Dodging the Truth
Samuel, the Pharisee, came finally to our house bearing a message from his nephew Joseph of Arimathea. Reading it aloud, in his best voice, as do town criers in large cities such a Jerusalem and Rome, he gave the announcement a dramatic flair that caught the attention of passersby. It was the first time our illustrious ancestry had been proclaimed to Nazareth. Papa was embarrassed and fearful because of Samuel and his nephew’s airs, but the rest of us, including Mama, clapped our hands and danced around with glee. From the mouth of Nazareth’s most important elder, the recognition due our father over these backwoods bumpkins was finally given. The fact that it might create more controversy for our family was overlooked. Not only Papa, but Mama, were direct descendents of King David, which made Samuel’s announcement all the more controversial to our enemies in town. In the proclamation the Pharisee from Arimathea also singled out Jesus as someone very special, which was shouted out to our neighbors more loudly than the previous information.
“To the house of Joseph bar Jacob, descendent of David, anointed king of Judea and Galilee, from Joseph bar Ibrim of Arimathea, humble subject. Greetings and salutations:
On the ninth day, of the first week of Shivat, I, Joseph of Arimathea, the House of Ibrim, Pharisee and merchant, request an audience with Joseph bar Jacob, the house of David, and his son, Jesus, whom the religious teachers in Jerusalem remember as gifted, touched by God, in his understanding of the Torah and the ways of the Most High. In all my travels this has haunted me the most of wonders I have seen. I have searched this past year in vain for this youth but now, thanks be to the Most High, and my uncle Samuel bar Benjamin, I’ve located him in the town of Nazareth, the province of Galilee.
Joseph of Arimathea ended his announcement with “Your humble servant, Joseph bar Ibrim,” which made it seem as if he would, in fact, be visiting royalty.
Upon hearing the Pharisee’s message, Papa tried to share our merriment. As so often before, his bearded face displayed mixed emotions. He beamed with pride and frowned at the same time, as he watched Nathan, Gideon, and Ichabod stroll past our house. Thanks to these busybodies, the word would spread throughout Nazareth. In rare unity, the proclamation excited my brothers and me. We forgot our grievances with each other and discussed, in muted voices, Joseph of Arimathea’s words. Though the secret had been divulged by Mama about our parentage, nothing much had ever been said about their lineage from David, our greatest king. Papa had wanted us to keep this information to ourselves. Somehow Samuel found out about this family secret and took the opportunity to include it on the scroll when he sent his nephew the summons. Did Samuel, himself, take this claim seriously? Was it possible Joseph of Arimathea had a sense of humor and his declaration was merely a joke? We heard about our illustrious ancestry. That it came from this great Pharisee, however, was a big surprise to us. The wounding words about our original parents still prickled James, Joseph, Simon, and me, but the fact, as expounded by Joseph of Arimathea, that our father was the true heir to the throne of Israel seemed to offer some compensation for being his adopted sons.
When old Samuel was finished reading the letter, he bowed in a crotchety manner and was led immediately into our scrubbed and rearranged house, as if he were, himself, a visiting dignitary from another city. Since it was the second day of Shivat, our new guest would arrive in seven days. This time Mama would plan a meal far more sumptuous than the stew and biscuits served to Samuel last week. Included on the table would be lamb from the town butcher, seasoned vegetables, fruit, and fine bread purchased from the baker. In addition to this banquet, Papa would give all his guests wine he had bought in Sepphoris and fresh pomegranate and grape juice Mama prepared herself. Samuel would sit next to his nephew, also as an honored guest. Ezra and his wife Naomi and several other couples of Nazareth, who remained friends with Joseph bar Jacob in spite of his support for Mariah, were invited. Papa had already begun building another table and more stools to accommodate such a crowd. All of us, Jesus included, would assist him tirelessly at this task in order to be ready for the arrival of our guest. It was, we were told, a send-off party for our oldest brother, but we knew it was much more.
It had taken me a long time to warm up to my oldest brother. Now, as I record these events, it seems only natural to me that a ten-year-old boy would have difficulty accepting Jesus’ divinity, let alone that he might be the Son of God. He was, after all, my brother and the son of a struggling carpenter in a backwater town in Galilee. And yet, as I listened to the buzz of excitement about the arrival of Joseph’s nephew, I remembered my dream about the Virgin Mary and her spiritual children and the unanswered questions it left in my mind.
Today, as I write my chronicle, I’m still amazed by my revelations and yet confounded by the inability of Jesus’ brothers, including myself, to understood who he was. He had been forbidden to talk about his divinity by Papa, but Mama, who could not keep a secret, had almost told us several times. In spite of the many secrets they shared, my parents could not accept the truth themselves and raised Jesus and their adopted children in denial. The cloudy picture Papa and Mama painted of Jesus beginnings was, of course, a deliberate effort to preserve his childhood for as long as possible and shield the rest of us against the awesome knowledge of who he was. This, of course, doesn’t excuse my own reception of the truth. Using my experience in Mama’s garden to make my point, my understanding was like a seed buried in the ground, the knowledge of Jesus’ divinity sprouting gradually in my mind. I had been jealous of the special affection my parents had shown him. He had for a very long time been a source of irritation to me because of his self-righteous airs and inability to share in normal childhood games. Until the incident of the sparrow, I wasn’t sure why. With this miracle, however, the cloud of mystery in my thick skull began to fade. The seed began to grow. Because of Jesus eccentric behavior, I used to tease him and call him names, all the while sensing that he wasn’t addle-brained and was communicating with God. His long walks in the hills, changing moods, and habit of talking to himself, were punctuated by actual miracles. The sparrow and the storm were only the start of the miraculous events witnessed by my brothers and myself. The cave (that appeared out of nowhere), the silencing of Mariah’s demon, and the dust cloud in front of Rabbi Joachim’s house were among the many wonders surrounding my brother. Smaller miracles, such as making a club appear in his hideout and his ability to predict future events might be explained as coincidences, but it was stretching credibility for his critics to claim that the downpour extinguishing Mariah’s burning house was a fluke. The whole town had seen this!
And now, to add to my illumination, slow in coming, was Mama’s admission. Finally, in a moment of carelessness, it had slipped out: all of Joseph and Mary’s children, except Jesus, were adopted. My brothers and sisters grieved quietly about this during the preparations for Jesus’ send-off. Despite my dream and special relationship with Jesus, this knowledge only added to the confusion I shared with them about our family. Who was this youth, who has God’s ear? Was this not our brother who resurrected a bird, cast out a demon, and conjured up a storm? It took Jesus mission to save the world for it to finally penetrate our minds. Back then, however, as in Mama’s garden, the truth remained buried: seeds sprouting at different rates, but very slowly, sometimes not at all.
Because of Mama’s disclosure about our origins and Papa’s acknowledgement of Jesus’ birth, it was obvious to even our young sisters how important these revelations were. Clearly, Jesus was more than just another brother or son. Simon, like myself, as well as Abigail, Martha, and Michael were awed by him, aware of his gifts, and excited by thoughts of his upcoming trip. The drama and mystery in our house had affect James and Joseph differently, however. They were glad Jesus wouldn’t be hassling them anymore, and viewed his send-off as a frightful bore. In an attempt to heal grievances, Jesus reminded all of us how lucky we were that we hadn’t become orphans, yet James and Joseph felt alienated. They were resentful of our cheerfulness and displayed an unspoken, smoldering contempt toward anyone who thought differently than themselves. Much of their ill feelings remained directed toward the strange, red-haired, boy in our house. They deeply resented Jesus for accepting Michael so willingly into our family. They knew that, in righteous anger, he might throttle them both if they ever mistreated our new brother again. When Jesus tried to make peace with them, they shrugged off his arm. James, especially, who was only a year younger than Jesus, found his overlordship intolerable. Joseph, for his part, had the dubious distinction of being the only child in our house to have been throttled by our mother’s hand. To compound their grievances, they resented not only Jesus and Michael, but also our ‘collaborating’ parents, the Romans we befriended, and all the secrecy still permeating our house. While Simon, Michael, and I accepted the imminent arrival of Joseph of Arimathea and the hoopla preceding it as a great adventure, James and Joseph slinked away with frowns and whispers, unable to join in the fun.
Now, in retrospect, I can understand their grief at losing their status as natural born sons. I can also accept their resentment at the deception about their original parents and sadness at not seeing them again. After all, I felt the same way. Nevertheless, like Papa and Mama, I was greatly annoyed by their attitude toward Jesus and Michael at this special time. They were becoming spoilsports. It was fortunate for them that they didn’t have the dream I had last month. They would really be upset!
I still didn’t realize the full meaning of my dream. Jesus had avoided giving me a full interpretation. As he would one day demonstrate to Pharisee and scribes, he cleverly dodged the truth. After learning about our parentage, I understood the part “Greater is the love for spiritual children than those of the flesh,” but the words “This is our adopted father, husband to the Virgin Mary” remained a mystery. Added to Samuel’s quotation from Isaiah about the virgin giving birth the Messiah, the implications had been too much for my young mind. For Simon, Michael and the twins it must have been much worse. Jesus cleverly sidestepped questions that probed too deeply, yet with such obvious clues as his miracles staring us in the face, we also dodged the truth. I remained like my parents and siblings, in denial, not really wanting to know. I had, after all, sworn an oath of secrecy to Jesus about mentioning the part about the Virgin Mary in my dream. I dare not, in fact, mention any of this vision to my family, for fear it might slip out. So what did all this mean? Who was this stranger, my brother, chosen by a great Pharisee to accompany him on his journey to distant lands?
I came close to making a terrible mistake the morning of the day before Joseph of Arimathea was to arrive. The memory of my dream and Samuel’s words troubled me. Taking me aside, Jesus had made me promise again I would not discuss the subject of the virgin birth. I tried very hard. I barely knew how to say it properly, but it plagued my curiosity. In one of those rare coincidences in my life, Michael seemed to have read my innermost thoughts.
He looked up from the anthill we were probing and asked, “Is you mother a virgin?”
“What?” my mouth dropped. “What did you say?”
Michael laughed at my reaction. I jumped to my feet as if he had kicked me and looked down angrily at him.
“How am I supposed to know a thing like that Michael? Have you been listening in on Jesus and me?”
“No,” he frowned. “You’re shadow’s blocking my light.”
Kicking the anthill, I screamed angrily down at him. “Tell me Michael or so help me I’ll tell Jesus! What did you mean?”
“Very well,” he said, rising up calmly and brushing himself off. “I heard James and Joseph talking. James said something about what he had read.”
“Stop! No more!” I shushed, feeling stupid for almost giving it away. “Listen, Michael,” I began, “that’s foolishness. My mother’s a beautiful woman and Papa’s not a fool. You say such stupid things!”
I had said quite enough. With that morsel expounded, I bit my tongue. The truth was, I didn’t know myself, yet Michael had come very close to the secret I shared with Jesus. Sighing with relief, I changed the subject entirely and told Michael about some wild berries I had found in the woods. Michael was not fooled at all, though, and followed me hesitantly as I ran around the house down the path to the orchard below.
“Don’t go wandering in the hills!” Mama shouted from the back door.
“I won’t,” I called over my shoulder. “I’m going to show Michael a new berry patch.”
But Michael stopped on the path, apparently irked by my strange behavior. Instead of following me, he pivoted and trotted back to the house. Thinking he might be bold enough to ask Jesus, himself, I ran ahead of him to reach my brother first. When I found Jesus standing next to Papa, working on a row of stools, I froze in place. Michael didn’t show up. Outside in front of the shop, James and Joseph had been recruited for log splitting—a dangerous chore that required supervision. While Papa ran out to scold Joseph for not holding the axe correctly, I whispered hastily to Jesus “Michael asked me a question.”
“What kind?” Jesus murmured from the corner of his mouth.
“A funny kind.”
Jesus immediately laid his chisel aside, blew off the leg he was working on
and, without asking Papa’s permission, led me a considerable distance from the house.
“What question?” He sighed heavily.
“Is Mama a virgin?”
“Where did he hear that word?” he asked discreetly, looking around the front yard.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” I answered carefully. “He just wondered if she was.”
I didn’t want to get James and Joseph in trouble. Jesus studied my blushing face.
“Why Jude? That wouldn’t just suddenly pop into his head. I think I know the answer, but I want you to trust me. I won’t tell Papa. The preparations for Joseph of Arimathea’s arrival have given him enough stress.”
“They’ll beat me up.” I stuck out my lower lip.
Jesus folded his arms, staring at me with those dazzling blue eyes.
“You know very well I won’t let them do that.” He smiled.
“Michael told me James had he read about it.” The words spilled out of my mouth.
Jesus gave my tangled hair a pat then led me back to the shop where I helped him sand the remaining stools. I will never know what he said later to James and Joseph, but the virgin birth was not be a subject of gossip again. I don’t think I ever felt closer to Jesus than those moments when he let me begin my career as a carpenter. Before that moment I was merely a helper, mostly sweeping or working in Mama’s garden. I wouldn’t tell him that one day I would join the legions to become a soldier and ride a fine horse. For that special hour, Jesus had entrusted me with a sander and scraper. Papa even let me put on the glue before the legs were fastened to the seat. I had accepted my new role as Papa’s adopted son, because I knew he loved me, and I knew Jesus loved me too. I wished James and Joseph felt the same way. Michael had disappeared again to avoid helping us with finishing up the stools, but it was just as well. Michael’s odd behavior was getting on my nerves.
Only two days before our guests were to arrive for the banquet, Michael had talked Simon and I into eavesdropping under the kitchen window. Michael, who was in a playful mood, had in his position a mirror that had belonged to his mother. I’m certain now that he had stolen it. Though it seemed unwise to me, he raised it up at an angle so we could spy on the adults. He was only able to capture one image at a time but this was enough to make he and Simon giggle foolishly to themselves. Samuel was at that moment attempting to convince Papa that his house, though warm and friendly, was too small for the upcoming event. Papa argued gently with the old man, explaining that he had calculated how many guests could sit at the new table and how many stools would be needed to seat the expected guests. Samuel, who sat on a cushioned chair Papa had designed for his weary bones, laughed heartily and slapped his knee. When Papa asked him why he was laughing, he stopped laughing and motioned for his host to sit down.
“My good friend,” he said, patting Papa’s hand. “Do you think a man of Joseph’s stature will come riding like some wandering tinkerer into town?”
“Well,” Papa seemed flustered, “you told me your nephew was coming. You mentioned no one else.”
“I apologize for that oversight,” said Samuel still giggling, as mama offered him a cup of wine.
At that point, I pulled Michael’s arm down and grabbed the mirror in his hand. Simon, who had tired of this game, crept into the garden, as I wrestled with my friend. It was a wonder they didn’t hear us grappling on the ground.
“Your parents act like Samuel’s slaves!” He growled under his breath.
“You’re crazy,” I whispered, “just like your mother!”
Fortunately, my friend broke away from me without breaking my nose or making any noise. I sat back against the wall stunned, not by the conversation I was overhearing, but by Michael’s actions since we took him into our home. In the days since Mariah left our house, he was filled with mischief. His behavior today made me wonder if he, like his mother, might be touched in the head. Before Jesus, James or Joseph discovered me under the window, I began inching away, with a heavy heart and tears willing up in my eyes.
Papa was at this moment enumerating the many things he and Mama had done in preparation for the big event.
“I am greatly moved by your efforts on behalf of my nephew,” I heard Samuel say, “but with Joseph’s wife, sons, and bodyguards, and all of your friends, there will not be enough room.”
“Wife. . . sons. . . bodyguards?” Papa made croaking noises. “How many sons and bodyguards would that be?”
“Let’s see,” Samuel thought a moment. “. . . He has two sons and four bodyguards. I’m sure his daughters won’t be coming, just his sons. With his wife along, that makes eight people, unless he brings his cook and baker too.” “Of course,” he added quickly, “there’s the townsfolk we must invite. We must give Jesus a proper send-off, right?”
“Abraham’s ghost!” muttered Papa. “With all those people added, there’s not enough room!”
“Indeed,” declared Samuel, “that’s why I’m here. I’ll have my servants prepare the main hall for the occasion. If you wish, I can have my cook prepare the food.” “I feel badly that you made all that furniture,” he added in a cavalier manner, “but my nephew can sell all that stuff you made in Alexandria or Rome.”
Though distracted by Michael’s actions, I was amazed by what I just heard. Samuel was now offering Papa the use and services of his estate. He had also offered his nephew as a middleman to sell Papa’s furniture abroad. Yet I took offense at Samuel’s high handedness. It as if he, not Papa, was in control. As I craned my ear, Jesus appeared out of nowhere, as was his habit, and stood a distance away listening, himself, as the room lapsed into silence. Papa sputtered in amazement. Crooking his finger so I would follow him over to the garden bench, Jesus led me to the large fig tree in our yard and motioned for us to sit down.
“Now, my little brother.” He offered me a fig that seemed to come out of nowhere. “Tell me what’s in your heart.”
“It’s not fair.” I wiped my eyes. “After all Papa has done in his shop and all the planning Mama’s done, Samuel’s just going to take over, just like that.” I snapped my fingers. “He laughed at Papa and let him get all upset before offering his house. Why couldn’t he have told him that in the first place—last week? I don’t like that old man, Jesus. Michael said he treats Papa and Mama like his slaves!”
“Jude, Jude,” he chided, giving me a nudge, “his manner’s strange, but it’s a good thing what Samuel does. He doesn’t treat them like slaves. He might be forgetful and overbearing, but he had a good heart. ”
“You mean like Mariah,” I replied, pointing at my head, “and like Michael acts now.”
“No,” Jesus shook his head. “Samuel’s mind, like his body, is very old. I could see that night, after he made peace with us, that he means well.”
I nodded as I peeled my fig. Jesus smiled gently as he looked into my heart. His eyes flashed, as he inclined his head. I could almost feel him probing my thoughts.
“That’s not what troubles you most Jude,” I heard him utter, “. . . Michael, your friend, troubles you now.
“Yes,” I nodded slowly, “. . . what’s going to happen to him? He’s acting strangely now. I just know he’s gonna get in trouble. He doesn’t think of us as his family, like you do Jesus; he always says ‘your parents’ and ‘your brothers.’”
“I said he’s your brother now,” Jesus explained gently, “I never said he would accept our family. You must know I have doubts about Michael, after witnessing some of his antics.” “. . . I sense much more, Jude,” he said, after a short pause, “and I think you do too.”
“What does sense mean?” I wrinkled my nose. “You mean like pictures in your head?”
“Sort of.” Jesus gave me a troubled look. “You know I would never say anything to worry you needlessly, Jude?”
I nodded faintly, chewing on my last mouthful of fig. What Jesus had to say seemed to catch in his throat. For a moment, as I listened to a bird chirp somewhere in the foliage of the tree, I heard Samuel laughing as he departed our house. He was always laughing or cackling about something. Mama sounded cheerful but Papa was grumbling under his breath. I didn’t want Jesus to leave now. What would happen to us when he left on his journey? My parents would be lost without their special son. It used to bother me when Mama fussed over my oldest brother. Papa slipped once and said I was his favorite son, but I never believed that a bit after the incident with the sparrow. The mystery surrounding Jesus dominated our lives. Soon this incredible brother and son would be gone for an indeterminate period of time. Of course, James and Joseph didn’t care; they were glad Jesus was leaving. They had drifted so far apart from the rest of us. Soon Papa would be short-handed. Accept for his coaxing, Simon was so lazy Papa seldom bothered to ask him to join in the work in the shop. Michael, who had feared my brother’s magic, would, with Jesus gone, have even less restraints upon him. And then there was myself, who had begun thinking of Jesus, not only as a miracle worker, but as my own private protector. Now, as I review this period of my life, I can remember that incredible moment when I blinked my eyes turned by head, and realized that Jesus had read my very thoughts.
“Don’t worry about our family,” he was saying, as he squeezed my shoulder, “you’ll all do just fine. I won’t be gone so long. Papa is upset about Samuel’s haughtiness—I find it disagreeable myself—but he will come to see that his offer is best. Mama will not have to purchase a lamb and cook and bake all those expensive courses for the table. Until Samuel’s celebration, our brothers, who resent all the extra work, can go romping in the hills out of Papa’s hair.”
“Jude,” his voice grew serious, “it’s true, you’re Papa’s favorite and also mine. There’s something very special about you. God has chosen you for something; you are part of his plan. Before I leave with Joseph of Arimathea to learn my way in the world, I want to make sure that you, little brother, are safe and secure in our father’s house.”
“How do you do that Jesus?” I looked at him in wonder. “It’s as if you were in my head. If this is so, then you know I have an awful feeling about Mariah and her son.”
“Yes,” Jesus sighed. “it’s true, of course, . . . Mariah at least thought she was a witch. And Michael, who didn’t see the Evil One we saw in the orchard, was nevertheless touched by him. A farmer who mistakenly plants a wild seed instead of a kernel of wheat, has planted a bad seen in the ground. Though the weed grows into a lovely flower its foliage will spread and ruin the garden. . . Michael is such a weed, but our parents can’t just pull him out and throw him away. As a farmer, your tools will be prayer and vigilance, as you tend the garden. But the Lord is caretaker of the garden, Jude. His will is your weathervane and compass. Somewhere and somehow Michael has, as everyone in the world, a purpose, if for nothing else to sharpen our wits and test our faith. You must pray very hard while I’m gone. I will pray to Our Father too and ask him to change Michael’s heart.”
“Why can’t you just change him now,” I asked, snapping my fingers, “like that? You brought a bird back to life and you made it rain. Why not make Michael behave?”
“We are not puppets,” he answered with a sad smile. “Do you think God is a puppet master, like those Syrian performers we saw in Sepphoris? We have free will Jude; it’s what separates us from the beasts. Would you want Our Father to pull your strings?”
“No,” I replied, my head swimming with his words.
Jesus often used picturesque and complex speech. These first efforts of Jesus to explain sin and human nature—his parable of the bad seed, inspired by Michael’s bad behavior and his explanation of free will, alluding to Syrian puppeteers—would resurface in many variations during his ministry. At this point, however, I sensed his meaning but I was still confused. I felt a sudden, calming force, as Jesus stood up and took my hand. Hand-in-hand we returned to the house for the noonday meal. Although I would be sad and feel lost when he embarked upon his adventure, I was comforted by his actions, if not his words, and the belief I held stubbornly that I too would one day leave Nazareth and see the world.