.  My brothers and I, with Uriah tagging along, trekked each day to Aaron’s school, returned home for our chores, and held onto our childhood as long as we could.  Each of us was inspired by Aaron’s deference toward us, but we felt intimidated when he called on us to recite so often in class.  With my almost perfect memory, Aaron wanted to show me off the most, which should have made me especially unpopular with classmates.  Yet slowly, one by one, our friends returned.  The talk of gold had subsided, and the children of Joseph had, after all, always been a peculiar lot.  Since it was common knowledge that Jesus was special, it seemed only natural that one of his brothers might share his gifts.  That person, of course, was me.

Not long after Papa’s last trip, Aaron announced to our class that James, Joseph, and I had mastered Hebrew and, because of our understanding of the Torah, reached the highest level in school.  We were now full-fledged readers of the Torah, a book we understood almost as much as him.  The truth was, of course, to keep me on good terms with my brothers, Aaron held me back until James and Joseph were ready before making the announcement in class.  Uriah was doing well too in school, Aaron informed our parents.  Simon was learning the method of “reading backwards” Gamaliel once introduced.  He might never be a scribe, but, according to our teacher, he would, with practiced effort, be able to read documents, including the Torah, understand maps, road signs, and be able to write in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Papa, though a carpenter, had learned to write Hebrew and Aramaic fluently and read all of the holy scrolls.  Working in his trade to provide for his family had limited his efforts to teach his children but he had never failed to encourage us to learn.  This was not true for most of Nazareth’s simple folk.  Other than our friend Samuel and a handful of Pharisees in town, the remainder of Nazareth’s parents were almost illiterate, themselves, and could barely write their name.  Because of this lack of inspiration, which had been shown by Mama and Papa to us, most of our classmates had to be prodded each inch of the way.

Jesus’ encouragement was, because Papa was so busy, greatest during the latter years of our youth.  His influence upon the education of the added members of our household was also significant.  Uriah, who had resented his father’s heavy hand and lost interest in the Torah, now, with Jesus’ coaxing, followed James, Joseph, and my lead.  Tabitha, though totally illiterate when she first came to us, was now, with my brother’s help, reading simple sentences and could write her name in Hebrew script.  Abigail and Martha, had shown signs of progress, themselves,  after being home schooled.  Though the girls were not allowed to attend synagogue school and had done poorly in Gamaliel’s class, they seemed to be inspired by our examples.

After all that time in Gamaliel’s class and a year in Aaron’s synagogue school, it was apparent to everyone concerned that my brothers (including Uriah) had risen far above the level of Nazarene youths.  Benefiting by our knowledge, Tabitha and the twins, unlike the other girls in town, also rose above the norm.  Most of the students were still struggling with the basics of our ancient language and, though they spoke Aramaic as did all Jews, they could scarcely write a word.  Even Simon was far ahead of his classmates.  The Torah and the prophets were learned by the students after listening to our recitations in class.  Aaron, of course, was the best reader, but James had an excellent voice, as did I, while Joseph often stammered, and Uriah still had trouble with some of the big words.  Of course, I tried not to compete with my brothers or teacher in school, but some of the best readings, Simon once confided to me out of earshot of the others, had been delivered by me.  As a scholar, everyone expected Aaron to speak well, but I was, Simon struggled for the word, a natural.  I did it all effortlessly, as if I had memorized most of it, which, in fact, I had.  Strangely enough, my narration of Joshua’s attack upon Jericho (a horrid affair) impressed them most of all.  I remember reading portions of the law to the class, which Aaron thought perfect, but it put half of the class to sleep.  Such boring chapters were best expounded by Joseph in his nervous, monotone voice, since it was unintelligible driveling anyhow.  James had once been fortunate enough to read the stirring account of Moses parting of the Red Sea.  There were many other parts of the Holy Scriptures that stirred the class, but nothing more so than the battles the Israelites fought under Joshua’s leadership during the conquest of Canaan.

My exposure to Israel’s wrathful God had a great influence upon my life, but in a negative way.  I accepted the chronicles of our people’s destructive path because it was, after all, spoken of in the Torah, but already, many years before his mission, Jesus words and ideas seemed to be in direct conflict with the revealed words.  Now, when I compare the holy scrolls to the religion Jesus brought into the world, I’m still puzzled.  That day, when our teacher elevated my brothers and I in school, I felt no spiritual stature.  I had learned to read and write Hebrew and Aramaic, as I had planned, but I was not happy with our wrathful God.  We faulted the Romans for their brutality and yet throughout the scriptures there are passages in which God orders his warriors, Joshua, Gideon, and Jehosaphat to wipe out entire peoples—men, woman, children, even animals, young and old, without mercy or afterthought.  Rome, in spite of its harsh treatment of criminals and insurrectionists, was, at least before Jesus began his mission, tolerant of other faiths.  When I asked Jesus why God dealt so harshly with ignorant pagans, he merely shrugged.  A sad look came over his face, perhaps for my lack of faith or thick-headedness.  Once Aaron, wagging his finger in amusement, reminded me that the Canaanites, Ammorites, and Amalekites were evil folk, who had persecuted our people and stood in the way of the Israelites occupying the Promised Land.  The Canaanites, in fact, sacrificed their own children to their gods and corrupted our people with vile practices, turning them from our God.  Yet, in spite of Jesus own tolerance of the cruelty inflicted upon innocent children by the Israelites, themselves, he had twice in his lifetime, preached turning the other cheek.  “Do unto others as they would do to you,” he would preach to the multitudes.  If I trusted my own intellect, I would believe that Yahweh and the risen Lord were scarcely the same God.  The condition of mankind and terrible blood sacrifice were, of course, the reason why my brother came into the world, but it could never justify in my mind, the wholesale destruction of entire peoples that occurred during the Flood and later, more selectively, when the Israelites conquered the Promised Land.

So long ago, so many lashes and close calls and visions of death for followers of the Way, and yet, as I look up at the daylight streaming into my small window, I believe, without doubt or regret in what God has brought into the world...Jesus, my brother, the Messiah and risen Lord. 

 

****** 

That day when Aaron made his announcement that James, Joseph, and I were at the highest level in school, Jesus escorted the honor students out of class.  Simon and Uriah mingled among us sharing in our glory.  The girls, who greeted us after class, followed us cheerily down Nazareth’s dusty road.  James, Joseph, and I were not certain about the outcome of our elevation.  Many students resented our status.  At Aaron’s signal, our classmates had shouted out their congratulations during class, but not one of them had said a word to us as we departed the synagogue.  Though Papa’s standing had changed somewhat in town, we were fearful of our classmates.  Tagging along at a distance were our old friends Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz, who called out their salutations.  Boaz was too dumb to be deceitful, but I thought I saw a mischievous gleam in the two brothers’ eyes.  Quite by coincidence, our group met Regulus making an inspection of our sector of town.  As Jesus had directed, we marched two-by two, in the same way his disciples would when he sent us to preach the good news.  Back then, instead of being matched up with my brother James, I walked hand-in-hand with Tabitha.  Regulus, who nodded approvingly at our procession, grinned down Tabitha and me.  Always the diplomat, Jesus asked the optio to allow Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz passage into our yard.  Regulus gave Jesus a curt dismissal at first.  I wasn’t sure I wanted them in our yard either, but, with those imperious blue eyes, Jesus convinced him to allow the three entry if he personally watched them during their visit.  It was an awkward, uncomfortable period of time. 

When Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz showed up that afternoon, James and Joseph’s friends, Isaac and Jeroboam, quite by coincidence, arrived and were also given permission by Papa to visit, but, like Simon, Uriah, and my friends, were not yet allowed in the house.  Here we were, I thought grimly, looking around at the group, Nazareth’s finest.  Our sudden fame as scholars seems to have drawn back our friends, and yet I sensed it might be short lived.  Was it mere curiosity?  Or, in the case of Jethro and Obadiah, something more sinister.  James and Joseph’s friends had snubbed our family.  Though they had no other friends, it was hard to believe that my brothers had forgiven this insult.  Reluctantly, however, they gave each other the embrace of friendship, while the rest of us looked on.  It was quite unemotional.  A slight frown was frozen on James’ face.  Though they wouldn’t bring it up with Jesus around, I wondered if my fair-weather friends would come back later and look for my gold.  They had threatened us before and been exiled by the Romans from our property, and yet Jesus insisted that, after James and Joseph’s example, Simon, Uriah, and I welcome them with open arms back into our lives.  You can never have too many friends, Papa had once told us, but Jesus had another reason why we should forgive are friends.  Even now I find this notion to “turn the other cheek” when someone wrongs you unnatural.  The forced acceptance of Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz back into our lives was an object lesson that day but also the basis for Jesus’ greatest commandment: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

As he followed Papa back to the shop, Jesus gave his brothers a friendly reminder “Play now, but tomorrow we must get back to work.”

There would be many orders to fill.  Papa slapped his colleague on the back and waved at us all as they turned the corner of our house.  Out of Jesus’ hearing now, James and Joseph walked slowly away with their friends.  Jethro immediately turned to me and asked, “Where’s the gold?”

“I knew it.” I pointed accusingly. “That’s why you’re here!”

“Jethro,” James called back over his shoulder, “you want me to call the guards?”

“I was just joking,” the gangly youth grinned.

“We heard that thieving shepherd got the gold,” muttered his brother. “If we put our heads together, we can find it and split it six ways.”

“Really?” Joseph looked back in disbelief. “Those Romans dug a thousand holes in the hills and our property.  You really think you can find that gold?”

“Sure,” Boaz grinned stupidly, “we got Jude.  He should know where it’s at.”

James walked over and glared at Boaz and the brothers. “You dumb oafs.  Leave our little brother out of it.  There’s no gold on our property.  The Romans searched everywhere.  If there was any treasure, they would’ve found it.  Those men aren’t fools!”

James defense of me caused Uriah, Simon, and me to laugh hysterically.  Word of the bandit’s gold in the hills and the Romans effort to find it was common knowledge now.  Boaz nodded vacantly.  I noted, as Jethro smiled, that he had yellow teeth.  Obadiah appeared to have a black eye, probably from a scrape with his brother or some other youth.  Only Boaz appeared to be genuinely friendly.  I wanted to believe that James, Joseph, and their friends, when added to my small group, would make short work of Jethro and his brother if they made a move. 

“Jethro,” I replied belatedly, shaking my head, “you weren’t joking.  After what Obadiah said, I know exactly what’s on your mind.  Unless you promise not to mention this subject again—either of you, you must leave our property at once!”

There was an intake of breaths as I walked up to Jethro and stared him down.  I wasn’t Jesus.  What was I doing?  What made me think that James and Joseph and their friends or, for that matter, any of my brothers, other than Jesus, himself, would come to my aid?  Unless the guards were making their rounds, who else would help me if I were jumped that moment: Uriah, Tabitha, the twins?  It was not hard to stare the shifty-eyed Jethro down, but Obadiah was another matter.  Judging by his scuffed knuckles and blackened eye, it appeared as if he might like to fight.  I said nothing now, though mentally, as Jesus had taught me, I gave a short, repetitive prayer: “God give me great strength or send a lightning bolt down on these two.” 

In one of my big surprises during this period of my life, Boaz stepped forward as my protector and shoved Jethro and Obadiah aside.

“Jude’s my friend,” he growled, sticking out his jaw, “leave him alone.  If he doesn’t want us to talk about it, we shouldn’t talk about it!”

Jethro and Obadiah sneered at Boaz’s words.  The subject was dropped for the time being, but I was certain they would bring it up again.  Perhaps the two brothers were teasing me that hour, and yet, when it came to the subject of the gold, I knew they were deadly serious.  Almost immediately, after Boaz’s challenge, our group followed James, Joseph and their friends into the backyard where we all congregated in the shadows of the trees.  I’m not certain why James led us so far away from the house.  The thought dawned on me that perhaps we would all, at James signal, gang up on Jethro and Obadiah to press the point home, but he and Joseph just glared at the trio for several moments.

Boaz broke the fearful silence.  “Tell us about Joshua.” He looked at me eagerly.

“Yes.” Obadiah grinned. “Tell us how he and his men destroyed Jericho.  I like the part where they blow their horns and the walls comes tumbling down.”

I should have been moved by their requests, but their giggling and snickering at the slaughter of Canaanites was annoying.  At first, I wasn’t certain whether or not they were mocking me, and I grew irritated with Jethro constantly whispering into Obadiah’s ear.  Nevertheless I dipped into the well of my memory for elements of this bloody tale.  For a solid hour, I recited from memory all I knew about this dreadful time, consoled only by Boaz and Uriah’s rapt attention and the fact that a physical confrontation had been diffused.  Strolling into our yard, while munching on a plum, Priam waved at me from a distance.   A strange, inexplicable peace filled me, as I listened to the resonance of my voice.  This was, Jesus tried to convince me once, my greatest gift.  I would never have admitted it then, but during those moments the Spirit filled me.  The question that would later define Jesus had already caused me to question portions of the Torah.  Who was this wrathful god recorded by Moses and Joshua?  How could the Lord of Creation and all mankind settle upon one insignificant band of nomads and give them marching orders to destroy much greater civilizations in their path?

Uriah, Boaz, Obadiah, and even Jethro were interested in my story.  My heart leaped as their eyes widened with my words and followed the motion of my hands.  How much of the story I made up I will never know.  The words flowed out of my mouth.  They wanted battles and blood, so I gave them battles and blood.  Simon was falling asleep, and James, Joseph, and their friends were growing increasingly bored with me and would soon slip away.  Nevertheless, even in Isaac and Jeroboam’s eyes I saw something I had never seen before on my behalf: respect.  James and Joseph were certain I elaborated upon the slaughter of the Canaanites.  As James would later begrudgingly admit, however, his friends thought I might one day become a great Pharisee or scribe.  Hah, if only they knew!

As I wound up my story about the conquest of Canaan, we could hear distant commotion: the sound of horses’ hooves on the road.  Sound carried very well into the hills.  It had to be a courier, I told my audience.  It seemed just as likely that it was Longinus, the Centurion, making his rounds, but my first thought was correct.  Word came to my parents from a legionnaire that John and Uriah’s mother and sister Rhoda were this moment on the road into town.  Their arrival, Mama relayed the message to us by shouting herself hoarse, was imminent.

Unlike times before, as when Jesus returned from abroad or when the Romans galloped passed on parade, we didn’t dash to the roadside to see this event.  It was an important occasion to see our eccentric cousin again, but the baggage he came with, Hannah and her daughter Rhoda, filled us with gloom.  Everyone in town had heard about Joachim’s wife and daughter.  Their reputations had preceded them like an ill wind.  According to a relative in Sepphoris, there was no place for Hannah and her daughter to go.  In the words of Papa, Hannah’s relatives had given them both the “boot.”  Since Elizabeth was very sick, her house was not an option, nor would Joachim’s relatives, who lived in far away Tarsus, welcome the ill-tempered pair.

“What’s so terrible about this girl?” Isaac asked as we trotted up to the house. “Is she not the rabbi’s child?”

Was is the operative word,” corrected James. “There’s a new rabbi in town.”

“It appears,” explained Joseph sourly, “that Hannah will return to her husband’s house, but Rhoda might very well be staying here.”

“It’s terrible,” James groaned, “an absolute disaster!”

“Joachim’s household is that bad?” Jeroboam frowned.

“Uh huh,” Uriah nodded grimly. “Mary’s been taking care of my father.  Now she’s going to have to keep an eye on my mother too.”

“Where have you been for the past two years?” James scolded his friend. “It’s a miracle, thanks to our mother, that Joachim’s even alive.”

Because of this special occasion, Papa and Mama allowed our estranged friends into the house, though they had not actually said as much.  Jesus warned Jethro and Obadiah to mind their manners, and I kept an eye on Boaz as he sized up John.  Meanwhile, John walked boldly amongst us, embracing all of us cordially and equitably, even our friends.  I was greatly impressed with our cousin.  With his fine clothes and bearing, he moved and talked in a regal manner.  Papa laughed with delight.  Isaac and Jeroboam bowed deferentially to the tall, sandy haired youth.  In the midst of this crowd of people stood Hannah and Rhoda, dusty and travel worn from the trip.  As expected, it was decided by Jesus and our parents after Mama returned from Joachim’s house this morning, that the rabbi’s health had improved enough for Hannah to return to her home, but unfortunately, Rhoda would stay here for a while.  Groans and curses were uttered in the room.  With the exception of Jesus, and perhaps John, we were united in our disapproval.  I was certain Papa felt the same.  Mama, who couldn’t hide her own misgivings, shushed us, and Jesus held up his hands.  Papa, though he grumbled to himself, reminded us all of the Lord’s commandment to take care of the stranger, and yet I saw he and Mama exchange worried looks.  Very subtly, I believe, Papa had slighted Joachim’s daughter.  Rhoda, though our neighbor and Uriah’s younger sister, was, it was true, a complete stranger to us.  Her mother had, James summed up later, a dumb cow’s look, but the ten-year-old girl exhibited a crafty, mischievous expression on her freckly face.  A permanent snarl played on her tiny lips.  Her small, pig-like eyes darted this way and that, while her fingers moving restlessly at her sides.  Like the fox entering a hen house, she looked around at the bodies pressing in much like a predator.  I understood why Uriah feared his sister and her relatives cast her out.  Here, sizing us up, was one more reason why Hannah was mad.

In muted voices, as we retreated to the backyard, we discussed this “creature” to be sheltered in our house.

“Your parents are making a big mistake!”  wailed Uriah. “That girl’s not right in the head!”

“Is she mad?” Isaac asked.

“Yes,” nodded Uriah, “mad as a bat.”

“Surely,” Jeroboam offered, “they can control one young girl.”

“Who’s they?” Joseph turned to his friend. “My father?  He doesn’t have time to watch Rhoda.  My mother?  She’ll be too busy taking care of her parents to watch that girl.”

“Mama will expect Tabitha and twins to show Rhoda around.” James said gravely. “I feel sorry for them.  If what Uriah says is true, Rhoda’s going to run amuck!”

“It’s true.” Uriah nodded grimly. “I’m lucky I’m still alive.”

“Calm down, everyone,” John called out through cupped hands. “Let’s give the girl a chance.”

“A chance?” Uriah cried. “You don’t know my sister.  She doesn’t need chances.  She needs to be locked up, under guard!”

“Oh come now.” John playfully punched his arm. “She was silent the whole time during the trip—not a word.  How could that frail child be a threat?”

Uriah looked at him in amazement. “Silent?  Rhoda was silent?  Did the Roman guards drug my sister?  You just wait until she gets started.  That girl won’t shut up.”

 “All young girls chatter.” John waved dismissively.  “I suspect Tabitha and the twins babble like geese.”

“In more than one voice?” Uriah asked solemnly. “Do they recite nonsense?  Do they spit like a cat?  Do their eyes roll in their heads?” 

For some reason, John thought this was very amusing.  Not for a moment could any of us accept the fact, as Uriah suggested, that Rhoda was possessed.  That would be just too horrible a reality.  Rather would we believe simply that she was a mean, little brat.  In spite of our disbelief, we studied the fat little youth, as John gave us all a rundown of Aunt Elizabeth’s health.

“I’m confident of our physician,” he chattered in offhand manner. “Her health has improved since he gave mother his special potion.”

“Oh, what is that?” Isaac asked politely.

“A mixture of wild goat weed and pomegranate seeds.” John idly mussed my hair. “Aunt Mary also uses potions to cure ills.  I have faith in Micah.  He will bring Mama around, and we’ll all have a proper celebration.  I’m certain of this!”

“Why is he talking about this?” Uriah whispered in my ear.

“He’s changing the subject,” I murmured from the corner of my mouth. “Do you really believe your sister’s possessed?” 

Our cousin, the last one to emerge from the house, had entered our conversation intrusively, downplaying our dilemma as Jesus so often did.  He was judging Rhoda’s behavior merely on the trip home.  He had, I thought then, a self-righteous air like our oldest brother.  For Jesus, everyone was good, we must give them a chance, and no one was totally bad, especially a child.  This philosophy had always rankled my brothers and me.  Now that we were becoming educated, James, Joseph, and I understood the passage “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Nowhere in the Bible, that I could recall, was Jesus philosophy practiced.  If you stepped out of line, especially if you were a Canaanite, you were dead—subject closed.  John sounded ludicrous pandering this sentiment, and James told him so.

“Who are you to preach tolerance to us?” He challenged his cousin. “You have no brothers and sisters.  You’ve been isolated in your big house too long to know the business of the world.”

“So,” John replied, tossing his head, “you think Rhoda’s has a demon as your adopted brother claims?”

“I might,” James bristled. “She certainly addled in the head.”

“She’s evil.” Uriah folded his arms.

“Bah,” John grew argumentative, “I saw no such thing.  Her mother was surly enough, but Rhoda was quiet and well behaved.  When the guards assisted her and her mother onto their mules, she acted rational and polite—nothing like the deranged demoniac you suggest.”

“What’s that mean?” Simon scratched his head. “Does that mean she’s possessed?”

“No, that she’s not possessed.” John rolled his eyes. “I’ve heard about demon possession.  It’s not turned on and off like a lamp.  When your possessed, your possessed!”

“Nonsense, John.” Joseph shook his head. “It’s unpredictable.  Have you actually seen someone who’s possessed?”

“Well, no... not really,” he confessed, the frown fading from his face, “not in person.”

“I think Michael was possessed,” I said in a small voice.

James, Joseph, Simon, and Uriah nodded in agreement.  Our fair-weather friends, after a pause, did the same.  John looked around the group, as if he saw a consensus, his eyes widening with illumination.  “Jesus will cure her ills,” he addressed Uriah personally. “I felt the Spirit when Jude spoke.” “Tell me,” he spoke to me, though his eyes were shut, “have you had any more dreams?”

“No,” I sighed, “not for a long time.”

“Dreams?…What dreams?” My brothers muttered to themselves.

“Oh, I’ve heard about his dreams,” Uriah blurted. “Once he told me about his nightmares—bad, scary, dreams—”

“They’re just nightmares.” I growled, clamping my hand over his mouth.  “I told you that in confidence.  I don’t want to talk about my dreams!”

I was upset with Uriah.  Like Simon, he had a big mouth.  I was certain James and Joseph would think I made that up.  I had told some wild tales as a child.  John, however, gazed into my eyes, his dark pupils penetrating and unwavering, as were Jesus’ blue eyes.  Once again he had changed the subject, a habit my brother practiced which irritated us all very much.  This time the subject had been switched to me, and it backfired.  Joseph had never heard about my dreams.  As Simon, Uriah, and I eavesdropped by the window one day, we heard Mama mention my dreams to James, but she told him even less than what I told Uriah.  In Mama’s case, it was because that’s all she knew.  Other than Jesus, the only person I confided my dreams to was Uriah (a big mistake), and, for him, I omitted the most frightening parts.  Though Jesus believed me, the details would have been too fantastic for Uriah to accept.  This was true for James, Joseph, Simon, and our friends.  I was in no mood to defend my ‘visions,’ as Jesus interpreted one of them.  That moment, I folded my arms and just stood there, jaws clinched, and staring at the ground.  Fortunately, before one of them might ask me a question, our attention was diverted by the appearance of Regulus and Falco in our yard. 

The two soldiers marched right up to us, saluted, and stood there studying our group.  The glint of dark eyes in the emerging shadows sent chills down my spine.  I was sure the others were terrified too.  John placed his arm around my shoulders as Uriah cowered behind my back.

“You do know the prohibition against unlawful assembly.” Regulus clipped, motioning for Falco to take down our names.

I had thought Falco, as most Roman soldiers, would be illiterate.  Since Falco asked us to scrawl our names on his tablet, I was confirmed in this belief.  I sensed correctly that Regulus was teasing us.  We were too close to our own property to be called an unlawful assembly, especially since we had supplied Regulus and his men with free food and often given them flasks of Papa’s wine.  Simon still had trouble with his backwards vision, but James, Joseph, Uriah, and I signed the tablet quickly.   Isaac and Jeroboam were frightened by this jest, scrawling their names in the clay with hesitation.  When Regulus turned to Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz, however, the three youths shook their heads.

“I can’t write so good.” Boaz’s lips quivered.

“Me neither.” Jethro and Obadiah chimed.

“What are these rogues doing here?” He looked squarely at me. “Are they still looking for that gold?”

At this point, I remembered a Roman officer’s warning: Rome is watching.  It was, through Regulus and his shiftless guards, watching Nazareth this very hour.  I wondered if they really suspected that Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz were looking for the gold.  They had been caught trespassing once.  Why was Regulus still pressing this issue if they had given up on the search?  Then it dawned on me as I studied the three Romans, causing me to gasp: they hadn’t given up!  They would never give up.  Yes, this was another thing I had heard about Rome: they never gave up.  Reuben and Michael would always be fugitives as long as Longinus and Regulus lived.  The Romans in Nazareth would continue, as long as they were stationed here, to look for the gold. 

I wasn’t sure about Boaz, but Jethro and Obadiah’s motives were plain.  Just one nod and they would be punished even more severely than before.  As I considered this action, however, I let the Romans drive the point home.

“All right, I know the code among youths,” Regulus acknowledged my silence, “but if these rogues are seen on your property without permission or caught in the hills so help me, I’ll string them up on the first stand of trees.”

When Regulus and Falco were out of earshot, Joseph, in true form, cursed the Romans instead of Jethro and Obadiah.  It mattered not that the two brothers were conniving jackals, Joseph still hated Romans, including our own guards.  Half-heartedly, James joined in the tirade, but Uriah, Simon, and I were glad the guards protected us from their mischief.  Isaac and Jeroboam resented the Romans always interfering, and yet admitted that Nazareth needed the Romans to protect us with the banditry and unrest in Galilee.  I had noticed this trend in Nazareth ever since the Romans wiped out most of Abbas’ gang.  It was give and take: the Romans took away some of our liberties yet gave us protection.

I was heartened to hear James finally agree with Isaac.  The subject was changed completely when Mama called us into the house.  As our friends lagged timidly behind us, my brothers and I exchanged worried looks.  What could Mama want?  Had my parents had second thoughts about Hannah living with her husband?  Would they now tell us that she would be living with us too?  Our concerns for Jethro, Obadiah, and the Romans were replaced by anxiety about the new houseguest.  Even now, nothing was as disturbing as what Uriah told us about his sister.  Isaac and Jeroboam prudently bid us goodbye, knowing full well they were not welcome in our house.  As Jethro and Obadiah slipped away without a word like two jackals, big dumb Boaz followed us into the crowded house.  After being called to the house, we half suspected to find Rhoda in an agitated state and foaming at the mouth.  What we found—a calm, sullen faced child, staring into space—reminded me very much of a mood I had seen Michael in when he wasn’t acting strange.  Had Uriah been wrong about his sister?  It seemed as if John had been correct, all along.  Rhoda appeared to be empty of emotion—addled rather than possessed.  My brothers and I looked questioningly at Uriah.  The rabbi’s son had spoken ill of his family before, yet it seemed unlikely he had made all this up.  Had Mama given her one of her potions, or was this her normal state?  When I thought about it, Rhoda’s dull expression reminded me more of Mariah than Michael.  I recalled how Jesus had prayed over the unconscious Michael after he staggered into our yard, yet he had said only a two words to Michael’s berserk mother: “Be silent!”  I glanced at Jesus, wondering if he cast out her demons, as he had for Mariah and Michael.  It seemed unclear, because of his caginess, whether or not he did any such thing.  At that moment, Jesus was talking to Papa in a subdued voice as Papa sipped from his favorite mug.  With a tired smile on her face, Mama asked us to greet our visitor.  Something was not right about this scene, but everyone, except Uriah, gave Rhoda a proper “shalom.”  Noticing that Boaz was in the house, Papa gave him a snarl and pointed to the front door.

Papa was tipsy again.  Boaz fled without a backward glance.   

“Come now,” Mama coaxed the rest of us, “let’s gather around the table.”  “You, Jude, stand here next to me.  Jesus, Papa, all of you, let’s pray for our friend Rhoda as we have in the past.”

“A prayer circle?” Papa groaned.

“That’s a good idea.” Jesus said, a frown belying his words.

Immediately, as we exchanged glances, it became obvious that no one, except Mama thought that this was a good idea.  Uriah was greatly agitated.  Papa was drunk.  It almost seemed as if Jesus had told his first lie.  The oldest brother had always tried to put a good face on matters.  I should have known then, as we joined in a common prayer, what he had in mind.  It often seemed that Jesus and I were of one mind.  Unfortunately, as he so often did, he would wait until the critical moment, when matters seemed out of control, for my suspicions to be confirmed.

Our prayer circle began with a preamble by Jesus, in which he outlined Joachim and Hannah’s misfortune and the resulting effect on Rhoda.  I suppose he was trying to make a point, but I kept thinking that Uriah had turned out all right.  In what I now understand as a discussion between God and his son, I recalled that moment the many times when Jesus seemed to be chatting with the Lord.  This time, though, he was also making a point that this was not Rhoda’s fault and we should open our hearts to poor Hannah as we had for Joachim.  Mama and Jesus might have opened their hearts to Joachim, but the remainder of us despised the rabbi.  He had turned the town against us and continued to slander Jesus and our family in the synagogue.  When Papa came to make peace with him, he spat on his efforts.  The only reason that awful man was contrite was because he needed Mama now.  Until we had heard about Hannah’s mental breakdown and flight we had no opinion about Joachim’s wife nor had my brothers and I knew that Rhoda was apparently insane, until Uriah informed us today.  Now we were suppose to open our hearts to them.  As we attempted to say our prayers for Rhoda and her parents, I realized that Mama had known about Rhoda’s state for a long time, but Uriah’s revelation to us was the first my brothers and I had heard about her condition.  

Our prayer circle, which I considered a waste of time, gave me time to think about our friends.  Did they regret their behavior in the past?  I had my doubts.  I’m certain that Jethro and Obadiah could care less, but I remember seeing an element of contriteness in Isaac and Jeroboam’s demeanor.  For Boaz, who tried to act civil, I could never be sure.  In many ways this over-sized yet mentally deficient youth was the most dangerous of our friends.  I would never trust him after the way he acted before.  When I thought about it, as Papa said a hasty benediction to end our circle, other than my own brothers, Uriah was my only true friend.

“Let’s go spy on the Romans,” I whispered, as we charged into the yard. 

“We were told to put away childish things,” Uriah quoted Papa.

“Spying on the Romans is not childish,” I said, heading for the trail. “I want to find out if they’re still looking for Michael’s gold.”

“I wanna go work in the shop.” Uriah whined.

“Uriah,” I called over my shoulder, “Papa was drunk when he told you that.  You’ve got your entire life to be a carpenter!”
            “This is stupid, Jude.  We’re not supposed to tease the guards.” He hung back further and further, until I could barely his voice.

Soon, I was so far ahead I couldn’t see him on the trail.  He was, I was certain, still huffing and puffing on the other side of the hill, which was part of my plan.  After looking down the Shepherd’s Trail and seeing nothing, I decided to check out the prickly path we had taken to find Adam’s treasure.  In order to do this without arousing suspicion from Regulus and our guards I wanted, of course, to make sure they were nowhere in sight.  So far, after looking down the main path, I felt safe.  Other than a few Bedouins idling at the foot of the hills, no one else was afoot.  The guards in our sector of Nazareth were nowhere in sight.  This was a hopeful sign.  I didn’t want to believe they were still looking for the gold.  I told Uriah this to keep him from following me into the hills.  Right now he was probably lingering in the woods or shuffling back to the house, which was the other half of my plan.  Knowing Uriah’s loose lips, he would tell my parents about my childish game, which was better than them thinking I was looking for Michael’s stolen loot.  All I wanted to do was scan the hills myself for freshly dug dirt.  The first place I checked was the spot on Adam’s treasure map between the tree and large rock—X marking the spot.  As I expected, it had been dug up and, judging by the dried dirt clods, remained uncovered since we had found the treasure.  What a wondrous day that had been for me!  I thought, looking glumly around the base of the rock and trunk of the tree.  Moving on carefully along the narrow footpath, I looked right and left, catching sight of freshly dug holes in the hills, all empty and, in many cases in places too prickly for my sensitive skin.  When I reached a point on the side of the hills facing away from the Bedouin camp, a dreadful spectacle loomed into view.  Ducking into the underbrush, the imprint of what I saw flashed like a beacon in my mind.  A small group of bandits, led by Adam, himself, where moving up the back of the hill, probably hunting for his gold.  The quick though cautious way they crept through the bushes should have been encouraging for me, since I would not have to run for my life through the brambles to reach the Shepherd’s Trail.  I rose up, head down below the tops of the bushes, and carefully yet persistently trekked up the footpath, praying for deliverance from my folly.  Why had I done such a foolish thing?  Though I hadn’t seen a Roman this hour, one of them might show up at any time.  If the bandits didn’t catch up with me, I would be caught in a place I wasn’t suppose to be.   

Suddenly, from the south, the opposite direction of the bandits, a Roman sentry appeared, galloping along the edge the footholds, sword in hand.  Climbing off his mount, handing the reigns to one of the Arabs, he began talking them in a hushed tone.  I couldn’t tell who he was.  It might be Leto or one of the other hillside or perimeter sentries or Regulus, himself.  In spite of how this might look, I was tempted to call out to him.  The bandits were not merely a short-range threat to me.  This was a chance for the Romans to nab the remainder of the gang, removing them as a threat to my family and the town.  I was certain I could make a dash for it now.  When I was almost to the path, however, I looked askance and saw something shining in the afternoon sun.  A gnarled old thorn bush I had failed to see before had sat there a short ways from the trail.  A bag of treasure might very well be sitting in its shadowy interior, but it would require sneaking unseen into the prickly underbrush and forcing my hands through the thorny branches to drag out the loot.  It seemed once again that the Lord was tempting me, but this time circumstances prevented me from failing God.  I was terrified.  Instead of calling to the guards and possibly get the lone guard killed, I decided to run home and tell my parents what I saw.  I need not tell them the whole truth.  I would do as had I always done and only tell them the most important part: Adam and his men were in the hills.

As I passed the footpath leading to the shrine, I heard a familiar voice.  I was stricken with fear when I heard, “Jude, Jude, come inside quickly!”

“I can’t Michael,” I answered shakily, “I promised Jesus.  It’s a pagan shrine.  I can’t go in there!”

For a moment I thought I would faint dead away.  A bedraggled, wild-eyed Michael emerged fleetingly into the sunlight then skittered back like a phantom into the darkness. “Just follow me into the entrance,” he called faintly. “You don’t have to enter the cave.  Hurry Jude, we must talk.”

“You can’t be here Michael,” I called back.

“Ple-ease Jude,” his voice grew hoarse, “there’s not much time.”

When I thought about what might be on the trail behind me, I forgot my oath to Jesus and ran like a frightened lamb into the shadows.  Just when we thought Michael was out of our lives, here he was in worse shape than before.  A thin shaft of light from the top of the gorge caught his blazing red hair and grimy features.  Once more I felt pity for my old friend.  This time it was tempered with irritation and fear and also disgust.  I could tell by his demeanor that he was in dire straights, but he had brought this upon himself.  I followed Michael to a larger shaft of sunlight, gasping as he sat down upon a nearby stone.

“What happened to you?” I asked, shuddering at the sight.

“…. I was caught by a band of thieves,” he answered slowly, looking nervously up at the light. “…. They think I know where the gold is.  Someone must have seen me hide it.” 

“I knew it!” I lunged toward him. “You stole my gold!”

“It wasn’t your gold, Jude,” he said, shaking his head.  “It’s your friend Adam’s gold.  He was coming back for it.  He was just biding his time.  He was right, of course: I hid his gold, but he’ll never find it in a thousand years!”

I was too stunned to speak.  My heart sank into my chest as I listened to him explain how he watched Mama dig a whole next the pomegranate bush and bury my gold.  Of all the harebrained stunts, I thought, biting my lip—in broad daylight, right next to our house!

“Michael, you thief,” I spat angrily, “give me back my gold!”

“Shush, keep it down,” he motioned feebly.

“So help me!” I stomped my foot. “You’ll give it back—right now or I’ll tell the Romans you’re here!”

 “Go ahead and call the guards.” He shrugged wearily. “I’m tired of running and hiding.  I should never have spied on your mother.  The temptation was too great.”

“It was too heavy to carry, wasn’t it?” I said, temporary relief overtaking me.  “Caught in a web of deceit!” I quoted Jesus’ words.

It occurred to me that moment that the gleam of metal I glimpsed on the hills was probably my coins!  Just as quickly, however, a realization dawned on me.  Why would Adam and his band only be looking for the coins and not the treasure he and I stored in the shrine?

“You-you buried both treasures!” I stammered. 

Gripping the sides of my head, I reeled around in the dark in disbelief after Michael nodded his head.

 “How did you know about the shrine?” I shook him angrily. “Who told you?  How could you possibly know about that?”

“I discovered the shrine a long time ago,” he boasted in a ragged voice, “when I was exploring the hills by myself.  I didn’t know there was treasure in it until recently.  I found it quite by accident as I held my lamp up in the dark.  When I watched your mother place the coins in that hole in the yard, I decided to add it to my goods.”

“You thieving scoundrel!” I growled.

“I’m no more a thief than you,” he chuckled hoarsely. “Because of me,” he added, grinning slyly, “you can have a portion of both treasure—If I decide to share them with you!”

“What?” I sputtered. “If you decide to share it with me!  That’s my treasure, Michael.  I found it.  It’s all mine!”

At that point, I attacked Michael with a force I didn’t know I had.  I didn’t seriously believe I would retrieve the treasure in the shrine.  My first concern had been my pot of gold, but the fact that Michael had taken both treasures shook me greatly.  All the years of disappointment and pent-up fury I felt for him burst forth in a flood of curses and sheer physical energy as we grappled there in the dark.

“Even if I was half dead I can whip you Jude,” he taunted.

I hit him, and then hit him again.  Soon I was throttling him with both fists.  With surprising agility in his condition, he fought back and uttered blasphemous oaths at me, but I had the advantage.  I was on top, and he was on the bottom.  I was puffed up with anger and he was acting like a grinning ape—a trapped target for me.  For a moment, as he grew quiet, I thought I had knocked him out, maybe killed him.  I felt blood trickling down my chin and my right eye stung.  My conscience prickled me: What have I done?  I’ve killed my old friend.  Then suddenly, as I let down my guard, he hit me so hard in the face, I fell back onto the hard ground.  Darkness fell like a cloak over me.  I don’t remember dreaming, and I had no idea how long I lie there in an unconscious state until being shaken awake.  I looked up through blurry eyes, after hearing muffled voices, and saw two hulking shadows.  One was in the foreground, a strong odor of garlic on his breath, and a second man, arms on his hips, stood in the background, silhouetted ominously in the light streaming into the cave.

“Where’s that other fellow?”  The first man asked.  “What were you lads doing in this cave?”

I had been shaken gently awake.  Now I awakened to a thunderclap.  I recognized Falco’s voice and knew that the stern-faced Regulus stood there silently, awaiting his turn.

“Jude, you’re in big trouble unless you tell us where that rascal is,” Falco warned me severely. “He was seen by shepherds with stolen gold.  We’re aware that his mother was a witch and he’s caused great mischief in town.”

I remained speechless for several moments, after Regulus called to someone on the trail. “Search the perimeter and the hillside again!”  Squirming under their scrutiny, I began to panic.  I was right: they were still looking for the gold.  They would never give up, especially if they knew Michael was still in the hills.

“I don’t know where he is,” I said weakly. “He did this to me.  If I knew where he was, I’d tell you.  Abbas’ son and his gang are looking for Michael too.  I saw them in the hills.”

“Bring him out into the sunlight,” the optio ordered crisply. “It appears as if he and his friend had a falling out.”  “Are you certain about Abbas’ gang?” He asked, as Falco lifted me up and carried me to the trail. “We killed Abbas.  I didn’t know there were many of his men left.”

“There’s not.” I grimaced, as Falco inspected my wounds. “I saw Abbas’ son and three other men.  They looked filthy and half-starved, nothing like the old gang.”

“Did he tell you where he hid his loot?” Regulus probed. “Did you ask him?  Is that why he beat you up.”

“No, I didn’t ask him,” I answered truthfully. “I’m not a thief (which was a lie).  If I hadn’t dropped my guard, I would’ve killed him.”

Regulus nodded curtly.  Falco patted my head.  Suddenly, with these small gestures of trust and the realization that the gold was forever out of my reach, I heaved a sigh of relief.  It was a sigh tinged with sadness.  At last, the temptation had been removed from me.  If Michael was caught and tortured until he told them the location of the gold, the guilt would be his, not mine.  The gold would belong to Regulus and his men.  Michael had buried it—both treasures.  There was no way he could implicate me.  If, on the other hand, he escaped, the gold would be safe but, because of the dangers of retrieving it, be indefinitely lost, unless he returned.  I had no desire to test Regulus’ will.  I couldn’t help feeling melancholy about my loss, but the implications of what had just happened weighed more heavily on my mind.  Michael could have killed me, and yet he fled the scene.  Once again it was Regulus, with his trusty guard, who came to my aid.  I didn’t blame Michael for hitting me.  I was out of control.  It’s the fact that I could have been badly hurt and he hadn’t cared enough to at least call for help.  Of course, that could have been foolish.  I didn’t know how long I was unconscious.  It might have been an hour or only a few moments.  I didn’t feel any worse afterwards, but I knew the optio and Falco would have physically carried me back to my house if I were injured seriously. 

It didn’t matter that they were still looking for the gold or that they would deal harshly with Michael if the found him hiding in the hills.  I knew from listening to Papa that the same Romans who crucified their enemies would often reward their friends.  In the end, when it seemed obvious I was telling the truth, their carefree natures overcame their base instincts.  Not for a moment did I doubt Regulus’ motives; he was a deadly serious about the gold.  Yet, after my experience with the scorpion, I trusted him.  Even now I detected concern in his black pupils.  I had always suspected that Falco, like Priam, favored me over the other Jews in Nazareth, but lately Regulus had seemed to avoid us.  Because of his suspicions about the gold, I was certain that he hated me until this moment.  I could tell, as he and Falco escorted me back to my house, that all was forgiven and I was back in their good graces.  Perhaps he would have me watched more closely, especially with Michael on the loose, but that was no longer my concern.

Michael had decided upon his path a long time ago.

 

******

I would understand the Roman mind much more clearly when I rode struck out on my own.  Back then I was na´ve, still thinking as a child—much too trusting.  As Paul had written to the Corinthian church, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I reasoned as a child.  When I was a man, I put childish ways behind me.” Another line “For now I see through a glass darkly,” also seems applicable to my state of mind.   Paul was a strange fellow, often self-righteous but he clearly saw the wrong in hording worldly goods and having poor values, such as covetousness and greed.  In many ways it was the same as when I was younger, when I made sure I had pocketed the most sweet meats, picked the most berries or drank the most pomegranate juice.  During our exploits, I tried to outdo my friends and brothers at games and foot races and demanded the largest share of Papa or Jesus’ approval at work and play.  Now that I was far ahead of my brothers and classmates at school, I often felt puffed up with pride, another one of the cardinal sins my brother spoke of during his mission.  All of the childish pranks that Paul had in mind, I had committed.  The vanity I had for my memory and intelligence only got worse.  My lust for gold, however, was much more serious than childish pride or greed.  That hour, in which Michael knocked me out and fled, I was still the same self-centered, greedy youth.  I had merely been humbled that day.  A disquieting sense of peace, now that the treasure seemed lost, filled me as I was led up to the house.  Through glass darkly, I had been viewing the world then. 

As Regulus knocked politely on the door, I straightened my shoulders and held up my head, for in deed I was a guiltless victim in Michael’s attack.  Thanks to my onetime friend, the taint of gold was behind me.  I should be happy about this state of affairs, since I could stop scheming and go on with my life.  Perhaps, after all, I reasoned heavy-heartedly, I would continue as a dutiful son in the carpentry business until Jesus set out to make his way in the world, which I was certain he would one day do, at which time I would either follow him in some endeavor or find employment with the Romans or a wealthy merchant and travel the world…. What need did I have for gold when I had my wits and a brother who had great power?

With these ideas in mind, I listened light-headedly to Regulus report on what had happened today.  According to the optio, I was found where I shouldn’t have been: a cave not far from the Shepherd’s Trail.  Papa shook his head at me, upset by this confrontation.

“Humph, I’ve know about this spot,” he replied gravely. “It leads to an ancient Canaanite temple.” “Jude.” He looked at me with concern. “I hope you didn’t go inside that cave.  Their priests sacrificed Canaanite children to their gods.”

Regulus gave me a guarded look. “Oh, he wasn’t inside the cave, he was unconscious.  Perhaps he was trying to prevent his friend from entering the cave. 

“Michael?” Mama’s mouth dropped.

“None other.” Falco removed his helmet and shook his head. “We’ve been chasing him for several days.”

Papa took a long swig from his cup, as he thought about this.  Mama brought me to her bosom in a protective embrace.  James, Joseph, Uriah, and Jesus were nowhere in sight, probably in the shop working on one of Papa’s orders.  The first person, other then my parents, I laid eyes on was cousin John, who gave me a sympathetic smile.  Since John was staying with Samuel, his visit wasn’t a complete surprise.  It was good that he paid us another visit on this special day.  I was glad Regulus had exonerated me in his hearing.   Soon John would return to Sepphoris to help take care of his mother.  I had this feeling that I wouldn’t see him for a long time, and his good opinion was important to me.  I could see Tabitha, the twins, and Rhoda in the shadows of the room.  They were also smiling at me, but then they were always smiling.  It seemed that our prayers had helped Rhoda.  She had been quiet and unresponsive since our prayer circle, but at least she was well behaved.  She had no expression whatsoever.  There was a blank look on her pale face.  I had never seen the monster that Uriah had described, but she had only just arrived.  I shivered as I studied this strange girl.  She was, framing it in my current knowledge, a sleeping volcano, like those strange mountains I saw in my travels.  Simon’s grinning face loomed into view, as he entered the through the front door, his smile quickly fading to a frown when he caught sight of the Romans behind me in the yard.  Without being asked, Tabitha ran to fetch the Romans mugs of juice.  I knew they would rather it was wine brought to them, but they bowed graciously as Tabitha handed them the cups.  Regulus laughed softly, and Falco reached in the doorway to pat Tabitha’s dark curls.  I felt very small again—a mischievous child awaiting punishment.  I was glad Papa was a little tipsy and Mama had not cuffed my ears, but I deserved no less. 

“Uriah told us you were in the hills,” she exhaled wearily. “Why were you with that dreadful boy?”

“He called from the shadows,” I answered honestly.  Then, as I looked up at the Romans, I bit my lip.  I would tell Mama about Michael’s theft of the hidden coins but now was not the time, so I told them all a big lie.

“He was out of his mind,” I answered carefully.  “…. The way he carried on, I could barely understand him.  I can’t remember anything after I blacked out.”

“Well, he did take a knock on the head.” Falco winked at them.

“Don’t you worry,” Regulus said, ruffling my hair, “we’ll catch that rascal.  He won’t get far!”

There was a time when such a boast would have worried me.  Not for a moment did I doubt the optio.  Michael was clever, but the Romans never gave up.  Despite my disappointment with him, I didn’t want Michael captured.  He would be tortured and forced to lead them to the gold.  All my noble thoughts of putting gold fever behind me and changing my values were based upon my belief that Michael would never be caught and tortured so they could find the gold.  Either way—Michael escaping or Michael being caught—meant no treasure for me.  Yet if he made a permanent getaway and the Romans pulled out of Nazareth once more, the thought flashed into my mind, I might find the gold!

Though he said little to my parents, Regulus was friendly toward me.  He seemed fond of little Tabitha too.  Before he and Falco returned to their watch, he counseled me to stay around the house awhile until they caught Michael and the bandits roaming the hills.  Falco good-naturedly promised to give me the flat of his sword if he caught me on the Shepherd’s Trail.  It wasn’t a bad idea right now to remain close to home.  I agreed eagerly with my protectors, giving them both a winning smile.  Simon smirked at my fawning attitude.  I was feeling light-headed.  As James and Joseph entered the room through the front door, they frowned severely at the Romans but said nothing to me.  Jesus exchanged polite greetings with them as did Uriah, who flashed me a worried look.  Inexplicably, I began to tremble and I wanted to bawl.  Tabitha grabbed my hand on one side, Abigail on the other—two women who one day serve the risen Christ.

I was filled with great love for my adopted sisters, Martha included.  Everyone in the room, in fact, even my brothers James and Joseph seemed dear to me.  I was, I was certain those moments, a wicked and willful youth.  It was no wonder my revelations had ceased.  The Lord’s blessings had been wasted on me.  I was unworthy to have such a family or the apparent destiny Jesus told me I would one day have.  I felt ashamed yet filled with great love.  Was this that phenomena Jesus called the Spirit of the Lord?  I thought this blessing was given only to righteous souls.  Thoughts raced in my head unrelated to ambition or my lust for gold.  I remember turning to wave at Regulus and Falco, whom I also had great fondness for.  For those moments, as I grew faint, I loved the entire world. 

Mama uttered “Shalom” to the guards before shutting the door.  Papa turned to me as the girls led me to the table, one eye shut, an empty mug dangling in one hand, blurting, “What have you been up to Jude?  Up to your old tricks, eh?”   On that note their voices blurred and the images around me dimmed like a candle flickering in the wind.  The room spun around me that moment.  I had that feeling I once had when Papa was questioning me, when guilt flooded my mind like a great shadowy wave.  A darkness followed, much blacker than the interval when I lie at the mouth of the cave.  When I awakened I looked up to see all of their faces, including the two Romans, who, I learned later had heard Mama scream.

“He has the falling sickness,” Regulus announced dryly. “Caesar had this, as did many great men.  Jude is meant for great things.”

“Here,” Falco said, jamming a stick between my teeth, “this will keep him from swallowing his tongue.”

“Dear sweet Lord,” Mama wept, “what’s wrong with Jude.”

“He just told you.” Joseph’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Jude is meant for great things.  What nonsense!”

“From God’s lips,” Jesus declared. “I said as much myself.”

As I was lifted up and laid on the table, Papa murmured, “This had happened before.  It’s a wonder he didn’t choke to death.”

“Where had that stick been?” fussed Mama. “It looks dirty, like ones we use to scrap dung off sandals.”
            “This one hasn’t been used yet,” Falco winked. “I don’t think he’d mind.”

I heard it all.  I will never forget what Regulus and Jesus said.  The caring group around me seemed to be part of a dreamscape.  Here were some of the very people who were shaping my life: my parents, my brothers and sisters, and two of the Roman guards I had grown to admire.  When the stick was removed from my mouth, Mama wiped my face, brought forth her medical kit and a wet rag and began tending to my wounds, exclaiming as she dabbed ointment on my cut lip, “We must make a circle and give thanks to the Lord!”

“Moses bones,” groaned Papa.

“Come on,” Jesus called, clapping his hands, “let’s make our circle.”

“Is this really necessary?” grumbled Simon. “Mama patched him up.  Can’t we just pray to ourselves.”

“This is where we take our leave.” The optio turned away.

“Yes, my good friends,” laughed Falco. “Regulus and I are pagans.  Already we’ve defiled your house.”  

“Good riddance,” muttered Joseph after they exited the house.  “What do the Romans know about our brother?  Great things indeed!  Jude has a terrible ailment.  We should summon Samuel’s physician.”

“No,” Mama said grimly, “I recall one of the townsmen having this ailment.  There’s nothing Abner can do.” 

This information caused a collective gasp from the group.  When I felt the urge to confess my sins, Jesus placed his rough, calloused hand over my mouth. “There-there little Jude,” he whispered faintly, “all those thoughts in your crowded head are flooding forth like a great torrent.  That’s why you blacked out.”

“Let us pray,” came his refrain.

“Come, take my hand Papa,” Mama called gently, “let’s make a circle around our stricken son.”  

 “He needs medical help, not prayer,” James sounded genuinely upset.

 “Yes,” cried Uriah, “Jude was foaming like a rabid bat.  We need Samuel’s doctor!”

Belatedly, Simon echoed his sentiment, as did Tabitha and the twins.  Though he had denied my specialness, even Joseph was concerned about my health. 

“James and I shall fetch him,” he piped. “There’s no time to waste.”

“Go get him!  Go get him!” The girls wailed.

“You heard Mama,” Papa said with a belch, “make a circle.”

“I’m happy that everyone cares about Jude,” Mama declared, giving Joseph a kiss on the check, “but Abner will tell me that this illness is temporary and will pass.  There is no lasting remedy, unless God wills it.  Let us pray that the Lord removes the falling sickness from Jude.”

“Poor Jude,” Joseph said softly. “Why did God curse him with this?”

“Jesus thinks it’s a blessing, and so does Regulus,” Uriah replied in my defense.

“Uriah,” Jesus replied irritably, “I would never wish such a thing on my brother.  Regulus thought Jude was special because of this malady.  I was simply agreeing with him that Jude was special.  If God chooses to afflict men with the falling sickness to mark them out from other men, then this is even more proof in my mind.  I’m not so certain the Lord would be so cruel.”

“Why do you think Jude’s special?” a jealous tinge returned to Joseph’s voice. “He’s sick, not touched by God.”

“Let’s not dredge this issue up,” groaned Papa. “For pity’s sake Joseph, even James admits he’s special.  Like his oldest brother, Jude, after learning to read and write Hebrew and our own Galilean tongue, has, with Aaron’s help, nearly mastered Greek.  He will probably learn Latin someday too.  He can quote from memory whole sections from the Torah and Prophets and, when called upon, can recite every detail of his life, just like Jesus can.  Yet I would trade all that to rid him of this handicap.  This curse comes without warning and will effect his entire life.”

“He’ll never be a soldier now,” Uriah said with great sympathy. “With all his gifts, God has given him a curse.” 

“Papa never said that,” Jesus heaved a sigh. “I would rather trust Regulus’ instincts.  It might be that God put those thoughts into the optio’s head.”

“But he’s a pagan!” Joseph cried.

“Joseph, my brother,” I objected in a thin voice, “Papa’s right.  I’d give it all away to rid myself of this darkness.”

No one knew my real meaning except Jesus.  Perhaps, Jesus and Regulus were both correct: my black thoughts had overwhelmed me and caused me to have the falling sickness. Surrounding me now were the loving members of my family, my shield from darkness.  I felt tears in my eyes.  I could hear Uriah and the girls faintly weeping.

Joseph responded by gently gripping my hand. “I’m sorry Jude,” he whispered huskily.  “You’ve done in a short while what I might never accomplish, but that’s not your fault.  Nor is the illness you are stricken with now.” “Let us pray to ourselves!” He called out in a shaking voice.  “Let’s ask God to remove his sickness but keep his wisdom and ask Him to forgive me for being jealous of him all these years.”

Though fearful of my condition, I was greatly moved by Joseph’s change of heart.  It appeared as if I had already won James respect and I knew that Uriah was my most loyal friend.  Jesus, my parents, my brothers and sisters, Tabitha, and Uriah must have given a fantastic set of prayers for I was up and about that evening puffed up by their love and admiration but also humbled by the punishment God had apparently dealt.  At least there was a name to it now.  Not for a moment, however, could I believe that day that I was special, especially if it meant that my condition was a gift from the gods, as Regulus suggested.  I agreed with Joseph and Uriah that it was a curse from God, but only Jesus understood why this might be so.

That evening, after a simple yet festive meal, we discussed this incredible day: the attack Michael made upon me, the possibility that bandits were once again roaming the hills, Regulus and Falco rescuing me, and the fact that my parents seemed to be back in the optio’s good graces again.  Last but not least, we discussed in guarded voices the peculiar illness I now had.  After Jesus and my parents efforts to make it seem as if God were merely testing—not cursing—me, my sickness was talked about as being merely strange, even interesting.  Although I knew better, words such as awful and sad were not used to describe my malady.  Yet, why did I quiver and thrash around? Simon inquired.  Why, asked Uriah, did my mouth foam like a rabid bat?  No one knew these things, Mama explained patiently to me.  Papa reminded us that Julius Caesar had the falling sickness, as did many famous men, which should have made it all right in my mind.  What lingered in my dulled mind, however, after Mama plied me with wine punch, was the awareness that I was, as Uriah and Joseph believed, cursed…. How could I ride with the legions if I might fall out of saddle, flopping around like a freshly caught carp?  For that matter, if I became a merchant or famous scribe, what would happen if, during an important meeting or event, I fell onto the ground, as I did today, and thrashed around, foaming at the mouth.  How many people were even aware of the falling sickness?  Onlookers might just as easily conclude that I was possessed by demons or insane.

I didn’t ask Jesus to cure me after his lofty words, but when the right moment came that was exactly what I planned to do.

 

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