The following morning we learned of our destination almost off-handedly when we were back on the road. Jesus’ spirits were high, as he led us toward Decapolis, a province, he claimed, was ripe for the picking. As I told James, it could very well be that it was a spur of the moment revelation that his father gave him, but it didn’t matter. Nothing could be much worse than Hazor, our last town. Our destination was a much larger town with a mixed population of Jews and Greeks. Now, Jesus announced amiably, we would minister in an orchard, as pickers, harvesting both Gentiles and Jews. This was good news for us for two reasons: large towns and cities had a Roman presence, which meant that Jewish hotheads couldn’t stone us or injure at will; and Gentiles in general were not hostile to our faith. Already, Jesus had, as a few of us, made converts of Romans, Greeks, and Syrians for the Way.
This time, when we entered Hippo, the northernmost city in Decapolis, Jesus avoided entering a synagogue. I know it wasn’t a cowardly action. Perhaps he had given up using Isaiah to prove who he was or finally accepted our criticism that it was a waste of time, but he did stop in front of the Greek-speaking synagogue to heal a man suffering from a stroke. As he steadied himself with a cane, a young boy held the man’s free hand, which hung limply by his side. He walked with great difficulty, and yet he tried to smile and utter a greeting to Jesus as he approached. Typical of stroke victims, the right side of his face was normal. As he called out shalom aleichem, though, the left side drooped and was expressionless. Though the right eye twinkled with life, the left eye was glassy and unmoving, and, as the left side of his body, quite useless. Considering where we were, it wasn’t a good place to perform a healing. The man and boy had paused in front of the synagogue as if they intended to enter.
“Hey, Jesus,” Peter called nervously, “I thought you wanted to avoid synagogues!”
“I’m not going in,” he explained curtly.
“Then what’s he doing?” James turned to me.
“Listen!” I placed my finger before my lips.
“Sir,” the boy ran up to him, “are you Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth?”
“Well, my name’s Jesus.” He looked down and patted his head. “What’s your name?”
“Aesop,” the boy replied. “This is my father, Natalis. He can’t talk very well. Because of his accident, he can’t even work. We know about you Jesus. My uncle saw you in Capernaum. He said you did wonders and spoke for God.” “Please, Jesus,” he pleaded tearfully, “make him better. My father’s a good man.”
As his disciples surrounded them, Jesus reached for the water skin slung around Peter’s neck. “If you have heard of me,” he said, looking into Natalis’ good eye, “you know that God also cures the spirit. Do you repent your sins, believe in eternal life, and promise to live a righteous life?”
“Yes,” Natalis tried to say.
“And what about you, Aesop?” He looked down at the boy.
“Yes, Jesus!” Aesop cried.
“Then by the power given to me by my Father, I baptize you with water and give you the blessing of God!”
After sprinkling water over both their heads, he gripped Natalis shoulders, adding in a louder voice, “In the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit, I make you whole. From this day forward, Natalis, you must serve God!” “You Aesop,” he added light-heartedly, “will one day serve him too!”
The deadpan expression on the left side of Natalis’ face was the first sign that he was, in fact, whole. A smile spread over his face. He blinked several times, his blind eye filled with animation. Raising his once-dead arm and flexing his fingers and then testing his left leg, he cried out in a clear voice, “Jesus of Nazareth, you have saved me! I am a new man!”
Only a moment before, three Pharisees and several other members exited the synagogue in time to catch sight of this event. It was a replay of other such encounters: Jesus versus the Pharisees. This time, judging by their dress, there were scribes in this group. Considering the size of this bunch, it almost seemed like an ambush. Before they verbally attacked him, Jesus sent the man and child away with his blessing. Turning to us, he warned us to stand back and be quiet. This wasn’t an ordinary encounter with his adversaries. Among the scribes there was, Simon pointed out discreetly, a temple agent, who would look for ways to bring charges against him.
The Pharisees were muttering amongst themselves: “He’s a sorcerer and blasphemer!” but the scribes, who considered Jesus more of an insurrectionist and heretic, tried to restrain them. Clearly they were now in control. “Sorcerer or blasphemer? You can’t have both,” we heard one of them argue. “Sweeping accusations and calling names doesn’t work. You must stick to points of the law. This man is no ordinary sorcerer or blasphemer. He’s attacking the foundation of our faith!”
A ferret-faced scribe, who Simon believed was a temple agent, stepped forth. “Tell me, rabbi,” he called to Jesus, “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
As a shepherd, Jesus answered with a question. “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?
“That isn’t the issue,” replied the scribe. “I’m aware of your clever tongue. I asked you if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.”
“Yes,” Jesus answered promptly, “it’s lawful to do good on the Sabbath. How much more valuable is a person than a sheep.”
“So you admit it,” the scribe said, jotting something on his tablet. “You are above the law. According to witnesses, you’ve broken the Sabbath many times. Once you violated the temple by overturning the money tables. You think we’re blind and deaf, Jesus? Your movements have been watched from the beginning. So far you’ve escaped retribution. I see you even corrupted one of our men.”
Simon, once again fearless, charged forward, grinding his teeth, but was restrained by Matthew and myself. “I recognize him now,” he whispered heatedly. “That’s Pelias, a chief scribe of the temple. This is serious. He’s using Jesus words against him.”
“Only the other day,” Pelias continued, “your men were seen picking corn on the Sabbath. This appears to be a habit. What do you say to that Jesus?”
“Let me put it this way,” Jesus rephrased it. “The Sabbath was made for men. Men weren’t made for the Sabbath.”
“What?” his mouth flew open. “So, it’s true what the people are saying. You’re bringing them a new religion not of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac. You are the worst form of heretic Jesus. Do you think you’ll replace the temple and our faith?”
“No,” Jesus replied calmly, “I’m not trying to replace the temple or our faith.”
“If you don’t observe our laws,” a second scribe shouted, “you’re defying the temple and replacing our faith!”
“No” Jesus shook his head. “God makes the laws. Man doesn’t make them. Where in the commandments does it forbid mercy and kindness?”
“This man perverts our scriptures,” a Pharisee now stepped forth. “You scribes play with the law. We Pharisees act on them. Before he does anymore damage this man should be stoned.”
“No Archimedes,” Pelias reminded him, “you know we can’t do that. This is Hippos, not a backwoods town. We shall conduct this according to our laws, but I shall present my report to Caiaphas. I have gathered enough on this malefactor for him to proceed!”
Jesus waved him off as he would a gnat, but said nothing. As a troop of Roman cavalry appeared in the distance, Pelias, the temple agent, and his cohorts slipped quickly back into the synagogue, reminiscent of retreating jackals.
“You have nothing, you piece of dung!” Simon called after them. “If you were going to nab Jesus, you’d of done it a long time ago. Go back to Caiaphas, that pompous lackey and lickspittle of our Roman oppressors. He doesn’t represent our religion. Jesus does!”
“That’s enough, Simon,” Jesus chided. “You’re only making matters worse!”
“Yeah, Simon,” Peter looked at him in disbelief. “You poked a hornet’s nest!”
“Well, he got the point, didn’t he?” Judas looked around for approval.
What can they do?” Matthew gave his vote of approval.
“Listen, I told you men to let me handle this,” Jesus reprimanded them. “Because of Simon’s outburst, he brought attention to himself. Pelias recognized him.”
“What about what you said?” James asked fretfully. “That man wrote down everything you said!”
“Don’t worry, James.” Jesus reassured him. “Simon shouldn’t have stirred things up, but he’s half right: if they were going to get me, they would’ve done it by now.”
“What about the other half?” John gave him a worried look.
“Yes Jesus.” I gave him a worried look. “This time you don’t sound so sure!”
“Enough said!” Jesus silenced us. Though Simon, Matthew, and Judas remained confident, the rest of us voiced our concern as we followed him down Hippo’s main street. The Roman troop passed by us without incident. What struck me as significant was how few townsmen remained to watch Jesus’ argument with Pelias, the scribes, and Pharisees. Despite this fact, the threat Pelias made to Jesus had placed a shadow on our path.
“Shouldn’t we be leaving?” muttered Thomas. “We’re going the wrong way. The entrance to Hippo’s back there!”
“Yes, Jesus.” Bartholomew looked down from his mule. “Remember what you said in Hazor? It’s time to shake off the dust!”
“No, men.” Jesus shook his head. “We just got here. It’s not my time. Hippo’s a large town. The Romans are in control here, not the Jews.” “No more outbursts!” he added, looking back at Simon.
As we followed Jesus, Judas was trying his best to act normally. Had he been his old self, it might have been him calling out to the scribes and Pharisees. Nevertheless, he grew jittery, under our scrutiny, as if he was trapped within himself. We hadn’t been in a large city since our trip to Jerusalem. Though it was a Gentile as well as a Jewish city, Jesus was excited about this town.
Raising his arms, he shouted exuberantly, “Behold: a fruitful garden, ready for the picking!”
“So,” Philip grumbled to Andrew, “we’re no longer fishermen and harvesters; we’re gardeners!”
“That seems fitting,” Andrew said glibly. “It start in a garden.”
“Yeah,” replied John, “and you know what happened in the Garden of Eden!”
“Adam and Eve got the boot!” Matthew snickered.
“That wasn’t an auspicious beginning,” observed James. Half-seriously, he began quoting a psalm: “Yea thou I walk through the Valley Shadow of the Death…”
“Stop it!” Thomas stuck his fingers in his ears. “That’s not funny.”
Perhaps unfamiliar with that psalm, the fishermen, turned to glare at him. Judas, however, thought it was amusing. “That’s my favorite psalm,” he announced blithely. “Don’t forget the part, ‘Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…’”
“Jesus is more than a rod or staff,” replied Simon. “He’s a club!”
“Jesus doesn’t need a club,” Judas interrupted himself. “All he has to do is wave his hands and poof, no more Pharisees and no more scribes!”
“Someone shut him up!” John’s brother James growled.
After the ominous warning given to Jesus, nervous chatter continued between the disciples. Why Jesus put up with this nonsense I’ll never know. It appeared that, in addition to Judas, who remained unstable despite his effort at being contrite, Simon was still an outspoken hothead in our group. While Jesus chatted with Peter about the journey ahead, the topic remained Pelias, the chief temple scribe. Nothing that had been said by Pharisees or scribes in the past was nearly as bad as him telling Jesus that he would report to the high priest.”
“What if it’s imminent?” James dared utter the words. Could this town become a trap?”
“It could be a trap for all of us!” Thomas gave us a frightened look.
“Stop it, you two.” I scolded. “You worry too much. You think Jesus would lead us into a trap?”
“I dunno,” Thomas pursed his lips, “he might do it accidentally.”
“Well, I’m not worried,” Simon replied haughtily. “Let them try to take him. I have my sword!”
“And I have a knife!” Judas waved it in the air.
“Put that away!” I cried. “You’re talking like fools, both of you.”
“There it is.” Matthew said, inspecting Simon’s pack. “Jesus told him to leave that in the house!”
“You brought your sword along?” Bartholomew peered down from his mule. “You and Judas are both morons!”
“Shut up!” Peter looked back irritably. “No more of that talk. Let’s get along!”
Jesus’ words, “It’s not my time,” appeared to have gone unnoticed by the others. He had said something like this before, but this time, connected as it was to Pelias threat, it carried a more ominous ring. In spite of my dread, I kept my alarm to myself. A sense of inevitability seemed to overtake me as we continued on our way, fading gradually as I listened to Jesus’ speak confidently of the mission ahead. There was much to do in the garden of the Lord, he reassured us constantly. As always, his enthusiasm was contagious if not logically convincing. None of seriously believed the Pharisees, scribes, and temple agents would go away.
Today would, in fact, turn out to be a great success. The synagogue where we encountered the Pharisees and scribes had been on the edge of town, as were many Gentile-speaking congregations. Now as we descended into the center of Hippos, a remarkable thing happened. It had happened before but not as dramatically nor in such immediate volume. Suddenly there were people on each side of us, many of them staring in awe at the white robed figure leading his disciples. Here in this cosmopolitan city Jesus’ reputation evidently preceded him. Though there were those familiar snarls and looks of reproach on some of their faces, some of them called out Jesus’ name. To our dismay there were several misshapen souls on crutches or staring blindly from the crowd, but Jesus continued our march through town to a place where he could looked out, as he had in Capernaum, and begin preaching the word.
The people cried out, “There he is!… That’s the miracle worker!… Look, it’s Jesus of Nazareth…. He’s healed the blind, the deaf, and the maimed!”
“Where are you leading us?” asked Peter. “This isn’t Capernaum. Where can you accommodate such a crowd?”
“Near Lake Gennesaret,” announced Jesus, “it’s eastern shore. There’s hills overlooking the lake, just like in Capernaum—a perfect place to preach and save souls.”
“Moses Beard!” Bartholomew groaned.
Andrew looked around at the people lining the street. “Does this mean we baptize again?”
“No.” Jesus sighed. “Like that multitude in Capernaum, the crowd’s too large. Those requesting the rite and those healed are an exception. I’ll tell the multitude the good news, but that’s all.”
“Aren’t you worried about those Roman soldiers.” Peter scratched his beard nervously. “Jews aren’t allowed to assemble. Have you forgotten that?”
“Don’t fret,” Jesus slapped his back. “The Romans allow other religions to practice peacefully. Contrary to what those scribes believe, I’m not a trouble-maker or insurrectionist. The Romans aren’t the problem!”
Sure enough, we heard hoof beats, the crowd momentarily dispersed, and they appeared: a contingent of legionnaires even larger than before. A Roman centurion, who reminded me of Longinus, sat in his saddle before us, surrounded by his men, a stern look on his chiseled face. A memory flashed into my mind of the time when, as a small child, I met a Roman officer on a bridge in Nazareth. This time, like that time in Nazareth, the man and the horse were one great shadow blocking the sun. In that one image, so reminiscent of the last, was symbolized the might of Rome.
Jesus walked toward him to get a better look at the man.
“Greetings sir,” he shielded his eyes from the sun. “I’m Jesus, from Nazareth, a preacher who wishes to share the good news with your town. These men are my disciples. We ask your permission to have a religious assembly in the hills. My words are for spiritual salvation, not revolution. We come in peace!”
“Well, Jesus of Nazareth,” the man shifted in his saddle. “I’m Massala, First Centurion of the Garrison in Decapolis. My men detected dissent among your fellow Jews. They were told by an eyewitness that those men threatened you.”
“Yes, it’s true,” Jesus smiled faintly. “Many men fear the truth more than the sword.”
“Is that what you bring—truth?” Massala asked wryly.
“It is.” Jesus nodded. “I come with a simple message: believe in God, repent, and accept everlasting life.”
“You preach to me?” Massala laughed sourly. “We Romans have many gods. I don’t need one more.”
“Very well,” Jesus gazed up at horseman. “I’ll pray for you nonetheless.”
Massala gave Jesus a nod. “As long as you keep the peace you can pray all you want. My men will make sure you’re not bothered. If you see one of those shifty-eyed fellows again, let one of them know. I have no use for your holy men. All they do is stir up trouble.”
Greatly relieved by this news, our burden was lightened. We didn’t have to worry about Pharisees and scribes or the fickleness of the crowd. We had protection from Massala, first centurion of the provincial garrison.
Aside from its Greek name, four factors proved that Hippos wasn’t a typical Jewish town. To begin with, the townsfolk who followed us to the lake were a mixture dark haired and fair-headed men and women, many of whom had blue eyes like Jesus. Then there was the babble of languages, including Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Syrian and clothing that ranged from homespun tunics to Roman togas. Thirdly and fourthly, there were Roman and Greek temples throughout the city and Roman legionnaires guarding the town. When Jesus ascended the hill near the shoreline of the lake, we therefore knew this was a special event. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—who wrote the gospels failed to mention the fact that the multitude who listened to Jesus that day were heavily populated with Gentiles. Jesus admonition that we preach to the Jews had been clarified to mean Jews first and Gentiles second, but now in Hippos they were all mixed together. Almost from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Gentiles had become members of the Way. Today, the ratio of non-Jews was still much greater, but the number of Gentiles, which included Greeks, Syrians, and other peoples, was significantly larger than in the past. Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus would be a light unto the Gentiles was proving to be true.
With the specter of this mixed multitude in mind, Jesus began his sermon by quoting from Isaiah:
“Listen to me, you islands and hear this, you distant nations. Before I was born the Lord called me. From my mother’s womb he spoke my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword. In the shadow of his hand he hid me. Making me into a polished arrow, he concealed me in his quiver. ‘You are my servant in whom I will display my splendor!’ the Lord said to me. ‘I have labored in vain,’ I said to him. I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me in the Lord’s hand and my reward is with my God. He formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself. I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and he has been my strength. Not only will you be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept; I will also make you a light unto the Gentiles that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth—the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel, to him who was despised and abhorred by the nations, to the servant of rulers. When seeing you, Kings will stand up, princes will bow down, because you’ve been chosen by the Lord!”
Though most listeners in the crowd might not understand the meaning of his words, it seemed clear that Jesus was reaching out to the Gentiles as well as providing justification for the Jews why Gentiles must be included too. Also in this introduction was a reference to the suffering servant, who would be mistreated by his people before being recognized one day as who he was. This was, to an educated listener, a conflicting verse, considering his passages in the same scroll promising a redeemer, a figure that kings and princes would bow down to and revere and would restore Israel to greatness again. This prophesized leader is unrelated to the suffering servant. Added to this mystery for those who have studied Isaiah’s work was a later scroll that directly refutes the image of such a man. The verses leading up to the suffering servant’s triumph over his persecutors, particularly the lines ‘He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ and ‘the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him,’ offer proof of this discrepancy. This was a different messiah, if, in fact, that title even applied. As Jesus spoke, it struck me that, in his introduction, he hinted at his identity but, purposefully or not, left it open for his audience to decide. For those who have studied this prophet, however—the priests, Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis, the meaning in Isaiah’s prophecies was plain: Israel’s Messiah would deliver us from our oppressors. They had, throughout the centuries, ignored the other man mentioned by Isaiah, and to their less educated neighbors, family members, friends, and congregation, kept such a hope alive. And yet it represented an unsolvable conflict in Isaiah’s prophecy of the messiah. It was so obvious, I told myself that moment: there couldn’t be two separate redeemers. Was it possible that Isaiah changed his mind later in his life? What justification did religious leaders and doctors of the law have for ignoring this scroll?
These questions consumed me during the sermon that followed his introduction. The question of his identity was even murkier now, and though it seemed to be a logical tactic, I wished he had begun with a less controversial prelude. His intention had apparently been to show a scriptural basis for accepting Gentiles in the Way. Even without a full understanding of Isaiah, it should have been clear by this introduction that his message wasn’t merely for Jews, and yet I could see surprise and even dismay on the faces of listeners and even his own men.
As he went on to give a sermon similar to the one he delivered in Capernaum, my attention was divided between his speech and the grumbling I heard from Judas, Simon, and my brother James. I could understand how difficult it might be for James, who had studied to be a scribe, to accept Gentiles into the Way and Simon, after all, was once a Temple spy, but I didn’t understand Judas’ outlook.
“James,” I whispered to him, “why are you so worried about Gentiles being uncircumcised? The early Jews weren’t circumcised and they were children of God.”
“It goes against everything I’ve been taught,” he murmured. “We’re the chosen people. What do those words now mean?”
“We’re still the chosen,” I replied discreetly. “Its up to us to spread the word!”
Simon, who sat close by, was frowning severely. After hearing the reaction from a few listeners on the hill, he was worried that Jesus might offend Jews, but Judas was downright confused.
“How can there be a Messiah for both Gentiles and Jews?” he muttered aloud.
“Shut your face!” hissed Peter.
The other disciples, including Simon, James, and myself, also shushed him. Fortunately, because Jesus’ voice was so loud, he didn’t hear us. Aside from the Pharisees, scribes, spies, and malcontents in the audience, the attention of the audience seemed even greater than at Capernaum. Picking out captivated faces in the audience—a blond haired woman, clutching her child, a dark turbaned man in a multicolored robe, and an old man with his staff resting in his lap, I was reminded of how universal Jesus message might be perceived. The introduction he gave from Isaiah, despite its controversy, had captured their attention. What followed was, like his sermon to the five thousand, much easier to understand. Because of its tone and nuggets of wisdom, I hoped it wiped away the controversial elements in Jesus’ first words. Throughout his sermon, in fact, were sayings meant for all peoples. I know now that he spoke for the ages. That day, as he finished up with the prayer he taught us in Capernaum, I felt re-energized. Most of the other disciples felt the same.
Though Jesus repeated many of the sayings spoken in Capernaum, he had added new material—none of which was covered in the gospels. Because of my concern for dissention in our ranks, I missed some of his sermon. My consolation was that it was heard by the multitude. Perhaps someone other than the disciples recorded his sermon in Hippos. Reminded of the significance of this audience, I once again scanned the crowd, picking out an Ethiopian, stola and palla-clad woman, and a soldier sitting on the grass. “Now this is a harvest!” I whispered to James.
When Jesus was finished with his closing prayer, he pivoted and motioned for us to stand ready: the healings were about to begin. In spite of Jesus’ intentions to avoid the rite of baptism when it wasn’t practical, he not only baptized those individuals that were healed, as he planned to do, but several other Jews and Gentiles who requested the rite. He just didn’t know how to say no. After seeing the faces of several Pharisees and scribes in the multitude and men, whom Simon pointed out as spies, we were anxious for him to wrap it up quickly. Perhaps sensing our concern, Jesus moved swiftly with the words and, instead of emersion, sprinkled droplets from a water skin hastily retrieved from Peter’s pack. I never saw him do it so expeditiously. The Pharisees, scribes, and temple agents were watching us from afar. Retreating from the hill, we expected Jesus to take the initiative and lead us back into town. Despite his apparent haste, however, Jesus looked out at the restless multitude, most of whom were still sitting on the grass or mulling by the lake in anticipation of more of his illustrious words, and motioned for us to stop.
“Master.” Peter frowned. “Why are you stopping?”
“We should feed them as we did in Capernaum,” he replied matter-of-factly. “They look hungry and thirsty. Many of those people come from the surrounding countryside. It was a spur of the moment for them to follow us to this hill, but others have traveled from afar. I’m certain most of the pilgrims didn’t bring food.”
“What?” Andrew slapped his forehead. “Where are we going to find enough food to feed this crowd? There’s too many of them!”
“I estimated four thousand,” replied Simon.
“Find me a lunch like you did last time.” Jesus waved dismissively.
“Where?” John looked at him disbelief.
“Yes, master.” Peter looked back nervously at the crowd. “All we have are dried fish and stale goats cheese. We can’t feed them that.”
Dumbfounded, we looked at each other. Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, had oversimplified matters. Any moment, those Pharisees, scribes, and spies, who had been biding their time, would descend upon him like vultures. It was a mystery to me why they waited this long. But Jesus couldn’t be rushed. Pointing to a man and woman not far away, he cried with delight, “There’s a couple that brought their lunch!” “Go fetch them, Peter.” He snapped his fingers. “You go with him, Jude. You have a silver tongue!”
“Huh?” I started to protest.
“Hurry!” Jesus clapped his hands.
“Moses Beard!” Peter grumbled, shaking head. “This isn’t Capernaum. They look like Gentiles. What if they refuse?”
The blond haired man and woman had the same coloring as Germans I once rode with. None of us had stopped to consider how a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles understood Jesus sermon. Though I was certain Jesus could spoke many different tongues, I assumed, he would speak Aramaic language, which is spoken by most people throughout Galilee, Judea, and Decapolis. When I lapsed into Greek, though, the couple replied in this language fluently, making me wonder if my assumption was true. What if Jesus was understood by everyone, regardless of the language they knew? Was this another miracle undetected and unrecorded by the apostles?
“Excuse me,” I asked politely, “have you heard about Jesus miracle in Capernaum?”
“No,” the young woman batted her blue eyes, “but we saw him heal those people. This Jesus has great power—greater than even Zeus.”
“Ah yes, Zeus,” I twittered my fingers, —a mere demigod. Jesus is an agent of the true God—Yahweh. At Capernaum, with a meal brought by a small child, he fed five thousand people.”
“Five thousand?” the young man’s mouth dropped. “He is more than a demigod. He too must be a god!”
Peter gave me a nudge. “What are you saying to them? Are they handing it over or not? Hurry up Jude!”
“My friends,” I exclaimed, ignoring Peter’s question. “You can witness this miracle here in Hippos by sharing your lunch. What do you say?”
“Here.” The young woman handed it up to me. “We want to worship your god!”
When we brought their lunch to Jesus, he made a quick inventory. “Seven small loaves, two fish, and a handful of sweetmeats.”
“They’re pagans,” I interrupted, “but think you’re greater than Zeus. They want to join the Way.”
“I’m delighted, Jude,” he handed me a skin of water. “While the others distribute the food, you take care of this for me. All right?”
“They’re pagans!” protested James.
“Not anymore,” Jesus motioned to me.
Taking the seven loaves, fish, and sweetmeats in the small basket, Jesus blessed them quietly, said a short prayer and, after breaking each of the seven loaves in half, dividing the fish as well as the sweetmeats into fragments, he handed these portions to Peter, Andrew, John and his brother, Philip, Matthew, and James. Bartholomew returned to his mule at the foot of the hill, while Thomas, Simon, and Judas stood idly by, making me wonder if they weren’t trusted with this task. Perhaps unfairly, Thomas was thought by Peter and Andrew to be too clumsy for physical tasks. Simon, being a hothead, might have an unpleasant encounter with one of the Pharisees, agents, or scribes, and no one knew what Judas might say or do, which left me with performing the rite. As the miracle unfolded, I heard oohs, awes, and gasps. The disciples beginning the distribution likewise uttered shouts of wonder, Peter exclaiming, “He did it again!” After receiving their portions, individual passed half of their portions to the next person, a process starting with each of the seven disciples and continuing down the line, until ultimately reaching all members of the four thousand, with a surplus left over that could be taken home or given to beggars or the poor.
“I am Jude, disciple of Jesus of Nazareth,” I introduced myself to the couple after witnessing this event.
“My name’s Hector,” the young man announced, “this is Penelope, my wife.”
“Are you married?” I thought to ask.
“Uh-uh,” Hector raised his eyebrows. “Is that a requirement?”
“No,” I blurted, “unless you’re living in sin.”
As Thomas, Simon, and Judas were drawn to the scene, Penelope smiled shyly. “We love each other. Does that matter?”
“What’s wrong?” Judas frowned.
“They’re living in sin,” I confessed.
“So?” Judas shrugged. “Many pagans allow a trial period for couples. Half of the Gentile population is living in sin.”
“You don’t know that!” Thomas interjected.
“It’s true,” Penelope nodded.
“I know lots of pagans.” Judas grinned lecherously at her.
“That doesn’t condone it,” Simon now butted in.
“Jude,” I growled, as he eyed the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Go away!”
At this point, I looked down the hill just in time to see the Pharisees, scribes, and agents make their move. Jesus normal round of miracles of healing were one thing for the religious leaders and spies, but the ‘miracle of the loaves,’ as this event would be called later by believers, was too great an act of sorcery to overlook. Finished with their tasks, the disciples returned to the crest of the hill, alarmed by the advancing troop. Jesus, who had been conversing that very moment with a graybeard, was more concerned with my progress with the rite.
“What’s the problem?” he called to me.
“Uh, nothing.” I muttered, feeling trapped.
“They’re living in sin, Jesus,” Thomas announced. “You were very clear about that.”
“We’re not sinners.” Penelope wept. “Come, Hector. I told you this was a bad idea.”
“Do you wish to be united under God?” Jesus put his hand on each of their shoulders.
“Yes, I guess so,” Hector pursed his lips.
“Do you or don’t you?” Jesus replied irritably. “If you do, it’s for life. Love binds but faith is the glue!”
“Yes,” they chimed.
“Let us begin this way,” Jesus raised two fingers. “Hector and Penelope. You have heard my message and the promise of eternal life. You know how important it is to give up your old life. You can’t worship false gods or live immoral lives and become members of the Way. There is but one God, my children. The pagan gods are false, as our many of the values of pagan life.” “Answer yes or no,” he added after a pause. “Do you accept the good news, repent your sins and promise to live righteously in order to have everlasting life?”
“Yes,” they chimed again.
“If this is so,” Jesus instructed, “join hands and receive this sacrament as man and wife, bound by God’s laws.”
When Hector and Penelope joined hands, I quickly handed Jesus my water skin. “Bow your heads, my children,” he said gently, “receive the gift of eternal life. I baptize you with water. Feel my Father’s spirit enter your hearts. You are one with each other. You are one with God!”
“Can he do that?” Simon turned to me.
I giggled light-headedly. “He just did!”
“Jesus?” James tapped his shoulder. “Did you just marry that couple?”
Ignoring his question, Jesus took both Hector and Penelope’s hands. “Rise up and begin your new life,” he intoned. “Go back to your family and friends and spread the word!”
“Well, that’s a first,” Thomas whistled under his breath.
“Jesus is full of firsts!” muttered James.
Bartholomew arrived on the crest, leading his mule. “Did I miss something.” He looked at me. “What’s going on?”
I could scarcely explain what I just witnessed. That very moment, at the worst possible time, Jesus’ adversaries appeared en masse, Pelias, the chief scribe, leading the way. On top of sorcery, they now had a charge of heresy, even blasphemy to lodge.
Pelias pointed at Hector and Penelope. “What is this?” his voice shrilled. “You baptize pagans into your heathen rite and join them as man and wife. What perversion of our laws is this?”
“You would rather they live in sin?” Jesus countered. “By your logic, pagans stay pagans. God decides who are his children.”
“I would rather you desist altogether your heresy, blasphemy, and sorcery,” he exclaimed heatedly. “You have led thousands of souls to perdition with your words. Now you’re bringing Gentiles into our religion, unchaste, painted women and uncircumcised men who eat pork.”
“I bring them the manna of truth,” Jesus said boldly. “What you offer is stale bread.”
“Listen Jesus.” A Pharisee stepped forth. “I’m Ananiah, whose daughter has been bewitched by your words. I found her in the crowd, eating your bread, fish, and sweetmeats—food profaned by Gentile hands.”
“What profanes is not without but within,” Jesus countered. “You Pharisees, scribes, and spies kick against the goads. You represent loaves without yeast and lamb without spice.” “Your daughter isn’t bewitched,” he directed his voice at Ananiah. “You’re bewitched by the influence of the law and Torah, whom you worship more than God.”
Another Pharisee, this one a graybeard, who hobbled on a cane, introduced himself as Mordecai, cackled, and stroked his beard. “Ananiah is right to worry about his daughter being bewitched,” he informed Jesus. “Your heresy is not the most important issue, Jesus. It’s your sorcery. God wouldn’t give the gift of healing to an unwashed preacher. I watched you, your followers, and the crowd devour that food—all of it done with unwashed hands—”
“Just one moment, sir,” Jesus interrupted. “Whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body, but that which comes out of a person’s mouth from the heart, is what defiles him. For out of the heart come evil thoughts: murder, adultery, theft, sexual immorality, lies, slander, and many such sins. These are what defiles a person, not what he eats or excretes. Eating with unwashed hands does not defile him, as do impure words and deeds.”
“What?” Mordecai was taken back. “You imply we’re evil? We see you as a lawbreaker, Jesus. The Torah is very plain on cleanliness, but that is mere heresy. The important matter here is your sorcery. It’s come to my attention that you’ve cured a demoniac. There are eyewitnesses who saw this. Only Beelzebub, prince of demons, can drive out demons. And as for you healing of the blind, deaf, and maimed, this could be your doing too… But this business with the food, if it’s true, requires much greater sorcery—by the hand of Satan, himself.”
“Excuse me, Mordecai,” an unnamed scribe spoke. “There is another matter here: this claim we’ve been hearing.” “They say you’re the Messiah—the Promised One?” he addressed Jesus. “Is this true, rabbi. Did you make such a claim?”
“You have said it.” Jesus folded his arms.
A collective gasp arose from his accusers. This unexpected accusation was the most serious threat to Jesus, and yet he had answered it plainly, without blinking an eye. This time, however, unlike other times when he gave such answer, it was unclear whether this was a yes or no. As he had done for the four thousand, he left the question of his identity up to the scribe. What he said after his enigmatic reply was an unequivocal rebuke of the scribes, agents, and pompous doctors of the law.
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined,” he said, looking out at the crowd. “Every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, as Mordecai says, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Another question is, ‘How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up this man in order to plunder his house?’” “Listen, you hypocrites,” he scolded his accusers. “Whoever is not with me is against me. There is only one truth under God. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart feels. A good man brings good things out of the good stored in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” “Remember this.” Jesus pointed at each of the men. “Everyone will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned!”
Ananiah shook his head and departed, as did his friends, but Mordecai and Pelias stood their ground. From out of nowhere it seemed, a darkly clad, turbaned fellow appeared, whom Simon recognized as Ishmael, chief agent of the high priest. Jesus motioned for Simon to be silent as the man approached. Rubbing his hands together, his small dark eyes sparkled mirth “Your honeyed words won’t save you.” He snarled. “Everything you’ve done and said can be explained away as heresy, blasphemy, or sorcery, but your claim that you’re the Messiah is a direct affront to God. Our deliverer will come in glory, in a chariot of gold, leading an army of warriors who will wipe our land clean? You, who work on behalf of the Devil, lead a band of unwashed vagabonds, aimlessly about performing sorcery and proclaiming blasphemous things.”
“Have your read Isaiah, Ishmael?” Jesus called him out. “Isaiah gives us two messiahs: one a conqueror and one a man of peace. Why is it so easy to accept a man of war over a man of peace? What has war done for our people but break them apart and divide them into quarreling groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, rabbis, and sundry factions? A warrior prince can’t bring peace, only division…. You hypocrites—all of you! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
With these final words, Jesus retired from the hill.
“I have much to tell Caiaphas about,” Pelias spoke aloud for Jesus’ benefit.
“Indeed!” agreed Mordecai. “This heretic blasphemer, and sorcerer must be stopped!”
On this note, Jesus accusers retreated. I followed after them a ways, listening to what they said, ducking down beside folks still gathered on the hill and trying not to be seen. Mordecai and Pelias were confident that the high priest would be interested it what they told him. Their words were chilling, but Ishmael dismissed their optimism with a bejeweled hand.
“Nonsense.” He twittered his fingers. “You can do nothing to Jesus, especially in Decapolis. There’s too many Roman soldiers and magistrates here. He’s not a revolutionary like Judah, the Galilean. Rome doesn’t see him as a threat. I talked to a centurion about this troublemaker; Massala was his name. To capture this clever fellow, he told me, you’ll need Rome’s support. The Romans are pagans. In their eyes, this is just another religion. To them, Jesus is just another prophet roving the land.” “…. No,” his voice trailed off in the distance, “Caiaphas hasn’t seen or heard Jesus. He has no idea how to deal with this man. I’ve never seen anyone capture such an audience. I must admit, I’m impressed. He’s a preacher, though, not a revolutionary, and his words don’t incite revolt. Say what you want about him, but unless, Jesus threatens the peace, Rome will leave him alone!”
Thanking God I took the initiative to spy on those men, I ran back with the news.
“Jesus! Jesus!” I yelled out of breath. “I overheard Ishmael say the most extraordinary thing!”
I repeated almost word-for-word what he told Mordecai and Pelias. Everyone was greatly relieved when they heard my report. Jesus who took the news graciously, however, wasn’t surprised, admitting that he suspected as much.
“It’s important to read people’s faces,” he explained, as he led us toward the lake. “What I read in Pelias and Mordecai was purest deceit and hate but, judging by their expressions, nothing yet to fear. Ishmael, Caiaphas’ agent, though loyal to his master, is a paid professional, not a reckless zealot like that Pharisee and scribe. His spiteful words belie his character. With a different paymaster, he would be on our side. If I wasn’t here to protect you, the greatest threat would be the local malcontents, who act on their own. Those men, who came from Jerusalem, are forced to follow Roman, not Hebrew, law.”
“That’s so strange,” Thomas muttered. “The Gentiles, not your own people, are protecting you Jesus, with Roman law!”
“So, you’re not afraid?” Peter looked for more reassurance. “One way or another, they’re out to get you Jesus. They follow you everywhere now. We’ve seen men like Pelias and Ishmael before.”
“Yeah.” Andrew snapped his fingers. “I remember Mordecai, too.”
Jesus replied with a short parable: “Every plant that my heavenly Father hasn’t planted will be pulled up by the roots. Don’t worry about them; they’re blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
“In deed!” Peter declared. “All those Pharisees, scribes, and priests are going straight to hell!”
“Not quite,” Jesus chuckled. “They’re not all bad.”
“Just most of them!” Philip exclaimed.
It seemed strange that Jesus was walking away from and not to the town. Peter and Andrew asked him about this, but he remained silent, as if he was gathering his thoughts. Evening was near. Unless the moon broke through the clouds, darkness would be upon us. Now, after the crowds had begun dispersing, two figures were seen on the shore, walking toward us. The forms were slight, as they would be for a woman and small child. When the woman was within shouting distance, she cried out, “Jesus, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
“Ugh! Not another one,” Judas muttered. “How many demoniacs does that make?”
The child she was clutching was jittering about and gnashing her teeth as if she had the biting disease. I could tell by their expressions that the other disciples also wanted to send her away. Jesus said something very strange that moment that could only mean he wanted to make a point: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel!”
“That’s not true,” Judas whispered in my ear. “He baptized Gentiles too!”
“Shut up!” James hissed.
While trying to restrain her daughter, the woman knelt before Jesus. “Please,” she begged, “help her!”
Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Really, master?” She frowned. “Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
It was almost a parable. Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Without even touching her, the woman’s daughter was healed that very moment.
Though trembling with fatigue, Jesus gave the mother and daughter the rite, this time sprinkling water from the lapping shore onto their heads. During the rite, we learned that the mother and daughter, whose names were Haifa and Jamna, respectively, were Syrian pagans.
“So much for the lost children of Israel!” whispered Judas.
Instructing us to watch over Haifa and Jamna now that night descended, Jesus told us that he wanted to be alone.
Peter looked around at this desolate spot, muttering, “Alone? Out here in the middle of nowhere. Where will you go?”
“That’s for my Father to decide!” he drawled. “Go—all of you. I shall meet up with you by the lake in Capernaum.”
I understood something about Jesus that the other disciples, even James, our brother, didn’t know. When Jesus walked many miles and gave sermons to crowds, he became weary, requiring human rest; but when he healed or performed any other miracle, such as the feeding of the thousands in Capernaum and Hippo, there was a more serious draining that required spiritual rest. It was one reason why he had to go out on his own to pray and be alone with God. Though Peter, Andrew, and the others argued with him about this, it might as well have fallen on deaf ears. A sudden gale blew off the lake startling all of us, and when we looked around Jesus was gone—poof!
“Where did he go?” John gripped his forehead. “Is this some kind of test? It’s like he vanished into thin air!”“
“Well,” Peter shrugged, “he said he wanted to be alone. Why couldn’t he wait until we got back to town?”
“He’s a fast runner,” Matthew suggested. “He could’ve ran around the hill.’
“Or maybe behind those trees!” Thomas pointed. “That’s not very far.
I shook my head at this droll moment. “That’s silly, Matthew and Thomas. Why would Jesus do that? He’s not playing hide and go seek!”
“Your master is a great wizard!” Haifa marveled.
“He’s greater than Baal or Zeus!” her daughter clapped her small hands.
“What!?” all twelve disciples exclaimed at once
“Are you two serious?” James asked in disbelief. “You were just baptized into the Way.”
“What is the way?” the little girl looked up at her mother.
“A new god is upon the land,” her mother explained with great conviction. “His name is Jesus. No longer will I give incense to the old gods. We will pray only to him.”
Dumbfounded by this response, we muttered amongst ourselves as we walked back to town. The implications of this, when we considered how many Gentiles must have heard Jesus message and how many might have been converted to the Way, weighed heavily upon us. Did they really understand Jesus message? We wondered. Haifa’s inability to understand Jesus message was troubling. Similar responses had been seen among other Gentile converts. Despite her general ignorance of what Jesus wanted Haifa and her daughter to believe, the woman was at least correct in her claim: a new god had replaced Baal and Zeus. As I write this down, a heretical thought enters my mind, as it so often does: what does it matter if the Gentiles saw Jesus, not as the Messiah, but as new god—a claim that even Jesus hadn’t admitted yet? This was, after the resurrection, the most important thing for believers to understand. How ironic it was that pagan converts understood this even before his disciples and other Jewish members of the Way.
When we reached Hippo in time to escape the crash of night, Haifa directed us to her carriage and slaves waiting on the outskirts of town. It turned out that she was, by her own admission, the daughter of Ishbalot, a merchant from Damascus, who worshipped pagan gods. She and her daughter had been cloaked in simple robes, perhaps to hide the silken linen beneath. As they climbed aboard the carriage, I was reminded of Jesus onetime friend Joseph of Arimathea whom he traveled with to distant lands. A sudden longing filled me to escape this ragged band and venture out on my own.
The disciples shook their heads with disgust, appalled by this subterfuge.
“Why are you so surprised men?” James chided them. “They were pagans. They’re still pagans. To them Jesus is merely a more powerful god!”
“No, James,” I sighed resignedly, “Gentiles don’t understand the refinements we understand about our faith, but I think Haifa and her daughter know the most important thing. In the rite, Jesus promised them everlasting life if they repented and believed in the one true God. It might go very hard on Haifa if she tried converting her father. Jesus doesn’t want us to be impatient with converts, be they Gentile or Jew…. As in the case of Haifa and Jamna, the important thing is that he planted the seed!”