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Chapter Thirty-One

 

Elizabeth Dies and John Runs Away

 

 

 

The days that followed Rhoda’s transformation brought my brothers and sisters back to the simple realities of family, school, and Papa’s carpenter shop.  This was quite fine with me.  I was tired of all the excitement in our house.  It took us several weeks after the house dried out to scrape away the “demon vomit” caked on the floor and walls.  After being scrubbed clean and, in many places, sanded clean, we painted the interior of the house and, as Samuel insisted, invited a Sadducee priest in to sanctify the house.  I will not bore my readers with the details of the ritual, for I never liked Sadducee snobbery, and yet it was a sign of Samuel’s love for my family that he, a Pharisee, who were despised by the priesthood, brought in such a person to cleanse our home.  What the priest could not cleanse from our lives were my own actions—entering a pagan shrine, hoarding gold, and consorting with a thief. 

One day, as Boaz the blacksmith’s son paid us a visit, I was reminded of my folly and its impact upon my family.  The ungainly, oversized youth had become a fearsome looking fellow after turning fourteen.  Unlike most youths his age, he had thick, unbroken eyebrows, and was already sprouting a beard.  When he said outrageous things we had to nod in agreement and just consider the source.  Boaz could have been, if he had enough intelligence, the most feared youth in Nazareth.  Fortunately for me, he acted, as usual, rather dull-witted, as I laughed at his questions about the treasure I supposedly hid in the hills.

“Boaz,” I said, forcing out a series of chuckles, “where did you get such a silly idea.”

“It’s not silly,” he snarled. “Everyone in town knows about your gold.”

“That’s a lie,” Uriah screwed up his face.

If anyone else had said that, Boaz might have hit him.  Messing up the little fat boy’s hair, he led us to the wall where he, Jethro and Obadiah had once spotted me.  I thought I would have another one of my seizures as Abner called my episodes, but the prayers my family had uttered over me that terrible day appeared to be working for me as I watched Boaz hunt for that special spot in the wall.  I knew that it was gone.  What I didn’t understand was why he was so persistent.  Was he just stupid or much smarter than I once thought?

“It was here.  I was sure it was here!” He cried, kicking at the wall with a monstrous foot.

“Stop it!” Uriah shouted. “This wall is very old.  You have no right doing that!”
            “It’s just an old wall,” Boaz sneered. “I know there’s gold here somewhere.”

“Uriah’s right,” I tried to reason with him, “like the town well, these stones were here long before Nazareth was built.  My parents will be very mad at you.  You don’t want Priam and Falco to catch you tormenting us again.  Come to the house Boaz for some punch and one of Mama’s rolls.  There’s no gold.  Adam was just teasing us.  Please stop kicking our wall!”

I could care less about the wall, which was here when my parents moved in but looked nothing like the finely carved stone shrine hidden in the hills.  My only concern now was convincing this dunderhead—this time truthfully—that there was no gold on our property or in the hills.  Boaz, however, continued to argue with me as we approached the house.

  “That Adam fellow gave us a treasure to find and you took it all!” He was complaining when Jesus appeared suddenly in the yard.

Jesus appeared out of nowhere often, which seemed to support his divinity in later years.  Now, as he approached the unwanted visitor there was anger in his eyes.  Boaz’s fearsome appearance didn’t frighten him at all.  We all knew that Jesus had the power to overcome anyone who threatened us.  He was very strong and had God on his side.  This time, though, he merely pointed to the path leading around our house and out of the yard and said, “Go!”

Simon arrived on the scene, drawn by the commotion.  Turning his attention to us, as Boaz slinked away, the angry lines on Jesus’ face softened.  There was a reason why he left the shop to talk to us in the yard.  Something was wrong.  For a brief moment sorrow darkened his face.  Tears gathered in his blue eyes.

“I’m sorry Simon, Jude, and Uriah,” his said, his outstretched arms encompassing us all. “Justin, the courier, arrived with news from Sepphoris….Aunt Elizabeth is dead.”

“When?” was my first response.

“Last week, shortly after John returned home.” Jesus heaved a sigh.

“Aunt Elizabeth dead?  Of what?  I thought she was doing better,” Simon muttered to himself.  “I thought you were going to tell us Samuel was dead.  He must be a hundred years old.”

“It’s a shame,” Uriah replied reverently. “I heard she was a great woman.”

“Yes, yes, I wish you could have known her.” Jesus gave Uriah a pat.

Halting at the closed door, he said in a conspiratorial voice, “But that’s not the most serious problem.  Aunt Elizabeth, a righteous woman, walks with the angels.  It’s cousin John who fills me with concern.”

“What?  Is he dead too?” Uriah gave Jesus a stupid look.

“No, he ran away,” he explained, reaching for the handle. “Her physician, who’s now retired, will watch her house for awhile.  He’s supposed to look after her wealth until John comes of age, but our cousin told Micah he was going to live with the Essenes now that his mother’s found her reward.”

Simon whistled under his breath.  Uriah had a blank expression as we entered the house.  Mama, Papa, and the girls were sitting at the table, but James and Joseph were nowhere in sight.  I was still not used to having Rhoda in our family.  Though surrounded by Tabitha and the twins, she sat there with her hands folded on the table, as they whispered back and forth, staring mutely into space.  Simon waved his hand in front of her face, as he took his seat, and snapped his fingers as if to say “Wake up!”  Justin, our old courier, stood in the large room, with a mug of wine or fruit juice in one dirty hand, a piece of bread clutched in the other dirty hand.  A special stool at the head of the table had been placed there for the courier, as if he had the seat of honor.

“Justin is a convert to our faith,” Papa announced, raising his mug. “He joined up in Jerusalem after the last Passover.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

We knew that this wasn’t the announcement Mama had in mind.  A bittersweet mood filled our house, as our family, Justin included, gathered around the table.  For a few moments, as Papa got up irritably, and charged out the front door, Mama reached over and shook Rhoda’s wrist. “Rhoda?  Rhoda!” She called under breath.  James and Joseph, who resented the road weary courier’s presence very much, had to be ordered into the house by Papa.  Waiting for Mama’s news as the malcontents were rounded up and ushered into the room, Simon, Uriah, Tabitha, the twins, and I began to fidget.  Serving as a distraction to the main issue, Rhoda reminded us very much of Michael when he awakened from the dark sleep.

“What’s an Essene?” asked Tabitha, glancing uneasily at Rhoda. “Why would John want to give up all that wealth?”

“The courier will explain everything,” Jesus made a shushing motion. “Let’s let him speak.”

Tabitha’s thoughts had mirrored mine.  John, I was convinced, had never been right in the head.  He had obviously been planning to run away for a long time.  Uriah had found a scrap of bread and was chewing on it, James and Joseph sat sullenly on nearby stools, and Simon was falling asleep, when, at Papa’s signal, Justin began to speak.

“I was making my deliveries—your aunt was my next stop, when a young man, who introduced himself as John bar Zechariah, hailed me from the road.  These are his words,” the courier cleared his throat, standing to recite the letter John gave him: “My mother has gone to her reward.  Because of our strict laws, the necessity to send a message by courier, and the time it will take for you to make arrangements and travel to our town, Mama was interred in a garden tomb in accordance with our laws.  A town rabbi and several neighbors attended Micah and I at her funeral.  By the time you, Justin, arrived on your rounds, she had been buried for several days.  I wish I could have fetched you in time, but it all happened suddenly. When I awakened that day, I found her body cold.  She must have died early in the morning following my return home, so I immediately awakened Micah, who had spent a long night trying to save her life.  There’s nothing left for me here in Sepphoris.  If I stay on, I will become an extra burden to Aunt Mary, whose house is already bursting at the seams.  I leave all my earthly belongings to my relatives in Nazareth and mother’s physician, at their mutual discretion.  Micah has his own estate and riches and will probably not want anything for himself.  Please don’t worry about me.  I’ve gone to live with the Essenes in order to learn God’s will.  I write this letter to inform you of my mother’s passing and my own well being but also to request that you take care of my estate.  Micah is quite ill.  I fear that the shadow of death is also in his eyes.”

“Humph…you have an excellent voice Justin.” Papa pursed his lips. “I didn’t know you could read so well.”

“Until my wife passed away, I had worked as a scribe,” the courier confessed, taking a long sip from his cup.

“This is outrageous—that’s what it is!” Mama cried. “That ungrateful, willful child.  His mother dead in her grave for less than a week, and he’s off in this wild adventure into the unknown!”

Simon’s eyes popped wide, and he rubbed his eyes.  While the remainder of us were startled by this outburst, Rhoda didn’t so much as blink. 

“I’m sorry,” Justin muttered softly, glancing at the girl. “This is all very strange.  Your family’s really grown.”

“Why didn’t someone tell us sooner?”  Mama pressed forward on the bench. “You’re not the only courier delivering mail to Sepphoris.  What about a legionary messenger?  We’ve had messages delivered that way before.”

“I dunno,” Justin sighed wearily. “Because of their superstition about your oldest son, you folks have a high status with the cohort’s prefect and the centurion in charge of this town.  But this time, in the mind of the magistrates and the Roman garrison, it was just one more old woman passing away.  I wish I had arrived sooner, but there was no way I could’ve known.   There just wasn’t enough time.  As I was climbing on my horse, a rabbi dropped by to talk to Micah and told me that Elizabeth’s small funeral had been special and memorable.  She was well loved by her relatives and friends.”

“That’s an important detail John left out,” Papa said with a frown.

“John was in a hurry,” explained Justin. “He was afraid someone like the rabbi would stop him because he’s not legally an adult.  By the time the rabbi showed up, John was long gone.” 

“I should’ve been there,” Mama broke down in tears. “Why didn’t Elizabeth send me word when her health began to fail.”

“Now wait a minute Mary,” Papa reasoned with her, “your aunt’s health has been failing for years.  It was just a matter of time.  We’ll pay our respects—get her affairs in order, visit her tomb, but there’s nothing we can do about John.”

“Where do the Essenes live?” Uriah wrinkled his nose.

“Who cares?” snarled James. “John’s addled in the head.”

“What’s an Essene?” Tabitha looked dumbly into space.

At this point, Jesus gave us a brief description of who these peculiar people were.  I agreed with James, especially after Jesus’ explanation.  Normally, Jesus was rather long winded in giving out information, but I could tell by his tone that he was disgusted with our cousin this time.  According to him, whose knowledge knew no end, “The Essenes are a group of Jewish men who, because they’re unhappy with the corruption of our religion, retreated to the desert.  They believe, like many Galileans, that our souls are immortal and, if we live good, faithful lives, we’ll enter paradise to be with Abraham and all righteous Jews.  They live abstinent lives, refraining from marriage, worldly possessions, and wine.  They see the world as a battleground against the forces of darkness and themselves as the force of good.  They believe that they’re the final generation.  That’s why they’ve retreated to the desert to await the end of the world.”

 “Sounds like something John might do,” snickered Joseph.

 “How very grim.” Mama shuddered. “John has always been such carefree boy.  Why would he join that bunch?  What can they teach him that he can’t learn in his own house and town?  Why that godforsaken place?”

 “John seeks knowledge,” Jesus said thoughtfully, “and religious truth.  I heard of these hermits.  The Essenes aren’t the first.  They try to separate themselves from the sins of the world—a brave, admirable venture, but unnecessary.   You can’t escape the world’s temptations by physically fleeing from them.  That comes with prayer.  Sin follows the soul, tempting it no matter where it flies.  I learned many important things during my trip with Joseph of Arimathea.  Prayer shielded me against temptation and sin.  You can learn from the world yet not be a part of it.  You can’t escape it.  I’m disappointed John doesn’t understand this.”

“The desert’s no place for knowledge.” Joseph shook his head. “There’s nothing there but sand, scorpions, and snakes.”

“It’s just plain nonsense,” grumbled James. “John’s insane.  He’ll regret doing such a foolish thing.”  

“He’s misguided perhaps,” Jesus said with a sigh, “but not insane.  You’re right about one thing, James: he’ll regret running away.  One day, when he returns to serve the Lord, he’ll understand his foolishness.   I’ve talked with him about his views.  It’s hard for him to deal with temptation.  That he believes that the world is ending soon or that the Essenes are the chosen few I find hard to believe.”
           Mama reached across the table to grip Jesus hand.  “So, you think he’ll come to his senses?”

“Yes, I do,” Jesus nodded with conviction. “To change the world, you must go into the world.  I learned that.  John will too.”

It was, now that I reflect upon it, one more defining moment for the oldest brother.  When I thought about the implications of what we I had heard this hour, all I could think of was that my family would probably become very wealthy if John didn’t collect his mother’s loot….How na´ve I was in my thirteenth year.

“When do we leave for Sepphoris?” I asked, jumping up and down in my seat.

“Yes,” James caught my enthusiasm, “John wants us to handle Elizabeth’s estate.”

“Humph,” Papa pursed his lips, “you boys are under the delusion that your aunt’s still rich.”

“She is, isn’t she?” Joseph’s mouth dropped.

“Shall we tell them?” Mama looked sadly at Papa. “All things considered, there’s no reason why the children should go.”

“I want to go!  I want to go!” I rocked back and forth on the bench.

“Me too.” James slammed the table. “That greedy rabbi and physician will strip her house bare.”

“You don’t know that.” Papa laughed tolerantly. “Not all physicians are greedy and not all rabbis are bad.  Look at your teacher Aaron and Samuel’s doctor, Abner.  Our aunt was a generous woman.  She’s given much of Zechariah’s fortune away.”

My heart sank in my chest. “So she’s not rich.  She squandered John’s legacy away?”

“John’s not like you,” replied Jesus, studying my face, “money doesn’t interest him.  Worldly goods can entrap us and rob us of what’s important: love, honor, and respect.  I hope someday you’ll feel the same way as John.  In this way, I pray that my brothers will think like our cousin…I certainly do.”

“Bah!” Joseph made a face. “There’s nothing wrong with being rich.  Look at your friend Joseph of Arimathea.  Look at Samuel and Papa, who’s trying to build up his fortune in town.”

“He’s got a point there, Jesus,” Papa reflected, sipping from his cup. “Those two good men are wealthy.  I’m trying to build up my clientele.”

Jesus now gave us an important parable.  Before his mission began, he gave us many parables not recorded by his disciples.  In the years hidden from the world, I documented most of Jesus’ important words.  This parable, which he told his disciples, stunned all of us, especially Papa and me—Papa for his humble ambition, me for my greed.  

“Listen my family,” his voice rose progressively, “it’s not having wealth.  It’s how it’s used.  It’s very hard for rich men to go to heaven.  Consider a rich man, like Joseph of Arimathea, clothed in fine clothes, who eats well and has a vast fortune.  In front of the rich man’s mansion a poor man, we shall call Lazarus, full of sores, lay dying.  All the poor man wanted was a little food, but somehow the rich man, always busy, overlooked the man.  The poor fellow died and was carried by the angels to Abraham in heaven.  Later the rich man also died but found himself in Satan’s domain, Gahenna, in torment for his sins, chief of which was greed.  He lifted his eyes to Abraham and asked him to have mercy upon him.  If only Lazarus could dip the end of his finger in water to cool his parched tongue.  But Abraham replied ‘In your lifetime you received many good things while Lazarus had misfortune.  Now it’s he that is comforted, while you are in anguish.  You had your chance.  You placed wealth above charity.  Lazarus’ faith was far greater than yours.’ The rich man then begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them to avoid his mistakes least they one day suffer like him.  Yet Abraham refused.  The rich man’s brothers have heard about Moses and the prophets.  ‘Please, father Abraham,’ replied the rich man, ‘if Lazarus could rise from the dead and go to them, they would believe and repent.  How easy that would be for the Lord God.’  Once again, however, Abraham refused, saying ‘if they didn’t believe Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rose from the dead.’”

My friend Luke recorded these words in his work almost exactly as I heard my brother say them both times: once, as an eighteen year old, in our kitchen, and once to his disciples in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  It was, now that I reflect upon it, more than just a warning to his young brothers about worldly greed; it was a prediction of how the Jews, with all their understanding of the law and words of the prophets, would reject him even when he rose from the dead.  I’m still confounded, as I sit in my dark cell, by the disparity between my Gentile converts and the paltry number of Jews brought into the Way….But once again I digress.  As my Greek friends would say, my brother had opened a Pandora’s box.

“Jesus,” Papa leaned forward, greatly troubled, “are you including me?

“No, of course not,” he answered softly. “What came into my head had a double meaning.  I’m not sure which is more important: the rich man’s greed or Abraham’s words.”

“It sounded like nonsense to me,” Joseph grumbled. “No one rises from the dead.”

Mama had a troubled look on her face. “Are you saying that God said this to you?”

“Yes,” Jesus nodded slowly, “it just came into my head.”

“Really?” Uriah lighted up. “Like prophesy?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Jesus shook his head.

“Revelation then,” I offered, inclining my head.

“I’m not sure what I’d call it,” Jesus squirmed, “maybe just illumination, but I felt the Lord’s presence in my mind.”

“I’ve never felt that, have you ever felt that?” Joseph looked over at James.

For a moment I thought Joseph might be mocking Jesus until I noted the expression on his face…Envy. 

“Once.” James gazed at Jesus, as something stirred in his mind. “I felt Him…. That day you made the bandits go away.  I knew you were special.  I felt God’s presence too.”

For the first time I can remember, James and Joseph didn’t mock Jesus’ divinity, a subject our family would normally avoid.  Pandora’s box had opened again.  Jesus was greatly moved by James’s words.  I recall, with bittersweet memories, that James would be stoned to death, as had Stephen our first martyr, for his loyalty to the Christ, but right now this confession was between two brothers: one whom we suspected was divine and one who was mortal, like me.

 

******

I almost asked Jesus to use his powers to cure me of the falling sickness, but it was not the right time.  Elizabeth was dead.  Our cousin John had ran away.  Rhoda, who had shown no emotion whatsoever this hour, appeared to be addled in the head.  In digressing from the subject of our aunt’s demise, Jesus had once again shown us a glimpse of his divinity.  Upon reflection, it almost seems that Jesus was rehearsing that day.  When he gave us the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, he was merely practicing, as he so often did, for his mission on earth.  Not one person among my family and our friends had the foggiest notion of who this youth was, and yet we knew that he was special.  Even James had fully accepted this fact.  Though he would never admit I was special as Jesus believed, Joseph’s eyes betrayed the emotion he felt about the oldest son….If James, someone who was Joseph’s kindred spirit, now accepted Jesus as touched by the Lord, then it must be true!

“I-I want to feel His presence, Jesus,” Joseph said in a constricted voice. “Teach me to know God like you.  It’s all I ever wanted.  I’ve never felt him in my head.”

“Come to think of it,” Simon muttered, “neither have I.”

Breaking the spell, after Jesus stood up and walked around to embrace his estranged brother, was Mama’s insistence that we have a circle of prayer before supper.  It was the first time I could recall that our family prayed for someone dead.  After a chat with God in which Jesus extolled Elizabeth’s many virtues to God and a short prayer that Rhoda would again speak, our circle quickly broke up.  My brothers and sisters (Uriah included) reconvened in the garden to ponder the strange things Jesus said.  He almost talked to the Lord as an equal, James said without malice.  Jesus had disappeared, as he so frequently did, to reappear just before dinnertime, a washed out look on his face.

“Jesus prays too much,” Simon declared as we filed in for supper. “I think it’s draining his brain.”  

Though we chuckled at Jesus’ expense, we knew that Simon was serious.  Lately, that dreamy look was returning to Jesus’ eyes. 

It was decided at supper that not all of us would travel to Sepphoris to pay our respects at Aunt Elizabeth’s tomb.  James, Joseph, Simon, and I volunteered to stay home and mind the shop.  To my disgust both Tabitha and Uriah begged our parents to go.  Jesus dismissed this foolishness in a kindly manner, suggesting that our parents go alone and let him watch over the household while they were gone.  Our parents could take care of Elizabeth’s affairs with her rabbi’s assistance.  There was no need, during this busy time, to disrupt the carpentry schedule even though Papa would be away.  It struck me as a milestone that Jesus was entrusted with Papa’s business, as well as Mama’s household, at such a busy time.  He would, we all understood, not only have to make sure several orders were finished, but would have to delegate authority to all of us.  Not only would we have to get our separate assignments completed, but the girls would have to cook our meals and complete their chores.  With both parents away, Jesus was totally in charge.

            In the past this might have caused resentment among our family, but there was a mood of cooperation this time.  Elizabeth was dead, and John had ran away.  Once again we were burdened with an unpredictable child.  Added to these events, I think, were Jesus strange words on the day the courier visited our house.  I wanted to believe that the prayer circle had helped cure me of the falling sickness, but the threat of suffering another seizure followed me like a dark cloud.  After our parents departed with their Roman escort, we fell into a hectic regimen.  Along with our chores was the daily drudgery of going to and from school.  Jethro, Obadiah and Boaz continued to dog our trail.  Jesus offered his protection whenever he could, but he was very busy in the shop, so we relied upon James, Joseph, and their friends to help us present a united front.  Because of their admiration of Jesus, both Isaac and Jeroboam grew gradually closer to my brothers and I until they became, in effect, Simon, Uriah, and my friends too.  The ban from entering our house was removed from them, but Jesus forbade Jethro, Obadiah and Boaz from visiting our home.

 

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