7. THE RUG MERCHANT
I was sitting in my office, feeling very competent. Earlier that morning I had searched the office for a secret hiding-place for excess cash, and eventually found a loose floor tile with a cavity under it – a previous occupant had obviously had the same thought, and saved me some trouble.
Now I was reviewing all the documents and accounts that I could extract from a rug merchant who was taking two camel-loads of carpets to Damascus. I had already made him unload both camels, and spread the rugs out so that I could assess their value (and be sure that he wasn’t hiding other treasures in them); and I had rummaged through his other belongings, mostly clothes, in another big bag. Now we were arguing over how much tax he should pay to export his wares from Herod’s Galilee.
He protested that he would immediately have to pay an import tax to bring them into the next Tetrarchy, Philip’s Ituraea!
Not my problem; cost of doing business.
And then into Damascus, and more tax!
Not my problem; he should be used to it by then.
But it was all part of the same Empire, so it couldn’t truly be considered import and export at all!
Not my problem; the Empire had to raise revenue from somewhere, to keep the roads safe for merchants like him.
And one of the carpets had come down from Damascus in the first place!
Not my problem; maybe he’d make a better effort to sell all his inventory this time.
As an alternative to paying tax, he tried turning the discussion to the charms of the boy travelling with him.
I wasn’t interested.
He pointed out that there was nothing to prevent him simply leaving, now that the camels were loaded up again.
I told him that there was nothing to prevent my friends at the fort from confiscating his carpets and roasting a camel for dinner.
We finally agreed on an amount. We then spent another while arguing over the value of the coins, as his silver ones had clearly been trimmed down with a knife, and recently too. I brought out my scales, at which point he argued that my weights were artificially heavy, and were undervaluing his silver. We understood each other pretty well.
I finally reached a compromise with him, whereby I reduced my formal valuation of his carpets by half and gave him a written estimate and receipt with Herod’s seal on it that he could use with other tax offices, and he in turn paid me half as much again as the tax accounted for by the valuation – though less than I had originally tried to get.
We parted friends, bitterly complaining of having been cheated by the other, but each happy with the end result. Good business practice.
He walked over to the date palms where his boy was waiting with the camels. There was another man there, who started a conversation that I couldn’t hear. The voices began to rise, and the merchant glanced round to appeal to me. I came over.
The newcomer was a wiry teenager, wearing the all-white robes of a Zealot. He pulled out a knife, short but solid enough to gut and clean fish, and started cleaning his fingernails with it. The merchant turned to me, wide-eyed, scared: “This man is trying to rob me, here, in broad daylight, when I’ve just paid you a fortune in tax to keep the roads safe!”
The young man interjected: “We use our tax to keep the roads safe from the Westerners, not for them. This tax is to help end the Occupation, and restore Israel to God’s Law. This tax is from Heaven, not from Rome.”
Clearly emboldened by my joining him, the merchant said, “Listen, you little thug, I’ve already paid this man too much – leave me out of your fights – go pick on the Romans, not your own people.”
The young man’s face darkened, and he moved his knife into a fighting grip.
From between the palms an older man moved to stand beside him, pulling a sica from his robes, his grin made evil by missing teeth: “Maybe we should tax them both!” And all I could think was, The last tax collector was found in the lake with his throat cut.
At that moment another voice called out: “Simon Zealot! Judas Sicariot! Control yourselves! This is neither the time, nor the place!”
The voice belonged to a man in his late thirties, stern-faced under his headdress, with tinges of both red and gray in his black beard. He had an air of absolute authority, and the two put their blades away without a word. The merchant jerked his head at his boy, and they unhobbled their camels and led them off.
The stern man turned to me. “Follow me,” he said, and turned back toward town.
I followed him. Here was a person who I had not seen before in my weeks in Capernaum, but who acted like an elder of the community, someone who seemed associated with knife-wielding insurgents, who could control a young revolutionary with a brief word… This had to be the Teacher, the Rabbi.
He led me back towards Mama’s house. He must be staying with Andrew and Rock again.
Even I must be impressed with him, if I was following him, catching up, aware in part of my mind that I had not closed up my office but ignoring the implications. Well, but surely this was exactly what Pilate would want me to be doing.
“Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” I asked.
“Yes I am, Matthew.” It’s disconcerting to be addressed confidently by someone you don’t know, who you wouldn’t think would know you at all. But much of what Jesus did proved disconcerting, and there was a strong element of the magician about him.
There wasn’t anything physically exceptional about him. As you’d expect from someone who apparently tramped from town to town through the hills, there wasn’t any fat on him. Just another Jew. Like me.
Mama’s courtyard was full of men and women, not mixed together but in separate groups. I only recognized half of them. Jesus’ face softened into a smile as they greeted him, a smile with that detachment and serenity of the parent who enjoys the children, but whose mind is largely occupied with other matters, matters that are under control but have to be monitored: the running of the household, or the successful family business.
He put his hand on my shoulder, and it was a benediction of which everyone was aware: “For those who haven’t met him, this is Matthew Levi, the tax collector who fended off the Roman Legion when they were coming into town after the death of that drunk soldier.”
“Not the whole Legion,” I protested against the exaggeration, “it was only –”
“What you did was brave, and noble, and in the service of the Lord. Your life could have been threatened by either the Westerners, or the people of Capernaum, for either side could have seen you as working for the other. No one asked you to endanger yourself, yet what you did may have saved innocent lives, innocent lives that are turning to the Lord, turning back to the paths of righteousness.” His voice rang clear and uplifting, as though trumpets were being blown. “You are well named ‘Matthew’ – ‘the gift of God’. You are a noble and generous man.”
Glowing inside, I answered that I hoped I could live up to his kind words. “Indeed,” I said spontaneously, “I wish I could invite you to supper at my house, but I’m afraid I don’t have a meal prepared.”
“The Lord will provide,” Jesus said confidently, and some of the women said “Amen.”
And Mama herself came up to me immediately, saying “I can provide a meal for everyone at your house, if you would like.”
“That’s so kind of you,” I said as regretfully as I could, “but I don’t have the money to pay for it.” This should have been a way out for me – and then I realized what had been bothering me before: when I had followed Jesus and left the office unlocked, I’d left all the money lying on the table!
But another man came up beside Mama, searching my face with a hard and calculating look, then that grin with the two missing teeth – the older of the two Zealots. I felt threatened, the more so as he reached into his robes… but he only pulled out a purse – my purse. “You have money,” he said, “but you won’t have it long, if you leave it lying about all the time. I gathered up what was on your table; and I locked your door for you.” The evil grin broadened, and he gave me both my purse and my office key. “He has money,” he said in Mama’s direction, loud enough for Jesus and the others to hear.
What could I say? I was trapped by my own words, or possibly by a well-planned trick – but, if a trick, why would they bother to return my money to me at all? Was I being tested? Or was there neither trick nor test here, only well-intentioned people? Well, however it was, this was what I was being paid to do – investigate these people, Zealots, preachers, enemies of Rome. So I said to Mama, “Indeed, thanks to my friend here, I will be able to pay for whatever you can produce for us.”
Let the dice fall how they may, they were thrown.