For a while, Jesus warning hung like a dark cloud over our lives. Gradually, when it seemed the day of his departure would never come, the dark cloud faded. The subject of him leaving on his mission was rarely brought up. As we toiled at carpentry and the business brought in a substantial income for Mama’s future, life went on as usual. After a few visits by Mama and Jesus, Uriah’s strange malady had vanished. He appeared with his wife Veronica one morning, fully recovered from his spots, in the company of his father Joachim, who was, after so many years our enemy, his old, querulous self. He expressed his sorrow for treating us so badly and his gratitude for Mama and Jesus’ care. I could scarcely believe that this apparition was the same babbling incoherent man who had been filled with so much hate. Jesus gave Mama credit for brining the rabbi and his son back to health, but I was convinced he had a hand in their cure.
Out of gratitude, perhaps, Uriah insisted on helping us with the business. Though he was all thumbs working on wood, Jesus accepted his offer graciously. We needed all the help we could get. We were short-handed when James and Joseph finally left home. With little warning, during a busy time for us, they departed suddenly during the second year after Papa’s death, which was Jesus admitted to me, longer than he expected them to stay. After visiting Sepphoris many times to buy lumber and supplies, James and Joseph had met upstanding Jewish girls. Joseph would work in his father-in-law’s prosperous pottery shop helping him to run his business, and James took his new bride to her relatives in Jerusalem where he would ply his trade as a scribe while attending Nicodemus’ school. I might never forgive them for leaving us in the lurch, but our loss was now balanced by Uriah. When not at home with his wife and father, he was in the shop talking about old times. If nothing else, he was a morale booster for me. As he had in our youth, Uriah made me laugh.
Reminiscent of those old times, were the walks that Uriah, Tabitha, Simon, and I took during the Sabbath or on breaks from work, but it wasn’t the same. Our lives had changed too much. Uriah’s wife was with child—that’s all he could talk about, and Simon often used our walks as an excuse to nap under a shady tree. To make matters worse, as we walked hand-in-hand, Tabitha showed displeasure that Uriah followed us around. It excited me, yet, for Uriah’s sake, made me sad. I had been courting Tabitha for a quite some time, yet I wasn’t ready to pop the word. I loved her—that was certain, but those words, “Would you be my wife,” would trap me forever. Uriah seemed happy enough with his portly little wife, but I wasn’t ready for marriage. My onetime ambition to be a soldier scribe, apparently a lost cause, haunted me. Occasionally, I would look longingly at the scroll Aurelian had given me, and think about my Gentile friends. In it’s hiding place beneath the carpentry shop it sat temptingly, waiting for a day that might never come. Driven by my loved ones in Nazareth I didn’t want to abandon and the promise I made to Jesus, I stayed on, as did Simon, biding my time. Simon, like myself, had no intentions yet of settling down, and yet, as we worked at our trade alongside of Jesus, that is exactly what it seemed like were doing. I had become a competent carpenter, and Simon, despite everyone’s low expectations, had also proven himself in the shop. It appeared that with the exception of our tragic loss of Papa and despite the desertion of James and Joseph, whom I never really liked, things were back to normal. There was Mama, the twins, Tabitha, Simon, Uriah, and, whether it was welcome or not, most of the familiar faces of the townsfolk passing by the shop. It was bittersweet for me, but mostly sweet. I might not have fulfilled my dreams, but my life had a comfortable pattern and I was around people I loved.
Then one day, when Simon and I had almost forgotten the vision given to Jesus by God, a dusty traveler dismounted in front of our house with a sachel slung over his shoulder. After tethering his horse to the fence in front of our house, he waved to us. Not since the day in our garden when Jesus brought the sparrow back to life had I seen that look on Mama’s face. She had been picking weeds. Though eligible for marriage now, the twins had remained at home to keep her company. They were watering the vegetables and herbs that day when the messenger road up. Uriah had not paid us his daily visit, so it had been uncommonly quiet that hour. Sensing that this man was important, Simon and I were right behind Martha and Abigail as the man called out.
“I’m looking for Jesus of Nazareth,” he said hoarsely. “Are you he?”
“No,” I shook my head.
“I’m not either,” Simon uttered a nervous laugh.
“Who is this man?” Mama yelled. “What does he want with my son?”
Suddenly it was my son, not one of my sons. That special bond she shared with her oldest son, and no one else, surfaced that moment. Jesus walked up slowly, his blue eyes blazing in the sun.
“I am he,” he announced with resignation.
“This is for you,” the courier said with a bow.
“Martha and Abigail,” Jesus said, looking back at the twins, “get this poor man a mug of juice and a loaf of bread. I’ll send for Naphtali, Simeon, and Hezekiah to water and feed your horse.” “Come my friend.” He led the way. “You’re welcome in our home!”
“What does it say? What does it say?” Mama asked wringing her hands.
Pulling a scroll from the sachel, Jesus read it carefully before returning it to the pouch. He was very calm, and there was unspoken resolution in his eyes.
“What’s your name sir?” he asked the stranger as we entered the house.
“Amos bar Jonah,” answered the courier. “I’m a friend of the Baptist. Because I have a horse, he sent me. I wanted to make it here before sunset. Something incredible is happening, Jesus. The prophet wants to see you. He has waited a long time for this moment. He baptizes people in the Jordan River, promising that another is coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. It’s all there in the letter. He said you’d understand.”
“Dear Lord!” Mama cried, collapsing into Martha and Abigail’s arms. “I hoped it would all go away. What will we do without you, Jesus? Do you really have to leave?”
“The Baptist calls,” he answered simply, “and I must go.”
“Whose the Baptist?” Simon blurted. “You once told us you would be called by God.”
“He’s our cousin,” Jesus heaved a broken sigh, “God’s messenger—the forerunner. He signed the letter “John, the Baptist.” “It has begun,” his eyes fell on me, “…The day will come, when I shall call upon you!”
There was a dramatic edge to Jesus’ voice we had never heard before. He had often mentioned the Holy Spirit, but he had never mentioned the messenger or forerunner. The notion of baptism was not new to our people, but John had taken it to a new level. We were too shocked to even ask. Jesus had done so many strange things throughout his life; this was just one more thing to add to the list. It was the simple fact that he was leaving, perhaps for good, that Mama couldn’t accept. Once again, inspired by the moment, that surge of adventure filled me.
“Let me go with you,” I cried. “You can become a great rabbi. We’ll see the world together while you preach. Simon can take over the shop until we return. What a great journey that will be!”
Simon’s mouth dropped. “Wait a minute. I might have plans of my own.”
“Come on!” I jumped up and down excitedly. “You can do it. Jesus has faith in you. The adventurer’s life isn’t for you!”
Mama’s eyes were wild with despair. “You’ve always been a strange boy, Jesus. I’ve never understood God’s plan. We’ve had a good life, haven’t we? You should get married, raise a family here in Nazareth like all young men, not leave on the say-so of Cousin John. He was an incorrigible son for Aunt Elizabeth. He’s never been right in the head!”
“Mama, listen to me,” Jesus voice was tinted with irritation, “we talked about this. You never listened. Cousin John knew this was coming. Our friends Samuel and Habakkuk knew it too.”
“What is coming?” she asked tearfully. “Explain it to me again. This all seems like a monstrous joke!”
“I’ll send for you later,” he said to me. “You can’t abandon the shop; this is a busy month. Comfort Mama; this is hardest on her. You and Simon must work in the shop. Our family needs your help. You told me you’d stay, and I expect you to keep your promise.”
“Are you serious about sending for me?” I whispered faintly.
“When the time is right,” he reassured me.
Simon, who must have felt left out, said nothing as Jesus held our sobbing mother in his arms. I felt an uncomfortable excitement in Jesus’ assurance. I dare not ask him for fear he might dispel my hope. For the first time, since I discovered that I, like Jesus, had special gifts, I knew that I was part of Jesus’ destiny. Just what exactly this might be I couldn’t imagine, but that mixture of fear and euphoria I often felt on my journey with the Gentiles soared tenfold that moment. As we sat around the table with Jesus for the last time, watching John’s courier finish his snack, I wondered how Cousin John could possible fit into Jesus’ mission. Amos was, upon closer inspection, a filthy beggar of a man. Was this the kind of rabble John was attracting? I asked myself, still reeling from Jesus’ promise. Surely he would be a great rabbi or doctor of the law. From what I had gathered from my parents, John had ran away to join a band of desert hermits and was, the last time anyone saw him, spouting prophecy about the end of the world. He had become a wild man, wearing animal skins and eating locusts and honey, as he traveled from town to town. Now he waited for Jesus by the River Jordan, baptizing and calling for the repentance of sin. How could this mad man possibly fit into Jesus’ plans?
While gathering up his meager belongings, Jesus reminded us how Abraham, Moses, and King David bowed to God’s well. Should he, a simple carpenter, do any less? Mama, Simon, and the twins continued to argue with him, but I sat there quietly contemplating what Jesus had meant. How long would I have to wait before I joined him on his adventure? Surely, great things were in store for my brother. Then something occurred to me that both the courier and Jesus had overlooked. An idea burst in my head.
“Amos,” I addressed the filthy man, “you brought only one horse. Just how is Jesus supposed to travel to Jordan—walk?”
“Oh, we were told that you have mules. We shall borrow one for Jesus, unless he wishes to ride my horse.”
“Oh really,” I pursed my lips. “I don’t mind loaning one of my mules. Just tell me how I’m going to get it back.”
“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “We didn’t plan that far.”
“Well, I have a plan,” I proposed slyly. “I will ride with you to the river, then, after Jesus meets John, return with the borrowed mule.”
Jesus, who had been stuffing his knapsack, was listening with amusement. Mama, to my surprise, thought this was a good idea.
“Yes, Jude is an experienced traveler,” she praised me. “Take your sword my son. There are bandits down there.”
“Out of the question,” Amos shook his head. “John told me to bring you—alone. I will pay him for his mule.”
“You crafty fellow.” Jesus wrung his finger at me. “What’s going on in that thick head?”
“Please, Jesus,” I pleaded, as Mama stood by my side. “Judea is much more peaceful than Galilee. It’ll take us two days at the most. If we leave early in the morning, I could make it back to Nazareth the next day. I want to make sure you’re going to be all right. To be honest, I don’t trust John—”
“I don’t either,” Mama whispered to me. “When you get there, talk Jesus into coming back home.”
“This isn’t a trick,” I glanced at Simon. “I won’t leave like James and Joseph did. I’ll stay put until Jesus calls!”
“Promise me,” she sputtered in my ear. “This is not what God planned!”
“I can hear you Mama,” Jesus laughed gently. “I know this is difficult to understand.” “It’s new territory,” he struggled with the words, “but you must be patient. Jude will come right back. I’m going to return, too, but on a visit. I belong to God now.”
“Very well,” Amos grumbled, “load your knapsack, Jude—for at least four days, not two. We’ll leave at daybreak. I’ll throw my roll in your floor if you folks don’t mind. Of course, I don’t mind sleeping outside.”
“No, no,” Jesus waved his hands, “you’re our honored guest. Mama can fix us a humble pouch of food. You can join us for supper this evening.” “Until then,” he announced, looking around the room, “let’s pay our friend Samuel a visit. He’s been waiting for this for a long time.”
Simon was downcast. One day he would become Nazareth’s only carpenter. He would marry a comely girl and have several children, but, that hour, I knew that he felt unimportant. I had my great adventure, James and Joseph had set out on their own, and now Jesus was about to venture forth on the greatest adventure of his life.
“Don’t worry,” I said, patting Simon’s shoulder. “You and I are a team. I’m coming home. If I don’t see Tabitha this afternoon, tell her I’ll be right back.”
As it turned out, however, I ran into both Tabitha and Uriah on our way to Samuel’s house. Tabitha was sullen after hearing the news that I would accompany Jesus to the river, but seemed satisfied that I would return. She thought it was a silly idea for Jesus to go traipsing off to meet a wild man in the desert. Like Mama, Simon, and the twins, she questioned his priorities. Until he became a rabbi like Aaron or famous scribe, his place was at the head of our household as the oldest son. Tabitha’s sudden wisdom irritated me. Though Uriah chattered foolishly about the dangers of bandits, he didn’t scoff at Jesus’ mission as Tabitha and Mama did. Martha, Abigail, and Simon walked along in moody silence.
When we reached Samuel’s house, Mordechai took Jesus aside and insisted that the unwashed courier remain outside. Knowing how devout Samuel and his household were, Jesus couldn’t argue with his request. Amos was quite happy to return to our home so he could check on his horse. To avoid being in Samuel’s smelly chambers, Simon and the girls volunteered to go home too, but Jesus ordered them into the house. Tabitha had slipped away unnoticed before we entered, and Uriah chose to wait for us in our yard. This would be, I realized that moment, a solemn hour for Jesus’ family.
As Mordechai led us in to greet Samuel, whom we hadn’t seen in many months, we were shocked to see how far he had declined. The room around him smelled like medicine as well as herbs to hide foul odors. The remnant of the once formidable Pharisee lie in the shadows, his withered, heavily wrinkled face caught in the bedside lamp’s glow. His black, hawk-like eyes, his only semblance humanity, traveled across the room to Jesus, who stood in the forefront of us, waiting for recognition.
“That day has come,” Samuel rasped, raising a skeletal finger. “…Now I can die. Come here Jesus, so I can give you my blessing before I breathe my last.”
“Dear faithful friend,” Jesus murmured, clasping his hand. “You promised to wait until that time. Today a courier arrived with a message from my cousin John. He waits at the Jordan River. I knew at once it was my time.”
“John, you say,” Samuel searched his memory. “…He’s that crazy man in the desert. Why would you want to meet him?”
“Fear not Samuel,” Jesus said gently, “the Lord’s with me. I’ll be in good hands.”
“I don’t understand, Jesus,” he objected querulously. “You should become a great teacher or rabbi, not following a lunatic in the desert.”
“I’ll follow no man. John will baptize me, and we’ll part company at the river’s edge.”
“Well that’s good,” the old man cackled. “I’ve heard some troublesome things about that man.” “But tell me,” he grew serious, “why would you, Jesus, need baptism? You’re without sin.”
A gasp went up in the room. Jesus seemed to cringe. No one would speak of this after today. It sounded outrageous, but it was true. It seems ironic to me now that Samuel believed this but didn’t understand who he was. None of us did. Wordlessly, at first, Samuel reached up, as Jesus knelt, to place his palm on his head. Nothing was said for a full moment, as he began the blessing. Though his voice was thin and weak, it was articulate. We clearly understood what he said:
“In the name of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, and David, the King, I bless you, Jesus of Nazareth. Something great awaits you. I know not what it is. I wish I could be there to see you make your mark, but I’m tired and worn out. It’s time to go to my fathers. Kiss my brow, prince, that I may sleep. I go to a better place.”
And, in what was a miracle in timing for Samuel, the old man smiled at Jesus and breathed his last.