9. IN THE SYNAGOGUE
In the morning I woke up with a headache from the wine. There were men scattered throughout the house – the women had apparently gone back to Mama’s. We came to life slowly. It was past sunrise, everyone wanted to wash before prayers, so we went, two dozen of us, down to the beach.
Washing in the cold water felt good. Then Jesus led us in two prayers: the Shema, of course – the mezuzah in action:
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” I was used to the recitation going on much longer, but Jesus stopped it there, with “So be it.”
“So be it,” we chorused.
And then he recited another little prayer, new to me:
“Our Father, who is in Heaven, blessed be Your Name. Let Your kingdom come; let Your will be done on earth, just as it is in Heaven. Give us our daily food today. And cancel our debts and sins, as we forgive the debts and sins of others towards us. And don’t take us into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. So be it.”
And we all repeated, “So be it.”
He was silent, eyes closed. Then he looked at us: “Long prayers don’t mean anything. If you say those two short prayers every time you pray, and pay attention to the words, and live by them, that’s all you’ll need.
“ The first one is God’s greatest command to us, it is the part of the Agreement that He has with all Israel that we have to honor, that we accept Him and Him only as our master. There is no room for another master – not a physical master like Caesar, not an opposing object of desire like wealth. Understand it and live by it, for the words are God’s own.
“The second one is therefore to ask God for the things you need, in order to fulfill the first one. Because God’s work is all that is worth anything in the world – what else could have any importance at all?”
I’m sure several of us thought of family, food, clothes… but Jesus’ logic still seemed seaworthy – you felt you could trust in it.
“ But do you think God needs our prayers, in order to know what we need, or to know what’s in our hearts? Of course not. God commands us to pray because it’s useful for us, not useful for God! Good for us, not good for God! Nothing can be ‘good for God’ – God is already perfect. But in His goodness, He wants good things for us; He requires good things for His people – and whoever hinders that -” I could hear anger rising in him; he paused, then finished, controlled but fierce, “can expect God’s wrath. So pray!”
It was a strange and chilling message to my Greek-trained ears. This Yahweh seemed to have a somewhat conflicted personality, to be described as simultaneously loving and vindictive. I thought: This is the drawback to monotheism, to try to make one poor god contain every attribute! How can the god of forgiveness be the god of punishment? How can Venus be Mars? Or how can the lame Vulcan be the speedy Mercury? But aloud I only said “Amen – So be it.”
“Matthew,” he asked, “Do you think there is any food left in your house?”
“None, I’m afraid,” I said with genuine regret.
“The Lord will provide,” he said confidently. “I think we should have a little stroll through the beauties of the Lord’s countryside on this fine Sabbath morning, and then we can find where the synagogue is meeting in town, and see what can be learned from our friends of last night. And what, if anything, can be taught.”
We set off, all two dozen of us, first along the beach north of town, and then inland and up through the fields, perhaps at random, but always in a sure manner, gradually circling back round to Capernaum. Whether by chance or design we came along a path through the middle of a field of grain, ready for reaping but untouched.
“The farmer can’t reap on the Sabbath,” Jesus observed. “And if you run the head of grain gently through your fist, you will take only those grains which surely would have fallen to the ground today or in the night, and so would be left on the ground tomorrow for the gleanings to which we would be entitled.” He ran one such head through his hand, ending up with all the ripe kernels. “The Lord is good to us, and so we bless the Lord for giving us the things we need,” he commented, or perhaps prayed, and popped the seeds into his mouth and chewed them up.
We all copied him. For myself, I found the husks irritating in the throat if they weren’t thoroughly chewed, and I wasn’t really hungry after the party. But some, like the fishermen, probably needed to eat all day to support their big carcasses and their hard physical work. Others, like Thomas Twin, chewed a token grain or two but spat the husks out.
And so we came back into town. Jesus clearly had an idea as to which house would be holding the synagogue; and indeed the house he made for had the door open in an inviting manner, and there was a meeting going on.
Seeing that there were so many of us arriving at one time, and not part of the regular congregation, Jesus asked permission to enter, which was of course granted. However, as we overflowed the seating arrangements, some like myself stood by the door, and others stayed outside completely.
For a minute everything was sedate and orderly, while Jesus said a quiet prayer; but almost as soon as that was finished, the long-bearded spokesman for the previous evening’s irritated group had pointed questions for Jesus: Did he know he had been seen going through a farmer’s crops? Did he realize he was stealing the poor man’s livelihood? Didn’t he realize that in Capernaum people had to work all year in order to have enough to eat? Not only that, but gathering food from the field was work, and forbidden on the Sabbath. How could he claim to be reforming people’s behavior, when he acted callously, illegally, and immorally himself?
There was the light of joyful battle in Jesus’ eyes, the light I have seen in the eyes of legionaries going up against a more numerous enemy, an enemy that they are certain they will defeat because of the superior skills of their general. And I have felt that excitement myself, in my joy as a small boy taunting a larger adversary, knowing that my older brother was on the point of coming round the corner. Perhaps Jesus could go to war joyfully, certain in the knowledge that because he was dedicated to God’s work, God would step in at need.
Or perhaps he had laid a trap, and was watching his opponents walk into it.
First, he recapitulated his argument that we had only taken what would have fallen anyway, ungathered, to be legitimately gleaned by people like himself. The elders scoffed at it, echoing my own unvoiced doubts.
“ And secondly, the only reason that people have to work all year is because half of everything they earn is given away by you to the Westerners! The Westerners! Aren’t they, in the words of the prophet Habakkuk, a bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs? They are terrible and dreadful. They shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat! The eagle! Isn’t this the Westerners?
“Didn’t Pompey violate the Holy of Holies in the Temple? Didn’t Crassus steal all the treasures in the Great Temple, thousands of pounds of gold? So why give half what you earn to the eagles? Or rather, to the pigs that march under that false idol, the eagle? When you pay a tax, aren’t you acknowledging that you have a master? How can you obey a master, when you claim to obey the Lord God? So I say, stop paying the taxes! And then, if that is the issue, you will only have to work half a year, to live at the level you do now through working a whole year!” (This was an embarrassing speech for a tax collector to hear.)
“That’s not the issue –”
“I’m not finished yet! You’re saying that what I did was against the Law, being work done on the Sabbath. But haven’t you read what David did when he was hungry, he and the men with him? Didn’t he go into the Temple when Abiathar was High Priest, and take the showbread that is dedicated to God, and that no one can eat except the priests, and he took it for himself and his men? And did God punish him for his sacrilegious violation of the Law, when he and his men were hungry? No, God made him king! So then you have to consider God’s intent in creating the Law, including the Sabbath: the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath!”
It was a rousing defense, and it got Amen’s from my part of the room.
But the opponents weren’t finished. An old man with white curls down the side of his face got up, and coughed, and fetched a scroll, saying, “Did you say David went into the Temple when Abiathar was High Priest?”
Jesus looked at him.
The old man read “Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David… Is this the passage you’re referring to, when David was wandering without food? Ahimelech, not Abiathar?”
Jesus’ face darkened, either from embarrassment or anger – or perhaps he covered the one with the other, and so wouldn’t ever have to think he was wrong. “I said ‘when Abiathar was High Priest’, not that he went to Abiathar.”
The old man nodded. “That’s being a little disingenuous, isn’t it? Don’t you think it might be easier to say you might have misquoted?” As Jesus made no answer, he scrolled down further and said “Because then it says and Zadok the son of Ahitub, and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, were the priests. It’s a hereditary position, isn’t it. So Abiathar was dead and buried, if his son Ahimelech was priest. Wouldn’t you agree?”
He paused, and again there was no answer. I didn’t follow all the details, but I could see that Jesus did, and had no reply.
“In which case, young man, I would only suggest that you may not know as much as you think; that your premises may be faulty, and your reasoning may be flawed. When you have seen as much of the world as we older ones have – have seen the farms burned and the women raped and the men crucified as a result of unnecessary confrontation – perhaps you will reconsider exactly what God would wish for His Chosen People. Judas of Galilee also challenged the people not to pay tax to the Romans. That may have been before you were grown; many people of my generation died. But remember this: God did not choose to intervene.”
I felt there was tremendous anger building within Jesus: his jaw was clenched, a vein was standing out on the side of his neck, and I could hear his breathing, but he still didn’t say anything.
And then the focus of events shifted completely: a man I didn’t know, but who looked and smelled like a beggar, made his way through the doorway into the room. His arms were uneven; his good one kept his ragged clothes together in the face of all these people, his bad one, as withered as a corpse, reached out as though permanently pleading for a coin. He looked at Jesus.
Jesus looked at him, still angry, and at the synagogue congregation, and they looked back. Finally Jesus said to the beggar, “Come here.” Then he asked the others, “Look at this man. Do you think that shriveled arm can do anything, or is it as though he only has one arm? Would you invite him to a meal, if the hand that he dips in the pot with you is the same hand that he has to wipe his ass with? How can he keep himself clean and pure before God? So which is unlawful, to do work on the Sabbath, or, in refusing even to do good works, by default to do evil? To do work and save a life, or, by not working, to kill? To do work and purify a man, or, by not working, to risk sending him to eternal damnation?” And now not even the old man answered.
And Jesus turned back to the beggar, his anger transmuted into a fierce energy that seemed to radiate from him, so that I felt heat as though from a bonfire, and he used a voice barely below a shout: “Stretch your arm out!”
And as the arm emerged again from the beggar’s rags, it was whole, uninjured, the perfect pair of the other. I let a big breath go in amazement, not having realized till then that I had been holding it in. There were gasps and exclamations from the whole room. And Jesus turned and strode out of the meeting, his fingers brushing the mezuzah; with the beggar and the rest of us following.