Samuel, the Pharisee
As a child, one expects things to never change, but at the same time a child hopes that matters fall in place around him as they were before or should actually be. And so I hoped that Papa and Mama would never change and that Nehemiah would always be my friend, though I wasn’t so sure that my friendship with Uriah would ever be the same. We felt sorry for him and we tried to help him—that was enough! My brothers, on the other hand, I hoped and prayed, would change drastically in the coming months. They seem to have transferred their dislike for Michael and then Uriah to Nehemiah, and refused, as they had before, to accept another adopted son. We had a special prayer circle for this issue that appeared to go well but lasted only until our parents were out of earshot and visual range. We had another prayer circle to pray for reconciliation with Joachim, the rabbi, but upon hearing of this Samuel, the Pharisee, told us that this was foolishness. This would require a great miracle, and, of course, Jesus was still on his trip. Our last prayer circle, at Mama’s insistence was for Samuel’s health, for he had taken suddenly to his bed and would require a miracle, himself, if he was to live to see Jesus again.
The gravity of this crisis overshadowed everything else in our house. For several weeks, at Samuel’s insistence, we had shuttled back and forth between our house and his. Since Samuel’s physician assured us that his vital signs had improved, the dark cloud of worry began to lift. The daily trips we made, so that Mama could bring special soups, stews, and pastries to his villa and Papa could sit chatting with him by his bed, allowed Nehemiah, my brothers, and I to explore Samuel’s spacious estate.
During our visits to the estate, my brothers continued to show their disdain for Nehemiah but without the pranks. Under the scrutiny of the servants, not to mention my parents, who made sure we didn’t all run wild, we were forced to play quietly in the garden or sit idly in the hall, waiting our turn to visit our friend. Samuel, in spite of his infirmities, had an endless well of stories to tell we children about his own youth and, because of his great love for our family, promised to give us many gifts. Most of these gifts, such as my horse, I have not yet seen. Papa, much to our grief, thought Samuel was too generous to his children, though he didn’t complain about the additional room and workshop Samuel promised to have built in our yard.
Our games drew my brothers closer to Nehemiah and I. Hide-and-go-seek was permitted, as long as we didn’t make loud noises, scuffed the tiles or tipped over potted plants. It didn’t take long for our curiosity to wane, however, and boredom to set in. One good thing about the weeks of our forced solidarity, during Samuel’s convalescence, was James, Joseph, and Simon’s begrudging acceptance of my friend. He was, I acknowledge in my chronicle, the best childhood friend I would ever have. Unlike the devious Michael, who ran away, or the sniveling Uriah, whose father caused us so much dismay, Nehemiah was trustworthy and never complained. Though slight of build with small, darting eyes, he had a big heart and keen intellect. Samuel noticed these qualities immediately when Papa brought him into his room. After his acknowledgment of me, he turned to Nehemiah and gave him his blessing. With a twinge of jealousy, I stood in the background. Having already had my moment with the old man, in which he gave me a silly riddle to chew, I now scoffed at his words. He didn’t tell my Papa “Jude, is a smart lad with a bright future.” He looked at me with his watery eyes and said, “In your heart Jude, you’ll serve two masters. You’ll be sorely tested but in the end turn from Rome.”
Papa gasped as if he had been told some dark secret. Sorely tested? What nonsense! I told myself. I was so tired of all these mysteries. How can I be a soldier if I don’t serve Rome? Serve two masters? I’m going to be a soldier—period! I looked over at Nehemiah as subtly as possible and, when I had his attention, rolled my eyes.
That special insight, which came with great age, told the old man something else, which he hesitated to tell Papa until Nehemiah scampered off. Nehemiah continued to run down the hall. As I followed my friend, I stopped in my tracks, backed up a few paces, and, by the open door, pricked up my ears…. What were they talking about now? I wondered, holding my breath. Was Samuel going to die? Is that why he said those strange things?
“Joseph,” Samuel’s voice wavered, “I want my physician to look at that boy.”
“You mean Nehemiah?” Papa gasped again.
“Yes, of course,” Samuel cackled softly, “Jude is as fit as a mule!”
Papa exhaled but then, in a delayed reaction, asked, “What’s wrong with Nehemiah?”
“Did you know that he survived the plague?” Samuel asked gravely.
“No,” Papa answered with surprise. “Nazareth suffered much less than other towns. He must have been an infant when he was ill.”
“Yes, it was a miracle,” Samuel sighed. “It killed his parents and Deborah’s husband. She never forgave Nehemiah for living and becoming a burden to her.”
“Please, Samuel, come to the point,” prodded Papa, “what’s wrong with him?”
“It should have been perfectly obvious,” the old man replied testily, “he’s much to small and thin for his age. There are rings under his eyes. His bones seem to stick out every which way.”
“Enough,” Papa grew testy. “Spell it out: what’s wrong with the boy?”
“I see the shadow of death in his eyes,” Samuel’s voice broke. “Sometimes I have these feelings about matters.”
“Oh?” Papa sounded flabbergasted. “You just gave Nehemiah your blessing, but moments ago told Jude he will serve two masters before forsaking Rome. I assume one of the masters was God. I wish you hadn’t said that. His has this crazy fantasy of being soldier. Where is this sudden prophecy coming from Samuel? I caught wind of your conversation with my wife, too, as Joseph of Arimathea’s caravan pulled away. You practically told her Jesus was the Messiah. Mary has had troubling dreams about my oldest son being in trouble some day with Rome. Now you’re implying that Jude will be in conflict with the Romans too? That’s ridiculous Samuel—Jude loves the Romans far too much for a Jewish boy. You challenge him with your words. He must never serve Rome. Please, Samuel. Jesus will become a great teacher or rabbi—that’s enough for us. Your prophecy must be referring to another Jude” “Please don’t fill Mary or Jude’s head with anymore of this talk,” he added solemnly, “ ‘The shadow of death’ is much too strong for Nehemiah’s ailment. He’s sickly, but Mary’s fattening him up.”
“That’s good,” Samuel agreed, “but let my physician see him just the same.”
“Of course,” consented Papa graciously. “You have been like a grandfather to my sons. Your charity is boundless and much appreciated by Mary and I. I’m sorry if I sounded testy, but your sudden gift of prophecy caught me off guard. Perhaps you might give me warning before you say such things to my wife and sons.”
“Joseph, I will abide by your wishes, but there is something you must know,” Samuel’s voice steadied. Silence fill over the room for several seconds. I could almost see his falcon eyes narrowing as he lifted a bony finger and declared “Jesus is not the only servant of the Most High. . . Jude has a great destiny too!”
I don’t know what Papa said to him after this. In Samuel’s delicate condition I hoped he held his temper. I had much to think about and no one to share it with, so I raced from the villa and into the nearby orchard belonging to Samuel. Ignoring Papa’s request that I not wander from the house, I ran for several moments into the grove until I found myself lying under a tree, my head swimming with the old man’s prophecy.
Was Samuel addled in the head? I wondered, recalling his words. Nehemiah wasn’t that sick. He was happy living with us, and he never complained. Why would Samuel say those awful things about Nehemiah? What kind of future did he see for me? Unfortunately, I didn’t wait to find out. My plan was to become a soldier and see the world. I didn’t want to follow in Jesus footsteps. So why did Samuel compare me with him? That was nonsense! It seemed as though my head would explode because of these questions. What did Samuel mean? Why was my life filled with so many unanswered mysteries? Could Nehemiah be fattened up as Papa claimed and regain his health or was it more serious, as Samuel implied? Samuel had spoken things I didn’t want to hear. The fact that I had a great destiny might have excited me, if I knew what that was. Judah, the Galilean, was considered ‘great’ by Jews and he was dead! I wanted adventure, not the conflict Samuel supposed. Would I suffer the same ‘greatness’ he saw for Jesus? God forbid, I prayed, shutting my eyes.
Jesus was on a trip with Joseph of Arimathea, but his journey to fulfill scripture had not yet begun. In hindsight, I see his odyssey with the great Pharisee as a milestone in his life. It was a period in which his views about religions were shaped as he learned about the Gentile world. Back then, not yet eleven years old, I was mystified, but I could envision a long, eventful road ahead for him. Where would it lead him? I pondered. What exactly was my brother going to be? Would I play a part in his future? Or would the destiny Samuel foresaw for me lead me somewhere else? If only Jesus could be here now, I told myself, falling asleep. Only he could dispel the uneasiness I felt. Perhaps he would cure Nehemiah as he once cured that dead bird.
That moment, as I grew drowsy, I wondered where he was…Was he in Egypt?…Was he in a ship on the Great Sea? Once again, after tumbling into slumber, I dreamed that I was riding my horse through a dark forest down a long endless path. When I awakened, Papa was walking toward me. I wondered fleetingly if he might be a figment in my dream, too, until he called that familiar way when he was worried or upset.
“Jude, where have you been? Your mother and I’ve been searching everywhere? A servant said that you ran from the house as if something dreadful happened. What’s wrong?”
“I heard,” I confessed, rubbing sleep from my eyes. “I heard it all. I know you don’t like snoops, but I listened by the door. Samuel said Nehemiah’s very sick. What he said about me is stupid. I agree with you, Papa, Nehemiah’s just underfed. He must be addled to say such silly things!”
“Samuel’s not touched in the head,” Papa said, shaking his head, “and he’s not stupid. It may sound silly, but he believes it. Some of it might be true.”
“Uh-uh.” I grumbled, rising to my feet.
Papa placed his hand on my shoulder, a grin breaking his bushy beard. “Jude, do you remember when I told you that you were a special son?”
“Yes, Papa.” I smiled wistfully. “I remember that time.”
“I was so proud of your inquisitive mind, it’s all I could think of saying.”
“Am I special Papa?”
“Yes,” he announced in a constricted voice, “God help you, I think you are!”
Papa’s words had sounded like a compliment to me, but I know now they were an expression of fear. Coming from him, Samuel’s words didn’t sound so strange. My great gift from the Lord was my memory and a precocious insight since childhood. In spite of my great ambition, Papa sensed, after listening to Samuel, that I would serve Jesus and in so doing share his travail. The Romans might have need of my quick mind, but so would Jesus when the time came. I know these as facts now. As my eleven birthday approached, however, I couldn’t imagine that one day I would travel north to the Antioch Cohort with a band of Gentiles and that, many years later, I would be walking on dusty roads as a disciple of Jesus with eleven unwashed men. Look at me now, as I sit in my cell writing down my thoughts. Those dusty roads look don’t look so bad now. Even in the darkness, with my small candle lighting my scroll, I remember everything. . . . In many ways this gift isn’t merely a blessing, it’s also a curse.
The grove surrounding Simon’s estate was far larger and more lush than the olive orchard in back of our house. The sunlight streaming through the trees caused a patchwork of shadow and light on the ground. I felt a peculiar feeling of peace, as we walked hand-in-hand through the beams. All was will. I tried not to think about what happened before this moment. For a while I basked in my father’s admiration, glancing up expectantly, trying to read his mood. Often, the expressions on his bearded face belied his words. Mama said he could smile and scowl at the same time. To make it more confusing, his beard almost hid his mouth. When he was agitated, his thick dark eyebrows might plunge down like curse, and yet he might utter a hearty laugh. When we found Mama, Nehemiah, and my brothers, we were told that Samuel had finally fallen asleep, so we slipped out, promising the chamberlain that we would return the following day—a day that would mark the first important milestone of Joseph of Arimathea’s travels with a letter from Jesus.