12. A SECRET MEETING
Jesus liked to seek direction in his actions through fasting and all-night prayer, believing that God spoke to him in the quiet of the night.
Myself, I’ve always thought it an unreliable technique, to rely on starving the body of food and sleep and then expect the mind to think clearly. But perhaps this allows ‘the mind that thinks while you sleep’ to give suggestions or directives straight to ‘the mind that is awake’. I don’t understand ‘the mind that thinks while you sleep’, and I don’t even think of it as ‘me’. But it understands me and my needs in a way that I don’t. It is very authoritative; and if it wants to call itself a spirit, or an angel, or the Lord God of Hosts, well, who am I contradict it? I will listen to anyone; but ‘listen to’ doesn’t imply that I’ll automatically do what they say, or believe that they are who they say they are.
Jesus, however, seemed to have turned over his decisions to this sleep-mind. This led to very abrupt changes of plan, which his followers were used to, and which they considered manifestations of his being commanded by God.
For example, we had been told we were going south and east to the Hellenized cities of the Decapolis. Then the event with the pigs happened, and immediately we were headed back north to Capernaum. I had to wonder whether slaughtering the army’s pigs had been the purpose of the expedition all along; but then why would we have carried on the next morning, before turning back?
The sudden changes of plan didn’t bother his followers; they were certain that the overall direction of his mission never changed.
So we had a night back in Capernaum at Mama’s. Jesus, however, had left after evening prayers, wandering out and up into the hills to find a place to pray.
The next morning he met us down at the beach to wash and say prayers. He had the slow and detached look of someone who has been up all night, and is used to it. He shared the night’s results with us:
“No one can know when the Day of the Lord will be, the Day of Wrath, the Resurrection of the Dead, the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. But I feel it closer all the time, its urgency presses on me..
“The madman who called himself Legion was a sign, because I was shown that it was better to send him to preach the Good News in the Decapolis, than to go myself.”
He paused, then gestured to the hills of Galilee around us, and to the Heights across the lake: “There are more places to preach than I can hope to reach any time soon, if I am to contact all of the People of Israel; and many of those places will be harder for me to preach in than for others, because of the presence of the Westerners, or the language spoken there, or the local habits and customs. Can other people carry the Good News, not just me? Perhaps Legion can; but so can all of you.”
He looked around, and we glanced at each other, wondering what he was asking of us, and whether we would be up to the task.
Jesus continued: “Matthew, I was delighted with your presentation of the Lord’s message to the people from Gadara yesterday. When I met you, you had neither rudder not sail, drifting with the chance breezes on the sea. But you have taken God’s Law to heart, well enough that you express it clearly and with conviction. So my eyes have been opened to the possibility of using you, my disciples, to spread the Good News more widely. Not all of you: but I am choosing some of you now, and I want you to study my message together with me for the next few days.”
The only ones who looked excited were John the Theologian and Rock. John was like a younger version of my Romanized friend Paulus, always ready to spout off about religion; Rock had that naive quality that accepts any new idea as inherently good.
“So I am choosing twelve: Simon Rock, and Andrew; Big James, and John; Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas Twin, and Matthew; Little James, and Judas Thaddeus; Simon Zealot, and Judas Sicariot. We will head north together to practice and to preach the Good News in Paneas, and then we’ll return to Nazareth. The Lord hasn’t given me more guidance than that.”
Some of the others were upset to be left out – people who had been with us in the boats the past couple of days, for example, and other local followers from Capernaum. “Why not me, Lord?” they asked, and “I have served you for months – I have helped you for years – how can you pick this tax collector for the Westerners, and honor him above us?”
But Jesus answered, “There was a man who had two sons. The older one worked hard for their father. But the younger one asked the father for his share of the inheritance, and took it, and went to a distant country, and spent it all drinking and partying with whores. And then a famine came, and he had no money, and there wasn’t any work. The only job he could get was – as a swineherd! He had nothing left, and he lived with the pigs, and he slept where the pigs slept, and he stank, and when swill was brought for the pigs, he ate it himself, because he had nothing, and he was starving.” Several people looked at me distastefully as Jesus told his story.
“And then one day he thought, even my father’s slaves live better than this. I’ll be embarrassed to go home, but if I can work as a slave for my father, at least I won’t die. And he went home and said ‘I’m sorry, father, I’ve sinned against you and the family and against Heaven, and I’m not worthy to be called your son.’
“But what do you think his father did? He kissed him, and gave him fine clothes, and had the calf that was being fattened up for a feast killed, saying, ‘I thought my son was dead, but he’s alive – he was lost, and now he’s found!’ ” Jesus paused.
“That’s not fair! What about the older brother?” Andrew and Big James were protesting. It amused me to think that their younger brothers, Rock and John respectively, would be likely candidates for wandering off and wasting the family’s money.
Jesus smiled, probably at his own ability to elicit the response he wanted, and move the story forward: “Indeed, the older son came back from a hard day’s work in the fields, and found everyone dancing and feasting, and said ‘Father, I’ve worked for you all these years, and you’ve never even killed a little goat for me to share with my friends. And now this wastrel comes back, and you give him all this!’ ” Again, he paused fractionally, and got general agreement from his listeners. Then:
“And his father said, ‘Son, you’re always with me, and everything I have is your share, and will go to you; but I thought your brother was dead, but he’s alive! He was lost, but now he’s found!’”
And Jesus made no further explanations, and if anyone asked a question he just said “Think!”
He told us, his chosen Twelve, to get ready to leave. We said goodbye to the others.
So we walked north to the small town of Thella the first day, going upstream along the Jordan where it was barely wide enough to take a small boat between its walls of trees, up to the edge of little Lake Huleh, while Jesus explained the points of the Law that were of the most concern to him. These were the need to make sure that people knew how to keep clean and pure for prayers; the need to say prayers, and understand them; and the need to dedicate their lives to God, as the Covenant commanded. That was all people needed, together with the Good News that the end of these days were at hand, and that God would shortly destroy the Occupation by the Westerners. Israel would be restored as a Kingdom under God’s rule, as soon as the chance to repent had been preached to all Israel and enough people had turned back to God – at which point, woe to anyone on that Day who was not prepared for God’s Judgment!
At Thella we stopped in a simple group home run by some Essenes that Jesus knew. They were intensely religious, of course, so Jesus did not so much preach to them, as discuss what to do about the Romans. They were committed pacifists, rejecters of the world outside their farms and the requirements of the Law. Their way of dealing with Rome was to avoid having anything to do with it and its taxes and its wealth, wealth which naturally included its idolatrous pictures of Emperors on the coins. They lived very simply, with strict codes of purity, wearing white like the Zealots, and renouncing sex completely.
The only reason that Essenes haven’t died out over the years is that they adopt and raise orphans; so there was the noise of a dozen children beside the quiet of a dozen adults. The kids clustered around, excited by the novelty of visitors, pulling at our colorful clothing, asking questions. John and some of the others tried to shoo them away, but Jesus insisted they get their turn too, and they grabbed the hands of whoever paid attention to them, and so Jesus, Rock and I were dragged outside to be shown a dam they had made in a little stream, and how well some of them could climb their favorite tree. And when I remembered the broken children on the streets of Damascus – five year olds maimed for careers as beggars, or sold into prostitution – I thought how lucky these orphans were.
The Essenes, like Jesus and like the Zealots, studied the Law, strove to keep it, and expected God to intervene and restore justice to the world at any time. However, they didn’t believe in a need to assist God in His plans. That would be presumptuous, and irrelevant. They were polite, and admired Jesus for his service and dedication, “but we couldn’t give up our farms and children even if we wanted to. Don’t worry, though, we’re ready, and we’ll welcome the Day of Judgment.”
I liked them.
We spent a comfortable night on pallets on the floor of a hall, and moved on again the next day.
This time we walked the few miles around the side of Lake Huleh, and on some more hours to Paneas. Paneas is the name it had before the Romans came; I referred to it once as Caesarea Philippi, and got the kind of disapproving looks that I’d get when I said ‘Lake Tiberias’ instead of ‘the Sea of Galilee’. I mulled this over. I could understand that Jesus didn’t want to call it by its very oldest names, ‘Baal Hermon’ or ‘Baal Gad’, honoring another god that Yahweh had been competing with back in Biblical times… even though those were the names used in the scriptures themselves.
But on the other hand, ‘Paneas’ wasn’t any better, seeing as it honored the Greek god Pan, who was worshiped here. In earlier travels through this region I had seen Pan’s sacred cave, as well as the nearby rocky escarpment with its various niches hosting statues of his family members and associates: his consort, the mountain nymph Echo; his father, Hermes; and so on. And of course there were inscriptions in the niches, giving the names of people who had made these statues possible through their generous donations. Perhaps Jesus didn’t realize any of this. I didn’t have any reason to tell him. From what I’d seen of his attitude toward pigs, he’d just have smashed the statues if he’d had a chance, regardless of whatever historic, artistic or cultural merits they might have.
Instead, whenever I had an opportunity to talk with Jesus, I got him to clarify his world-view. Again and again it was the same: all that is necessary is a simple adherence to the Law, and the dedication of one’s life to trying to ascertain and do God’s will, and the trust that God will provide all that you need. That is all that has to be done, for God to restore Israel as it should be. Jesus therefore sought absolute purity, and trusted absolutely that his mission must necessarily be successful because of his faith and dedication.
He seemed to identify particularly with the prophet Ezekiel, who God always addresses as ‘Son of Man’. And he quoted:
“Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land.”
It was funny to watch Jesus once he started quoting – he changed from a thoughtful teacher, discussing ideas with a friend, to a veritable prophet himself, and addressed me as though I was a crowd to be incited to repentance. It’s quite a change of voice, from private to public, like actors when they ‘speak to the top tier of the amphitheater’. His eyes change, too, when he recites like that, as though he is seeing far away, or perhaps he is only seeing the lines to recite in his memory. And when he finished, I said nothing, and there was a pause, and he withdrew his expanded self back into himself, and was there on the road with me again.
And then he smiled: “I love Ezekiel,” was all he said, looking abashed.
“I can see that,” I said, and I was amused. “And that ‘open your graves’ passage – you don’t think that was just a parable about Jews coming back from Babylon ‘to our own land’? You think it’ll really happen like that?”
“Why not? Hear Ezekiel:
The Lord said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.
So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet.”
In every country you hear all these stories about ghosts and spirits and the dead; but that stuff never seems to happen when I’m around to check it out.
For his part, Jesus started getting me to ask him riddles. “Tell me a riddle,” he’d say.
And I’d reply something like, “ What is a day?”
“The sun crossing the sky. Where’s the riddle?”
“In Genesis. If God made the sun on the fourth day… how could there have been three days before that? What does it mean?”
We talked it over, but he had no more answer than I did. For me the illogicality of the text invalidated the text, the Torah and all Judaism, though I didn’t say so. But for Jesus it just added pleasurably to the mysteries of the world, and he liked me for it.
Anyway, now we could see the permanent snows of Mount Hermon, and I felt close to my homeland.
We got to the city well before dark, and the gates were open. Jesus hated Hellenized cities, you could see his distaste for the togas and other styles of clothing, quite apart from the soldiers and guards at the gates, and the temples to various gods and goddesses towering over the houses. We weren’t even in Herod Antipas’ Galilee any longer, but in his brother Philip’s tetrarchy of Ituraea, bordering on Syria.
Judas Sicariot led us into a maze of alleys between one- and two-story buildings, with dense smells of cooking and human waste. He knocked at a door. There was a question from inside, and Judas answered “Friend”. We were admitted, and, apparently, expected. A dozen men were sitting on the floor in a large room; Jesus, Judas and Simon Zealot seemed to have many friends among them, and the fishermen also knew some of them. They had – like most of us – a fit, lean look. They wore white.
The person whose house it was, who waved us to sit down and got us to introduce ourselves, was also called Jesus. To differentiate between the two Jesuses in conversation, ours was referred to as the Nazarene, the Teacher or the Rabbi, while this one was referred to as the Zealot, or ‘Bar-Abbas’, ‘son-of-father’. Whether that was some divine ‘Son of the Father’ honorific, or was a childhood nickname because he was just like his dad, or was just an anonymous code name, I never discovered.
Some women came from a back room bringing mint tea for us, and then food and wine. Not just robed in black, they were veiled like desert-dwellers or religious fanatics, and of course they didn’t speak or sit with us. The wine was not up to Roman standards, but better than in Galilee, and for the first time in weeks I was served a goat stew instead of fish or plain lentils. Perhaps this explained why Jesus and his disciples were prepared to walk all over the countryside – they could get a change in diet.
The conversation focused on John the Baptist, still in prison in Zippori, they said. The Baptist wanted to know, through these followers of his, what Jesus was doing to keep alive the movement to purify Israel.
For an answer, Judas poured out a double handful of gold and silver coins, together with rings and other jewelry. “Charitable donations. For the poor. For the cause.”
Bar-Abbas grinned and ran his fingers through it. “For all of Israel.” He got up and left the room, returning with a small lock-box. He counted the coins and jewelry and added it all to his box. “Good work. I thank you on behalf of all Zealots and all of Israel. But we need to still more, to fulfill the work of the Lord.”
And then he asked, What was the Rabbi’s sense of the coming of the Messiah?
Jesus’ answer was typically directional and non-specific: “Look to the towns of Galilee, and report what you find: that the sick are healed, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk; that the people repent, and turn to the Law; that the Good News of the Kingdom is preached increasingly throughout the land. Israel is returning to the Covenant.”
Jesus introduced all of us in detail to the men in the house, explaining how he had met each of us, what our individual backgrounds were. We were being assessed in some way. It was almost as if Jesus was sending a report to the Baptist, as I had to Pilate. Jesus Bar-Abbas also talked privately with Judas, and it appeared I was being discussed. Irritated, I smiled and waved, and they looked away.
I have to confess I was exhausted after two full days of walking. To think that the fifteen to twenty miles we had covered each day was what the legionaries did as a matter of routine, and with all that equipment on their backs, whereas I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing! I must have been getting out of shape, in my desk job.
After an hour or two of conversation, food, wine, prayers, and more conversation, I fell asleep in that room. I got kicked awake in the middle of the night, and Jesus Bar-Abbas said “Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.” I might have gone back to sleep, but he lifted my chin: “Are you all right? Did I hurt you?” Forced to answer, I was now awake. It seemed unnecessary. Much later, it would appear it had to have been deliberate.
There were flashes of lightning and the rumble of distant thunder, and some people moving around while others were asleep and snoring. Bar-Abbas went over to where Jesus, Judas and Simon Zealot were talking together, with the four fishermen listening. They all stood up as though to leave, and I joined them.
“You’re not invited,” Judas said.
“Jesus called me to follow him.” I stepped closer to him.
Jesus said, “He’s one of us; he can come.”
“It’s too dangerous. He’s still friends with the Westerners.”
“It’s safe, for the Lord cares for us. He would let me know if there was a problem.”
“And what if the Lord is using me as a tool to let you know that this is too dangerous?”
“The Lord has guided me, and I have chosen my Twelve. Trust God, and praise Him.”
Suddenly they were like village dogs, snarling and circling each other, seeing who is the pack leader. Judas said “This is Zealot country. You can’t work without us.”
“You can’t work without me. I am the only face the movement has, for the Lord called me when John was jailed. When I say Matthew is one of us, you must trust me, and trust in the Lord.”
Judas turned to Bar-Abbas and gestured in my direction. Bar-Abbas shrugged without looking at me and said “If the Rabbi wants him along, why not?”
Judas looked at me venomously, and Jesus added, “Guard him if you like, but keep him safe. His blood will be on your head if anything happens to him, and I won’t forget this night.”
Judas and Simon led Jesus, the fishermen and myself out through the city in the moonlight to a gate on the north side that was unguarded, with the small door within the great main gate unlocked. We went out, first along the road and then up smaller tracks into the foothills of Mount Hermon behind the city, the smells changing from city filth, to farmland dirt and manure, to the pure fresh forest. We walked uphill through the forest for over an hour until we came out into a clearing. We had very little light, as the moon came out only briefly from behind clouds.
Judas said: “Matthew can stay here and guard the path, and Andrew can guard Matthew.” He and Simon Zealot led Jesus, Rock, Big James and John further up the clearing on the hillside, then the two Zealots disappeared into the woods.
After a while they showed up near Andrew and me: “Keep guard where you are. Andrew, don’t let Matthew out of your reach. Call out if you see anyone else come up the track. None of you are to go down it yourselves until daybreak. If it starts to rain, there’s a cave off to the side over there.” Then Judas and Simon went back downhill towards the city.
I could see Jesus motioning to the three with him to stay put under the trees, and he continued on yet further by himself to the top of that bare hill. Then the moon came out again, so that Jesus’ white clothing shone brilliantly. As Rock talked about it afterward, it was glowing miraculously. But I discount extreme perceptions recalled from the middle of the night, especially when the teller was in an unfamiliar environment… and a fisherman.
Shortly after that, two other people showed up. When the wind shifted, I heard a word or two of their conversation. The newcomers were addressed by Jesus as ‘Moses’ and ‘Elijah’. Of course these names are not particularly uncommon in themselves; or, if these people were Zealots like Judas and Simon and Bar-Abbas, and if this was a particularly sensitive meeting, they could well have been code names.
The random phrases I heard implied a commitment to major action: “All of us – ten thousand – has to happen as prophesied – the War Scroll – the Westerners – Caesarea – temple – cleanse – God’s plan – Jerusalem – the Westerners.” I wasn’t as close as I wanted to be. I edged towards them, but Andrew silently hauled me back by the shoulder. Both newcomers had full beards, but otherwise all I could see was that one of them had a scar down his face, and the other was either freezing or had a nervous habit of shrugging his shoulders and shifting his feet.
The meeting went on for a while, and then, when it looked like it was wrapping up, Rock called out, “Master, we should set up three tents, for you and Moses and Elijah!” I don’t know what he was thinking, we didn’t have anything to make tents with, or an axe to cut trees or branches. Afterwards it came out that Rock actually thought that these must have been the historical personages themselves, come to talk with Jesus.
That was when I first realized the depths of Rock’s superstition and stupidity. Rock had that combination of strength, devotion and simple-mindedness that makes for a wonderfully productive follower.
And then the moon went behind the clouds again, and there was a flash of lightning and thunder like a great booming voice, and when I could see straight, Jesus was rejoining Rock, James and John. It started to rain as they all came back down to us, and we led them to the nearby cave. It wasn’t much of a cave, just a space under a rocky overhang that smelled of dirt and goat droppings. There was a little talk of what had gone on, but Jesus told us all not to talk about it “until it is all over”.
We didn’t get much sleep that night. There was barely space to lie down, but at least we were dry through the storm.