Jerusalem: The First Visit
On the way to the holy city, we stopped at a town for more supplies and find Bartholomew a mule cart to carry his weary bones. Part of his cart would be used for a portion of our food. The remainder was carried on the packs slung over our shoulders. Everyone also carried a skin of water, which we refilled whenever we were able. It took several days to reach our goal, during which Jesus expounded his views. He said nothing about the message he would give Galilee, Judea, and Perea, however; that would come later after he had trained his men. At this stage of our spiritual development, it was plain talk. Jesus wouldn’t begin serious preaching until we reached Jerusalem. Perhaps, this was because his disciples weren’t ready for such colorful speech. Or it might be that they were, at this stage, too dense to comprehend. For whatever reason, he treated us like children on a long, slow excursion, advising us on dealing with people, and pointing out the wonders of the creation whenever the mood came to him.
In the most casual, off-handed manner as we trekked south, Jesus told us what our destination would be. Though upset by the news, in fact speechless, none of us were surprised.
“My brothers and friends,” he counseled us, “you’ll meet all kinds of folks in Jerusalem, unlike your neighbors in Capernaum. Be humble and not puffed up with pride now that you’re God’s emissaries. Treat everyone as if he or she was a family member, even your friend. Judge no one by your own standards. If you’re not feeling well, be silent, at least smile. It takes so little effort to say a kind word or smile. Above all, my companions, treat each other as though he were your brother. Love him and respect him. Listen to him, as he should listen to you. You are the first souls to be hear the good news. You are my first congregation. Some things are difficult to understand; that doesn’t mean you won’t comprehend, if you but try. When I preach to you, unstop your ears, lighten your heart, and open your minds. You shall carry the seeds, which I shall plant, but for now listen and ask questions. If you don’t understand something, think about what you want to say. Don’t complain and whine about selfish matters. I know you’re tired and often hungry, but this journey will toughen you up. Look at our brother John in Judea, who wears animal skins and lives off the land. Don’t concern yourselves. I’ll take care of you. In this life, you’ll have everything you need…. It’s the next life that counts!”
John was the first disciple to address Jesus formally. Why he did so, remains a mystery. Perhaps, as Peter suggested, it was God Himself who whispered in his ear, but he set a precedent, which the others felt obliged to follow. For me, however, until he raised Lazarus from the dead, he would remain Jesus.
“Master,” John said reverently, “you speak the words of God; we know that. But what’s the message you’ll give? Is it what the Baptist preached to his disciples? Jerusalem is filled with priests, scribes, and rabble. What is our little band of men to that crowd?”
Jesus placed an arm on his shoulder, saying, “John, you call me master, and that’s correct. It’s like a master carpenter teaching an apprentice his craft. But I’ll teach you to mold men with words, not a knife or chisel. Don’t worry about our small number either. Our numbers will grow. For now, we are safe in God’s shadow. There’s much that we must do.”
“Jesus,” I piped. “John’s right to be worried. Our cousin shouts insults about Herod Antipas now. Already he has attacked Pharisees and called them names. Will you challenge the priests and scribes, too? Is that your plan?”
“Fear not Jude!” Jesus slapped my back affectionately. “I come to set matters straight; nothing less, nothing more. Ho-ho, if any of my men are afraid of controversy, they shouldn’t come!”
Though his tone was jovial, we knew Jesus was quite serious. This wasn’t going to be like John’s mission, where a bunch of hangers-on stand around to see what the Baptist does next. Nor would Jesus be stationary as our cousin, who remained in Judea, preaching and baptizing in the River Jordan. The questions in my mind and for the other men were, ‘Would Jesus stir things up like our cousin? Would he attack the established order as the Baptist was doing now, or would he stick to religious matters, now that John had introduced him to the world?’”
We were confused and worried by Jesus’ optimism and confidence. I heard the other men grumble amongst themselves, as Jesus paused and talked to Bartholomew awhile. Now that he had his cart and mule, the old man was in good spirits. While the fishermen worried about the future, he and Jesus, out of earshot, had a nice, friendly chat. After only a few moments, I saw the old man beam. I hadn’t seen him smile very often. What were they talking about? I wondered. By the way he nodded and grinned as Jesus talked to him then heaved his shoulders in a sigh, it was as if he was mentally relieved. Distracted from my concern about our destination, I perked up my ears. I wanted to eavesdrop and find out what Jesus was saying. While I pondered what this meant, in an attempt to pick up snatches of their conversation, the discussion between the disciples sharply contrasted Jesus’ and Bartholomew’s mood. After hearing rumors of John the Baptist attacks against Herod, I couldn’t help sharing their concern, and yet I tried being positive. I owed Jesus that.
“Don’t worry men,” I interrupted cheerily, “I know my brother. He’s not a troublemaker. He’s a man of peace—a teacher or prophet. He isn’t like our cousin John.”
“Let’s hope so,” Andrew muttered anxiously. “Your cousin’s a fool. If Jesus carries on like that, he’ll get us all stoned!”
“Why’s he going to Jerusalem?” Philip shook his head in dismay. “Even John didn’t go there!”
“He’s going straight to the source,” explained Peter. “Jerusalem’s our sacred city. It’s where the temple is. And you’re wrong Jude. We heard Jesus criticize the temple and the priests. So far, he just hasn’t shown his hand. He keeps saying he’s listening to God. We know that our people need a spiritual awakening, but not there!”
“We’re not ready yet!” cried John. “As fishermen, we know how to test the waters. Jesus said he would make us fishers of men, but this isn’t how we fish. We throw out the net, wait a spell, then pull it in. We don’t dive in and flounder about.”
“Oh, he knows what he’s doing,” I defended him again. “My brother’s stubborn, but he’s not stupid. He has a message. It’s probably what John the Baptist preached before: ‘repent and be saved!’ Even as a youth in Nazareth, he had power over people. You heard him speak in Capernaum and Cana. He makes people feel good, not angry. He’s not like John!”
“That was in Capernaum, Cana, and Nazareth,” Peter was adamant. “It’s not quite the same in Jerusalem. That’s where the high priest and Sanhedrin live and where Pharisees and scribes thrive. There’s a big difference between stirring things up in a small town and preaching in the temple. I’ve being listening to Jesus, Jude. Don’t think for one moment that’s not what he has in mind.”
Despite my effort at being optimistic, I sensed that the fishermen were correct. Jesus had changed since our childhood and youth. Though a man of peace, as he fashioned himself, he would, when we arrived in Jerusalem, probably stir things up. Why else had he said, ‘If any of my men are afraid of controversy, they shouldn’t come?’”
As Jesus led his mule, the old man sat contentedly in his cart, listening to his counsel. In a hushed tone, Jesus continued chatting with Bartholomew, unaware or unconcerned with the mutiny brewing, ignoring the frowns and groans of his men. I was conflicted with doubt like the others; I just didn’t show it. Feeling self-conscious and sheepish, the fishermen competed with each other in sounding collected and pleasant.
“Bartholomew looks well,” Peter tried to be genial. “Did you cure him, like you did the bird or Pharisee’s son?”
“Yes, Jesus,” Andrew forced a laugh. “He’s smiling like a jackal. What did you do?”
Jesus raised an eyebrow and looked at them suspiciously. “…. The cart and mule has helped our brother,” he replied finally. “We just had a nice talk.”
Andrew, Philip, and John’s brother James laughed nervously. John bowed like a sycophant, calling him master again, after adding his query about Bartholomew’s health. Jesus, however, ignored their attempts and took this opportunity to scold them for their lack of faith. It was quick and to the point: “What part of your discipleship, do you not understand? I asked you to trust me; that’s all you have to do right now. At the slightest point of discomfort or distress, you behave like children and want to call it quits!”
“No, no, master,” John wrung his hands, “that’s not true!”
“Yes, Jesus.” James motioned to others. “We’re just men. You’re a great teacher, maybe a prophet.”
“Really?” He frowned. “Is that what you think I am?”
“Sure-sure.” Peter patted his shoulder. “You have great power, Jesus. Give us a chance. We’ll grow in spirit. It just takes time.”
“We don’t have that much time.” He looked around the group. “I will ask much of you—this you must understand. It’s too early for me to be defined. You will grow in spirit, but not immediately. One day soon, you’ll be sturdy saplings, able to withstand the wind and the storm. Each of you will one day grow like the myrtle in the desert, needing little, asking little of nature, trusting only in God.”
“So.” Peter stroked his beard. “God will protect us. You’ll protect us. That’s good enough for me.”
“Me too!” Andrew and Philip chimed.
With our water skins filled from the spring found by Jesus (another auspicious event, that seemed like a miracle), we followed after him. I returned to my place at the rear of the procession with Bartholomew and his cart. At first, as the mule paused to munch grass here and there and we fell back further from the group, I waited to question Bartholomew in order to make sure we weren’t overheard. Though he would still complain at times about the bumpiness of the road and have his aches and pains, I noted the change in Bartholomew’s attitude after Jesus’ chat. He had, until now, looked uncomfortable or unsuited in his new role as disciple. Perhaps due to his checkered past, he had been self-conscious as we moved about. Occasionally, I had caught him looking around at strangers as if he might somehow be recognized. He appeared devoted to Jesus, probably relieved, for in Jesus’ band he had found a refuge from his past. And yet, considering these possibilities, Bartholomew’s bandit days had happened long ago. Who could possibly have associated the old man with that rogue in his past?
Beginning that hour, on our way to Jerusalem, Bartholomew was in a jubilant mood as he chatted about his new mule and cart. I was growing impatient. The old man was being evasive, as if afraid to tell me what was said. Then suddenly, in answer to my unspoken question, the old man told me what they discussed. The first thing Jesus said to him seemed rather commonplace to me. He had said this so many times before. “Don’t be afraid and have faith,” Bartholomew related his first words. There was, in deed, a look of peace in his watery eyes. A smile played on his wrinkled face, as I questioned him, but I knew that wasn’t all. When I asked him what else Jesus had said to him, however, the old man looked at me slyly but said nothing more. For the longest time, in fact, he wasn’t forthcoming, extolling the qualities of his mule and his cart. For a while, after I restated my question, Bartholomew, hummed and whistled to himself, as if he had lost his wits. Philip, Bartholomew’s friend, said he had always acted like this, so I wasn’t worried. Finally, at our next stop, he politely asked me to reach into his pack and fetch him some dried figs.
After I declined his offer to share his figs, I insisted with a flicker of irritation that he come clean. “Bartholomew!” I snapped my fingers. “Out with it. There’s more. What else did Jesus say?”
“It was simple,” he answered, looking up at the sky. “Jesus told me not to be afraid and have faith. His father has forgiven me for my past, and I should forgive myself!”
I gave him a doubtful look. “His father forgave you? … That’s a lot to forgive!”
“Yes,” Bartholomew exclaimed happily, “but I believe him! Jesus prayed for me. It was like a weight lifted from my soul!”
“Well,’ I replied with resignation. “If Jesus said it, it must be true! Jesus doesn’t lie.”
Bartholomew dosed much of the way after that, his chin bobbing on his chest. I tried keeping the old man alert, but it was a losing battle. The bumpy motion of the cart should have kept him awake, but he was worn out from the journey, so I kept hold of his reins. I attempted, when I could, to engage the other disciples in conversation with little success. Peter, James, and John resented me as if I was an intruder. They weren’t actually rude nor did they ignore me, at least not around Jesus. Instead they gave me curt replies, nods or grunts when I asked them questions or tried to make a point. Some of this could have been due to Jesus’ affection toward me. Because I was his brother, they expected him to show preferential treatment toward me. The positive attitude I tried showing Jesus in return might have made me look like a toady in their eyes. Of course, neither of these situations was true, but the concern among the fishermen about our trip to Jerusalem appeared to be exacerbated by my attempts at optimism, which made them look bad. Only John the Baptist’s onetime disciples, Andrew and Philip had been cordial, but now their attitude toward me also cooled. Andrew and Philip had heard the Baptist tell them, “I must decrease and Jesus must increase.” They had seen the fulfillment of John’s mission. Not only had he turned them over to Jesus, he had, as I understood it, handed his ministry over to him, as well. And yet, they were also concerned with Jesus long range plans, and displayed annoyance at my positive attitude. Their views, I was certain, were influenced by what Peter said about me behind my back. James and John, I suspected, spoke despairingly about me too.
The temptation to leave this unwashed, uncouth bunch was strong as we approached our destination. I couldn’t understand why my brother picked these men. With the exception of Bartholomew and maybe Andrew, they were a sorry lot. I was, of course, not thinking clearly then, but this wasn’t what I had in mind when I followed Jesus. I pictured us wandering around the land, listening to Jesus say wondrous things, not going, as the other men saw it, ‘into the lions den.’ I didn’t want to disappoint Jesus or fail Mama, who wanted me to keep an eye on him, but I felt isolated and cast adrift. I was the only link from Jesus to his family. How could I reassure our mother unless I occasionally returned home? This seemed like sound logic. Perhaps, I reasoned, at certain points in our journey, Jesus would let me visit Nazareth to report our progress for his benefit as well as hers. But alas, I realized, as Jerusalem loomed in the horizon, it was too late…. If I had really wanted to sneak away, I should have done so in the last town. It was in Jerusalem that Jesus’ ministry really began. It would be, I would one day learn, where his ministry would also end.
I had forgotten how incredible our holy city was. Now, during the Passover, it was filled with pilgrims from the four corners of the empire. Balanced against my trepidation was this vision: the white gleaming edifice built by Herod the Great. A constant stream of the faithful were entering the city this moment through the main gate. A patchwork of drab rooftops above the walls and the smoke from ovens cooking the Passover feast contrasted the perfection of the temple. Alongside of the road were hundreds of tents pitched by pilgrims, unable or unwilling to find lodging inside. It was, Jesus admitted, actually a crowded and dirty city. No one was any safer from mischief or mayhem here than any other town. In its midst was the Antonia fortress, where the procurator resided, an island in the middle of resentful and hostile forces. Jerusalem was, he informed us sadly, a city that murdered its prophets. It was no longer the city David had built and Solomon had glorified. Though its temple was built by an evil king to bolster his legacy and make up for a reign of blood, it nevertheless symbolized our faith. Unfortunately, he added with disgust, the temple’s priesthood no longer reflected Abraham’s religion. It had become a den of moneychangers, animal sellers, and corrupt, self-serving priests and scribes—harsh words, it seemed, for John the Baptist’s Lamb of God.
We were not even through the main gate and Jesus had given his disciples a brief history of the city, from David’s conquest of the Jebusites until the current day. I believe he was, by his historical sketch and comments, trying to dispel our fears. I was surprised at what he said, but not disappointed. His despairing remarks about the temple and city shocked even the fishermen’s’ rustic minds. Because I had never been fond priests, scribes, and temple officials, however, I felt a wicked delight at his disrespect. I was certain that the other disciples, who grinned with glee in spite of their astonishment, felt the same. Big city folk didn’t appeal to country bumpkins, no matter who they were. Of course, Jesus wasn’t really being blasphemous. He was, we all agreed, just being honest. After all, I reminded them out of earshot of Jesus, my brother couldn’t lie. He reported what he saw and thought, regardless of whether or not it offended tradition. Tradition, he once told me, was only good if it kept up with morals and right thinking. Jesus seemed plunged in thought as we made our way toward the temple. Partly to distract myself from what lie ahead, I found myself bragging about the miracles he had performed. I’m not sure they believed everything they heard about Jesus, but they were impressed with the details I gave them. Jesus had been tightlipped about such wonders, giving only a brief sketch of his miracles. I expanded upon them, filling in the fine points he left out.
At this point in his ministry, no one paid us much mind as we walked through the gate and into the city. We were, from a distance, eight more pilgrims visiting our holy city during Passover, which was fine with me. Upon closer inspection, however, our leader’s blazing blue eyes and jaunty stride contrasted the slow, plodding rabble around him. Jesus had, as always boundless energy, whereas we, his travel worn disciples, blended in with the crowd. None of us had any idea where this episode would lead us or how it would end. Our immediate concern was what Jesus had in mind when we arrived at our destination. I had heard from our brother James, who worked as a scribe in Jerusalem, how bad things were in the temple. The fishermen must have heard rumors themselves, but until Jesus’ disclosure, I’m not sure whether any of them understood how corrupt matters in the temple had become. Because of the greedy moneychangers and animal sellers, the poor pilgrim was forced to exchange his own currency for a price in order to use Hebrew coins in to purchase overpriced doves and, more rarely, cattle, goats or sheep. Frankly, I felt sorry for the poor birds and beasts, themselves, and found the whole business deplorable. That the whole concept of temple sacrifice had become an abomination in Jesus’ mind I had learned years ago. Though he kept criticism of the temple to himself, seldom discussing it with his family, even as a youth he was aware of its problems and was therefore predisposed against it from the beginning. At the very least, what he would discover would therefore come as no surprise to him, reinforcing what he already knew.
It was, I knew even then, an inevitable course of action for him. Our destination in the temple, of course, would be the Court of Israel, next to the inner sanctuary its most important room. Before this point, as soon as we entered the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost portion of the temple, we had to wade through a mob of unwashed pilgrims: one group of pilgrims lined up before the money changers table and another group lined up before the seller of doves, sheep, and cattle. All other visitors who happened to be in Jerusalem during this holiest of times were restricted to this area. A sign on the great door, in fact, read ‘No foreigner shall go beyond the balustrade. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death.’ No one except the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple. I wondered, when we entered the Court of Israel, what mischief Jesus had in mind. Would he, considering his status in John the Baptist’s eyes, dare enter the Holy of Holies to proclaim his mission. I didn’t know what the other men were thinking. They looked terrified as we made our way through the crowd. But just when I thought Jesus might head straight for the Court of Israel for Jews, he stopped in the center of the hall, looked around at the commotion, wrinkled his nose, and, after finding an animal sellers rope on the floor, set about fashioning a whip.
“Dear God!” I yelped
“W-What’s he doing?” sputtered James. “Is he mad?”
“Jesus, Oh Jesus,” Peter tapped his shoulder. “Let’s thinks this over.”
Andrew, John, Philip, and Bartholomew were speechless at Jesus’ antics. When the whip was ready, which was another of his remarkable feats, he turned to the moneychangers and animal sellers. Brandishing the whip in one hand, he pointed fiercely at these officials, crying out in an angry voice, “This is my Father’s house, not a market place. Get this filth out of the temple!” During Jesus’ second visit to the temple, he would say much more. This time, he was satisfied to chase them out, scattering the moneychangers’ tables, as he charged forward, and chasing the animal sellers with their frightened animals back out the door. There were coins all over the floor, which many of the visitors and even some pilgrims grabbed up at once. Doves flew out of their damaged cages. It was a wonder that no one was trampled as the sheep and cattle escaped the hall and ran down the crowded street.
Due to shock or Jesus’ personal power, not one voice was raised against him. In hysterical glee, which seemed reckless to me, the other disciples laughed at the fleeing men, reaching down to scoop of handfuls of coins and toss them into the air. To their credit none of Jesus’ disciples pocketed any money for themselves, but Jesus scolded them for making it into a game.
“Don’t laugh!” He looked around at us. “It’s isn’t funny—not one bit. The pilgrims are watching us. You’re better than this. What I do is not vandalism; it’s a cleansing. The temple has been polluted, and the priesthood corrupted. Is it any wonder God needs our help?”
Everyone except me appeared to bow their heads in shame, more likely hiding their mirth. Understanding this emotion as hysteria, which I had experienced myself, I couldn’t blame them. Jesus had begun his ministry with a bang. Out of the shadows of the Hall of Gentiles, the priests, who had been chased away with the moneychangers and animal sellers, re-appeared. The background of darkness from whence they came added emphasis to Jesus’ condemnation of them.
“Who do you think you are?” the boldest of them asked in a tremulous voice.
“A better question,” Jesus shot back, “is ‘who do you think you are?’ You represent the people of Israel, and you’ve turned the temple into a slaughter house!”
“Your words are blasphemous!” a second priest cried in a strangled voice.
“Nonsense!” snarled Jesus. “I know the definition of that word. This isn’t blasphemy; it’s righteous anger. If anyone has blasphemed it’s you priests. Moneychangers charging pilgrims to exchange their coins? Animal sellers selling sheep and cattle at ruinous rates? For shame—all of you! You’ve turned my father’s house into a business, a place to earn money, not give spiritual comfort or give him praise. Most of those pilgrims can’t afford the moneychangers’ and animal sellers’ rates. Many of them spent their earnings just to come to Jerusalem. Now that they’re here, you fleece them like sheep. You are servants, not merchants or thieves. It’s your duty to intercede on behalf of the faithful, not use the temple for business to fill your private coffers.”
“You speak with authority.” A third priest stepped forth. “You called this temple your father’s house. Do you believe you’re God’s emissary? No one in all the years I’ve served the temple has reviled us with such words. Who are you to speak for God?”
“He’s the Anointed One!” the words flew out of my mouth. “John the Baptist said so. He called him the Lamb of God!”
The third priest stroked his beard. “I’ve never heard those words before. That last one sounds quite absurd. What exactly does that mean?”
Bartholomew groaned in dismay. Peter elbowed me in the ribs, and James hissed, “Idiot!” in my ear. Worse yet, Jesus gave me such a withering look it made me wish I could be invisible that moment or awaken from a bad dream.
“All men can call God father,” Jesus answered carefully. “…. Moses and Elijah were anointed. A pure spirit offered up as sacrifice is a lamb of God.”
It was a brilliant reply, cloaked in fact, yet not revealing what his disciples would learn later was the absolute truth.
“Just who are you, sir?” A fourth priest appeared, nervously rubbing his hands. “You are a clever fellow, but in whose authority do you do these things?”
“My name’s Jesus,” he replied quickly. “Like
you, I act on behalf of the Most High.”
“I’m Caiphas, the high priest,” announced his inquisitor. “You must be deranged to attack the temple. Men have been stoned for less.”
“I didn’t attack the temple,” Jesus disagreed. “I attacked its servants. And what is this edifice, but bricks and stone? Our forefathers had a purer worship in desert tents. Destroy this sanctuary and in three days I will rebuild it.”
“No, Jesus!” I gasped.
“He’s indeed mad!” Caiphas turned to his colleagues. “This sanctuary was under construction for forty-six years, and he’s going to rebuild it in three days? Hah! We have here, my brethren, another false prophet like John, that fellow in the desert. Pay him no mind!”
With a flurry of his hands, the man who would one day condemn Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin disappeared temporarily from our lives. We didn’t know then that when Jesus spoke of rebuilding the temple after three days he was speaking about his own body. After the Resurrection, we would remember what he had said, but for now we were stunned and dismayed.
As we left the temple, I helped Bartholomew into his cart. The old man, like the rest of us, was thunderstruck by Jesus’ words. Peter, Andrew, Philip, John, and James muttered in disbelief amongst themselves. Jesus turned to me calmly, however, changing the subject entirely. Taken back again by his gall, I asked him to repeat it again.
“…What Jesus?” I blinked in the sunlight. “…What did you say?”
“Where do we find your brother James?” He frowned.
“Let’s see,” I scratched my cheek. “… He told me where he was staying.”
“All right.” He motioned impatiently. “Lead us there, little brother. Is it very far?”
“Not too far.” I said, shielding my eyes from the sun. “He might not want to come.”
“Don’t worry.” Jesus laughed softly. “He’ll come. He just needs a nudge.”
“Jesus.” I gave him a worried look. “Have you forgotten? James is a scribe. He does work for the temple. He might not agree with what you’ve done.”
“You are opinionated and impulsive like our mother,” he changed the subject. “She forced my hand. Now, in front of Israel’s priesthood, you called me out.”
“…I’m sorry.” I whispered.
“Don’t be,” he murmured from the corner of his mouth. “You spoke the truth. Cousin John called me those names, but, that moment in the temple, my father inspired you Jude. The next time, however, run it past me first. Our cousin John is impulsive too. His words against Herod, I fear, are going to get him into trouble. I made my stand against our priesthood, but have much yet to do.”
“What?” I asked, looking back at the others. “What exactly are you going to do?”
“Wake them up!” He exclaimed loudly. “I began in the temple. Now I go to the people! “But first,” he lurched ahead eagerly, “let’s find our brother James!”
Though my head was crowded with many questions, my memory never failed. James had given me directions, which I stored away in my thoughts. After winding through streets to the outskirts of Jerusalem, I led us finally to a large house built in the Roman fashion: a walled enclosure with its rooms circling a garden. We were all surprised and delighted that it wasn’t one of the thousands of dilapidated apartments in Jerusalem where resident lived in squalor.
“Whoa!” Bartholomew cried, reining in his mule. “This is a palace!”
“Are you sure you this is the right address?” Peter was the first to ask.
“Yes, this must be it.” I replied.
“It must belong to a great Pharisee,” declared John. “Are you certain James lives here?”
“He lives here all right.” Jesus nodded. “It’s the home of Nicodemus, James’ benefactor. Our brother’s done well.”
In high spirits now, I shouted through cupped hands, “James, open the door!”
“Hello!” Philip bellowed. “Anyone home?”
John and his brother joined in the effort, calling out playfully to James. Afterwards, Peter knocked on the great wooden door and, not to be left out, Andrew pounded it with his fist. Momentarily embarrassed, Jesus laughed indulgently at us. Clasping his forehead and shaking his head, Bartholomew looked on in disbelief. Then we heard a faint clank. A peephole we hadn’t noticed appeared above the ring, and a nasally voice called back, “Who goes there? Please state your name and your business!”
“Jesus,” he exclaimed loudly. “I’m told a James bar Joseph lives here. I’m his brother from Nazareth.”
“Nazareth,” the man grumbled, “James has a brother in Nazareth? I’ll go fetch him. First I’ll inform Nicodemus, my master. James is one of his students. Nicodemus is a busy, busy man!”
We waited in the sun for several moments. By now Bartholomew was sound asleep in his cart. Needing water and fodder, the mule was growing cranky, as were Peter, Andrew, Philip, James, and John. Then suddenly the great door creaked open and a bald, diminutive middle aged man, stood glaring at us, muttering, “In, in, in, don’t stand there all day!” “I’m Nathan, Nicodemus’ chamberlain,” he announced hastily, as we filed in. “Follow me to the atrium. Nicodemus is here but James is with Rabbi Gamaliel in town.”
“That’s just great,” I groaned.
“Not to worry,” Jesus ruffled my hair. “He’ll be along soon.”
“This way—into the garden.” Nathan motioned impatiently.
“Whoa, look at this!” exclaimed Peter. “This man’s rich!”
“Yeah,” Andrew gawked. “There’s marble columns, tiled floors, and trees growing inside his house!”
The disciples were greatly impressed as he herded us in. I ran back to waken Bartholomew and made sure his mule and cart were taken by a servant to the stable. The old man hobbled in shakily as I held his arm, his free hand clutching his cane. As we entered the atrium and were led to a spacious patch of flowers, bushes, and fruit trees, grander than Jethro’s garden in Cana, the other disciples continued oohing and ahhing. I plopped Bartholomew down on the nearest bench, where he sat grumbling to himself. I wasn’t that impressed, myself, with the garden. Though impressive, I had, in my travels, seen houses far grander than even this. The chamberlain had displayed irritation, looking at us with contempt. I was irritated that the Pharisee had not come out to us in person, which was the custom for our people. He should have been here by now; there was no excuse for such a delay. I had seen this attitude before, were rich man waited on ivory chairs to receive supplicants. Jesus, however, had explained to Nathan in a loud enough voice why we were here. Nicodemus appeared to be taking his time to greet us. Exiting down a corridor now, Nathan called out to his master. In hushed tone his master appeared to be scolding him for not filtering out this visit. Ambling toward us finally, tapping a cane before him and wearing the phylacteries and headdress of a typical Pharisee, Nicodemus eyed us indifferently at first, until he was within a few cubits from Jesus. Recognition came slowly in his near-sighted, watery eyes. Unlike the grumbling we heard in the corridor, he was apologetic for the delay.
“Forgive my tardiness,” he said contritely, “I’ve been feeling poorly. The truth is, I’ve taught James all that I know. I sent him to my friend Gamaliel—the greatest rabbi in Jerusalem. James will make a good rabbi or Pharisee, himself…. But I fear there are greater things in store for him.” “Come closer young man,” he beckoned Jesus. “My eyes are failing me…There, I can see you clearly. I remember the story of your mother and father. I thought it was a legend or myth. Then Amos, John’s courier, told me about you. He was quite impressed.” “So,” Nicodemus appraised him carefully, “you are the Anointed One, eh? The lamb of God?”
“You have said it,” Jesus replied solemnly. “I make no such claim. I am Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter.” “These good men are my followers.” He turned, pointing to each of us: “This is Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, and my brother Jude.”
“Peace be upon you!” Nicodemus said belatedly. “Please stay at my house, refresh yourselves, and share the Passover meal with my students and me.”
This singular honor was met with polite recognition from Jesus, and yet Jesus, unlike his disciples, wasn’t impressed. Nicodemus had given us a tepid greeting that was condescending. It was well known in Nazareth and now in Capernaum that Jesus had little respect for Pharisees, let alone priests and scribes. And yet here in the house of Nicodemus, dwelled a rich Pharisee who conducted a school for scribes, where James, our brother also dwelled. Our host, in fact, introduced us to the four other apprentice scribes, who would share our meal. Nicodemus disappeared for awhile with his students to allow us to clean up, as Jethro had, in a large hall in which basins of water and towels were brought in by servants. There was a modicum of disdain on the apprentice scribes young faces, but nothing like Jethro’s initial reaction in Cana.
When James finally returned, we were idling in the garden, enjoying the splashing sounds of the fountain and smell of flowers. Jesus was chatting with us about our experience in the temple. My mind had been settled about the issue. Jesus knew what he was doing even if we didn’t. But the other disciples were still worried about the ramifications following Jesus actions in the temple. Spilling the money changer’s and animal seller’s tables, insulting the priests, and saying he could rebuild the temple in three days sat heavily on their minds. To get their minds back on track, Jesus reminded them of their mission, which was still unclear.
“If you hear a door hinge creak, what do you do?” He looked squarely at Peter.
“Oil it,” Peter snorted.
“And what do you to make a fire?” His eyes turned to Philip.
“Find wood and kindling.” Philip pursed his lips. “Then set it aflame.”
“Yes!” Jesus raised his hands and looked up at the sky. “And so it is with the Word. Our people need such oil. The fire of Israel has gone out and needs igniting. This is our task and our weapon is the Word.”
“Moses beard!” cried James as he approached. “You’re still in Jerusalem. I heard about what you did in the temple, Jesus. You’ve defied the priests. Caiphas will send spies to follow you wherever you go. You’re a marked man!”
“Greetings brother,” Jesus embraced him. “You remember Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew, and our brother Jude.”
“Jesus,” James persisted, “I fear for you—all of you. You have let loose a hornet’s nest.”
At that point, Nicodemus reappeared, shaking his head. “Is this true Jesus? Have you attacked the priests?”
“Oh he did more than that,” fretted James. “During my visit to Gamaliel, a messenger came with the news. I rushed here as soon as I could. I can understand you arguing with those men, Jesus—it’s true what you said, ‘they’ve defiled God’s house,’ but turning tables over, scattering coins, and whipping them out of the temple—that’s insane!”
I tried not showing my true feelings. “Calm yourself, brother,” I chided disingenuously. “Jesus isn’t afraid!”
“He might not be,” James echoed my thoughts, “but I am!”
The Pharisee was taken back by what he heard. “This is outrageous,” he cried. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Listen Nicodemus,” Jesus turned to our host, “Those men won’t bother me, no yet. Trust in the Father. I know this to be true.”
“Humph! Trust the Father, eh? You mean God, don’t you? How do you know those men won’t bother you, Jesus?” Nicodemus’ eyebrows twitched. “Did God tell you? Did he instruct you to attack the money changers and animal sellers and insult the priests?”
“You have said it!” Jesus replied with great conviction.
“He-he-he.” Nicodemus cackled nervously. “You’re quite confident with yourself, aren’t you? Such showmanship. I heard about that incident in Cana, too. A whole houseful of people can’t be wrong. But you don’t know Caiphas, our high priest. He doesn’t believe in miracles. His kind believe in power. You might as well have attacked that scoundrel Pilate or King Herod, himself.”
“You must leave now!” James wrung his hands.
“No, no,” Nicodemus rotated his head, “eat the Passover meal with us. It will be dark soon—not a safe time during Passover. There’s all kind of riffraff coming in that gate, some of them cutthroats and thieves. Tomorrow morning is soon enough.” “…I guess,” he muttered under his breath.
The Jewish custom of hospitality to strangers warred with Nicodemus’ fears. We could see this in his dark, darting eyes. Jesus could see it too.
“That settles it,” Jesus folded his arms resolutely. “I have upset your household, Nicodemus. It’s still light. This evening we shall travel to Bethany where Lazarus, my kinsmen, lives.”
“No, no!” Nicodemus stomped his foot querulously. “You must stay the night. Please, Jesus. Come, come. The cook is preparing a Passover meal. There’s plenty to eat. During dinner you can tell me more about yourself.”
We, Jesus’ first disciples, were filled with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we were hungry and tired. On the other hand we agreed with James that we should get out of town. If no one knew who he was when we entered Jerusalem, they would, when word got out, know soon enough. Already Gamaliel’s household had been notified. As the food was brought out to us, Nicodemus was fidgety and distracted, glancing in the direction of the entrance as if he expected temple guards to begin pounding on the door. At first, his students Josiah, Amrath, Nahum, and Jeroboam, after politely introducing themselves, treated Nicodemus’ guests as if they were invisible, staring moodily at their plates. After the Shema, which Nicodemus gave quickly, he asked James, his favorite pupil, what was important about this day. It was something we were supposed to do on Passover. James explained that their meal was in honor of the first born of Israel spared from the Angel of Death’s sting, which was the fate of the first born of the Pharaoh and his people. No sooner had James finished the part about bitter herbs reminding us of our bondage in Egypt, when Nicodemus waved impatiently at him and, with a nod, turned his attention to Jesus, his most important guest.
Though not as sumptuous as Jethro’s feast, Nicodemus’ table was filled with all manner of kosher meats and delicacies, including the sweetmeats I loved so well. I was hoping we could all fill our bellies, get tipsy, and sleep peacefully until dawn. Already, I felt that warm, friendly dreaminess of the vine. Initially, the conversation that followed drifted in and out of my consciousness. Peter, Andrew, Philip, John, and his brother James were also nodding off, and Bartholomew, who sat next to me, was already asleep. Nicodemus was deeply disturbed, partially from fear for Jesus’ sake, but also by what his guest had done. During this exchange, his student perked up, listening intently to how Jesus answered his questions. I sensed that moment that Jesus was going to say something controversial again. I didn’t know it was a defining moment. That night in Nicodemus house, we knew what Jesus had in mind. This meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, which John the Apostle would one day abbreviate, could not be captured in mere words.
The Pharisee was prattling on about the divisions in Israel between Sadducees and Pharisees, as if he was in the classroom with his students again: “It never ceases to amaze me that our priesthood and the Sadducees don’t believe in the afterlife. As you know we, the Pharisees, believe in heaven. What purpose is there in life without reward. Is wealth the only gain?” “…Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, after a long pause, “Though Judea and Galilee may not know you yet, your reputation precedes you. We, my students and I, know that you came from God, as a teacher. We’ve talked about this. No one could have done what you’ve done unless God is within him.”
I recalled John calling him master, another name for teacher or leader. Having been called rabbi for the first time, Jesus frowned. He didn’t like labels. Then an enigmatic smile appeared on his face. The light of the table lamp gave his face an otherworldly glow.
“Nicodemus.” He looked squarely at the old man. “You aren’t far from the kingdom. But miracles and grand gestures aren’t why I’m here—”
“Why are you here?” The Pharisee leaned forward.
The disciples and students sat there with bated breath.
Jesus thought a moment, took a sip of wine, and replied, “…I bring the Word.”
“Ah,” Nicodemus thought to correct him, “you mean the Law, right?”
“No,” Jesus shook his head. “They’re not the same. The Law governs men. The Word governs the soul.”
“All right, Jesus.” Nicodemus squirmed impatiently. “But we’re a nation of laws. That separates us from the Gentiles. The Torah is made up of words—thousands of them. What do you mean when you say ‘Word?’”
Searching his mind momentarily, Jesus replied, “The Word is God manifested through his Son. Those who open their hearts will believe. Those, like the priests and Sadducees, who think they have the answers, have not heard the Word.”
“What?” Nicodemus cackled with mirth. “You’re saying our priests are in error? Now that is heresy.”
“We’re all sons of God.” Josiah wrinkled his brow. “The priests are God’s voice.”
At this point it appeared as if Nicodemus students were divided. Nahum nodded in agreement with Josiah, but Jeroboam made a face. “Jesus is right,” he spat. “Our priests are in error. Men are descended from Adam, who was created by God. We are God’s sons, but the priests are made by men!”
“Very good, Jeroboam,” Jesus laughed softly.
“But you said something like this before.” I reminded him. “Is there only one Son of God?”
“Listen.” Jesus cocked an eyebrow. “This is, as the fishermen would say, deep water. It’s hard enough for you to understand, Jude, and you’re my brother. Revelation comes in stages. Throughout my life, I could scarcely understand the mystery of God.” “Now I say to you Nicodemus and all of you. I have God’s ear.”
“So you’re the Word, eh?” Nicodemus eyes widened with understanding. “…You’re bringing another pathway to God.”
“You have said it!” Jesus said firmly again.
“Said what?” Amrath looked at him blankly. “You will replace the temple?”
“No.” Jesus’ eyebrows knit. “The temple represents the law of our people. I’m not here to replace the law, Amrath. I never said that.”
“Then tell us, Jesus,” the student pressed. “What is your mission? Why are you here?”
“Salvation,” Jesus turned to face Nicodemus, “something Pharisees and most Jews believe.”
“Ah yes, I remember.” The old man nodded with understanding. “You’re talking about the Messiah. It was prophesized in Isaiah, Micah, and Zechariah, but those passages have been interpreted different ways. Are you saying that you’re the Messiah?”
So far he had not claimed to be the Messiah, just the Anointed One, as John claimed. It was one thing for him to imply he was bringing us a new religion and being its messenger; it was quite another to make such claim. Such an announcement would, I understand now, have shocked Nicodemus and his students greatly.
Once again, therefore, Jesus dodged answering a question directly: “God, my Father, guides me toward a reawakening and new covenant. I come to build, not destroy. He defines me. Because the priests have led the people away from righteousness, the law will be tempered by the Spirit. Through me—the Word will be made manifest.”
“Where in the Torah is this written?” challenged Josiah.
Jesus pursed his lips. “Nowhere…. It comes from the Spirit.”
“So,” cried Jeroboam, “you are writing Holy Scripture. It sound as though you’re replacing our faith.”
“Not replacing it,” Jesus shook his head, “restoring it, through a rebirth.”
“Rebirth?” Nahum wrinkled his forehead. “That will only happen when the Messiah comes!”
Jesus uttered once again, “You have said it!,” which for the students was the final straw. Scandalized by Jesus words, Nicodemus’ students jumped up and stormed from the room. I was shaken by Jesus words, myself. Something was surfacing in this room. I could feel it in the air. Yet my brother James and the Pharisee—student and teacher of the law—remained seated, with troubled expressions on their faces. I knew that James, who had a stubborn nature, was deeply affected now as was his mentor, Nicodemus, who hung on Jesus’ every word. While I stared at him in expectation, the other disciples, though visibly moved, were growing restless and anxious with this topic, and were, judging by their dumbfounded expressions, still unclear on what Jesus meant.
“I don’t understand.” Peter admitted bluntly. “How does this work? Is it like cleaning out the temple, as you did? You said you’d rebuild it three days. Is that what you mean by rebirth?”
“Yes, master,” John implored. “Explain this to us…. How can we be saved?”
The disciples were on the threshold—I could see it in their eyes, not so much for the details of Jesus’ concepts but rather the meaning of who he was: a great prophet bringing, as Nicodemus said, a new religious path. And then he said it—words that would change our lives forever and, I know now, also change the world.”
Looking squarely at Nicodemus this time, he raised two fingers, his third finger touching his thumb. “It’s simple,” he murmured, “but you must open your heart. Rebirth is most important, Nicodemus. Truly, I say unto you, unless a person is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus was taken back. “Rabbi,” he exclaimed in disbelief, “that’s absurd. How can someone be born when he is old like me. Does he go back into his mother’s womb a second time to be born again?”
Jesus answered serenely, “These are the words of God: ‘Unless a person is born of water and the Spirit he won’t enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. All of you must be born from above, which is of Spirit of God. The wind blows where it wants to. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is for everyone born of the Spirit.”
The world of Nicodemus, the Pharisee, shook at the foundation. “H-how can that be?” he stammered.
Jesus voice rose gently. “Nicodemus! You’re the teacher of Israel, and you can’t understand this? Do you not believe in an invisible God? I told you who is the author of this: God, my Father. A leap of faith is necessary in order to believe. You Pharisees, who believe in an afterlife, which is ill defined, try to find proofs in the law. There are no proofs in the law, only rules of conduct. The law, alone, can’t lead you to heaven. The soul is God’s. You have heard of me. News about my past and the incident in Cana appear to have impressed you, but they’re earthly proofs—what people see. Greater still are proofs of the Spirit, not seen, but taken on faith. You believe what your eyes and ears tell you, which are earthly things. Will you not believe me if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Nicodemus thought a moment, as Jesus waited for a reply. “Heavenly things?” He scratched his beard. “…You mean God’s grace? Is that what you mean?”
“I’m not talking about God’s grace.” Jesus waved dismissively. “That never changes. I’m talking about something new, Nicodemus: rebirth, which works with God’s grace. I said that you’re close to the Kingdom. One day you’ll understand. You’re like an unborn child. This is true for my disciples, family, and all who believe in repentance and rebirth and want out of the womb.” Looking around the table at each of us, he added solemnly: “Remember these words, Nicodemus, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, and my brothers James and Jude. The Son of Man alone descended from heaven with the God-given knowledge to teach about salvation in his name. He alone has seen the Father and he alone is qualified to make God’s promise known. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up after the sting of death, so that everyone can be saved. For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes him, will not perish but will be reborn and have eternal life. God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it’s people through faith in Him. That is what is meant by rebirth. Whoever believes in God’s Son shall be saved. Whoever doesn’t believe in the Son shall be condemned. Hear these words of God, the basis of judgment: A light will come into the world, but people love the darkness more than the light because their actions are evil. Everyone who practices wickedness hates the light and shuns it, because his actions may be exposed. Those who seek, with a contrite heart, shall find the light; they will embrace it and shall be reborn as God’s own.”
Nicodemus looked down at his mug. “…You ask too much.”
“No,” said Jesus, pointing heavenward, “ it’s God who asks. The law can’t save you, Nicodemus. Your knowledge is a wall to you. Break it down. It is and will always will depend upon an open mind and contrite heart. Sinners, men of learning, and those who worship false gods, will shun the light no matter what earthly proofs are given them, but you’re halfway there. It begins with simple, unquestioning faith.”
I could imagine the turmoil in the old Pharisee’s mind. After all, I, more than anyone else except his mother, knew Jesus’ mind, and I had trouble with his words. What struck me as amazing that moment was the expression on the other men’s faces. After seeing their befuddled expressions during our journey with my brother and here at Nicodemus’ table, I expected them to be even more confused after some of the things Jesus said. Though it seemed like an unlikely expression for these rustics, I saw, instead of frowns and blank looks, illumination on their faces. Fishermen illuminated; how strange is that? John and Bartholomew seemed, in fact, to be on the verge of tears. My brother James, like a statue, stared silently into space. Like children, ignorant of the subtleties of the law and the Torah, the fishermen understood what Jesus meant by an unquestioning leap of faith. Jesus had, as I interpret it now, rebuked Nicodemus’ education, because it was a stumbling block to faith. Having reached out to Jesus intellectually, the Pharisee now recoiled spiritually at such a demand.
“Who can do such a thing?” he muttered, rising shakily and ambling from the room.
“We can,” I heard Peter and Andrew murmur.
The other men nodded in agreement. James followed his teacher reluctantly, looking back wistfully at these simple men. Jesus had made his point. Later he would say to us, “Unless you have the faith of a little child, you won’t enter the Kingdom of God.” Already, during that fateful hour, we understood this. Looking ahead at the long journey I would take with Jesus and his followers, I realized, at last, how simple it all was. Though not as stubborn as our brothers and sisters in accepting Jesus’ powers, I had tried to use reason and education to decipher his actions and the mysteries of God, when, in fact, it was there in front of me all the time. It was all based upon faith.
The fishermen had set the example for me. The great weight of reason fell from my back. As Jesus led us to our quarters, I felt light-headed as if I had drank too much wine. Like a shepherd leading us on, he motioned to our pallets situated around the room.
“Your faces are windows to what’s in your hearts. One day Nicodemus will recall my words. Now rest,” he directed wearily. “Tomorrow we leave Jerusalem. John, my cousin, baptized at the River Jordan. Now we shall do the same.”
The very thought was like cold water splashed on my mood. I could hear the others groan, especially poor Bartholomew, who could barely walk and dreaded the bumpy cart. It was a long trek, and the river was a desolate place. I could still hear John shouting, “Repent! The day of the Lord is here!” Turning to Andrew and Philip, as we listened, Jesus said sadly, “John has angered Herod. I fear for him now. Do you remember him saying, ‘I must diminish and he must increase?’”
Andrew and Philip nodded. I stood there, as the others settled onto their pallets, wondering what Jesus had in mind. Would he take up where John left off? Is that where this would lead: the River Jordan? Were we going to be baptizers like that crazy John?
Leaving my questions unanswered that moment, Jesus explained to us the importance of this rite, which, up until now, had merely been an act of ritual purification in our religion. Now it was going to have a different meaning, Jesus would teach us, as part of the penitent’s rebirth. I knew that symbolic actions, such as circumcision, eating kosher food, and temple sacrifice, were important to our faith. There was, however, no ritual of baptism like John’s immersion of sinners. Water was for ritual purification only, as required by Moses’ law. What we heard was, like all the other concepts given so far, a brand new thing—a rite of the spirit, not of Jewish law. Unfortunately, Jesus left unsaid what would follow this episode. I couldn’t believe this was his final goal. We hadn’t even yet visited Judea or Galilee’s major cities or our hometown of Nazareth.
As he stepped out for awhile, perhaps to pray as he often did at night, we discussed this issue amongst ourselves.
“This is going to be easy,” Peter said, looking around for agreement. “We tell’em to repent and then dunk’em. That’s simple enough!”
“Sounds like fun.” Philip giggled.
“Yeah,” James said with a yawn. “I’ll specialize in fair maidens.” “You can have the old ones!” He playfully nudged John.
“How long do we leave them in?” Andrew tried to sound serious.
“That depends on how sinful they are.” I joined in the mirth.
“Ho-ho” cackled Bartholomew. “What if we drown one of them?”
“Jesus could bring them back to life like the sparrow and Pharisee’s son,” piped John.
“What if we’re not good at it?” Peter grew serious. “I’m not good at talking. I don’t have the voice.”
“Remember what Jesus said,” John reminded us. “‘It’s simply a matter of faith!’”
“John’s right.” Philip’s eyelids grew heavy. “Andrew and I were with the Baptist for quite awhile. He called Jesus the Anointed One and the Lamb of God. That Baptist said the same things over and over. Forget all those labels. Jesus doesn’t like titles. All we have to do is point to Jesus and say, ‘Repent! The day of Lord’s at hand.’ How hard is that?”
To camouflage their own fears, I suspected, the fishermen were making fun of the task ahead. John had even joked about two of Jesus’ miracles. By now, however, I was beginning to understand them. These men had good hearts. Until today I had felt like an outsider. Now, as I listened to them joke about the prospect of being baptizers, my initial repulsion for their smells and uncouthness lingered, but I no longer wondered why Jesus picked this bunch. Here in the house of a rich Pharisee after Jesus had said such extraordinary things, they made light of the task ahead, as if it was but a trifling matter. Like children in an adventure which they knew little about, they chattered for several more moments, one by one falling into a deep, well-deserved sleep.
“I dare say,” I murmured drowsily. “…There’s more to it than this!”
By then the room echoed with a variety of snores. As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear Bartholomew, rumbling and snorting next to me. Peter, who slept on his back with his mouth open, was the worst, emitting a gurgling, frothy noise unlike anything I had ever heard. Not one of my companions slept quietly. They were as noisy in slumber as they were awake. Recalling Peter, Andrew, Philip, James, John, and Bartholomew’s irreverent banter, which I found humorous that day, I marvel at what these men became.