The Bosom of Abraham
When we arrived home, Martha and Abigail were weeping and wringing their hands. Papa was nowhere in sight. Mama ran immediately into their room and let out a chilling scream. All of us knew immediately what was wrong. Suddenly everyone, except Jesus who managed to keep his head, were wailing and gnashing their teeth.
“Make him better, Jesus, your prayers are strong,” she begged pitifully.
“I can’t,” he said, weeping silently, “…Papa’s dead. He’s now in a better place. You shall see him again. We will all see him again…Let us gather around him and offer our prayers.”
“Words, always words,” Joseph spat. “We should never have gone to Uriah’s house. It was too much for Papa’s heart.”
“It was his time,” Jesus said calmly, “the Lord’s will.”
“Hah,” James cried bitterly, “you don’t know that. Why did he take our father and not Joachim and his fat son?”
Mama pulled the blanket over Papa’s face as James, Joseph, and Simon wailed and gnashed their teeth, then fell piteously on top of him, sobbing uncontrollably as Jesus and I looked on. Upon this act of finality, our brothers ran into the backyard, overcome with grief. I was numb with grief, myself, yet I followed Jesus example and kept my head. I wanted to comfort Mama, but I didn’t know how. Her longtime husband and confidant was dead. When I reached down to comfort her, she turned and spat at me like a cat.
I had never seen her like this. Her voice sounded like a curse. “Bah!” she hissed. “James’ right. Why would God take Papa, a righteous man and not that old rabbi and his son? You should never have left Jude. You were always a willful child. It was too much for your father’s heart!”
“Mama,” Jesus said in my defense, “that’s not true. Papa gave his blessing when Jude left, and he’s returned—”
“Hah,” she cut him off bitterly, “and how long will it be before he runs off on another adventure? Oh yes, I heard him boasting to Simon. Did you know that the prefect of Antioch offered him a job. Of course you do Jesus; you know everything. I’ve seen that wonder-lust look in Jude’s eyes—”
Mama caught herself, brought her fist up to her mouth, and let out a muffled scream. Despite her present delusion, she was more observant than I had imagined. Though I wasn’t trying to brag to Simon at the time, I shouldn’t have told him about the scroll Aurelian gave me. Simon couldn’t keep a secret. I should have destroyed the scroll, but I couldn’t. Mama’s suspicions were correct: I was still tempted. The scroll was, despite everything I endured, a trophy, symbolizing a turning point in my life. When I attempted an apology, it caught in my throat. All I could manage was “Uh, I’m sorry.” For an indeterminate period, as my mind reeled with her rebuke, I listened to Jesus’ prayer, which sounded almost too eloquent for the occasion:
“Lord, you who created the heavens and earth and made man and beasts, accept the soul of this righteous man, the husband of our mother, our father, and faithful friend of many, that someday we shall join him in paradise….”
On and on Jesus prayed, covering a long list of Papa’s deeds on behalf of family and friends, until Mama had heard enough. Raising her hands and shaking her head, she rose up shakily with our help.
“Jesus, Jesus, Joseph is right this time—enough with the words. We know your father’s in heaven. Must you go on so? Let me have my grief,” “…alone!” she added, pointing to the door.
“Very well.” Jesus bowed.
I was now doubly stunned. First Mama rebuked me, now Jesus. She was obviously not in her right frame of mind. We returned to the kitchen and sat down at the table deeply troubled. After a short while, our brothers and sisters (who had fled to the front yard) straggled dejectedly into the house, but no one, not even Jesus spoke. Our Jewish custom of burial loomed ominously in our minds, unsaid but hanging as a shadow in our small house. Although the preparation of the dead and funeral ceremony itself were sacred and reverential, the burial was an awful affair. According to custom, we had one day to bury Papa. That was a law of our people. I remember how everyone scrambled around frantically to organize the funeral and burial of my friend Nehemiah. What followed this haste to get him into the ground was a gloomy ceremony—one of the worst memories of my life. The Romans, on the other hand, I learned from Decimus and Aulus, were in no hurry to bury the dead. This was true, I learned, for other pagans as well. According to Fronto, the Thracian ceremonies he recalled were almost a festive affair. For the Romans, the corpse was, as in Jewish manner, washed and dressed in its finest clothes, but lie in state for eight days, instead of one, allowing a transitional period as relatives and friends paid their respects. Upon the eighth day, instead of being rushed through a funeral, patricians and plebeians alike were paraded to the funeral pyre or burial site accompanied by musicians, mourners, and guests. In addition to my friend’s burial, I had witnessed a few townsfolk and my aunt’s funeral—none of which were anything but a grim display of grief, rather than the celebrations given by Gentile peoples. Of course, I kept these heretical thoughts to myself.
As Mama carried on in the next room, Jesus stood up, now fully in charge. His voice carried the authority it would have when James and I were his disciples. This time there was no grumbling from James and Joseph.
“James, go inform Rabbi Aaron. Joseph—you go to Ezra’s house. Mama will need his wife Naomi. You Simon and Jude must spread the word. Don’t simply go to our friends houses; go to Gideon and his friends’ houses. This includes Joachim’s house. Uriah might not be able to attend, but he deserves to know.” “When Mama calls you to the room, you Martha and Abigail must give her your support. You must be strong. All of you must be strong during this dark hour.”
And so it happened—the day we had dreaded: Papa’s weak heart had finally given out. Many would say that he had gone to the Bosom of Abraham—an ill defined place where the righteous dwelled. Though rabbis and Pharisees believed in an afterlife, as did the common people, the Jewish concept of heaven had, until Jesus explained it, seemed strange and inadequate. There was Gahenna, called Hades by the Greeks, the abode of wicked souls, more clearly defined by the Torah, and a dark, mysterious place called Sheol where both the righteous and unrighteous dead were kept, but no Elysian Fields, as in Greek mythology. Before Jesus defined the afterlife for his family, then for his disciples, who spread the doctrine of eternal life to Jews and Gentiles alike, the afterlife had been a shadowy realm. Even during that hour, as we began our grim tasks, and in spite of Jesus vision imparted to us of Paradise, I was unsure where our father was. I had felt the same way when Nehemiah died and, for that matter, when those filthy bandits butchered and ate one of my mules.
Where did they really go? I wondered fleetingly, scanning the sky, while following Simon down the main road. Was it up there in the sky, as Jesus implied, when he raised his eyes heavenward to pray….Or was the Land of the Dead located in the underworld as many pagans believed? After all of my talks with Jesus and his efforts to turn me into a right-thinking Jew, I was thinking like a Gentile again. Because of my association with Roman, Greek, and Eastern pagans, cynicism had tainted my views. Not one Gentile had accepted my harsh, invisible god. I had seen too many men die with little or no ceremony to not feel cynical myself. Nevertheless, regardless of my doubts and despite the mystery of death, I knew the Sadducees were wrong. It didn’t end with the grave. However strange and unknowable it might be, there was an afterlife. Jesus, though not clear about the matter, had said so, himself…Papa was there now waiting for us.
When I related my thoughts to Simon, he laughed hysterically at my foolishness. We were on a gloomy, unchartered course in our lives. Simon was the least philosophical person I had ever known, the last person for which to air such views, but I felt a sudden, comforting illumination in sharing my feelings with him.
“What does it matter, Jude,” he scoffed, “right now, in this life, Papa’s dead.”
“No, only his body,” I insisted, “the Spirit is immortal. Jesus told me this. Wherever Papa is, he’s at peace. There’s no dark sleep, Simon. Death brings peace.”
One day, as a disciple, I would share this insight with Jesus. Simon seemed to feel little comfort at my words. At each house we stopped at, we took turns delivering Jesus simple message: “Joseph, the carpenter, our father, is dead. Please be at the synagogue by noon.” Everyone we contacted, even Papa’s enemies and fair-weather friends, showed some level of shock, sadness, and disbelief. For Samuel, a benefactor for our family, we were afraid that the news might be too much for him, so we left the message with Mordechai, his chamberlain, who, after renting his tunic, openly wept. Several of our friends also wept. We were aided in our grim tasks by the three boys who watered and fed my mules. I gave them a few coins, instructing them what to say to the townsfolk in their sector of the town. After completing their errands, James and Joseph also joined us in our mission. For the remainder of that hour the four of us covered the remainder of Nazareth. When we were almost certain that every household had been notified, we returned home. From a distance, we heard that eerie wail women: Mama, joined by two or three of her friends, we could not tell whom. Jesus told us to wait in the shop, until it was time for the funeral. After meeting the rabbi at the synagogue for instructions, several men would volunteer for grave-digging, while the remaining townsfolk would visit our home to pay their respects. As my brothers and I waited in the shop for this first ordeal to be completed, we were hailed by visitors from the road. Men and women who had shunned our family in the past were now our long lost friends. It made me sick. Where were they when Papa was alive?
In spite of my excellent memory, everything seemed muddled that day. In accordance with Jewish custom, Papa had been washed, dresses in best garments, then wrapped in a shroud—all of this done without my brothers and my help. Even Jesus was prevented from interfering with this important rite. Except in later years during Lazarus’ funeral, I never heard so much wailing from women, and it didn’t stop at our house. All the way to the gravesite near Samuel’s estate, and during the ceremony conducted by Rabbi Aaron at the synagogue, women who had never visited our house wept and pounded their temples. Several of Papa’s men friends rent their clothes as a sign of grief, but never carried on like that. I remember Jesus praying at the gravesite as he had for Nehemiah and, of course, Aaron’s eloquent sermon, and I was surprised to see the old rabbi in the synagogue paying his respects. All my thoughts, however, became jumbled that moment Papa was lowered into his grave. After it was all over, I, like my brothers, walked around in a daze.
Our father was dead. Mama was a mental wreck. Our home was visited by a stream of mourners, many of whom had never been our friends. Even considering the crises our family faced in the past, these were the darkest days of our lives. James and Joseph now felt trapped in the carpenter shop. On the very day of the funeral, out of earshot of Jesus, I heard them talking about leaving home. Even Simon threatened to run away. If it hadn’t been for the promise I had made to Jesus, I would have been tempted myself. The scroll given to me by Aurelian beckoned me now. It was a way out of this humdrum life. Yet, during the prescribed period of mourning, as disheartened as we felt, we tried to comfort our mother as much as possible and stay close to home. Throughout it all, Jesus must have known about our feelings. On the third day of visitation, several unexpected townsmen arrived at our house. Jesus had closed the carpenter’s shop during this time. Fearful that his brothers might rebuke Mama’s guests, Jesus gathered us together and led us into the backyard. I entered the enclosure and stroked each of my pets, focusing my attention upon the one that carried me so far. James, Joseph, and Simon reached in that moment to pat a mule, while Jesus chatted lightly about human nature.
“Tell me,” he asked, raising two fingers, “Why does it take death to bring us together? What is it about simple folk that brings the best out of them at such a time?”
“Hah!” Joseph tossed his head. “We’re not together. Many of them are the same, mean-spirited souls!”
“Yes, Jesus.” James made a face. “I saw Ethan approaching our house, and what’s that old bag of wind Gideon doing in our home? They’re not Papa’s friends!”
“Perhaps guilt.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Why else would they come around?”
“Just maybe,” Simon suggested half-seriously, “they want to make sure he’s dead.”
“Shame on you,” Jesus cuffed Simon playfully. “No one hated that good man.” “…. Jude’s right,” he added thoughtfully, patting my mule, “guilt, as much as sorrow, brought them to our house. And that is a foundation…a beginning…. Do you not remember our special holiday, the Day of Atonement?
Suddenly, at what seemed like an inappropriate time, Jesus uttered something that he might one day have said to his disciples: “Guilt, if it leads them to contrite hearts, is a good thing. If not put right by righteousness and good deeds, it festers and hardens the heart. So it was with Ramses and Herod. Greater are those, who confess to God to unload their sins, than those who grind their teeth with puffed up pride. Such bravery is a hallow game…”
His voice trailed off to a faint whisper. As I look back, I realize, that, reworded differently throughout his ministry, Jesus had said much the same thing to his disciples. He had just given us a brief sermon on forgiveness of sins and salvation that had nothing to do with the Day of Atonement, but that moment in the mule enclosure it sounded utterly strange.
Joseph had been correct. “Whoa, where’d that come from?” he asked, looking around the group. “Didn’t I tell you?” he grinned. “I saw it coming. Jesus is talking strangely again!”
“Yes, it’s true.” Simon nodded. “You can see it in his eyes.”
“Jesus,” James said with concern, “that came out of nowhere. Ramses, Herod…puffed up pride? What’s that about?
“Huh?” Jesus grunted, blinking his eyes, as if awakening from a nap. “I…I’m sorry, that did come out of nowhere!”
As James and Joseph retreated to a corner of the enclosure and muttered amongst themselves, Simon studied Jesus dreamy expression. Despite everything I knew about my oldest brother, I still wondered if he might be addled in the head.
“Jesus,” I whispered, “are you all right? You’ve been under a lot of strain. Are you talking to your Father again, like those times you wandered the hills?”
“Not talking, Jude,” he murmured with a nod, “I was listening. You know my mind. You’ve had your share of visions, have you not?” “I’m sorry,” he interrupted himself, “This is no time for preaching. It’s at least an hour until noon. Let’s all take a walk.”
“Well…all right,” I shrugged.
Simon looked at him in disbelief. “A walk? Right now?”
“I must talk to you,” he explained softly, “It’s important. Come, let’s go to my favorite spot.”
Caught off guard by his change of mood, James and Joseph stood there in the yard with blank looks on their faces. Simon and I trotted after Jesus as he led us down the Shepherd’s trail, up the side path, past Jesus’ special cave to the lookout point he had chosen as his favorite spot. Grumbling under their breaths, James and Joseph followed reluctantly in the distance. I had a feeling that Jesus might say something else strange at this point. He had that look in his eyes, but this time he was clear and straight to the point.
“My brothers,” he called out, as James and Joseph approached, “one day I will have to leave Nazareth. You must decide which one of you will become the carpenter in my place.”
We were speechless a moment as he explained his vision. “The Lord has put me on notice: when I hear his call I will leave. I will know it as a sign: it will come with a messenger into town. Then I must go!”
His four brothers groped for words. We were beside ourselves with anger and shock. Simon clutched his forehead in utter disbelief, Joseph threw a tantrum, pounding his temples and kicking up dust, and James let out a loud, wounded howl. I felt as if I might faint as I had in the past, but it passed as I sat down on a rock.
“Great beard of Moses,” I groaned, “I knew this was coming. We all knew!”
“It’s nonsense!” James shouted, “This doesn’t make sense. How could you even contemplate leaving now that Papa’s dead?”
Jesus gazed into the unknown. “It’s not my design… It’s God’s plan. Until that day we, the sons of Joseph, the carpenter, must work hard and save money to care for Mama, now that he’s gone.”
“God’s plan—what rubbish!” spat James.
“I had this feeling.” Joseph shook his head in dismay. “That look in his eyes…all those silly things he says. Now this!”
“You said one of us is going to be the carpenter,” Simon gave Jesus a trouble look. “That’s certainly not me. James, Joseph, or Jude can do it, not I.”
“Will it’s not me!” James snarled.
“Nor I!” Joseph stomped his foot.
“Well,” I said to myself, “after that silly promise I made, I guess that leaves me.” “When are you leaving,” I tried being calm, “…a week, a month, a year? Why are you telling us this now?”
“I won’t know the hour or day,” he explained, looking squarely at me. “You must be prepared.”
“Jesus,” I replied, looking away in terror. “Are you talking to me? When you say you, do you mean me or us? Simon is useless, and James and Joseph won’t stay.”
James, Joseph, and Simon nodded eagerly at my accusations. That moment, he placed a hand on my head as if he was giving me a blessing.
“Don’t worry little brother,” he spoke cryptically now. “You have a purpose too—I’ve known this for quite some time.”
“What purpose is this?” I asked, feeling a surge of hope.
Did this mean I didn’t have to be a carpenter?…Or was this another way of telling me I would one day take his place? I decided, with fleeting hope, not to press the point.
“Tell us Jesus,” James came forward anxiously, “who will it be? I must finish my studies with Nicodemus. I’ve told you this.”
“That goes for me.” Joseph stood beside him clinching his fist. “I have my own plans!”
“Humph!” I looked around at my brothers. “It can’t be Simon; it must be me!”
“Oh, Simon is going to surprise all of you,” Jesus said, ruffling his hair. “He’d be a fine carpenter if he set his mind to it.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Simon shook his head.
“Don’t worry my brothers.” He took us all in at a glance. “The Lord will decide.”
“Could this be years instead of months?” I probed. “What if God waits a long time?”
“So be it!” Jesus raised his hands.
“That’s good enough for me,” I heaved a sigh.
“Me too,” Simon agreed.
“I guess it’ll have to do,” James muttered to Joseph as Jesus led us down the trail.
“It’s rubbish!” Joseph cried.