When we arrived at Peter’s house, his wife Esther and mother-in-law Dinah gave us a glowing reception, hugging us one-by-one as we traipsed through the door. The smell of roast stew, lentils, and pastries, was a wonderful reminder of what we were coming home to. As soon as we entered the house, its interior also smelled of sweat and dust, so the women brought in basins of hot water to wash our feet. A feeling of well being and belonging overwhelmed me, as the women tended to our needs. But when they saw the waif we brought along with us—the last to enter appear at the doorstep, their faces had dropped. Not everyone caught this reaction. Most of the disciples were tired and hungry; I couldn’t blame their lack of concern. Bernice, Peter’s daughter, of course, ran to embrace Mary, but she gave everyone a glowing reception, so technically she didn’t count.
Because Mary seemed slightly addled herself, she and Bernice became fast friends. Later, I would learn that neither Mary nor Bernice were really daft. They shared a common trait of excess cheerfulness and silliness, which made them appear that way. Tonight, after, having our feet washed, rinsing off our faces, and putting on clean tunics, we shared a common meal, seating ourselves casually on the floor along the four walls of the room. Esther, Dinah, and Bernice served us, took their portions, and sat along one of the walls. After the Shema uttered clumsily by Peter and a short blessing given by Jesus, we plunged ravenously into our stew. While we avoided banter at first, Mary shamelessly sat next to Jesus, chattering about our exploits.
For a moment, when she skirted a forbidden topic, I thought Jesus might scold her or at least cut her off, but he let her ramble on until the very end.
“… It’s true—all of it,” she said, smiling at Esther, who sat glaring at her from across the room. “Those silly old men with their long gray beards wanted to stone me, but he saved me and gave me a new life.”
She reminisced unabashedly the entire episode from when she awakened from darkness until her rescue from certain death. If Esther and Dinah had been any other Jewish matron, they would have shown contempt for this foolish girl. Mary hadn’t been drunk. Why she came clean so soon, we will never know. Until, we learned better later, we figured her ordeal had left her slightly mad. Peter, however, who felt she had shown great disrespect for the women and his daughter’s more delicate ears, felt compelled to scold her.
“Mary,” he tried holding his temper, “…you obviously don’t know any better. You’re safe and sound here and will begin a new life, but you must never repeat that again. My wife and mother-in-law are kind-hearted souls, but you’ll make no friends among our neighbors and friends with that story.” “Mums the word!” he placed his finger to his lips.
“Peter, Esther, Dinah, Bernice,” Jesus looked around the room at each of them, “if you believe in me, believe it when I tell you that Mary is, in deed, a new woman. Her happiness overwhelms her. She has no guile.” “In the future,” he said for Mary’s benefit, “she’ll keep this secret in our company—a miracle as great as any seen. She is as example of how far one can fall and be brought up to God’s grace. You have much to teach her. She has much to learn.”
“So that just makes everything dandy,” James grumbled under his breath.
“Let’s give her a chance,” I whispered back.
Bartholomew, who sat next to me, overhearing our exchange, agreed with me. By the look on their faces, all of the disciples had been shocked by Mary’s honesty, yet had nodded in agreement with Jesus’ words. Even Peter, having shown less forbearance, gave Jesus a nod. The one exception was expected. Jesus was patient with James because he was gradually changing—if not in words, in deeds. Despite his instincts as a stickler for the law, he remained loyal to Jesus and the Way. He would accept Mary, as he had everything else repugnant to his nature. Considering his original goal to become a scribe and his training with Nicodemus, he had, in many ways, sacrificed more than the rest of us. Jesus had made Capernaum his home base, allowing the fisherman to see their relatives and friends frequently. James had been cutoff from his world, and, like myself, the fishermen hadn’t lost a long-sought career, as had James. Unlike him, we had nothing to lose.
These were heady days, as we followed the Shepherd. In the coming days, though, when Jesus finished gathering members of his inner circle, sealing their number to twelve, our resolve would be tested. Jesus would require much more of us. We would have to assist him not merely in baptismal rites but as preachers, ourselves. That night in Peter’s house, however, we had no thought for tomorrow. With full bellies, a measure of wine, and simple fellowship, we were like children in Jesus’ eyes, caring only for today.
“Jude,” James murmured as we settled in our pallets, “do you think Mary’s mad?”
“A little,” I answered half-seriously. “Anyone would be a little touched after her ordeal.”
“She acts like a tart,” he grumbled under his breath. “She’s going to rub Mama wrong.”
“I hope he doesn’t pack her off to Nazareth,” I replied. “Mama has enough on her plate.”
Watching her bed down beside Jesus, James disagreed. “Our mother may be the one person to tame that wench. Here in Peter’s house, she better keep her hands to herself!”
That very moment, Jesus stood up, mumbled something to Mary and left the house. I remember him walking at night from childhood. It seemed as though he needed little or no sleep. But this time, Jesus seemed irritated. I suspected that he might have scolded Mary for her brazenness. Acting upon impulse now, I waited just long enough for James to fall asleep, and then slipped out of the house.
Had he been tempted by that wench? I wondered or, when he appeared to scold her, was it merely a matter of decorum? In partial moonlight, moving like a ghostly specter in the glow, Jesus gazed up to the sky. I wanted to discuss the issue playing on my mind, but I knew he was in communion with God. Watching him from the shadows of the house, I saw something no one else had seen. Suddenly, the clouds fell away, allowing the moon to fill the sky. The black shadow of a great bird or bat fluttered passed its brilliant surface, disappearing into the adjacent clouds. I was so startled I must have yelped. Looking in my direction, Jesus beckoned. His voice faint, so as not to waken the household, he called to me. With my heart beating and head swimming with questions, I ran over to him, embraced him then stood there trying to shape my words. The issue of Mary and the question I wanted to ask him paled now in significance.
“…That was him, wasn’t it,” I asked in a trembling voice, “the Devil. What does this mean?”
“Once before in the Wilderness he appeared to me,” Jesus replied wistfully. “He’s my Tempter, Jude, not that child. Make no mistake, little brother, we’re at war with him now.”
“We?” I impulsively clutched my throat.
“Yes,” He reached out as if to bless me, “he will tempt you too.”
“Did he send Mary to tempt us.” I blurted foolishly. “Is that why she’s here?”
“No,” said Jesus, shaking his head. “Your greatest challenge—all of you, is turning your back on this world. That means all of the temptations of life, not just matters of the flesh. When our number is sealed, I will send my disciples out on their own. You must be strong, Jude—physically and spiritually. Say nothing of what you saw to the disciples. They’re not strong enough yet; this would frighten them greatly. I’m sorry you witnessed this event, but you must keep it to yourself. My Father wanted you to see it; otherwise you would be sleeping in innocence as the others. No longer are you innocent of this knowledge, Jude. You have seen Satan…. He’s out there, waiting to place snares and pitfalls in our path. You’ll see him in the actions of Pharisees, priests, and scribes. You’ll hear him in the voices of our enemies. You’ll feel his presence in the crowds, sometimes while alone in the darkness or as a phantom in your sleep. He may appear as old hermit, an ugly crone, a handsome man or beautiful woman, even as a child. But you’ll know him, Jude. You see things clearer than the others, little brother. You and James have been with me since the beginning. You’ll know evil when it’s here, but remember this: he can’t hurt you…. He wants mostly to hurt me, and he won’t give up, Jude. The Devil knows its days are numbered now. I bring a light into the world never seen before, but it has only just begun. It would please the Tempter and his familiars to snuff out the light, so we must be ever so vigilant. For ages, Satan has worked through his familiars…. Now, he’s here in person. I saw him, and you saw him. Yet, having failed to bend my will, he’ll inhabitant the hearts and minds of our enemies…even some of our friends.”
The night I learned of Satan’s presence remained a secret until now. As I write these lines, all of the apostles, except Luke, are dead, leaving me, as the last disciple, to pass on Jesus’ sacred writings to Luke. On that night, though, after seeing its shadow against the brilliance of the moon, I would know Satan personally. From that day forward, I sensed even then, a war between good and evil had begun. I wonder now, if the Baptist’s acknowledgment of Jesus as the Lamb of God had been the signal for Satan to return full force to earth. I have always believed that men are quite capable of doing evil on their own, without blaming God’s purpose or the Devil’s wiles. Surely, however, in the deeds of Herod the Great, who had the children of Bethlehem murdered to preserve his kingship and in the actions of the priests, Pharisees, and scribes who jealously resented the good news, there was proof of Satan’s wiles. I saw him in the flesh—a bat-like specter in the sky, the symbolism of his form against lunar light quite plain to me: a force of darkness against a force of light. Jesus was, by his own words, the light. Though the correct words for him still escaped me, I knew he was much more than a preacher or prophet. He was God’s emissary, truly the Messiah, and yet I knew Jesus didn’t like that term. Well aware of the traditional conception of Israel’s deliverer, he preferred such humble names as teacher, preacher, and shepherd.
During my restless slumber, I dreamed that the specter in the sky touched down as a grotesque, shadowy creature with yellow eyes, claws on hands and feet, and a serpent’s spiny tail. Jesus called out to him the words he called out in the wilderness, “Get thee behind me Satan!” but this time it had no effect. Nevertheless, Jesus face was fearless. His blue eyes sparkled with purpose, a snarl playing on his face. Still, though Jesus stood his ground, his great enemy came forward, its tongue flicking out of its mouth, its eyes rolling crazily in his ghastly head, muttering blasphemies too vile to record, until I heard a voice in the dark sky above, call down to me, “Jude, Jude, wake up!”
Looking up into the very face I saw in my dream, I reached out shakily to make sure he was real. “It was awful,” I muttered, drenched in cold sweat, “I-I saw it again. This time it was much more terrible—”
“Shush, little brother,” he whispered, clamping his hand over my mouth. “Remember what I told you, Jude. Keep this to yourself. Mums the word!”
“Oh yes.” I blinked, looking around the room. “I forgot…. But it was horrible Jesus—”
“I’m sure it was,” he cut me of. “You’re sweating like a slave!” “We all have bad dreams,” he tried playing it down. “You have an active mind, Jude. Nightmares are generated by fear. You must think pleasant thought before falling to sleep.”
Jesus’ words sounded simplistic to me. I was well aware of my overactive imagination and fears. This was different. I wanted to give him details of my nightmare while fresh in my mind, but thought better of it. My dream was too closely related to my experience last night. In fact, I suspected it might be an omen, and Jesus had enough on his mind without worrying about this. Fortunately, everyone was still asleep and didn’t overhear our whispering back and forth. After pulling off my tunic, I retrieved a dry one in my pack, slipped it on, and then followed Jesus out of the house. This time, as we emerged, the sun had just brimmed the distant hills. Recalling times in the past, when Jesus and I watched the sun come up, I once more felt special.
“Well,” I laughed nervously, “no sign of him.”
“He’s out there,” Jesus reassured me. “Come, little brother, this is our time—just you and me. Before the others awaken and we begin anew, let’s take a walk.”
“Where shall we go?” I asked, looking around at the sleeping town.
I could hear a dog barking in the distance, and the murmurs of early-risers, shuffling off to work. As we approached a row of boats as yet unattended, some of which belonged to Peter, we heard Zebedee, John’s and James’ father, shout, “Where’s my lazy sons?”
Turning toward the swarthy, sun splotched man, Jesus answered cheerily, “Still asleep. I’ve been pushing them too hard. God’s business is hard work.”
“Infernal foolishness; that’s what it is,” grumbled Zebedee. “Peter’s business is going to ruin because of his absence. The fishermen Peter hired are lazy, like my sons. They’re asleep too.”
At first Zebedee appeared to be a grouch. After seeing his snarl and hearing a sour laugh, however, I could tell he wasn’t serious. Upon reaching the fisherman, Jesus was given a bear hug and slapped on the back. Afterwards Zebedee broke into banter about current events.
“Well, it’s tax day today,” he said, lifting his net into a boat. “Them Romans want their tariff on our goods. They’ve raised it, you know—ten per cent more, in fact. The townsmen are getting sick of it. I told my men to steer clear of Capernaum today. I don’t want them to get their heads busted.”
“Before the Romans, it was the Greeks.” Jesus shrugged. “In the end,” he added thoughtfully, “our Lord is the master!”
“Always the one with the fancy words,” teased Zebedee. “I can’t understand why you need my two sons. They’re not the brightest lamps in Capernaum. What are your plans, Jesus? You’re not one of them prophets, are you. We had enough of them. Judah’s rebellion cost us many of our children. Their mother’s worried. I am too. There’s trouble brewing in Galilee, Jesus; there surely is.”
“Oh?” I felt my heart surge. “How so?”
“You haven’t heard?” he asked, gazing back at Capernaum. “Some fellah and his gang’s been robbin’ caravans—killin’ some. Now he’s stirrin’ up young hot heads, trying to make trouble for Rome. Mark my word, Jesus. That publican they’ve sent us is in for big trouble. I don’t like the mood in town. I don’t like it at all!”
Glancing at Jesus beside me I noticed a change in his demeanor. He was silent, in deep thought it appeared. The smile had faded from his face.” “… I know who it is,” he finally uttered. “It’s Barabbas.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Zebedee snapped his fingers, “his father was a thief and murderer too. Got himself crucified, he did. That Barabbas is going to meet the same end!”
“What’s wrong Jesus?” I studied him a few seconds. “…. You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“Not a ghost,” Jesus finally murmured, “…the future.” Turning to me, as Zebedee returned to his task, he signaled me with a toss of his head, as if to say “It’s time to go!” “Thank you for the information,” he said in a strained voice. “I’m worried about that publican.”
“As you should be,” Zebedee replied, climbing into his boat, “I remember folks stoning one tax-collector. One poor fellow was thrown off a cliff.”
I knew, of course, that Jesus was worried about more than the publican. The very name Barabbas, whom my mother once tried to help, made me fear for Jesus that much more. That moment two sleepy-eyed youths arrived belatedly on the scene. Zebedee scolded his helpers profusely, but managed during the diatribe to wish Jesus and me a good day.
As we retraced our steps back to Peter’s house, the subject was changed entirely to small talk, but I wasn’t fooled.
“That Zebedee is a rascal,” he said, forcing out a laugh. “I wonder if poor Esther and Dinah are fixing breakfast. We’re a terrible burden on them, you know… My burden has become others’ burdens. She must be reimbursed somehow—”
“Jesus,” I asked, touching his arm, “… do you see something in the future I should know about?”
“The Lord speaks, and I listen,” he answered enigmatically. “You know everything you need to know.”
As we entered the house, it was filled with grumbling and groans. It was obvious that most of the fishermen had drunk too much wine. Last night, even James had succumbed to the vine. Peter, who loved the vine himself, had the presence of mind to stay sober for his family’s sake and Bartholomew didn’t need to be suffering from the effects in order to whine and groan, but Andrew, Philip, John, his brother, and James were in bad shape this morning. As the women fixed us our morning meal, Mary chattered with Peter’s daughter, making the din of noise even worse. No one saw Mary drinking wine, but with her bubbly, uninhibited personality it was hard to tell. Jesus wasn’t happy with what he saw. Esther and Dinah stood with their hands on their hips, frowning with disapproval at the hung-over men. Looking around the room with disappointment, Jesus announced calmly, “This has to change, Peter. When I’m not around you must shepherd these men.”
“But you’re our shepherd,” Peter answered tritely.
“When I’m gone, you are!” Jesus touched his chest to make his point.
Both honored and dismayed, Peter seemed bewildered. One day, Jesus’ informal designation would mean much more. Now, it struck me as humorous. Anywhere else—in Jethro’s, Moses’, or Nicodemus’ house, Peter would, after a drinking bout, be clasping his aching head along with the others. This moment, he went around the group barking orders: “Hurry up, men! Splash water in your faces! Get yourselves presentable! We have more work to do!”
Esther had a special remedy for drunkenness that she undoubtedly gave Peter at such times. I never found out exactly what it was, but it must have tasted horrible. Like children forced to take mother’s elixir, they made faces and gagged. The best part of Esther’s treatment was eating a hearty breakfast. According to Esther, food absorbed much of the wine, like a sponge—a Roman contrivance now used by Jews. What her treatment couldn’t do was remove the headache entirely from over-drinking. That would be their punishment, both Esther and Dinah agreed.
“Too many fine men have been killed by the vine,” Dinah scolded, “all for the love of drink!”
“We’re in your debt.” Jesus bowed to the women, as we departed. “We’ll repay you when we have the funds.”
“Nonsense, preacher,” Dinah replied in a folksy manner, “we’re just doin’ our share.”
“It’s the Lord’s business,” Esther explained more to the point. “You owe us nothing, sir. We must all do our part!”
Touched by their sincerity, Jesus bent forward and kissed each of their cheeks. One day in the future, this would be called the kiss of peace among members of the Way. Now, it caused the women to blush. Gathering us together in front of the house now, Jesus saw that something wasn’t right.
“Mary,” he said, wagging a finger, “I thought I explained this to you. For now, you must stay with Esther and Dinah. All right?”
“Okay,” she answered in a pouty voice, “if I must!”
“What’s wrong with that woman?” Peter asked when we were out of earshot.
“She wants to help,” Jesus explained sympathetically, “but she’s not ready yet. I wanted to place her with my mother for a while, but your wife offered to let her stay. Don’t under estimate her, Peter. Someday Mary Magdalene will make her mark.”
“How is that possible?” Peter frowned. “What mark would that be? The way she carries on—babbling and such, she seems addled in the head.”
“She went through an awful ordeal,” Jesus reminded him. “Let’s give her a chance!”
“My thoughts exactly!” I piped. “She’ll make money for us selling doves.”
“Perhaps.” Jesus cocked an eyebrow. “Let’s let her decide. Mary’s a changed woman. Her path is still hidden from her.”
So, during the next phase of our journey, Mary Magdalene, as Jesus dubbed her, would be left with Esther and Dinah in Capernaum. No one suspected how important this woman would one day be. Though pleasing to the eyes, she was, at this stage in her spiritual development, a flighty-headed nuisance, who was getting on everyone’s nerves. That Jesus revised her name as he had Peter and Matthew, who were his disciples, and given her such a surname, actually made no sense. He didn’t change any of the other disciples’ names. None of us could have known how strong-willed and enterprising she would one day be. Of course, on the subject of Mary Magdalene, I wasn’t very objective. She was, to use John’s words, honey to the eyes. I’ve never seen a more naturally beautiful creature in my life. With these thought whirling in my head, I wasn’t prepared for the commotion waiting for us in town.
As he walked in the direction of Capernaum toward a destination only Jesus had planned out in his mind, I thought about my unworthy daydream, certain that John and some of the others had similar thoughts. Having heard of a mule owner in town, Jesus had decided to retire Bartholomew’s poor beast in exchange for a fresh mule, but Peter insisted on giving it to Bernice for a pet. Peter, Jesus, James, and I discussed the merits of Peter’s idea for a few moments, everyone agreeing that Elijah, the name Bartholomew had given his mule, had served the Way honorably too, and deserved his reward. With the goal of finding Akiva, the mule owner, we approached a crowd of protestors, who were shouting at someone in their midst. With spears, crisscrossed, a detachment of Roman soldiers had cordoned off an area between the edge of the crowd and the publican’s table. The fear on their faces was so conspicuous, several youths in the mob, jeered at them, calling them jackals of Rome and other unflattering terms.
Though the morning was still young, the publican had already collected a table of coins, which his assistant scooped into bag and handed it to one of the guards. The sight of this exchange caused most of Jesus’ disciples to grumble with resentment.
“That man couldn’t be a Jew,” Andrew was arguing with Bartholomew. “No Jew would betray his people like that.”
“He’s a Jew, I tell you,” Bartholomew pointed accusingly. “I’ve seen that man before.”
“Where have you seen that fellow?” Philip challenged. “There’s hundreds of publicans in Galilee and Judea. They all look the same!”
Bartholomew had, as fishermen might say, waded into deep waters. Flashing me a frightened look, he clamped shut his mouth, afraid they might dig into his past. It appeared as though what he divulged might have led to further questions. Fortunately for Bartholomew, though, Andrew and Philip attention was drawn elsewhere. All of us were, in various degrees of severity, disturbed by the publican’s presence, James and I much less so. James had studied to be a scribe. In the minds of the disciples scribes were almost as bad as tax collectors. James had no right to throw stones, and neither did I, who had, in my travels, mingled with Gentiles and eaten forbidden food.
The publican’s assistant, a gangly youth, now fled the scene, and yet the publican held his ground. The young man’s expression was resolute. With eyebrows dropped in anger, and dark eyes staring unwaveringly at the mob, he remained fixed at his station. As the townsfolk, in defiance of the four Romans gathered stones to toss as him, I pulled Jesus sleeve.
“Jesus,” I whispered shrilly. “Those guards aren’t enough to stop them. Do what you did for Mary. Stop that mob!”
“So,” Jesus murmured, “I should wave my hands and poof! they disperse?”
“Yes!” I said aloud.
“Miracles aren’t always necessary,” he replied calmly. “There’s also persuasion.”
Jesus moved out in front of us, walking without hesitation toward the publican.
“What’s he doing now?” asked James.
“He’s going to stop them.” I grinned. “Jesus isn’t afraid. He once quieted a storm!”
“Jesus,” Andrew called through cupped hands, “let the Romans do their job!”
“He knows what he’s doing,” John decided.
Peter set his jaw. “Let’s go men!” he cried, lurching forward.
I was right in step with him. With the exception of Bartholomew, who remained in his cart, the remaining disciples followed Peter’s example. Standing with our shepherd, we witnessed a very strange event. Here before us was a symbol of Roman oppression, worse because it was a Jew in service to our oppressor, and yet Jesus called out to him, “Matthew! Break the shackles of your class. Free yourself. Follow me, Matthew, collect souls instead of dues.”
“Rabbi,” the publican replied, “my name’s Levi. Matthew’s my Roman name.”
“Would you like to be a new man?” Jesus edged closer. “Levi is you past!”
“I am what I am.” The publican shrugged.
Jesus’ shadow fell over him. “Once, long ago, to Moses, my Father said that. Yet he has many names. He has sent me forth with a new message, Matthew: a wondrous Kingdom awaits those who repent their sins and choose the light.” “This,” he motioned to his table and the crowd, “is darkness. I bring clarification of our religion—the promise of heaven, denied by priests and restricted by the Pharisees’ laws.”
As Jesus spoke, we witnessed another transformation. The change that happened to Mary might have been more dramatic, but it happened too quickly: one moment she was an unhinged demoniac and then next moment she was, save her disheveled clothes and mud-splattered hands and face, apparently normal. The transformation for Matthew came more slowly. It was as if a battle was in motion inside his skull. There, in the darkness holding the publican fast was a relatively high-paying job. Publicans not only were paid a significant wage for profiting from their people but also received a percent of duty on products and industries and poll tax on all adults, which were perceived as blood money by our people. Here, among our small company, in the light, there was, judging by Matthew’s expression, hope for a better life denied to him by his sin. Frankly, I don’t think he was anymore of a sinner than me, but, as Jesus reached out to him, their gaze became locked, Matthew eyebrows fell, his jaw slackened, and eyes filled with tears.
“Rabbi, I’m a sinner,” he said, pointing to the mob. “Whatever respect they have for you will be gone if you persist!”
Matthew’s title for Jesus, ‘rabbi,’ was a common form of address. Jesus had been called this countless times before. Before, when Jesus was called this, however, it merely displayed respect. As a preacher, this additional label, which meant the same as teacher to Greeks and Romans, seemed inappropriate, considering the fact that rabbis, like priests and Pharisees represented the old religion. Now, because of the significance of this moment, it seemed to have gained greater meaning. As Jesus performed the sacred rite in front of the crowd and the Roman guards, we knew he was much more.
Jesus signaled for a water skin (a dipping motion, using his fingers). After watching this event with curiosity, the mob was incited by what followed.
“What’s that man doing?” shouted a Pharisee.
“He’s Jesus,” answered a woman. “I heard him speak.”
“He’s a fool, that’s what he is,” a man replied.
In our company, there were mostly groans, until James muttered aloud, “This is insane!”
“Matthew bar Alphaeus,” intoned Jesus, oblivious of the crowd. “Do you repent your sins and seek God’s grace, which brings you salvation and everlasting life?”
“Yes, rabbi,” Matthew’s voice broke, “but this is a mistake.” “Look at them.” He pointed again. “They won’t forgive you!”
“He’s right,” spat a townsman, “that man’s a traitor to his people.”
“We’re tired of these bloodsuckers!” a woman shouted.
Busy with their attempt to hold back the crowd, most of the guards were practically useless, yet one of them broke ranks to pull Jesus back from the table.
“Matthew,” Jesus continued, shaking off his grip, “you’re born again. Receive this living water. In the name of the Father and Holy Spirit, I baptize you with water as a symbol of your new life.”
“Is he mad?” asked the Roman.
“If so,” answered Peter, “it’s a divine madness!”
After pouring water from the skin on Matthew’s head, Jesus prayed over him, then reaching down to grip his shoulders, said, “Rise Matthew and follow me!” “Greet your brothers in the Way!” he added, pointing to our group.
At this point, several voices rang out in protest as Matthew joined our band and we attempted to leave. Finally, the mob broke through the cordon of spears, surging toward us as witless rabble, and we heard those dreaded words: “Stone them! Stone them!”
Before they had a chance to gather stones and the Roman guards could attack them in self-defense, Jesus shouted out in a thunderous voice, “Be silent! Leave us be!” A distant peel of actual thunder followed, then deathly silence, and, without further fuss, the crows dispersed.
The four Roman guards looked at Jesus with awe.
“Who is this man, who brings thunder to a clear cloudless sky?” one of them marveled.
“He’s a god or demigod,” a second one concluded
“I bring you a gift from God,” replied Jesus, holding out the water skin as if it was a living thing.
“Rabbi,” a third guard cried out, “give me these living waters.”
“And me too.” A fourth stepped forward.
All four men, in fact, lined up for the rite, as well as several men and women, who had earlier fled God’s wrath. We, Jesus’ disciples, could scarcely believe this turn of events. Despite the absolute seriousness of this situation, seeing Roman soldiers step forth for baptism into the Way caused hysterical giggling among our ranks.
“This is incredible!” Peter said from the corner of this mouth.
“Jesus could convert the entire Roman army if he wished!” John’s eyes twinkled with mirth.
I agreed wholeheartedly. Soon, because of the importance of this occasion, our reaction was stifled by a frown from Jesus. This meant, of course, we had to assist our shepherd. I moved quickly ahead of James to an attractive young woman, as did John. For a moment, James and I almost quarreled with him, but decided to back off and grab the next ones in line. James was forced to take a crippled man, who was behind her. I found myself face to face with a young man, who to my dismay, was covered in spots.
The four Romans now followed Matthew’s example. Here they stood, a publican in the service of Rome and his guards, bedazzled by Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike the Roman soldiers, who waited anxiously for their turn, Matthew looked on expectantly, probably wondering what came next. Now that he was a convert to the Way, he didn’t know what to do with himself. Was he still a publican? Or should he quit and devote his life to the Way? As Jesus and the other disciples went about their business, I stood there wondering what to do, myself. What if the young man had leprosy? I asked myself. Confronted with an impossible situation, I wanted to bawl. Jesus, I noted, worked quickly on the Romans, perhaps wanting to finish up before they changed their minds. Afterwards, all four soldiers stood aside blinking in bewilderment at what they had just experienced. Glancing over at me finally, Jesus noticed my dilemma, smiled patiently, and signaled for me to find someone else. This I did quickly. Even James was on his second initiate when I tried making up for lost time.
The crippled man, who walked as if he had palsy, grinned foolishly after James gave him the rite, happy to be part of the Way. James then found another initiate, a man who stood with his wife and young son. Jesus gathered both the cripple and young man with spots now, led them away from the proceedings, and, looking at the sky, uttered a silent prayer. As I said the words to my subject, I could barely concentrate nor could the other disciples focus on their tasks. Pausing, before more baptisms were administered, we watched Jesus performed two miracles at once. The Roman soldiers scrambled over to witness this event. Everyone—converts and those still waiting in line, in fact, formed a circle around the three men. To the astonishment of Gentiles and Jews alike, Jesus quietly cured both the cripple and diseased man. I wasn’t certain what disease the young man had, but, as soon, as Jesus touched his forehead, his spots quickly vanished, and when he embraced the cripple, and demanded quietly, “Be still!”, the young man stopped jittering, his eyes cleared, and tears flowed down his cheeks. Snapping his fingers, the young man, who once had spots, did a happy jig. The other man walked around, staring at his limbs, which no longer shook. At this point, I hurriedly completed my first baptism and, before any of the others had a chance or Jesus did it himself, took aside the man cured of spots. After saying the words and baptizing him, I felt obliged to say something more.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t cure you.” I said shamefacedly. “That was cowardly. Only Jesus has special power.”
“You’re learning,” he replied cheerfully.
“Oh yes.” I shrugged. “I have much to learn!”
“I’m Justus,” he announced, extending his hand
“My name’s Jude.” I replied, shaking his hand. “Jesus is my brother.”
Looking at me with great respect, he exclaimed. “You’re very fortunate, Jude. Jesus is a great healer. Some say he’s the one we’ve been waiting for: the Messiah!”
Justus wasn’t the first to make such a claim, but he was the first to proclaim that title out loud. Jesus, of course, was much more than that, and yet he shunned titles, especially those pointing to the long awaited Messiah of Israel. One day, after the resurrection, Justus would become a possible candidate to replace Judas and make his mark as an evangelist in Gaul, but now, like the other converts, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. The man cured of palsy, however, slipped away quietly with family members, who, had listened but refused baptism themselves. As suddenly as they had begun, the baptisms were finished. Except for gawkers on the sidelines, most of the converts complied with Jesus’ instructions to spread the word among their family and friends. The important exception was Justus, who, having been cured as well as saved, was reluctant, as had been Mary, to be left behind. Matthew, of course, was now a disciple, whose path had been set by Jesus. The only others remaining were the four guards, who had no family and friends, except in Rome.
“Rabbi,” one of them stepped forth, “we know you’re a man of peace. How can we, soldiers of Caesar, serve your god?”
“As Gentiles, your road’s the hardest,” counseled Jesus. “You must obey orders and still follow God’s plan. Because you have not read our holy scriptures, you have much to learn. For now, the plan begins simply: remain faithful to the one God, through prayer and vigil; do no evil against men, women, and children, whether Gentile or Jew; and stand fast for the greatest miracle of them all.”
“What miracle is that?” asked Peter.
“Yes, Jesus.” I said, noting his troubled expression. “What a strange thing to say!”
“Do you know the mind of God?” he said mysteriously. “I listen and He leads.”
“Rabbi.” Matthew pointed to his table. “What about me? I was a publican. What do I do now?”
“Don’t worry,” one of the Romans exclaimed, “Rome can find another publican. You have a new master now!”
“Yes Matthew. Follow me,” Jesus said, crooking a finger. “Become God’s publican. Instead of taxes, gather souls!”