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Chapter Twenty-Three


Justin, Imperial Courier




As we waited for Jesus second letter from Rome, our routine had not changed.  Nehemiah, Simon and I, as usual, did our chores around the house while James and Joseph assisted Papa in the shop.  Mama seemed to always be busy cooking or cleaning when not nursing Samuel or treating townsfolk with her herbs.  Papa worked endlessly making furniture for customers in Nazareth and the neighboring towns, as his two older sons learned the carpentry trade.  Unlike our parents and older brothers, Nehemiah, Simon, and I had too much time on our hands.  We were bored.  Except for the legionnaires galloping down the road and the tramping of Roman guards back and forth through our yard, it was an uneventful, dull period of time.  Until the episode of the sparrow, each week was like the one before—nothing ever changed.  But now Jesus exploits had shaken the sleepy little town.  There were Romans guarding our house and the surrounding neighborhoods.  Yet, through it all, Nehemiah, Simon, and I were tired of playing our silly games.  I wished those moments, as we romped aimlessly in the woods, that our family had not become such outcasts in town that other children were forbidden to play with us for fear of spiritual contamination.  I missed Michael’s imaginative mind.  Nehemiah was a good and loyal friend, but, in many ways, rather dull and uninspired.  Uriah was too timid, and Simon was too lazy to play complicated games.  Michael, on the other hand, provided us with limitless games, made up on the spur of the moment in his head.  Of all the people that I missed, however, Jesus loomed greatest in my mind.  He had always been there to interpret a dream or offer me brotherly advice.  He protected my friends and I against my other brothers and, by his constant vigil, added his own “spiritual” security to the watchfulness provided by the Romans for our house. 

One sunny, humdrum day, as Simon, Nehemiah, and I picked weeds in Mama’s garden, I was thinking about my oldest brother when a courier galloped up to our house.  It always seemed strange to me that such a scruffy man and misbegotten horse should carry mail on behalf of Rome, but that morning Justin, the imperial courier, was a glorious sight.  His gruff and uncouth mannerism, which Papa found amusing and James and Joseph blameworthy, was worsened by the fact that he was drunk this time when he climbed off his horse.  His patch was missing from his blind eye, adding a note of repugnance to his appearance.  Staggering limply through the gate, his one good eye glazed with wine, he looked around slack-jawed, as if he had lost his bearings.  When we reached out for the parcel containing Jesus letter, however, he waved us away irritably as pesky flies and lurched toward the house.  Papa just happened to be in his shop with James and Joseph when he made his presence known.  The courier seemed to be in a terrible state of mind.

            “Sir, what’s the meaning of this?” Papa shouted, as Justin pounded on the door.

            “What?” the courier muttered, blinking in the sunlight. “I got some scrolls.  One’s a letter Longinus shoved into my pouch.  Son-of-a-bitch said he’d have me cashiered if I didn’t trim by beard and find some clean clothes.  Not so much as a thank you.  As if I got time for all that!”

            “That’s no reason to be rude.” Papa frowned.

            Justin grunted and scratched his disheveled hair

“Are you all right?” Papa asked, as he reached in shakily to retrieve our mail.

            The pouch fell onto the stone porch Papa had recently laid.  As three scrolls rolled out, Papa bent down to scoop them up.  The courier just stood there, his eyes half shut. 

            “He’s drunk,” James observed with a snarl. “It’s a wonder he made it here at all.”

            Papa gripped the courier’s sagging shoulders to prevent him from falling down then led him to the bench in the yard.  “I’ve been there, myself,” he confessed wryly. “Wine can be the ruin of men.”

            “Well, I’m already ruined.” Justin uttered a bitter laugh. “According to that Roman fellah, ‘I’m a sorry sight to be carrying imperial mail.’” “You know,” he snorted, gesturing to himself, “I didn’t start out this way.  Nazareth is out of my territory.  A fellow gets dusty and dirty on the road.  I get paid special to deliver this far out, but I don’t need anyone telling me to clean myself up.  Frankly, I don’t see how it’s worth it with that kind’ve abuse!”

            “We appreciate you coming out here.” Papa sat down beside him on the bench. “Longinus is hard on his own men.”

            “The Romans have high standards,” he replied angrily. “They expect too much from their auxilia.  We’re not citizens.  Don’t have any rights, like them Romans.  Seldom see our families.”

            “That’s a shame,” mused Papa, opening up a scroll. “I couldn’t stand not seeing my family.  They’re my life.”

            “My family’s dead,” Justin announced flatly. “Romans brought the plague to my city—killed my people, except a brother I don’t see much.  I was good with horses, though, so I got a job with the legion.”

            “You have anyone now?” Papa pressed, scanning Jesus’ letter. “A wife and children perhaps?”                         

            “No wife.  No children,” he said matter-of-factly. “Wife ran off with my brother.  My son was bitten by an asp and died.”

            By now we could understand Justin’s temperament and why he drank.  As he talked about his experiences as an imperial courier, his gravelly voice was tinged with bitterness and sadness—a life spent carrying mail he, himself, never received.  He was totally alone, and it appeared he didn’t have any friends.  Papa spoke my mind that moment and I’m certain Nehemiah’s thoughts too.

            “You will always be welcome in my house.” He patted Justin’s trembling knee.

            “I’m not a Jew.” The courier looked at him in disbelief. “You would welcome a Gentile into your house?”

            Papa could see that he was afflicted with more than wine.  Clearing his throat, he put the scrolls momentarily aside.  “Dear Justin,” he spoke kindly, “you’re our link to Jesus, my oldest son—part of our family now.  I shall make you my honorary brother.  I know what it’s like to lose parents, brothers and sisters.  Most of my family also died of the plague.”

            During this exchange, the four of us studied the strange man.

            “Good grief,” Joseph groaned in dismay, “another Gentile in our house.”

            “Well,” James said with a shrug, “we allowed a Roman prefect into our home; why not a Roman courier?”

            “Thank you for the thought.” Justin grinned at James, displaying yellow teeth, “but I’m not a Roman.  My mother was a Syrian.  I’m not sure about my father.  He had fair hair, like a Greek.  My mother always spoke well of your Jewish god.”

            “Why don’t you convert?” James gave him a sly smile.

            “Ho-ho,” Papa laughed gently, “I don’t think he’d do that.”

            “Why not?” James said in jest. “His mother was almost a believer.  He’s half-way there.”

            “Hah!” Justin made a face. “I’m well aware of the requirements of your god.” “Snip-snip.” He gestured with his fingers. “Circumcision is a dreadful custom.  Why does your god wish to mutilate his believers?  Demeter, whom the Greeks worshipped, demands only a little gold once and awhile.”

            Upon hearing Justin’s words, Joseph, after retreating in disgust, called out self-righteously “You’re a heathen.  Demeter’s made of stone.  I’ve heard about that dreadful, multi-breasted idol.  We expect such from you!”

            “I’m not a heathen,” he said indignantly. “My mother told me about a prophecy she heard from a woman converted to your faith.  It’s easy for woman to convert to your god.  They’re not mutilated.  This woman believed that a great man would be sent down from heaven to deliver the poor and downtrodden from the yoke of Rome.  That’s the deity I would accept, not your demanding god.”

            There was an intake of breaths.  It was so obvious.  We all knew he was talking about the Messiah.  In spite of our eagerness to hear Jesus letter, Justin had stumbled into one of the Jews’ favorite religious subjects.  As I look back through enlightened hindsight, I know that circumcision should never have been an issue with our faith or, more importantly, the followers of the Way, whom the Romans now called Christians.  In his ignorance, Justin considered the Messiah as another god.  To Joseph, especially, this was heresy, even blasphemy, but Papa was moved by this half-way mark.” 

            “Isaiah wrote that God was for both Gentile and Jew.” He stroked his beard. “The man you speak of, whom we Jews see as our deliverer, will be sent by the Lord.  It stands to reason, if Isaiah’s correct, that he will come for you too.”

            “No, no,” Joseph recoiled in horror, “the Messiah’s only for our people.  Why would he appear to Gentiles, who are ritually impure?”

            “Joseph,” Papa said, holding up his hand, “I’ve talked about this with Jesus.  Did you know that the faithful before Abraham were uncircumcised?  You would not criticize Noah, a righteous man, or Enoch, who escaped death when he was taken up by God.”

            “What are you saying?” James frowned severely. “That Gentiles are God’s children too?”

            “No, we’re the chosen,” Papa explained patiently, “but I believe God is more merciful than our teachers.  If Justin is waiting for the Messiah, all he has to do is belief in his benefactor: God.  God sent us Moses.  He and the Israelites, as a one-time Egyptian slaves, were not yet circumcised.”

            Joseph cast disbelieving eyes upon Papa.  “Then you no longer believe in circumcision?”

            “I didn’t say that.” Papa began losing his patience. “Open your mind Joseph and James.  What I’m trying to say is that it was not always a requirement for our faith.  It was necessary during the times of old for our people to separate ourselves from the Gentiles.  I can’t believe a few snips of a knife makes us better than all other men anymore than I can believe that a soul is forever lost for not having this painful operation.”

            “It’s required by the Torah,” Joseph’s voice shook. “Without it, God said to Joshua, we are cast out!”

            “Come on Joseph,” snapped Papa, “we Jews were circumcised as infants, not adults. Would you have converts, grown adults, who won’t suffer this painful operation, cast out.  That seems unfair doesn’t it?”

            “Jesus has corrupted you!” Joseph gave a wounded cry.

            Even James winced at this declaration. “Calm down brother,” he murmured, pulling him away from the scene.

            “That’s right, take a walk—both of you,” Papa called after them. “Isaiah believed that the Gentiles should share in the One God.  The Psalmist offered salvation and wisdom to all the peoples of the world.  Go read my scrolls on the Torah and the Prophets.  Our God is a merciful and universal God.  Perhaps one day he’ll accept all peoples.”

            It sounded like heresy to everyone, including me, and yet I nodded enthusiastically at his words.  It was something Jesus said in his letters.  A strange gleam filled Justin’s eyes.  Though he had been drinking wine, he understood Papa’s words.  Nehemiah, whose eyelids were drooping, had reached a low point in his day’s energies.  For a short while, it was just Justin, Papa, and me grappling with this revolutionary idea: Gentiles receiving the blessing of the Most High.  Jesus had already said this, but coming from Papa it carried authority.  Papa, of course, believed in everything that James and Joseph believed.  The one difference was his conviction that Gentiles should not have to be circumcised and the notion of a universal god.  This came as a big surprise to me.  That he gently scolded Justin for not accepting our God, could not disqualify the courier’s yearning for a Messiah.  In a very real sense Papa was the first one I knew to preach our faith to someone who wasn’t a Jew.

            “Justin,” he declared, gripping his knee, “wine isn’t the answer!  You’re an unhappy man, searching for the same peace we Jews have accepted as fact.  Someday the Messiah will deliver my people, and I’ve come to agree with what Jesus, my oldest son, believes: the Messiah is meant for all peoples of the world, just like Isaiah and the Psalmist said.”

            “Not for the likes of me,” Justin cackled despairingly.

            “He will come for everyone,” Papa reassured him.

            This was just too much for Joseph, who, against James counsel, had been eavesdropping at the corner of the house.

            “No, it’s not true,” he shouted, “it’s written: ‘the Messiah won’t come for the uncircumcised, who worship idols, fornicate, and eat pork!’”

            “Joseph,” Papa exploded, “I want no more of that!  You’re acting like Rabbi Joachim—narrow-minded, insensitive, and rude.  Keep your peace in front of my guest.  I will have no more interruptions!”

            “Yes Papa,” Joseph replied in a quivering voice. 

            “He’s persistent.” Justin tossed his head. “You must give him credit for that.  Isn’t that what most Jews believe?”

            “Not all of us,” I said, sticking out my lip.

            Nehemiah, having been awakened from his torpor, nodded vigorously, as did Simon, with a slothful yawn.

            Justin had returned his patch to his bad eye.  Holding his hand up as the rays of the sun broke through the branches, he asked Papa, “Is what he said written in your holy book?  If I didn’t eat pork and no longer believed in the old gods and I gave up fornication, would the mere fact that I was not circumcised prevent me from entering your paradise if I believed in this Messiah?”

            “You must believe in God first.” Papa rose up solemnly, looking down at the courier with illumination in his dark eyes. “. . . . Are you serious about this Justin?  Is this merely the wine talking?”

            “I didn’t drink that much,” he smiled crookedly. “I’m tired and overworked.  I saved my flask for the long haul, and it went straight to my head.  I’ve spent my entire life in servitude to the Romans with nothing to show for it but a chest filled with coins I hope might buy a small plot of land.  Now here I sit talking about the prospects of believing in your invisible god, a god, whom most of your people feel came into this world only for them.”

            A look came over Papa’s face that I didn’t understand.  Perhaps it was the gleam in his eyes or his sudden intake of breath, but I sensed that something happened because of Justin’s words.  I wouldn’t understand for many years what I felt.  None of us, including Jesus, himself, could have known back then about God’s nature—the three-in-one principle spoken of by Paul, and yet I believe that portion which Jesus would later define as the Spirit or Holy Ghost had entered Papa.  There could be no other reason for his strange mood and the words that poured from his mouth.  No such spirit had entered Justin that moment.  Nevertheless, in his ignorance, his yearning for a deliverer would typify the need of Gentiles I met everywhere as a disciple.  That moment I was quite mystified by Papa’s interest in this man.  That the Messiah, Jesus my brother, was the third member of this trinity, defies all the logic I’ve gained in my long life.  As I look back, however, the fog Samuel had spoken of has long since lifted.  That day, as I looked down at Justin and listened to Papa tell him about our God, I hoped that he too would one day see this deliverer, whomever that might be.  I was glad he would not ever know the god Rabbi Joachim taught us in Synagogue or my brother Joseph believe in.  Perhaps because of Jesus’ influence, it was hard for me to accept that harsh, unforgiving god.  That’s why I never liked the story about the Israelites, under Joshua’s command, who slaughtered men, women, and children in order to occupy their land.  Justin thought he was an unjust god for only one basic reason: circumcision.  He didn’t know about that other side of our god.  And yet to be honest, Papa admitted to the courier, God seemed to have different natures in the Bible:  He was a fearful god, demanding obedience but also a merciful god, demanding our love.  While he expected ritual and circumcision, he told one of the most important prophets, Isaiah, that He was meant for other peoples too.  The implications of Isaiah’s passages were quite plain to Papa.  Circumcision was not essential, faith in God was! 

I realized, as his booming voice rose and fell, that Papa was speaking not merely to Justin but to his sons and anyone else who happened to be listening in. 

            “We live in an exciting time Justin,” he declared, giving the courier’s matted hair a pat. “In this age, after a long period of captivity under successive empires, we Jews have spread to all corners of the empire, peacefully, many having become citizens of Rome.  It was as if God, like man, has evolved into something greater than the tribal god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Rome’s pantheon of gods, on the other hand, having incorporated Greek and even Egyptian deities, is no better off than before, despite its complex ritual and many hundreds of idols in stone.”

This talk caused Joseph to groan quietly to himself, but made sense to me.  God had changed.  This explained the drastic difference between Joshua’s and Jesus’ gods.  I remember one particular story Papa once told us that caused even James and Joseph to protest such injustice.  God had allowed Satan to afflict Job with horrible misfortune in order to prove how obedient he was.  This included the destruction of Job’s children and all he held dear.  It was a good thing Papa didn’t tell Justin this story.  This would have proven to Justin that Yahweh was a mean-spirited god.  Papa’s belief that God had evolved into a loving, supreme deity of all men caused his new friend to nod his head silently and scratch his stubbly beard.  Now that Justin appeared to accept the notion that Yahweh was universal, Papa reminded our friend that, because God’s mercy and grace was infinite, you didn’t have to be circumcised or even be a Jew. 

“Enoch, Noah, Job, and even the young Moses were not circumcised,” he continued with great illumination. “Because the Jews were circumcised and the Chosen People, does no exclude the righteous from heaven.  If God is universal, as Isaiah and the Psalmist believe, why shouldn’t all good people over the earth, who believe in him, not go to Paradise if they believe?”

            Justin’s mouth dropped, he exhaled deeply, running a dirty hand through his tangled hair. “You mean all I have to do is believe in your invisible god?  That’s all?  I don’t have perform some kind of ritual or read those holy books myself?”

He uttered a little laugh, as Papa stood there nodding faintly, a frown playing on his face.

            “You must also pray to him and give alms to the poor,” Papa wagged a finger. “In the end, after God punished the Egyptians and caused the Red Sea to swallow up the Pharaoh’s soldiers, even Ramses believed in our God.  But the Pharaoh didn’t glorify God’s name or try to live a righteous life.”

            Justin looked up at Papa’s shadow against the sun.  “That’s asking a lot.  How can I glorify such a god?  Your god’s invisible.  How can I pray to someone I can’t see?”

            “Why do you have to see him?” Papa rolled his eyes. “That’s the problem with you Gentiles.  You have to have a stone replica of some animal or person before you believe.  Someone had to carve the idol that you worship.  Do idols respond when you pray to them?  No, they sit there on their pedestals cold, nonliving things with worthless sacrifices heaped at their feet.  They crumble with time, and if outdoors, are splattered with bird droppings, spider webs, and pissed on by passing jackals and dogs.  Try getting comfort from that!  Sometimes, when you pray to our god, you’ll feel his presence.   I have.  I know Jesus has.  Invisible?  Bah!  Because he doesn’t stand on a pedestal doesn’t mean you can’t see him.  He walks in Paradise on two legs.  Having made man in his own image, he looks down upon his creation—the reflections of Himself, anything but invisible, sometimes sending his Spirit to roam the earth.  Perhaps, if you believe strong enough, Justin, you’ll see him one day.  I’ve often wondered if the Spirit and the Messiah are not one and the same.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful if the Messiah was but one more glorious emanation of God?”

            It was, as I tried to find a word for it that day, a revolutionary thing for my father to say.    

Papa left Justin there to ponder his words, as he prepared him a basket of food and flask of juice.  Even my saintly mother wouldn’t want a scallywag like Justin in our house, so Papa, Nehemiah and I brought a modest little feast out to him.  Though there was no wine as there had been before when he brought our mail, Papa included some special sweet meats he purchased in Sepphoris and a couple of Mama’s rolls.

James joined us beneath the big fig tree as Justin wolfed down his food.  Mumbling an apology for his behavior, Joseph stood several paces away, his arms folded, a frown seeming to be permanently frozen on his face.  I couldn’t really blame Joseph for how he felt.  Nonetheless, it gave me a wicked pleasure to know that Papa had spoken pure heresy today, and yet it was nothing compared to what Jesus had said about the Temple and the priests.

“Papa,” I said, reaching out to touch the scrolls in his hand, “what are those other scrolls?  Are they from Jesus too?  Can you read his letter to us?”

“I suppose so,” he said, patting my head. “After what I said to Justin, it seems hypocritical of me to hide Jesus’ heresy from your ears.”

“What’s hyp-o-crit-ical mean?” Simon wrinkled his nose.

“It means somebody says one thing but does another.” He gave us a crafty smile. “By the way,” his voice rose, “I know you boys peeked into the scroll.  James or Joseph—whomever read it—left a thumb print on it.  That’s the problem when papyrus comes into contact with juice.  The scroll was also untied and in the opposite corner of the cupboard.  You’re all disobedient sons, but I should never have forbidden you to hear Jesus’ words.”

“I’m sorry Papa,” James and Joseph said.

Simon, Nehemiah and I also apologized, as Papa gathered us together into a huddle with his long powerful arms.

“Come,” he said, shaking us with mirth, “let’s share Jesus letter with Justin, our lonely friend.”

Papa read the controversial letter in the backyard out of earshot of our neighbors.  Mama and the twins joined us for this event, with Justin feeling as if was our honored guest.  I wondered if Jesus’ new letter was filled with more religious thought.  I hoped he would include more stories like his adventure in Egypt and voyage to Rome.  James joined in eagerly as a member of Papa’s audience, but Joseph sulked in the background, certain that more heresy would pour forth from the scroll.


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