After a few weeks of recuperation, Aulus insisted upon returning to the Galilean fort to receive his mustering out pay and, after finishing his convalescence, retiring on the farm promised by the prefect. Unceremoniously, to avoid drawing attention to our guest, he was spirited away at first light with an escort. He gripped my forearm in the Roman manner, then gave me an uncharacteristic ‘Jewish’ hug, promising one day to return. I would meet him again during Jesus’ mission, but as he rode away with the legionnaires that morning I fought back tears. In spite of his promise, I was afraid his days were numbered. In spite of Mama’s efforts, he hadn’t fully recovered. That would take months, she insisted. Aulus was still a sick man, a mere shadow of what he once was. “You shouldn’t be traveling in your condition,” she scolded him. “You might forget to take your medicine and won’t get your proper rest. You certainly don’t belong on a horse!” All this he listened to politely, patting her careworn hand, but his mind was set. Guided like an old man out of the house by Jesus and her, he was helped by Simon and me into his saddle. After a brief salute, which I returned, he followed his escorts back to the fort. Our family gathered around the table that morning to pray for his health. Of all of the Gentiles I had known, he turned out to be my best friend.
During my friendship with Aulus and Decimus, I had learned to be a warrior. During my apprenticeship with Jesus, I would learn to be a carpenter. Those years before I left on what my parents now call “Jude’s Folly,” I had simply been going through the motions. Now, after returning home, I was taught to shape, not merely glue or sand wood. Instead of being restricted to the task of roughing out a chair or table leg with a scraper, I was allowed, under Jesus’ watchful eye, to finish a piece of furniture from beginning to end. James, Joseph, and Simon, in order to earn the wage Jesus insisted on paying us, also fell into the rhythm of the work. For the time being, James postponed his return to Jerusalem and Joseph promised to wait awhile before striking out on his own. During our work on Samuel’s stable, which would not be remunerated until it was finished, we worked on smaller orders. Each of us was expected to finish a particular piece of the furniture for clients. After helping Jesus and my brothers complete a large order for a Pharisee in Cana, the work slackened off a little, allowing me, during my free time, to pay a visit to Jared’s bakery where Tabitha was also learning a trade. Tabitha had scorned me for leaving on my foolish trip and sill seemed upset with me when I found her in the shop. I laughed with delight when I caught site of her serving Ephraim, the potter. Her dark chestnut curls were tied up in a bun to prevent her hair from mingling with the dough as she toiled, she wore a splattered apron, and there were flecks of floor on her nose and chin—all the telltale signs of the occupation her uncle always displayed when waiting on customers in his store.
When I told her about my misfortune during my journey, her attitude gradually softened. While growing up together, I had, after all, told her many tall tales. Teasingly, her first words when I finished an abbreviated summary of what I told my parents were “You expect me to believe that? Hah, I bet you spent all that time with a Syrian whore!” Though taken back, I was not surprised at her coarseness. In those years of our youth before I left on my trip, Tabitha had begun exhibiting a wild streak. It had caused Mama much grief. She had even threatened to send Tabitha back to her uncle if she didn’t behave. Tabitha had practically been adopted into our family. It struck Mama as unseemly that she was flirtatious with me in her own house. James and Joseph were jealous, Simon was envious, and yet Papa seemed amused. It appeared to be innocent enough until Tabitha and I began taking walks into the hills. She was aggressive and bold. Fortunately for us one day, Jesus, not Mama or Joseph, appeared suddenly on the path. I was embarrassed, but also thankful that we were merely seen that moment holding hands. Had Mama known about our walks, she would have sent her away, but Jesus gave us a sad smile and said nothing to us. He had already warned me about encouraging her flirtation. Joseph would have informed on me if he knew, and Simon, who couldn’t keep a secret, might also have told. Mama, however, was not completely fooled. As if she could read Tabitha’s naughty expression, she gave her one last warning: Leave my son alone!
It appeared, at least up until the time I departed, that Tabitha had taken her threat seriously. When I bid everyone goodbye that day, she was tearful and smiling bravely at me. Uriah was sad too. I made no promises to anyone. I had no idea when I was going to return. I was so caught up in my great adventure I didn’t consider how this might affect my friends. Now that I was back, I saw that old mischief glowing in Tabitha’s eyes. Since she had gone back to work in Jared’s bakery, it seemed obvious that her wild streak had returned. I wondered then if her employment might have something to do with a lapse in her behavior. I would never admit it to my family but I was taken by her spirit. She had a naughty sense of humor but a good heart. Most importantly, she appeared to adore me, following me and my friends around like a faithful dog, until her budding youth when our friendship was much more. I’m half convinced that this is one of the reasons my parents, especially Mama, protested very little about my decision to leave.
Very soon, during our reunion, Tabitha grew serious and began probing me for details about my treatment from the bandits and experience on the slave block. I had glossed over this and, in fact, told her it was not fit for her delicate ears, but this only made her laugh and poke me in the ribs.
“Come on, Ju-ju,” she used my private nickname, “don’t be shy. Did the bandits treat you badly? Did they parade you around like a prize pig?”
“Yes to both questions.” I frowned. “You’re being insensitive again, Tabitha. It’s not funny. I was stripped naked on the block, and the bandits treated me like another piece of stolen goods.” “On the subject of pigs,” I added as Tabitha’s eyes widened in disbelief, “I was fed pork by the bandits, who also slaughtered one of my mules.”
Tabitha’s eyes filled with tears, either for the rebuke I gave her or what I just said. “Ah hah, he has mules.” She forced a laugh. “My friend is rich!”
“Five mules are hardly rich.” I shook my head. “I’ll never be rich, Tabitha…I have this feeling I’m going to do something… I don’t know what it is. I had hoped my future would include travel to far off places. It seemed for a poor carpenter’s son that my best chance was using my memory and skills as a scribe, but I was wrong… My destiny begins here in Nazareth as Jesus’ apprentice, working with my brothers in my father’s business.”
“You’ll be a great rabbi or doctor of the law,” Tabitha said with exaggerated sincerity. “You…and Jesus. Everyone in Nazareth knows that!”
“The problem is,” I exhaled deeply, “none of my other brothers—James, Joseph, even Simon want to stay. I didn’t either. In spite of Jesus’ dedication, I’m convinced that he has a purpose far greater than any of us. He won’t admit it; he’s too loyal and much too caring to abandon his family and our shop for his own goals.”
“Oh,” she replied airily, “what goals are those?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “…Whatever they are, they’re not in Nazareth, maybe not even Galilee… Jesus has a special purpose in the world. Even he doesn’t know what it is.”
I couldn’t be sure how sincere Tabitha was at this point. Did she really believe my fantastic tale? Perhaps, she was just in shock. There was still sarcasm and a touch of bitterness in her tone. She had changed greatly from the little waif we once thought was a boy. Because of her precociousness, she had never fit into our family, as had Nehemiah and Uriah. She had once been shy and innocent. When she talked now, it was with great animation, that made her seem superficial. Her small hands moved restlessly as she gestured, her big green eyes darting crazily in her head. After we chatted a spell about the good old days, Uncle Jared suddenly appeared in back of his shop. Welcoming me back curtly from my trip, he reminded Tabitha of the order they had not finished. As a homecoming gift, he gave me a loaf of freshly baked bread. It seemed as if Jared had mellowed somewhat. Tabitha, who was being paid a wage, didn’t appear to be mistreated. I was a little worried about her behavior now that she back in her uncle’s house, but I was satisfied with our meeting. She seemed to have forgiven me for going away and thought well of me in spite of my folly. There was still that spark in her gaze. Her sense of humor, which had grown coarse, was still sharp. Despite her apron, hair scarf, and flecks of flour and dough on her face, she was lovely and vivacious. Yet I wasn’t sure about my feelings toward her now. She was the only girl I had ever known in Nazareth. What I knew of human love was based upon my family. For several years Tabitha had been part of that family. Now, as I Iooked anew at my childhood friend, a whole new dimension to my life in Nazareth was kindled. Did I love her like a man loves a woman…or that moment was I merely feeling lust?
For several moments, we reminisced about out childhood. Hearing her laughter and seeing the glow of her green eyes, I was reminded of the little stray that arrived at our house pretending to be a boy so that I would accept her in my gang. By Jewish standards, she was a woman now, and yet not so long ago she was torn between acting like a girl and tagging along as a tomboy, as we romped in the hills. Just when I had a chance kiss to her wine colored lips, her uncle appeared in the front of her shop, hands on hips, an indulgent grin on his face.
“Tabitha,” he said with a sigh, “you can see Jude later when we’ve finished our orders. Please come inside.”
Clutching the sack of rolls Jared had given me, I bid them both goodbye. The morning promised great things for me. Just as they retreated into the bakeshop, however, I ran right into Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz, those same three fair-weather friends who arrived at my house a short while ago with Gideon and his friends. All three of these youths were bigger than me. Boaz, in fact, had grown into a giant of a man. I was certain, after the hostile looks I received from Jethro and Obadiah, I would have trouble with them today. They frowned at me as I walked up yet said nothing, and Boaz greeted me with his characteristically crooked grin, slapping my shoulder as if I was a long lost friend.
“Jude, Jude,” he bellowed, “we heard about your trip! Simon told us you wanted to be a soldier—”
“Simon has a big mouth.” I corrected, holding up my hand. “I wanted to be a scribe, not a soldier.” “When did he tell you that?” I looked at him with dismay.
“That day after you left.” Jethro offered, folding his arms. “Is it true that you rode with Gentiles and pagans?”
“It’s a long story,” I answered carefully. “…. I also rode with a Pharisee and his Jewish guards.”
One of those moments of truth I had throughout my life now faced me. If I told them the truth that I planned on being a soldier scribe, even if I told them only half the story, I would have to admit I had rode, lived, and fought with Romans and auxilia. Jesus had told me to always tell the truth, and yet he had, himself, told curious townsmen very little about my trip. Was this one of those times, I wondered, when I must lie to protect my family’s reputation? We had enough scandal in the past. It had taken my parents years to regain their standing in town. Sooner or later, however, my story might have to be told. I had already told Tabitha. Knowing Simon, who could never keep a secret, he very likely told one or more of his friends, and Jesus when asked a direct question would be compelled to tell the truth.
“We’re waiting,” Obadiah goaded challengingly, his hands on his hips. “What do you have to hide?”
“Yes, Jude.” Jethro pressed his forefinger into my chest. “Out with it? Is it true; have you turned Gentile?”
“Don’t do that?” I glared at him.
“Yeah, Jethro,” Boaz seemed to come to my defense, “don’t rush him. “Come on,” he said, giving me a nudge, “out with it—tell us about your trip with the Romans. Did you fight any battles?”
After a little more coaxing, I told them just enough, which was a summary of what happened, similar to what I told Tabitha minus a significant portion of when I was captured and my experience as a slave. Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz would only make fun of me if I told them about some of the things done to me by my captors and treatment on the block, so I stressed the best elements of my adventure and the battles fought with my friends. The result was mixed among my audience, which was more than I expected. I deliberately downplayed my miraculous display of swordsmanship at the first imperial station, which I knew they wouldn’t believe. Even when I left out certain details and only elaborated upon the two encounters in the desert, Jethro and Obadiah expressed disbelief in the story. Despite this reaction, they looked at me with newfound respect. Perhaps, knowing my cowardly nature before, they were merely in denial, but Boaz seemed to believe every word.
When I returned to the shop, I was in high spirits. Not only had I rekindled my friendships with Tabitha, it appeared as if I had won respect from my one-time friends too. That day we learned from Mordechai, Samuel’s chamberlain, that Samuel was feeling better and wanted to give me an official homecoming similar to the one he gave Jesus. I had mixed feelings about this good news. So far, I had been welcomed back by several visitors to our house, including Ezra, Papa’s best friend, who had, like everyone else, except Tabitha, been given a summary of my exploits. Tabitha now knew almost as much as my family. Ezra had greeted me warmly in the kitchen, but couldn’t hide his shock at my adventures. It was, Jesus had pointed out when giving me advice before my trip, those subtle gestures—eyebrows twitching, beard scratching, and earlobe yanking—that gave away a listener’s true feelings. Ezra has exhibited all three gestures before making his exit from our house. Even when my story was downplayed, it was impossible to hide my obvious contamination among the Gentiles. What, I wondered, might leak out when I was Samuel’s honored guest?