8. MATTHEW AS HOST
As everyone knows, in a small town like Capernaum it takes a while to be accepted. You don’t get welcomed into parties and celebrations, because you’re not related to anyone, while they’re all related to each other. So you live on your own.
And before Capernaum I’d been wandering for a while, sometimes finding work, sometimes idle, but never being settled to the extent of owning a house. Therefore, apart from such things as being given a meal by Mama, or eating with the legionaries at the fort, or being invited for a meal with Longus, I hadn’t had a social life for years – and I certainly hadn’t been in a position to host a party.
So, first there was the shock of what this might cost me – feeding the dozens of people filling Mama’s courtyard and preparing to invade my house. I brushed that off, then faced the fear that many of these unknown people might be murderers who felt it their duty to kill people like me…
Judas the Sicariot must have been watching my reactions, because he said, “Don’t worry, as long as Jesus likes you, you’re safe with all of us. As long as Jesus likes you.”
It wasn’t very reassuring. However, once I’d accepted those factors, it was an unexpected and long-forgotten joy to have my house fill up with people in a party mood.
Although it was at my house, it was Jesus’ party. Would it be too cynical to think that he had come out to my office, purely in order to get me to lay all this on for him? I was surprised at the speed with which Mama was able to start sending along not just jars of wine and dozens of pottery cups, but also platters of fried fish, of bread, of olives. And lentil stew. It was, in short, the same food that I ate every day here, but more of it. Her speed of delivery I put down to the fact that the Sabbath had started at sunset, and she must have had meals ready in advance.
Though the food was commonplace to me, Jesus was beaming, enjoying the preparations as though for a regal feast. A dozen, then two dozen, then three dozen moved up from Mama’s into my house, and Jesus took charge of rearranging my sparse and inadequate furniture. The carpet in the main room became the dining area where the men sat cross-legged, and the first food to arrive was placed in the middle. The women mostly congregated in the side room, my bedroom, though three or four who I didn’t know sat on the couch against the wall of the living room. As more supplies showed up, the women too could get a dish of lentils to share, and access to the other foods.
It was the strangest, most diverse group of Palestinian Jews I had ever seen. I took the opportunity of being the host to talk to as many people as I could, sitting down next to first this person and then that for a few minutes. Whether I knew them or not, this was an opportunity to discover their relationship to Jesus, and to assess exactly what drew them to him in this fashion.
Take Mama’s sons-in-law, Andrew and Simon the Rock: they had both been followers of John the Baptist, had been baptized by him, and had been introduced by him to Jesus. They had returned to fishing after being baptized, and their house was a natural place for Jesus to stay when he came to Capernaum. The enormous Rock was fiercely protective of Jesus, and looked and behaved like a bodyguard. Whatever Jesus asked them to do, they did, and they had accompanied Jesus recently when he went from town to town in the area, preaching. They might not be Zealots, but they were clearly sympathizers with the resistance.
Likewise their fellow fishermen, the teenagers James and John. James was the serious older teen who had talked with me lakeside after Rufus was killed, and who had agreed to my sending a message to the fort. He was known as “Big James” to differentiate him from another, smaller, follower of Jesus, known as “Little James”. But as he drank, he became less talkative. His brother John was the opposite: maybe he was too young to drink, and the more he drank, the louder he told me of Jesus’ message, and the need for all Jews to repent of lapsing from the Laws of God and Moses. The kid’s voice hadn’t even finished breaking, and he was going to explain the workings of the universe to adults? James looked at him morosely, as John enthused about the floods and catastrophes and rivers of fire and plagues that would befall the unrepentant when the Messiah came and destroyed the Westerners, and God re-established his Kingdom on Earth. But it wasn’t just the wine. He was already known sarcastically in town as “John the Theologian”.
Jesus looked very fondly on John’s violent verbal rambling, calling the brothers “the sons of thunder”. Perhaps that was one of Jesus’ enigmatic comments, implying ‘all thunder and no lightning’; or perhaps it referred to their father Zebedee, who had had a reputation for violence. Zebedee, I learned, had been crippled in one of Judas of Galilee’s uprisings. Mama’s husband had been killed then. So had the father of Rock and Andrew. In suppressing one uprising, Rome had created an anti-Roman second generation.
The other end of the spectrum that evening was epitomized by Mary the Magdalene. The town she came from originally, Magdala, further down the lake, was not much larger than Capernaum; but she had managed to work her way up in the world. She seemed to have acquired an education somewhere, she spoke in a much more cultured fashion than most Galileans, her clothing was sensuously rich with silks and fine linens, and she was spattered with silver, gold and jewels: in her clothes, hair, ears; round her neck, fingers, wrists, ankles. And the perfume! It was enough to seduce a man, simply by overwhelming the senses. Apparently she was still unmarried in her 40s, but there was nothing virginal about her.
She gushed over how wonderful Jesus was, and told me in detail of the torments she had been in when she had had devils inside her, “and he chased them right out of me, and they almost never try to come back, but when they do, he chases them right out again! So those days are long gone, when my head would throb with pain, and I couldn’t eat, couldn’t work, simply had to lie in bed all day! He is absolutely a miracle worker!”
I suppressed the question of whether she ever combined working with lying in bed all day, as some people did.
I had met people like her before; she had more money than she knew what to do with, and had probably latched onto Jesus to provide some sense of meaning in her life. She would be the one to provide the necessities for him and his followers, on days when there wasn’t an idiot like me around.
She had only recently “discovered” the Master (as though he was a fad, or an exotic pet), and she couldn’t accompany him all the time. But when she did, she did so with a couple of other women who I also met that evening. They were also beautifully clothed and groomed: Joanna, the wife of one of the senior people in Herod’s court, his steward Chuza; and Susanna, who I didn’t learn much about, other than that she and Joanna, like Mary, lived in Tiberias. And they, too, had been healed of various ailments that rich ladies get, and had had the causative devils thrown out of them by the Master, the Healer, the Teacher, the Rabbi.
They were chatty if condescending to me about “your charming little place” and the “wonderful simplicity of your rural food and wine”, and they thought it “delightful that someone who is only a tax collector would try to host a party”; but then “one of Jesus’ messages is that we must all work together, and we are all God’s children, aren’t we, His flock, His Chosen People, so we’re all in it together, no matter who we are!”
Irritating, perhaps, but interesting; and I could get my revenge by merely mentioning them in my next report to Pilate. They sat on my couch in the front room, claiming an unspoken right to be near Jesus, the right of the financial supporter.
And in the large gap between wealthy court ladies and illiterate fishermen there was, truly, every imaginable sort of Jew represented. For we were all Jews, there was no question about that: Jesus’ message was to cleanse Israel, and that meant cleanse the land of foreigners quite as much as it meant cleanse the people of their impure ways.
The Four Philosophies were all represented: Philip and Bartholomew were both Pharisees; they were well educated, dressed in colorful robes, and wore turbans wound around their heads. Thomas the Twin was a serious young Sadducee; he was the one who had first told me about Jesus. He was as well educated as the Pharisees, and had (like me) a tendency to go bareheaded, which Jesus chided him for.
The practical differences between those two schools are that the Sadducees don’t find it a sin to work with the Romans, and concomitantly favor the wants of the wealthy and powerful; whereas the Pharisees try to lead ordinary lives while avoiding the Romans as a dirtying influence, and they feel a responsibility to side with the poor and uneducated. The major doctrinal difference is that the Pharisees believe God’s justice must be perfect, therefore all the dead will have to be physically resurrected when God’s Kingdom is established, so that what they suffered in this unjust world can be rectified; whereas the Sadducees see no Biblical justification for – or likelihood of – a resurrection, which connects with their attitude that you might as well get what you can out of life now (even working with the Romans), as there will be no afterlife with either reward or punishment. The Pharisees then ask the Sadducees to explain the words of the prophet Zechariah, By the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water. What can this refer to, if not resurrection? And so the arguments continue.
There were also a pair of Essenes, Little James and his brother Judas Thaddeus. They were very ascetic, and dressed in rough clothes of plain brown. Their approach was to completely avoid the Romans, find the most conservative villages where there were no Greek or Roman influences, and try to live now as they would after the Messiah established God’s kingdom. Their mother, another Mary, was in the side room with most of the women.
And there were at least two Zealots: that young thug Simon, and the man with my money, Judas the Sicariot. Both of them dressed only in white, including the white scarf folded into a triangle and tied under the chin, and the white cord round the head holding the scarf securely in place – so that their white was a statement to the world of purity, and equally a warning of fanaticism. And Jesus wore white.
And there were others again who admitted to no philosophy. One such was a man of Jesus’ age, Lazarus, who came from Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. He seemed to have no beliefs other than that Jesus was a healer and a miracle-worker, and therefore must be divinely inspired, and therefore was worth following. He had known Jesus for years and traveled with him “even as far as Egypt” he said, studying my face as if looking for some reaction. He told me that one of his sisters, Martha, was back in Bethany, but that another – yet another Mary – was in my side room. Out of courtesy, I hadn’t gone into that room since the women took it over, but I knew who she was – a lovely young woman, with the cutest little hooked nose. Her large eyes were as dark as the deepest sea, and had stared back at me when I noticed her in the courtyard at Mama’s, and had eyed me rapidly when she came into my house. And she had long straight hair that, though covered, crept out around her face and cried out for fingers to tuck it back behind her ear, behind her neck…
– Eyes front!, I told myself, you’re on duty.
– Every legionary’s allowed to look at a pretty girl, I answered, so long as it’s not the First File’s yellow-haired pet.
– And so long as he doesn’t get drunk, and get his throat slit, I snapped back.
And the evening went on, and the food was gone. Jesus saw me glance at my empty cup. “More wine for our host,” he called to the women in the back room.
As though on cue, pretty little Mary of Bethany came out. “There’s none left, Rabbi; you men have drunk it all.”
“The Lord will provide. Bring me some water, and a wine jar.”
Two large amphorae were brought in by women, and “Blessed art Thou,” he recited, “O Lord our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine,” as he lifted the smaller amphora and carefully poured its full contents of water into the larger one. Everyone was watching, some standing to see better, the women in the back crowding into the doorway. But Jesus glanced at me, and I noticed Mary’s eyes on me too. Lazarus stepped up with a ladle, and Jesus signed for him to fill my cup.
I drank, and raised my eyebrows. “Very nice wine!” On a par with your beautiful Aramaic. Functional, but unpleasant.
“It’s a miracle!” – “Praise the Lord!” – “An act of power!” – and so on.
“Isn’t that amazing?” John seemed genuinely in awe; but he was little more than a child, after all. I shrugged – if you poured water into concentrate, instead of pouring concentrate into water as the Romans normally do… I smiled politely. “I always find it a miracle if the wine served at the end of the feast is stronger than that served at the beginning!”
Jesus came and sat beside me on the carpet. “Why do people say they never see you praying, Matthew?”
“Doesn’t God have a complete and perfect plan for everything? Then why should I try to make him change his mind?”
“Ah, a riddler. Wit, or trickery?”
“Good riddles must have both.” And added to myself, Like the wine. And Jesus smiled and nodded as though he followed my thoughts.
And certainly the wine was good and strong. John got up and went out the back of the house, and I could hear him being sick. And the wine was raising voices. What had been religious discussions about the nature of justice and the resurrection were turning into angry words about the absurdity of each other’s beliefs, and about each other. Rock was fingering Thomas Twin’s fine tunic, sneering “Never done a day’s work in your life – what would you know about anything?”
Finally Jesus clapped his hands for silence. “Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah: the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. When the Messiah comes, all the arguments will stop, and all of Judaism will live in harmony, each Philosophy in its own way. So why argue now? Do you need the Messiah before you can live the way God wants? But in order for the Messiah to come, the people of Israel must already be living the way God wants – or at least enough of us that will meet God’s requirements. Rome is the Great Satan we are fighting, not each other.”
Rock, in his sudden way, smiled and clapped Thomas on the shoulder: “He’s always right, the Teacher!”
“So all Israel is called together – not just the Pharisees, or just the Essenes, but all who are bound by our ancestors to our Covenant with God. Can’t you see that this is what you have right here in this very room? Of course we have people with different opinions, with different depths of learning about the Law, from different backgrounds. I’m not calling all of you to be representatives of the same Philosophy, any more than I want all of you to come from the same town. But look at yourselves: don’t you all have fringes on the corners of your clothing, under your robes and cloaks? Why? Because the Lord requires it of all the Children of Israel!” (I didn’t have fringed clothing; I’d have to correct that.)
“And what does the prophet Ezekiel say? Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land:
“And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all.” And as often happened when he quoted the Scriptures, people shouted “Amen!”
“We break bread together – we drink wine together – and we work together to do the Lord’s bidding and purify the land; so why” and there was a rising anger in his voice “why do you get sidetracked into those details where you disagree? That is the work of Satan! For even if you were to agree on the nature of the resurrection, you would still disagree on uncountable other things, on whether an olive tree is better than a cedar, on how many stars are in the sky, on when and how the world will end – and is any of this arguing God’s work? No! Does it bring the Kingdom of Heaven closer? No, it causes division and pushes it further away. And besides that, for all these things, the nature of the resurrection, the worth of trees, for you to agree means nothing!, for God knows, and you do not know!”
Again, some Amen’s, and then silence while I thought, That was very close to my Nescio, et tu quoque… all except for the god bit… and except that Jesus sounds like he thinks he knows…
And then, in that silence, I became aware of something: there was a whole crowd of people in the street outside my door. I said to Jesus, “There’s a lot of people out there.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.” He took another drink of from his cup. “I’d better talk to them, or they won’t go away.” He got up, and I went to the door with him.
I recognized some of the people there – they included the local elders who held synagogue meetings in their homes, and were the nearest thing there was to a legal system in Capernaum.
Ignoring me, the one with the longest beard addressed Jesus: “How is it that you think you can come into our town to preach repentance and reform, and then, on a Sabbath of all days, you and your gang decide to go and party with those prostitutes in the house of a tax collector?”
“ Since you’re so perfect,” Jesus answered, “I obviously don’t need to preach to you. Does it really surprise you that I would speak instead with those who need to repent? Who does a doctor visit, the well or the sick?”
And someone else outside spoke up: “I have repented, and I have reformed, because I too was baptized by the Baptist in the Jordan. And I do as he did, and I fast on the Sabbath – and if you claim to be a follower of John too, how can you be making such an ungodly noise, when everyone else is fasting, praying, or trying to sleep?”
And Jesus answered “Because I’m celebrating! I preach the same thing the Baptist preaches, the fulfillment of the Lord’s plan, the fulfillment of the prophecies, the coming of the Messiah, and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Isn’t that good news? Rather than mourning, don’t you think it’s more appropriate to be celebrating?”
At that point Judas Sicariot, grinning, and Rock, glazed and swaying, stepped around Jesus to face the elders, who stepped back and said nothing. There was a pause. And after a few moments the elders dispersed.
“Your words obviously convinced them, friend,” Judas said.
“It is always good to have you around, friend,” Jesus answered.