Weeks passed without incident in our home, garden or in the clearing where Papa had said to Jesus, “So it’s true…. It has begun!”
One day, after James, Joseph, and Simon brought him an injured snake, Jesus was left in a dilemma, since he had to feed it a small animal, which ran contrary to his nature as a savior of God’s creatures and at the same time would be helping a creature considered accursed by God. Jesus had tried to feed the snake scraps of lamb from our Paschal feast, which seemed blasphemous, in itself, on the Passover, but also funny, especially since a snake must have live food. I merely stood by and watched the show. Strangely enough, I felt pity for Jesus. Jesus was not stupid; how could he fall into such a trap? It seemed to me that they were going too far. It was James who managed to coax the snake into eating a locust. Joseph and Simon clapped their hands with glee. Jesus looked on in horror as the snake engorged the bug. We saw him take the surfeited snake gingerly in his trembling hands afterwards and kiss it tenderly, then walk to the furthest corner of the garden and set it free. Looking back now, it seems to me that the symbol of Adam’s fall had been nurtured by the Prince of Peace.
“Explain to us Jesus,” James taunted afterwards, “how is it that you, our holy brother, can kiss that accursed beast. Papa said you already know the Torah. Do you not remember how the serpent tempted Eve?”
“Yes,” said Joseph, “this proves he’s possessed!”
“I’m possessed of the Holy Spirit,” came Jesus’ refrain.
I giggled foolishly. In spite of what I thought before, I jumped into the debate: “He’s not holy, and he’s not possessed.” I made a circular motion to his head. “Anyone who kisses a snake is mad!”
James didn’t mind implying that our brother was possessed by demons. Joseph thought he might be a magician, and Simon, half convinced Jesus was a sorcerer, thought re-animating the bird was black magic, but they stopped short of calling him insane. That had been left up to me. How these thoughts appeared in my child-like mind, I will never know. I was too young to even remotely grasp the significance of my oldest brother’s miracle, and yet, acting as an agent of the devil, I too began taunting Jesus. My barbs stung more surely than all three of their barbs put together. They stood there staring at me with guarded amusement, averting Jesus eyes. Having smiled at the prospect of being possessed or a sorcerer or magician, Jesus frowned fiercely at the charge of being mad. This state of mind, I realized even as a child, would have invalidated his miracle and divinity. On the other hand, he seemed to greet the accusation that he was possessed as a compliment. Instead of the glow of holiness my brothers and father appeared to see, Jesus face darkened and his blue eyes flared from anger—a purely human emotion that seemed to prove his quackery to me.
“What are you going to do,” I taunted, “turn me into a pillar of salt?”
This was the second time this theme had been used. After Lot and his family escaped Sodom, his wife glanced back at the city’s destruction and was turned into a pillar of salt—one of the Torah lessons I remembered from my first months at rabbinical school. As I expected, as Jesus gaze intensified, James once again made the sign to ward off the evil eye, Joseph hid his eyes, and Simon ran off momentarily to hide behind a bush. I wasn’t sure whether or not they were mocking Jesus this time, for they were giggling—perhaps hysterically—to themselves.
“Why is it,” I cried out in a wounded voice, “that you fear Jesus, when I, the youngest, do not?”
“Because they know the Lord shall not be mocked,” Jesus spat angrily at me.
“What?” I looked at him in disbelief. “Now you’re telling us you’re God? You better not let Rabbi Joachim hear you say that. He’ll have you stoned!”
That should have been the final straw for Jesus. Simon, who had been shamed by my charge, returned from behind the bush. James seemed to look at me with newfound respect.
As I stood there waiting for Jesus reaction to my insult, I knew that, like the last times, it would never come. Instead of rebuking me, he did as he always did when he was upset; he stared at me angrily and mumbled something under his breath. James, Joseph, and Simon probably wondered if he was praying or attempting to cast a spell on me, yet they could not help gloating at Jesus inability to act. God had not struck me dead at Jesus’ bidding, and I was not turned into a pillar of salt. The strange fact I overlooked was that Jesus never tattled on me nor did he hit me or verbally abuse me as my other brothers often did. This struck me as very strange, since he had informed on the others before. Using hindsight rather than foresight, I know I was spiritually, not intellectually, blind. I was in a state of denial, unwilling to accept Jesus’ wondrous miracle and amazing claim. He was either a fake, as I preferred to believe or, like our brothers insisted, a sorcerer. He couldn’t possibly be God’s son. I was tormented by the truth. Jesus had never lied nor committed a willful act. He was special, perhaps even divine. Because of my own gift of insight, I, more than James, Joseph and Simon knew better. I just didn’t want to believe it. In the way of the mind, rather than the spirit, as I would insist during my troubled youth, my brothers had been mesmerized, not bewitched, by Jesus, as I once saw an Egyptian charm a snake during our visit to Jerusalem last Spring.
The short period, in which I resented my oldest brother, was significant in Jesus’ life. It also had a great impact on me. Years later Jesus would tell me that God placed blinders on my eyes to test him, as he had done to the Pharaoh Ramses in order to make God’s point. The other brothers had merely teased him. Though merely a child, I was his first adversary. When not taunting him or talking behind his back, I shunned him in our home and around neighbors and friends. I resented the spell he seemed to have on everyone, who would listen to his ramblings, and I was pleased when Papa put an immediate stop to his medicinal games. “There will be,” I heard him scold Jesus, “no more miracles!” As an obedient son, now that a direct commandment had been given by his earthly father, Jesus would try to obey his parents’ wishes.…But the word was out. Thanks to what I told my classmates at the rabbinical school and what the boys told their parents in town, Jesus reputation as an animal healer spread, especially among the children with sick pets. Unfortunately, Jesus had been forbidden to practice his art, which was just as well, since the majority of our friends and neighbors in Nazareth were not amused by this blasphemy. It was fortunate for Jesus and our family that most folks thought he was merely touched in the head.
The new restriction placed on him didn’t stop Jesus from talking strangely to himself or, for that matter, disappearing from his work as an apprentice to Papa in his carpenter’s shop to wander in the fields and orchards near our house. It also didn’t prevent Jesus from criticizing me for shirking my duties in my mother’s herb garden and tending the family goat. After the revelation we had in the olive orchard and what Jesus told Papa in our yard, my remaining brothers quarreled with each other frequently and began treating me as a nuisance once more. Though they were estranged with their older brother, they didn’t share my hostility toward him, and, at times, looked upon Jesus, as he strolled around mumbling to himself, with a mixture of jealousy and awe.
Having turned thirteen last Spring, right before Passover, Jesus was encouraged by his permissive earthly father to begin doing the labor of a man. Though he preferred to roam the hills of Nazareth studying the rhythm of creation, it was his duty, as the oldest son, to oversee our chores. Because of his status, he was in charge, which was considered proper in Jewish custom. Despite the resentment we felt toward Jesus, he took his role seriously, especially toward me. There were times when he was only trying to talk sense into me, yet I would place my hands over my ears and hum loudly until he walked away. Often I would stay away from home entirely, playing with my new friends all day in order to lessen my contact with him. I’m sorry now that I wasted this precious time with Jesus. I had felt little comfort when he told me that I was simply fulfilling God’s plan. What plan was it that made me play all those mean tricks on my oldest brother? Could it have been God’s design that I did everything I could to make the children in town think he was addled in the head? Due to the blinders on my eyes and the stoppers in my ears, I was jealous of his treatment in our household now that I knew the secret, and I refused to believe in his spiritual powers. Even though I was the youngest son, I felt as if I alone, among the family, had seen through Jesus’ charade.
As I look back over the years, I realize that James, Joseph, and Simon, who despised Jesus the mystic and miracle boy, also felt jealousy toward him but for his magic not his standing in our house. They had not minded being followers, the first such disciples foreshadowing his ministry on earth. But if they held him in awe, I sensed that it was a begrudging, unwanted respect. They certainly resented this slacker overseeing their work. For now their clever and adventuresome older brother, who had a boundless love for God’s creatures, was something quite different than he had been before.…We had always suspected that Jesus was different. He was, as Papa and mother admitted finally, special, not like we children at all. He had, James, Joseph, and Simon believed, brought a bird back from the dead. Jesus’ heavenly father and apparent adoption, which mattered to me so much, could not compare to this event.
For several months Jesus went through the motions of carpentry, often gazing dreamily into space when not wandering alone in the hills. I knew that things would never be the same because of that one event. If anything, matters grew worse. No longer acting as Jesus assistants as he ministered to small animals and birds, my other brothers stood back and watched him, at times, taunting him as I so often did. Papa would come out of his shop at times, scold Jesus for his laziness, and pull him back into his shop. James, Joseph, Simon and I were required to take up the slack when Jesus was in one of his moods, and yet one day Papa left the shop to repair a farmer’s plough, leaving Jesus in charge.
James was working on a piece of furniture, Joseph was sweeping up shavings, and Simon was in the garden picking weeds. I found myself, as usual, after watering plants and feeding the goat, on my favorite rock, waiting for lunch. Instead of overseeing our work as instructed, Jesus stood in the garden a moment, gazing up at the sky. James, Joseph, and Simon paused in their chores to watch him tilt his head, as if he was listening to God. It wasn’t unusual to see him in such a state. At first I paid him no mind. After our noonday meal, I would be free to play with my friends. Now that I was almost nine years old, I found the little wooden boat, cart, and wooden animals Papa made for me boring. This time Jesus didn’t retreat to the backyard, which left him open to ridicule. Waiting for the others to finish up and Mama to call us in for our noonday meal, I watched idly as my brothers approached.
“What is he saying this time?” I asked, as Jesus laughed and murmured to himself.
James came over to him and in an exaggerated posture cupped his ear. “He says, Oh Beelzebub, send lighting down on my youngest brother Jude!”
“I said no such thing!” Jesus placed his hands indignantly on his hips.
“It talks! It talks!” Joseph cried mischievously. “It’s not mumbling and staring at the sky!”
“Leave him alone,” Simon offered sarcastically, “or he’ll turn you into a pillar of salt!”
I had emboldened my older brothers greatly. I could not help feeling a measure of pride. But suddenly, inexplicably, as Jesus turned his gaze to me, I noticed that incredible change in his face. It went from dark to light. It reminded me of that moment in the clearing, near our olive orchard, when the cloud came over Jesus and my father. As the cloud moved on, as did Jesus mood, sunlight radiated his face. His deep, blue eyes flashed. This time I felt ashamed. This feeling made me all the more angry, since I felt somehow that I had been wronged. Who was he to lord it over us with his high and mighty ways? Was he not our brother? Why didn’t he ever get truly angry like the rest of us? Why did he put on such airs?
Once again I made my exit, but this time at a slow pace and not before I called back mockingly to Jesus: “You don’t frighten me! If you’re the Son of God, strike me dead!”
If it had not been for James, Joseph and Simon’s gloating expressions, I would have apologized immediately, because Jesus’ last look had shaken me greatly. It was a look of pity, not anger or majesty, as if he felt sorry for my shameful acts.
“I’ll pray for you!” his voice was but a loud whisper. “Someday, you’ll know me for what I am. I have faith in you, though you have none in me.”
In spite of the respect I had hoped to regain from James, Joseph, and Simon, they were shaken by Jesus’ expression. They stood there in the front yard, staring at him in disbelief. I thought I understood what had happened. It was, I believed, just another trick or play of light, but they didn’t know what to make of him. Jesus was different from them. He was, as Papa admitted, special. Once again, I was the outsider. They would not join me in my rebellion, but I didn’t expect them to. They reminded me of jackals in the way they treated him. First they mocked him, and then they held him in awe. There was no brotherly affection in their stares, only envy and wonder and a desire to somehow share in his magic. I knew I had made my final break with them today (or so I believed). But that look in Jesus’ eyes had upset me very much. The enigmatic smile he gave me that moment would remain his trademark and would haunt me all my life.
From the garden to the backyard, I ran, this time in the direction of the clearing where we saw a shadow fall over our brother and father and, for the first time, that strange light grow on Jesus’ face. The path we had taken seemed longer than before. This time I was filled with dread as I approached the spot that had begun the transformation in our lives. I felt compelled to return to this hallowed place, yet my motive for returning was not yet clear. What was driving me this time: hate, fear or guilt? The look my oldest brother had given me seemed branded in my mind. For a moment, as a dark creature crossed my path, I froze in my tracks. Had it been a rat, bird, fox…or my imagination? My heart was beating fast, I could barely breath, and had the sudden expectation that God would punish me for my behavior these past months.
Down passed the large bush we had hidden behind, I walked more slowly to the very spot where my father and Jesus stood. For a moment, as I planted my small insignificant self in the spot I thought it had happened, I looked up to the cloudless sky and searched for the errant cloud. Had it really been the Evil One as Jesus said? What great light far above had shone in Jesus’ blue eyes? Who had been Jesus first father, if not God?
Suddenly, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I could not allow myself to accept such a farfetched and unbelievable story. Yet because of these revelations, I knew my life would never be the same.