Thomas and Simon
The death of the Baptist, which came as no surprise to anyone, had caused only a temporary lull in Jesus’ work. We remained in Capernaum for only one more day, as he mourned our cousin. Now, back on the road, after putting it behind him, the cheerfulness he had earlier in our odyssey returned. There were great things ahead of us, he told us after we bid the women goodbye. There were places to go and much to do.
As we followed the Shepherd, on course with another one of his revelations, we were in good spirits. We had, all things considered, done well so far. We had even made converts in Nain. Jesus was certain that that congregation would, as other towns filled with converts, continue to grow after Laban’s cure. With towns by the Sea of Galilee to preach to in the coming days, he seemed to be in a hurry. We weren’t halfway done, he reminded us. On the way to Tiberius and Gennesaret, our next stops, however, Jesus began preaching to travelers again, which interrupted his schedule. This time, unlike our trek south, he struck a chord with a young couple, who sought our company after hearing of the threats on the road.
Ira and his wife, Mahalia, listened to Jesus tell them of the wondrous afterlife offered for simply accepting God’s grace. I was quick to reassure them after their baptism of how safe they would be under Jesus’ protection. It seemed strange and very foolish for them to be on the road. When our parents traveled to Bethlehem (a town we hadn’t stopped at yet), Mama was pregnant with Jesus. Because of the tax levied by Emperor Augustus in Palestine, there were Roman soldiers everywhere, so our parents had been safe. The story behind this journey, which I related to Matthew, was quite unlike the experience of Ira and Mahalia. Unlike our parents, they were traveling at a bad time. Moreover, Mahalia had lost her child. Jesus’ comforting message had brought them from the depths of despair. In what became a unrecorded example by the Apostles of Jesus prophecies, Jesus placed his hand on her stomach and, after praying silently, made an incredible promise to her. Mahalia, he prophesized, would give birth to a son, who would one day become a great voice for the Lord. As I write these words, I still don’t know whom it was who served the Lord. Perhaps he joined the long list of martyrs for our faith.
Jesus interchangeable reference to God, Father, and Lord confused some of the disciples, but, I explained to them as we made camp near Tiberius that night, they meant basically the same thing. This, I would realize later, was not quite true. To begin with, as I see it now, Jesus hadn’t yet told his disciples and the public at large who he really was. Our brother James referred to him as the Promised One and it was also implied at times that he was even the Messiah, but Jesus shunned labels. He had given them hints and did things that, as Matthew said imprudently, only a god could do. During the first half of his mission, in which he introduced himself to people and sent early converts home to spread the word, he continued to train us to be proficient evangelists. Though he was, as John the Baptist, called him, the Anointed One, Jesus knew very well what most Jews expected in that name, so he avoided the titles Messiah, Deliverer, and such. He was at this stage merely God’s emissary: both teacher and preacher and, as Matthew pointed out again, a prophet, too. Jesus, of course, never claimed to be that either. Prophets, after all, such as John the Baptist, got themselves into trouble with their claims. His only purpose during these formative days was to make himself known and get out the word. When Jesus referred to his father, though, there was no mistaking the implications of this word. He had personalized his relationship to God, for, as we would learn, he was His son…. When Jesus used the word Lord, he was using a word that would one day be applied to himself, for indeed he is God.
The shadowy outline of this realization continued to grow in my mind as I watched him converse with the new converts. Because Ira and Mahalia were traveling to his parents in Tiberius, their appearance on the road, as we overtook them, had been especially fortuitous. I’m still not clear on why they traveled to that destination. They couldn’t have picked a worse time. As we finally entered Tiberius, Jesus blessed them as they went their own way and led us directly to the synagogue as he had done before.
I could hear a few groans from my brethren. James and I managed to stifle our dissent. After a few bad experiences in synagogues, we were naturally apprehensive, but this time it was early morning, so we entered town less conspicuously. The synagogue was, of course, empty. We knew it would fill up with townsmen when the word got out. Since rabbis often lived near houses of worship, Jesus expected to meet one soon. This time, as we waited nervously in the synagogue, it appeared as if he might not show up. After nearly an hour of pacing back and forth, Jesus led us out of the synagogue.
“Something’s wrong.” He turned to us. “… You notice how quiet this part of town is?”
“Yes,” Peter nodded, “It reminds me of Nain.”
“No,” Jesus replied, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Nain was unfriendly. This is just quiet.” “Listen,” he said, cupping his ear, “do you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Philip’s eyes widened, “… in the distance.”
“Uh oh,” Andrew cried, “here they come!”
Suddenly, from a side road, a crowd of townsfolk moved toward us. We had, in fact entered town quite early. Whatever must have happened, occurred in a different sector of town. Upon spotting us, a young man with blazing gray eyes called out excitedly, “Praise God; it’s you at last. Hopefully, it’s not too late. Jairus’ daughter is very sick. Please come!”
In the crowd we were temporarily reunited with Ira and his wife Mahalia, who told us who Jairus was, though I’m certain Jesus already knew. The young man, who had run to fetch him, identified himself as his servant, Nun. Jairus, Ira explained, was Tiberius’ mayor and, because of his generosity for the poor and leadership in the synagogue, was a beloved member of the town. After losing his son, his daughter Tabitha was his only child. Unfortunately, Jairus lived in a villa at the far edge of town. On the path straddling the Sea of Galilee leading to his villa, which, Nun said was a short cut, we were inundated with more people, more interested in Jesus than Jairus’ daughter.
“Because you are fishermen,” exclaimed a woman, “we thought you’d come by boat.”
“Jesus isn’t a fisherman,” our brother James corrected her. “He’s a carpenter.”
“Today,” Jesus replied, “I’m a healer. We must hurry, men,” he called back to us.
It was an uncomfortable feeling, being pressed and shoved on the narrow path.
Ahead of us, a distant figure appeared. Because the sun had risen in that direction, it blinded us as we tried making out the form.
“It’s Jairus!” Ira cried, out of breath.
“This isn’t good,” Nun mumbled unhappily. “I’ve never seen him run like this before.”
“Calm down, sir.” Jesus ran up to Jairus. “Your daughter’s going to be all right.”
“Oh, you think so?” Jairus gripped his shoulders frantically. “Yes, yes. I’ve heard about you, Jesus. You can heal her. Please hurry. Her forehead is burning hot.”
As if Jesus didn’t have enough on his hands, a woman behind us tugged on his robe. Fearful of ridicule, perhaps, she said nothing at first. Then, tugging harder, she mumbled to herself “If I just touch his clothes, I’ll get well. Jesus has great power.”
Jesus finally stopped and looked back. “Who tugged on my robe?” he asked, scanning the crowd.
“Jesus,” Peter protested, “this is a narrow trail. This isn’t the time to stop!”
All of the disciples were already unnerved by this interruption. Because Jesus stopped so suddenly, we felt the crush of the mob behind. There were, in fact, several people anxious to talk to him, who reached out to touch the miracle worker. I noticed Jesus close his eyes momentarily as if uttering a brief prayer. I had heard the woman mumbling to herself, but thought nothing of it, since people were always touching his clothes. Now, after looking back and seeing her pitiful face and realizing she was in a bad way, I noticed her face beaming with happiness.
“Why are you stopping?” cried Jairus.
“Just one moment,” Jesus held up a finger, glancing below her sash.
“Jesus!” She clapped her hands with delight. “I felt great pain this morning. I was bleeding. Now it’s stopped, and the pain is gone!
“My daughter, faith has made you well. You’ve been healed through prayer, not any magic in my robe. Go in peace, and be healed of your troubles, too.”
Once again Jairus and several of his friends begged Jesus to get going, but Jesus took his time. With water from his water skin, he said a few words and then baptized the women before moving on. Considering his daughter’s illness more important than his random cure, Jairus was beside himself with frustration, his face red and fists clinching as if to prevent himself from flying to unbridled rage. Only a few moments after the woman’s cure, a servant ran down the path wringing his hands and wailing, “The preacher’s too late. Your daughter’s dead!
Jesus waved off the ridicule he received from some of the crowd. “Do you believe?” he asked Jairus now.
Saying nothing in reply, the Pharisee hung his head, and wept.
“Come, Jairus,” beaconed Jesus, forging ahead. “Tabitha sleeps.”
“Her pulse is gone.” the servant shrieked. “The child is dead!”
“What kind’ve miracle-worker is this?” a graybeard sneered. “The man has nerves of ice.”
Calmly with the same look he had with all his miracles, with long purposeful strides, Jesus led the crowd and his disciples to Jairus’ house. When we arrived we could hear crying and wailing. A woman, identified as Jairus’ sister, screamed in rage at the tardy miracle-worker, and yet his wife led Jesus quickly to Tabitha’s room. In a gentle tone belying his words, Jesus asked those sobbing and cursing, “Why are you crying and carrying on? The child isn’t dead. Where is your faith in God?”
“Faith? Bah!” spat the graybeard.
Unruffled, Jesus entered the room with Jairus and his wife, with Peter and John and his brother on each side of him, while the rest of us stood watching at the door. It was too crowded in the small space for everyone, but I managed to squeeze in nonetheless. Jesus had said that Justus’ brother Laban and Regulus’ servant were asleep, not dead. I didn’t believe that either.
At this point, egged on by the graybeard, several people mocked Jesus’ efforts.
“No one comes back from the dead?” scoffed a young man.
“Yes,” a woman said resolutely, “death is permanent. Jesus has come too late!’
Similar barbs were thrown at Jesus from other men and women. Predictably, the graybeard pointed a gnarled finger at him. “If he raises that child from the dead, he’s a sorcerer!”
As if that was the final straw, Jesus turned to the crowd outside the room, and shouted, “Silence, you foolish people.” “Jairus,” he directed brusquely, “shut the door. I need to pray!”
“Look at her, Jesus,” Jairus said hoarsely, “she’s turning purple. I tell you, she’s dead!”
Taking Tabitha’s little hand, Jesus ignored her father’s doubt. Looking at her mother, he whispered, “Do you believe?”
“Yes,” she murmured, “I believe!”
Praying quietly a few moments, as we waited, he bent down and kissed her forehead. “Little girl,” he commanded gently, “I bid you to rise. Awaken from the dark sleep!”
Her eyelids fluttered, her hand twitched, and she groaned faintly as she returned from the land of the dead.
As he had for Laban, Jesus told her mother to give her soup and bread and let her rest awhile. “Your daughter has been chosen by God,” he said to her parents. “Those he saves have a purpose, if for nothing else to spread the word.”
“Forgive my doubt,” Jairus spoke contritely now. “Me, my family, and my servants will be baptized. We shall serve the Lord too. Your faith shall live in this house!”
By now all of the disciples had forced their way into the room, including the graybeard, who shouted, “Sorcerer! Sorcerer! This is a infernal deed!” To prove his goodwill toward Jesus, Jairus turned, and with a servant’s help, physically removed the man from his house.
“If I seen you on my property again,” he shouted, “I’ll break your nose!”
“Where to now?” asked Peter. “Are we in business again?”
“Baptize me! Baptize me!” shouts rang out.
“There’s your answer!” Jesus said, leading us out into the sunlight. The light shining on the water was blinding. “Let’s do as we did before by the lake,” he instructed, pointing this way and that. “Make the crowd form several lines for each of you. Bartholomew will work with me.”
Today, along with several hundred men and women, a Pharisee would be dunked and saved in the word—something we seldom saw. That night, exhausted more than ever before, we were fed a great feast in Jairus’ house, entertained by his daughter’s presence, and allowed to sleep passed dawn.
The next morning we were given a morning meal before we departed and our packs were stuffed with all manner of food. Jairus and his family, as new members of the Way, would become spiritual guides to other converts in the days ahead. Today it had been a great harvest for us, and Jesus had reached a great milestone. Not only had be baptized a Pharisee but a mayor of one of Galilee’s major towns. Happy to have their daughter alive and well Jairus and his family bubbled with thanksgiving as we departed. Since our next stop was Gennesaret, where Jairus had relatives, we would bring his glowing recommendation, a scroll describing the miracle and conversions in Tiberius. Jesus thought it was excessive, but since it was an important Pharisee making the recommendation, Peter believed it would open doors. “We’ll wave it those graybeards faces!” he crowed. “You baptized one of their own!”
That day, as we paused to look down upon Gennesaret, Jesus turned to us and exclaimed, “The harvest is growing, but we have much work to do!”
“But we’re fishermen, not farmers,” replied Peter. “When shall we return to our boat?”
“Peter, faithful Peter,” Jesus slapped his back. “You have been a fisherman most of your life. On this lake you were called to serve the Lord. One day, you’ll cross the Great Sea to spread the word. Today you shall be a farmer, harvesting more souls!”
A voice, faraway, called out then. Looking back at the distant shape, Jesus shielded his eyes from the glare of lake, as it advanced. When the man was close enough to be recognized, Peter waved at him. “I baptized that man,” he told us discreetly. “He’s a curious fellow. He kept asking me questions about Jesus’ miracles.”
“Yes,” Jesus said with a nod. “I had a chat with him, myself.”
“Why is he following us?” Andrew frowned. “Aren’t converts supposed to stay in their hometowns?”
“Normally that is so,” Jesus replied matter-of-factly, “but I invited him along. Don’t you recognize him? He was one of the hecklers in the crowd. Now look at him, men. He’s got all his worldly belongings on his back.”
After calling out all of our names one-by one, including his baptizer, Peter, Jesus introduced the man, as if he was an honored guest. “Men, this is Thomas, who was once a farmer. Now he’s one of us!”
In deed, Thomas was a strange man. He looked around at us, with a touch of suspicion, as if not quite sure of his decision to join. Because of his harsh words earlier, it would take awhile for most of the disciples to warm up to him. Matthew and, with my coaxing, James, followed Bartholomew and my example of welcoming him into our group. I did it for Jesus benefit in spite of my own doubts. He appeared to be awed by Jesus raising Tabitha from the dead, and yet he still found it hard to believe. “Does Jesus really have the power over death?” he asked, with, furtive, bewildered eyes. Because he hadn’t seen the miracle himself, he remained doubtful, which annoyed us very much. At one point, after our attempt at welcoming him aboard, Matthew, James, and Bartholomew through their arms up in disgust. Jesus was watching us from afar that moment, so I stayed by the cart, giving Thomas some sage advice.
“Listen to me, Thomas,” I scolded, trying not to frown, “it’s not what you think that gets you into trouble. It’s what you say. If you have doubts, keep them to yourself. That’s true for anything stupid you might say.”
“I’m sorry,” Thomas lowered his head, “this has all come upon me suddenly. I don’t know why Jesus wants me to join. I’ve always asked questions about everything all my life. I don’t mean any harm. Doubts just appear in my head.”
“Really?” I gave him a studied look. “Do you doubt God?”
“No,” he replied, after thinking a moment, “…I take Him on faith.”
“All right. What is faith?” I asked, watching him squirm.
“Who can answer that question?” He frowned.
“Think about it Thomas.” My eyes narrowed to slits. “You might not have seen her eyes open or been there when she died, but you know Jairus. The man’s a Pharisee. We’ve had nothing but trouble from those kind of men, and yet he saw and believed. He’s a member now. Like your belief in God, who’s invisible, you don’t have to see something to believe it.” “Am I right?” I searched his face.
“Yes, I guess so,” he answered dubiously.
“All right then,” I said, poking a finger into his chest, “until you get this straight in your head, keep your doubts to yourself. Okay?”
“Okay.” He swallowed, looking at the ground
Later, when Thomas was trying to make conversation with the disciples, James and I caught Jesus out of earshot from the other men.
“Jesus,” James came straight to the point, “you begin your ministry by picking a handful of fishermen, added a woman of ill-repute, and then a tax collector—not the cream of the crop as farmers would say. I don’t even understand why you picked Jude or me. I was training to be a scribe—they’re almost as bad as Pharisees, and I’ve never known for certain what Jude believes. Now you’ve invited that moron into our group! Please tell us why.”
“Is that how you feel, Jude?” Jesus looked at me.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I had a talk with Thomas. He’s a doubter; that’s his disposition. He implied that he’s been this way since birth.”
“That might be true,” Jesus pursed his lips, “but Thomas has had a hard life. He had several brothers and sisters. He was the youngest and least in his parents’ eyes. When his father died, he left his wife and family with unpaid debts. Because Thomas was the youngest child, life was especially hard for him. His brothers fled their father’s tyranny and his sisters found husbands instead of staying behind to help. As the only one left, Thomas was forced to farm for his mother in order to pay the family’s debts, and yet, despite his hard work, she treated him worse than his father. Until his mother died and he was finally on his own, he never had peace of mind. He had suffered grinding poverty, abuse, and hard work. Is it any wonder that he has doubts? Such travail as that happening to Thomas has led many a soul into crime and mayhem. Look at Barabbas and men like him. And yet Thomas continued to try to better himself and eke out a living. It is precisely for such people that we give hope.”
“That’s fine,” I sighed, looking at Thomas, standing forlornly by himself. “He’s a member of the Way now; that’s good and proper, but why make him a disciple?”
James nodded enthusiastically. Jesus studied the new member that moment, then replied with great conviction, “I don’t want perfect men. I want men, who strive for perfection, but know their frailties. How can they serve if they don’t understand common people? I don’t want self-righteous religious men, who think they know the truth. I want seekers. Thomas will always have his doubts, and yet he will believe, just like Mary and Matthew, who gave up their old lives.”
“Wait,” James objected, “Mary’s not a disciple, and how Matthew turns out remains to be seen—”
“Ah, look at you James,” interrupted Jesus, “casting aspersions when you have doubts too. Who are you to cast blame?”
“Yes,” James shook his head. “I doubt myself sometimes…but I never doubt you. I’m here to stay Jesus, just like Jude.”
“Yes,” He said, turning to me. “What about you little brother?”
That moment I didn’t like the nickname ‘little brother.’ I suddenly felt very small.
“All right…I’m willing to give Thomas a chance, but what about them?” I pointed at the disciples now shunning Thomas. “He got on the wrong foot with them.”
“They’ll come around,” Jesus said confidently. “They did for Mary Magdalene and they did for Matthew. It’s not easy for men to admit they’re wrong.”
Having winced at mention of Mary’s name again, James raised his palms heavenward in submission. “I’m sorry I’m such a pain, Jesus. I complain too much. That’s one of my faults. I just don’t understand your selection of disciples. It doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Jesus said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “…Trust me, James,” were his final words before walking away. “I listen to God. Above all, my brothers, trust Him!”
With our letter of recommendation from Jairus, which Peter kept inside his pack, we entered Gennesaret, a town in which Jesus’ eleventh disciples would appear. Despite Jairus’ letter, which did, in fact, fill the synagogue to capacity that day, our pickings weren’t as large as it was in Tiberius. What the letter did for us was act as an introduction for Jesus and his disciples and soften the criticism from many townsmen, who might otherwise be predisposed against us. Other than a few miracles which Jesus tried to downplay, however, there would be no outstanding events in this town, as there were in some of the towns we visited. We much preferred sprinkling to emersion, but with the lake so close at hand, we had a ready-made place of baptism that Jesus felt was more appropriate. His preaching was effective enough to garner several dozen men and women, almost all of whom had heard of him and expected miracles in their town. Jesus, however, was growing tired of being a showman. So many converts appeared to be lured by the expectation of miracles that he wondered, as we did, if their conversions had really taken hold. For this reason he attempted to keep his miracles a secret. To the sick, blind, and crippled, who were cured, he would tell them to say nothing of it. It was between God and them.
This, of course, normally didn’t work, especially with an audience looking on. Even, after shutting the door to Tabitha’s room, everyone in Tiberius learned of the miracle, which was true for almost all of his cures. Compared to Tiberius, our work in Gennesaret was easier, much less spectacular and far less exhausting, and yet, judged by how it affected Jesus’ inner circle, it was a very important town. At almost the end of our baptisms, when a handful of men and women showed up by the lake, a darkly clad, swarthy stranger with piercing hawk-like eyes, stood in the background, arms folded appraising the scene. His demeanor struck us as a crafty even treacherous, and yet Jesus turned the last initiate in his line over to Bartholomew, and waded back to shore in the direction of the man.
“Don’t tell me,” James groaned, “a prostitute, a tax-collector, and now a Sicarii.”
“He’s certainly dressed like one,” I agreed.
“Is Jesus asking him to join?” Peter grew anxious. “Somewhere he has to draw the line.”
As quickly as possible, we finished up our baptisms, giving our pitches in abbreviated form, fearful that Jesus might select this man. I have no idea what Jesus said to him or what he said in return, but suddenly Jesus was leading the stranger into the water to perform the rite.
“Phew!” Peter exhaled. “It’s just another initiate. Jesus won’t pick that rogue.”
“Yeah, a later arrival,” replied Andrew. “I hope there aren’t any more.”
“Wait,” I said, cupping my ear, “it’s over, but they’re still talking. They’re coming toward us. This can’t be good.”
“Brothers,” Jesus called out cheerily, “this is Simon, who has special talents.”
“I bet he does,” James grumbled. “Ask him to show you his knife.”
“I was a temple guard, not a criminal.” Simon smiled indulgently at James.
Philip snapped his fingers. “I thought I recognized those dark clothes. You’re not wearing your armor or helmet. That’s why you look like a Sicarii. Why’d you quit?”
“I didn’t quit, not formally,” he said to Jesus, “I was sent to spy on you, and I simply didn’t go back. Awhile back I saw you confront the priests in the temple and punish those moneylenders and dove-sellers. I thought you were mad to do such a thing. When I was sent out to gather information, though, I began to listen. You’re miracles were impressive. I’ve seen conjurers before and tricksters. I knew you weren’t a charlatan or blasphemer as the priest and scribes claimed, but it wasn’t just your wondrous feats. It was what you said. I wondered if you were the one we’ve been waiting for…. I want to learn more. They’ll think I’m gathering information to use against you, but I’m gathering this information for myself!”
“Simon knows the mind of the priests.” announced Jesus. “He knows their every move.”
“That’s what you mean by talent?” Matthew looked at him in disbelief. “Jesus, I’ve seen his kind before. How can you trust him? This man was a temple agent and spy!”
“How can I trust you?” Jesus turned the question around. “You were a publican, whom people considered parasites, but now you’re a new man. Simon was once an agent of the high priest, whom even the Pharisees despise, and yet he’s a new man too. I don’t expect perfection. I expect dedication.”
“Who could argue with that?” I later asked James. At this point, Jesus introduced Simon to each one of the disciples. Watching us to make sure we reacted properly, he lectured us on the fundamentals of the Way: “You’re all sinners, with sins great or small, but sinners nonetheless. When you’re saved by God’s grace, it’s what you do now that counts…” On and on he went, as if to belabor the point, but for most of the disciples it was necessary to penetrate their thick skulls. Bartholomew, who had a checkered past, himself, quoted Jesus’ words to Mary’s detractors: “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Considering my own tainted past, I agreed with him, as did James, who had studied to be a temple scribe and understood more than any of us the mindset of the priests. According to James, the men who acted as their guards, agents, and spies were not dedicated guardians of the temple as they were in the time of King David and Solomon. They were mercenaries, who, like everyone else, worked for a daily wage. That he threw in his lot with Jesus was as easy to understand as Matthew’s decision to join. Both men had given up lucrative earnings. For Simon to be seen in Jesus’ service baptizing and saying the words, was actually quite brave, James believed, considering the heresy of Jesus’ actions perceived by Pharisees, priests, and scribes.
Nevertheless, as we made camp that night, the other disciples, with forced respect, still shunned the new member. Simon therefore joined James, Matthew, Bartholomew, Thomas, and me at the end of the procession, and remained in our company that night. To show his willingness to be part of us, Simon insisted on tending to the mule that evening, giving it water and food. He was, in spite of the distrust of the others, quite congenial, sharing with us all sorts of anecdotes from his life. I don’t know what sort of man he was before joining up, but his dark clothes and appearance belied the illuminated man he was now. He said nothing of his deeds on behalf of the temple, but related, in glowing terms, his travels to Egypt, Cyprus, and Rome. We didn’t ask him why he went to those faraway places. Nor did we question his boast that he once entertained the notion of being a priest himself. There was, I can say with absolute certainty today, no one more contrite for his sins than Simon nor was there a disciple more willing to spread the word. For this reason, the apostles referred to him in their writings as Simon Zelotes (or Simon the Zealot).
That night, overcompensating as he did for his lack of popularity with the other disciples, Simon didn’t seem quite genuine. I understood this almost immediately. He was hiding a dark side that only Jesus would know. After we laid out our pallets, I lay there between James and Simon, listening to Bartholomew, not far away from us, snorting in his sleep. How is it, after all my misadventures, I asked myself, was I in this motley band. Only Jesus, the miracle worker, appeared to know what he was doing. We had given up whatever goals we had to follow a man, who many in high places, viewed as a heretic, even an outlaw. The rest of us were, in many ways, misfits—in Matthew’s case, as well as Mary’s case outcasts to boot. The fishermen were like children, and Jesus had become a father figure to them, whom they blindly followed. What kind of men would leave their families and livelihood to follow one man? As mere fishermen, they might have felt that they had little to lose. Matthew and Simon, who were earning good wages, I was certain had their own reasons for becoming disciples. Perhaps, when Jesus selected them, they took the opportunity to escape their own misspent lives. Bartholomew, unbeknownst to the other disciples, had once been a fugitive. What Jesus offered him, in spite of his infirmities, was a permanent refuge and one more chance to give meaning to his life. None of the disciples, however, had asked to join. They were selected. James and I, as Jesus’ brothers, had not planned on becoming disciples either, but then, like the fishermen I had nothing more important to do. Like Matthew and Simon, I was in my own way escaping an ill-conceived life. Only James, who wanted to be a temple scribe, had sacrificed a promising future. James, who would one day be called ‘James the Just,’ had given up the most to join.
The next morning, despite the presence of a temple agent, nothing had changed. We must have appeared as a dusty, ragtag, scraggly-bearded band to travelers, especially to the occasional refined merchant, Pharisee, or scribe. Like the others, I no longer cared what people thought. Only James tried to keep himself presentable on the road. Despite the occasional petty argument between the fishermen, coarse statement from Matthew, or complaint from Bartholomew, we were a carefree lot.
That morning, Jesus said to our brother James when he complained about his threadbare clothes, “why do you worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t labor or spin.”
Looking out at the flowers growing alongside of the road, after Jesus spoke, James questioned the counsel give to him. “What do lilies have to do with clothes?” I heard him mutter. “If my tunic and pants rot and fall off, I’ll be naked.” As he often did, James had been exaggerating. With all his education he must have understood the deeper meaning in Jesus’ words. He missed having a bath, trim, and change of clothes. Matthew, Bartholomew, and Simon were savvy men, and I doubt if even the rustic fisherman failed to see significance in Jesus’ words. Jesus was saying that we shouldn’t worry about the cares of the world—riches, food, and comfort, but trust in God, our patron and protector. Jesus was always saying such things, sometimes I suspect to get our minds off our weariness and impatience.
Not long after rounding the Lake of Gennesaret, trudging faithfully behind our shepherd, it occurred to us that we were heading south. After what Jesus said weeks earlier about the towns of the north, as yet unvisited, this seemed strange. “Of course,” as James put it sarcastically, “what do we, mere mortals, know? Jesus listens to his father!” In a more positive tone, Peter said as much to Andrew, Philip, John, and his brother James. The fisherman, however, were growing anxious, themselves, when we reached a fork in the road. Instead of taking the road to Capernaum, where they would visit their families again, he took the Bethlehem road. With little explanation given to us, this seemed illogical to us at first. Then it occurred to James and me, who understood Jesus’ background more than the others, that he was, as he had been in Nazareth and Jerusalem, visiting a historical milestone in his life. Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, and Thomas thought that was a great reason.
Hearing our explanation, Jesus walked back to our group, his hands clasped behind his back. “That’s correct James and Jude,” he said cheerily, “but it’s my Father guiding our steps.”
“Of course,” James said with an edge of irritation. “It appears sometimes that your father is leading us around in circles.”
We chuckled with mirth. James was not the only one with that notion. Though in deep thought at times, Jesus was aware of every sound. We had been speaking in normal voices. He had been at the head of our procession, too far away for a normal person to hear, and yet he heard us. I was certain he had also heard the complaints and curses uttered by the men about this detour and his frequent stops to preach to passers by. The smallest distance from one town to another could take days because of these stops. As I understand it now, the entire world was his forum. During my discipleship, however, I also found it annoying. From the lowly haunts of the poor to fine mansions, no one was too great or too small to hear his message, and yet there were times when it seemed as though he was wasting his time.
“That last man was a Pharisee,” grumbled Andrew. “Those men report everything he says!”
“Jesus doesn’t care.” Philip sighed. “At our last stop, I thought that fellow might be possessed, but he was a roadside drunk, and yet Jesus preached to him. The man could barely walk.”
Jesus was nowhere in sight that moment, probably praying in the nearby hills, but I’m certain he heard. If we had enough water and food, John complained, it would have been better if we traveled in a desert, where there were no villages or towns. As we trekked south to Bethlehem, there were numerous hamlets and small villages not even on Roman or Jewish maps. Despite his preaching and roadside chats, however, there were few baptisms made. It was, he once told me, important to make converts, but sometimes it was only necessary to spread the word. Most people might listen intently and not be ready for baptism, and yet a seed of belief would be planted that, because of the daily grind of living, would grow and blossom. So simple was his formula for faith a child could grasp it.
One day when we stopped at a small out-of-the way village, there was only a few families, a miserable herd of goats and sheep, and one dilapidated well, and yet, out of nowhere, as Jesus chatted with a graybeard who seemed addled in the head, six young children—three boys and three girls sat down by the well to listen to the Shepherd speak. Once again, Peter said politely, “If we don’t get a move on, will be forced to stop for the night.” There were, he reminded Jesus (without mentioning names this time), bandits roaming Galilee and Judea. Irritated again by this delay, the other disciples were less patient than Peter, kicking the dust impatiently, and grumbling under their breaths. For the longest time, Jesus talked to the children and the graybeard, who had the mind of a child.
Pausing in his chat, Jesus said for our benefit, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
What he said stunned James and me, not because it was a rebuke (which, in fact, it was), but because of what it implied. Jesus hadn’t said come into my Father; he had said, come into me. The other disciples accepted the gentle rebuke for what it was: criticism for their impatience, as it had to do with children. They couldn’t imagine what we all know now. James, on the other hand, suffered a form a denial, shared by our family since Jesus’ first miracle. How could we his siblings and even his mother, who had seen him grow up as a mortal, accept his divinity? Because of this inclination, James and I were afraid to speak our minds. Jesus had graduated in our minds from preacher to prophet to a questionable messiah. What he implied now was something much more.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” James shut his ears. “Jesus is our brother. He’s a man, who bleeds and must eat, drink, and sleep.”
“Really?” I threw up my hands. “Have you seen him do any of these? He rarely sleeps, if at all. What man can do what he does?”
That night as we made camp, James remained silent. While the disciples sat around the campfire and the Shepherd slipped away to pray, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, Thomas, and I discussed Jesus’ mysterious words. Simon believed Jesus meant he was a holy man, able, like priests, to pray for sinners, which was a logical conclusion for him since he was a temple guard. Matthew agreed with him, but Bartholomew and Thomas didn’t have a clue. When Peter asked me for my opinion, I felt honored that Jesus second-in-command would turn to me. Not wanting to confuse the disciples, I offered them one humble name Jesus had for himself: God’s servant. He had used that name long ago when he first became aware of his powers. Now it seemed like an understatement. I had forgotten that Isaiah had called him that too. Though this was an inadequate explanation for the words “come into me,” everyone, except James, appeared to accept it.
“Yes.” Peter replied solemnly. “We’re all His servants.”
“That’s true,” Thomas nodded in agreement, “we serve God!”
“I like Jesus’ modesty,” Matthew said thoughtfully. “It’s just like him to call himself a servant. He knows he has power, yet he’s humble. He accepts everyone, even a sinner like me. His words were like a balm to my soul!”
John laughed softly. “Such eloquence for a publican. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“All publicans have clever tongues,” quipped Peter. “Now Matthew will use his tongue for the Lord.”
“Ho-ho!” Andrew chuckled. “I like what Jesus said to him, “now, instead of gathering money, you can gather souls!”
Smiling at their jests, Matthew raised a hand. “I’m no longer a publican. I’m God’s servant now!”
“Me too!” I was obliged to say.
Simon stood up dramatically that moment, exclaiming aloud. “Was not Abraham, Moses, and Elijah servants of God? The priesthood and scribes are but servants of God, too. Blessed be His name!”
“Careful Simon,” cautioned Peter, “you’re not in the temple now.”
“Yeah,” hooted Philip, “he sounds like a priest!”
Awakened from his thoughts, John’s brother James shook his head. “Bah!” He made a face. “The priests and scribes aren’t servants, not anymore. The temple has failed the people.
Abraham, Moses, and Elijah didn’t have to deal with Pharisees back then. There weren’t any. My father taught John and I the history of our people. We live in different times. There wasn’t a temple in Jerusalem then. In fact, there wasn’t a Jerusalem either. We were a simple people, with a simpler faith. David changed all that when Samuel made him king. That was the first mistake the Israelites made, because King David first great act was to build the temple, which Solomon turned into a golden shrine—our second mistake. After filling it with priests and scribes, the temple became, for the people, the voice of God, when, in fact, it was a tool for making them behave. Bleeding them of their earnings and giving them little in return, it became sanctified. But it wasn’t sanctified. Our forefathers had no temple or gang of priests, only a humble chapel in Shiloh and a handful of priests, who answered directly to God, not the high priest or magistrates of the towns. Jesus is changing all that. He’s bringing the people back to a simple one-to-one relationship with God.” “Priests? Scribes?” he spat, looking squarely at Simon, “only God can make priests!”
Everyone agreed with his words, except my brother James, who had studied to be a scribe, himself. Jesus, for his part, was deeply moved. Appearing suddenly in our midst, he walked over to this normally reserved disciple, embraced him, muttering with great respect, “Well said! God put those words into your mouth.” From that moment on, John’s older brother, would grow in Jesus’ esteem. This talk about the temple stimulated my memory. Inspired by his words and treading into deep water, as the fishermen would say, I quoted something Jesus had once shared with me in our youth.
“All men and women are priests,” I announced boldly, “the world is our temple, in each believer is God’s shrine.”
“Ah, little brother,” Jesus called from across the fire, “I told you that in confidence. They weren’t ready for that!”
Bartholomew gave me a wink. “I didn’t think those were your words.”
“Jude remembers everything.” Jesus patted my head. “It’s true my brothers. A new wind blows over the land: the Spirit of the Lord. James, son of Zebedee, said as much. The temple will endure for a while, for men are weak. They need objects and incense in order to believe. You and I, my brothers, bring them freedom from slavery and tyranny. Instead of one sacred and hallowed edifice, all corners of earth where the truth is planted are sacred and hallowed. All men and women belong to a universal priesthood of believers. In each heart is His shrine!”
“Now that makes sense!” Thomas jumped up and looked around the group.
“Yes, it does,” Simon exclaimed, clapping his hands. “Abraham and Isaac had but a simple tabernacle in the wilderness. Jerusalem, after all, was once a pagan city. Our ancestors wandered the desert, with nothing but God’s word.”
James had taken issue with the slander given to scribes, but, having heard Jesus make such a claim before, was resigned to his role as a disciple. After a few more words on the subject, then a short prayer, Jesus rose up, raised his hands as if in dismissal, then retreated into the shadows. I’m still not sure he ever slept. As James and I lay on our pallets staring at the firmament, most of the disciples followed Jesus example and retired. In a corner of the camp, we could heard Peter talking to Andrew. Though, he had remained in our company, James was struggling. Jesus once said to me that wisdom is a double-edged sword, bringing both enlightenment and doubt. James’ knowledge of the Torah and the teachings of Nicodemus conflicted with Jesus simple faith. In spite of everything Jesus said, his disdain for the fishermen and new disciples in our group faded slowly.
“He’s replacing the temple, plain and simple,” he whispered to me. “Those men are too stupid to figure that out.”
“Do you agree?” I gave him a searching look. “You seem to have doubts.”
“Don’t worry, Jude.” He heaved a sigh. “I’m here to stay, but it’s not easy. Don’t forget, I studied to be a temple scribe. Much of what Jesus says flies in the face of everything I believe!”
“I understand,” I replied sleepily, “…but these views are central to the Way.”
James was silent. Bartholomew, who was normally sound asleep this late at night, murmured next to me, “Jesus is the Way. Nothing else matters. I’ve given up trying to make sense out of it. God is inscrutable…. Jesus is inscrutable. We don’t need to understand!”
That summed it up for me. If I hadn’t been so exhausted I would have responded to Bartholomew’s wisdom. How very simple but so very true. We didn’t need to understand!
The following morning, after our morning meal, found us back on the road to Bethlehem. What Jesus almost told the disciples last night appeared to have left no impact on them. After all, as Peter reminded them, Jesus was always saying strange things. James and I had grown up with Jesus and seen, heard, and understood the nuances of his speech and actions. What he implied when he admonished the disciples, was not so different from many hints he gave us in the past. Nevertheless, “Let the little children come unto me” had been soon followed by Jesus saying to me, “they weren’t ready for that.” It was, in fact, that comment, more than anything else he said which troubled James and me.
To be out of earshot of Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, and Simon, James and I stopped in our tracks, as the mule cart surged ahead. Jesus didn’t think they were ready to know who he really was. So we decided to be discreet. He wasn’t the messiah that the Jews expected. Jesus was not a warrior prince, and he had no intention of destroying our Roman oppressors. Our family in Nazareth had befriended Romans. Jesus had baptized Roman soldiers. For that matter (something Jesus was quite aware of), it was Romans who had once saved my life. Though we didn’t know the full story attached to his identity—prophecy too dreadful for us to accept, we were certain that he was an emissary from God, not a revolutionary bent on physically changing the world. His purpose was to change people’s hearts—a spiritual conquest, promising peace of mind and eternal life. James and I, however, would not share this insight with the others. What we saw, was the leading edge of something far greater. It was, as Bartholomew said, something we didn’t need to understand. We knew just enough, I reassured him. At this stage of our understanding, we agreed that God had selected Jesus since birth to one day introduce the Way. Neither of us wanted to believe Jesus was divine. Though he had miraculous powers, he didn’t actually say that. Moses and Elijah had such powers and they were mere prophets. It was sufficient for the disciples to think of him as a prophet of God. James and I decided to follow the advice of Bartholomew that Jesus is the Way, and nothing else mattered.
Inexplicably to us, Jesus’ mood changed. When we reached a small hamlet near Bethlehem, he remained aloof. There were only few people near the well where we filled our water skins: an old lady and small child. Jesus gave the child’s head a pat and greeted the woman, but said nothing more. Perhaps, he sensed that there would be an unfriendly reaction to his preaching this time, which has happened before. The woman did, in fact, have a cranky look on her face, and quickly led the boy away, but that proved nothing. Old women were often cranky. At this time of day, many villagers were indoors or somewhere else in the shade.
We learned what the real reason was when we were on a hill overlooking the place of Jesus’ birth: fear. It came suddenly upon us, startling us greatly. Peter and Andrew stood protectively in front of Jesus. Seeing his example, Matthew stepped forward too, as did James and I, but the remaining fisherman cowered behind Jesus. Bartholomew clamored out of the cart to calm the mule. Simon, who had been a temple guard, ran ahead of Peter, brandishing a sword he had evidently hidden in his pack.
“No, Simon,” Jesus called in a trembling voice, “put your sword away. Those men will kill you!”
Down a ways on the trail leading into town, on a black stallion and in the garb of a highwayman, his face shielded by his hood, sat the bandit leader, his fierce black pupils staring at the foolish man. When Jesus repeated his demand, Simon withdrew obediently, sword in hand, standing near Jesus with a defiant stare. A hush fell over Jesus’ disciples. The fourteen members of Barabbas’ band, moving out from a copse of myrtles, sat on their horses, their faces also covered and hands on their swords, waiting for his command.
In a loud, booming voice, the bandit leader barked calmly, “your valuables men. That’s a fine looking mule. What’s in the cart?”
Jesus stepped forward. “Barabbas!” he called out in an reproachful tone. “You were known to my family as Adam—a troubled youth. Now you’re a thief and outlaw of Rome.”
“Aw yes.” Barabbas uttered a sour laugh. “I remember your family. You’re Jesus, the miracle worker. I’ve heard of you. To many of those money-grubbing priests and graybeards you’re an outlaw, too.”
“I’m Jesus, who brings good news to the people,” he corrected him. “Our religious leaders have killed the prophets. They weren’t outlaws; they were selfless men, who dared to tell the truth.”
“And what is that?” asked Barabbas with a snarl. “What is the good news you bring our people. What is the truth?”
“It is this.” Jesus raised one finger. “That all people, not merely priests, scribes, and Pharisees, are given direct communion with God. My message has replaced the formula and ritual of the past, which most believers don’t understand. The good news has changed this.” “The news is simply this,” he announced, raising a second finger. “That those accepting the message, repenting their sins, and receiving the sacrament of redemption, merely have to open their hearts to have eternal life. Believers become an assembly of universal priests and a temple unto themselves. Each one’s heart is a sanctuary in which faith is stored. The truth, which is God’s grace, shall set you free!”
“You preach to me!” Barabbas spat. “I could strike you down, preacher. If I say the word, my men will kill your men as well. Now give us your valuables! Hand over the cart and mule!”
“No!” Jesus shouted angrily. “You’ll not rob my disciples. Be on your way, Barabbas. Your day is coming, but that’s far away, long after I’m gone. One day, you will know the truth. It will come to you in old age—a broken, misbegotten soul.”
“Oh, now it’s prophecy.” Barabbas forced out a laugh. “What next, preacher? Are you supposed to be the Messiah?”
Visibly shaken by the appearance of this rogue from our past, Jesus had also been concerned about our safety. Now, with mention of that troublesome word, Jesus’ eyes widened with revelation. I had elbowed my way passed Peter in order to stand beside my brother. I could see it in his blue eyes: knowledge of the future hidden from us. It seemed obvious to me that Barabbas must play a part in that future, but I kept silent. We had wondered about this very possibility ourselves. Was Jesus the long awaited Messiah? I had told the other disciples that this was impossible, because most Jews expected a warrior king. They agreed with me, so the matter seemed settled.
Walking forward several paces, Jesus looked up at Barabbas. “You have said so,” he replied finally.
I had once thought this enigmatic response was merely another way of saying, “Yes,” but I realized that moment that Jesus had dodged the issue. I remembered him doing this before. Now I was certain that Jesus was saying something else. This time he was leaving the answer up to Barabbas. The bandit sat silently in his saddle, as if puzzled. How could such a man be the Messiah? He must have wondered. In his soiled white tunic and threadbare cloak, if a stranger didn’t know better, Jesus could have been mistaken for a poor farmer or laborer. Yet Barabbas, like many people in Galilee and Judea, begrudgingly sensed it. The sunlight sparkled in Jesus’ blazing eyes. A capricious breeze stirred his light brown hair. Suddenly, to our astonishment, a second gust on the ground caused the dust to swirl into a whirlwind between Jesus and the horsemen. We could hear Barabbas gasp. Startled by this unexpected phenomenon, he made the sign to ward off the evil eye. The horses neighed nervously, and their riders mumbled fearfully amongst themselves. The whirlwind of dust remained stationary reminding me of the column of fire God placed before the Egyptians as they pursued the children of Israel.
Barabbas found his voice. “You are a sorcerer!” he shouted hoarsely.
“Barabbas,” Jesus cried out in a commanding voice, “your day is coming. Be gone!”
Jesus raised his first two fingers and thumb, closing his third and fourth into his palm—a gesture I never clearly understood. Was it, in this case, a symbol of blessing or a curse? For a brief moment, the bandit leader, after unsheathing his sword, appeared ready to attack him where he stood. Then, as the whirlwind moved toward the horsemen, guided by the hand of God, Barabbas and his men turned their horses and fled. As soon as they were out of sight and the road ahead was once more clear, the column of dust vanished as quickly as it appeared.
“That was awesome!” Philip hooted. “Those bandits ran like jackals. Against Jesus’ power, Barabbas was a frightened child!”
“God protected us,” Andrew cried. “With Jesus leading us, we have nothing to fear!”
“Jesus has great power,” Peter summarized. “His authority gives our people hope and everlasting life. Our Shepherd is God’s prophet—the Lord’s hand on earth. The very wind is under his command. What he touches is blessed or cursed, and his words are the thoughts of God!”
Jesus winced at Peter’s boast. Despite Jesus’ reaction, Peter had summed it up quite well. What I heard that moment belied the rustic fishermen he often seemed to be. Despite his sudden wisdom though, there was another issue escaping most of the disciple’s notice. They understood Jesus’ ability to see into the future, but merely thought he had detected an immediate danger: Barabbas and his gang. James and I, who had grown up with Jesus and seen and heard his philosophy of religion and human nature, sensed it was also something else. It seemed to us that Jesus saw Barabbas playing a part in his life. Some of his words—”Your day is coming…. Long after I’m gone, you’ll know the truth”—had proven that. And yet, even Peter, whose understanding had improved, failed to make the connection.
It was early evening as we made camp near Bethlehem. Jesus’ policy of camping near towns and villages in which he had no relatives or friends, included the city of his birth, where, ironically, he had no contacts at all. Aside from the reason that he didn’t want us to be a burden or nuisance in towns, we also had a very limited amount of coins that were needed for food and drink. Despite such sound logic, I longed for four walls, a roof overhead, and a soft pallet filled with goose feathers on which to rest my weary bones. I knew that all of the disciples and Jesus, too, were tired of sleeping on the ground. Here we were overlooking such an important town in Jesus’ life and, like desert nomads, we made a crude fire again, ate dried fish, stale bread, and moldy cheese, and slept on the hard, cold earth.
Jesus told us that this was how our ancestors lived. I couldn’t help reminding him that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at least had tents and other accoutrements, as did our neighbors the Nabataeans. We were living like the outcast lepers near Jerusalem and Sepphoris, who at least could beg for alms. Though what I said was partly in jest, the disciples agreed whole-heartedly and added their own complaints.
“Is it really because of our limited funds and not wanting to be a burden to townsmen that makes us nomads?” asked John.
“At least find us a tent-maker to make us portable lodging,” suggested his brother James.
“We can’t afford that.” Jesus reminded him. “There’s no other motives for my policy,” he explained to John.
“That doesn’t explain the reception we sometimes receive,” Andrew grumbled
“We bring them the good news,” John exclaimed naïvely. “They should open their doors to us. Why do so many of them treat us like outcasts when we arrive? For every friendly face, there are ten who show resentment. Some want to stone us!”
“Not so!” Jesus shook his head. “No one’s going to stone you, John, and you exaggerate our difficulties. Most people are bystanders, not agitators. There’ll always be close-minded and unyielding people, such as the Pharisees, scribes, and priests. Those folks incited by these men are inclined to do. They are rabble and idle troublemakers. Everyone else can be swayed. It just takes patience and work. Unfortunately, most of those in the audience are beguiled by miracles. At times is it what they see, more than what they hear, that convinces them. More blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. It is this precious number—the ones who are convinced by the message, not the messenger, that we must reach. The Lord willing, those fair-weather and miracle-seeking multitudes will join our ranks too.” “Every place that we stop is a new challenge,” he added, stroking his beard. “Not every village, town, or city is that unproductive. There were times, such as in Tiberius, where we had great success and our harvest was in the hundreds. When we return to Galilee, the numbers will be in the thousands. Our audience will overwhelm you, John, James, and Andrew. You’ll wish it was mere hundreds again!”
“All right,” our brother James drawled, “that’s all very fine, but why do have to live like savages?”
“This is temporary.” Jesus sighed. “I know the ground is hard. Life is hard. Paradise is pure bliss, without hardship. You’re not savages or nomads. You’re in my care. I will protect you and give you what you need. You’ll have your four walls, roof, and soft pallets soon enough. You must toughen up for the road ahead!”
Philip seemed ready to protest against this oversimplification. Bartholomew muttered to me, “Toughen up. What have we been doing?” It appeared as if all the disciples were in agreement on this subject, until Peter stood up, cleared his throat, and put the matter to rest. “We can take it men,” he assured us. “Jesus got us this far, in good order. Let’s not complain about small matters. Did he not say ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself.’ Did he not promise us salvation and ever-lasting life? We’re much better off than nomads, savages, or lepers, who have no such assurance.” “You have eaten bread, cheese, and smoked fish, but in heaven Jesus told us we would not hunger or thirst…. Go to you pallets and rest. Tomorrow we enter Bethlehem, the city of our Shepherd’s birth!”