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The Five Book of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Five
Matthew and Thomas are the last of the twelve to get word that Jesus is now in Magdala and wants to meet them there. In the evening, they say their goodbyes to the people of the town where they’ve been preaching. As soon as the sun sets, the air cools off, and the villagers go to sleep, Matthew and Thomas plan to go.
Only not everyone does go to sleep. When night falls, a few townspeople linger near the apostles. There’s a young man who could barely walk before they blessed him—he’s been following them around town for a week and now seems ready to follow them straight out of it. There’s an older man whose family died in a plague that left him half-blind: since they blessed him, they haven’t been able to get out of his sight, either. There are several students still asking questions. There’s a beggar who likes to bask in the generosity that follows Jesus’ messengers.
More alarming is the presence of two women. There’s the girl who had trouble with an evil spirit and still worries no one will accept her in town. There’s the sharp-minded woman who’s been widowed twice, both times without children, who always seems to anticipate the next thing Matthew and Thomas are going to say, who sometimes even finishes their sentences if they take too long searching for words. If the others won’t let Matthew and Thomas go alone, if they insist on following them all the way to Jesus in Magdala, it’s no problem. But for two unescorted women to travel through the night with them is against both propriety and tradition. So, Matthew and Thomas stay, and talk, and wait until almost midnight, and then simply get up to go.
Most of the men follow them. And the women follow them, too. Down the lane, along the main street, and finally out past the village boundary stones. Thomas tries to walk too fast for their female followers to keep pace, but the girl’s feet are light, and the widow’s legs are long. Matthew stops to ask them to turn back, but the widow speaks up first. “I’ll take care of the girl. And we don’t have any relatives left to be angry with you. No one is worried about our honor.”
Matthew turns to Thomas. “Didn’t Jesus say we’re all brothers and sisters?” he says. “Since we’re their nearest relatives, why shouldn’t they travel with us?”
And so it is that seven men and two women arrive, just before dawn, at the crowded town on the seaside.
“You must be the last two,” says a woman Matthew and Thomas don’t recognize. She tells them her name is Mary, and that she’ll lead the two apostles to Jesus and help the others find a place to stay. Though he won’t admit it, Thomas is a little bothered by this: has she taken over his old responsibility? As they make their way across the city, pausing from time to time for Mary to check on visitors and their local hosts, Thomas realizes she’s fulfilling his role quite well: there seem to be hundreds of people here to see Jesus, maybe over a thousand, but there’s nothing to suggest they’ve been sleeping on the streets. She does have the advantage of being local. But still, is it possible she’s found a place for everyone?
Mary-from-Magdala brings them at last to one of the town’s largest houses, explaining that a well-to-do local woman named Susannah—whose cousin’s husband, by the way, is a top official under the king—has opened her home for Jesus’ healing and teaching. Though it’s clear even from a distance the house’s courtyard must be quite large, the street in front is still crowded with people waiting to get in. Many of them seem to recognize Mary, though, and help make way for her to bring in Matthew and Thomas.
Jesus’ face lights up when he sees them at the courtyard entrance, but the courtyard is packed with the sick, and Matthew and Thomas aren’t eager to push their way through so many fragile people to reach him. So Jesus nods at them and continues healing while they look for the others. They see Judas and Simon, helping keep people from tripping on a paralyzed woman’s cot. On the other side of the courtyard, Philip and Nathanael gently guide out a man who’s just had his eyesight restored to make more room around Jesus. Closest to Jesus are the big Judas, who keeps people from pushing their way to the healer out of turn, and the little James, who helps them one by one to Jesus when it’s time. But where are Peter and Andrew, James and John?
Matthew and Thomas carefully step over and around waiting people to reach Judas and Simon.
“Where are the fishermen?” asks Matthew.
Judas leans over and tries to answer so quietly that in the noise of the courtyard, no one but Matthew will hear. “They’re getting a boat. You’re to sleep as well as you can tonight: first thing in the morning, he wants us to go with him to a desert place north of here where we can talk in peace.”
It will be almost a full day before Judas realizes he was overheard and feels his stomach sink to the bottom of the Sea of Galilee.
This is what Judas sees the next day: in the back of the boat, Jesus is laughing as Andrew finishes a story about how asking locals “who was worthy” in their town to be two preachers’ host once got them directions to a brothel. Peter and James are fidgeting with the sail while John leans over the edge of the boat and grabs a fish straight out of the water. Judas stares in unmasked awe at the young man’s dexterity, watches the fish try to wrestle its way out of John’s hand, splashing droplets of water in every direction. When the fish stops struggling, Judas catches sight of the coast. Something is wrong. He can see the distant, tiny figures of people—a lot of people—making their way like a procession of ants along the beach. His eyes follow the line forward until—right where Jesus had planned to come ashore—he sees them in an absolute swarm.
That’s when he remembers. He told Matthew the plan right in the middle of yesterday’s crowd. And though no one was there when the apostles set sail before dawn, it seems as though everyone has made it up the shore in the time they’ve spent out on the lake.
“I’m sorry,” says Judas, and he points to the coast.
Eleven men groan and begin to suggest other places to go. But Jesus tells Peter and James to bring them in closer. Judas watches the people on shore catch sight of the boat and sees the ripple of excitement it sends through the crowd.
“Sheep without a shepherd,” says Jesus. “We’ll land.”
Jesus steps out of the boat, picks up some sand and lets it run between his fingers back to the ground. Then he tells a story about two men who built houses: one on sand like this, the other on a rock. Which one, he asks, do you think fared better when they were hit by a great and terrible storm?
And he doesn’t stop teaching for the next eight hours, barely even pauses as he tells story after story after story. Every story is like a pearl or a beautiful bead, thinks James: so what is the hidden thread that strings them all into one necklace?
When his listeners seem to be getting tired, Jesus tells funny stories: everybody laughs at the way he staggers around as if he had a giant plank sticking out of his eye while he pretends to try to pluck out a grain of sand that’s gotten in Nathanael’s. When the audience seems to be getting too boisterous, Jesus tells unsettling stories: about men who stumble on their way to heaven and then cut off their feet so they can learn to walk.
An hour or so before sunset, Jesus’ voice is giving out and he has to take a short rest.
“Should we get back into the boat?” Judas asks. “There’s nothing to eat here, and these people need time to get into town before the markets close.”
Jesus looks out at the crowd and shakes his head no. “They need to eat together.”
Nathanael laughs. “There must be three thousand people here,” he says.
“Three thousand strangers now,” says Jesus. “But if they break bread together, they can be a family.”
“Is this a place where we can do that?” says Philip.
“If we send them out of the desert as strangers,” says Jesus, “this whole day will have been wasted. Give them something to eat.”
“But where could we buy a year’s wages in bread?” says Matthew.
“And what net could we use to bring in a season’s worth of fish?” says Andrew.
“Can we at least send some of them home first?” says James. “There’s no way we can feed them all.”
“How much do you have?” says Jesus.
Judas checks the boat. Five loaves of bread and a fish. Wait—no, it’s two fish if he can find the one John miraculously caught.
“It’s enough,” says Jesus.
“Then we’ll do it,” says Peter. “How?”
Jesus’ first instruction is to organize the people. Get them sitting down in groups of fifty to a hundred. Have a few boys in each group volunteer to help pass the food around.
Jesus’ second direction is that each of them should find someone to lend them a basket. It will be easier to feed everyone if they can hold the food in something before they pass it around.
After that, says Jesus, they’ll just have to pray. He’ll begin with the blessing on the bread, and then they’re to keep praying silently as they work until everyone is fed.
After they’ve divided the crowd, each of the twelve has six groups, meaning there must be four or five thousand people overall. Which makes it easy to find twelve baskets. Jesus says the blessing and gives half a loaf and a quarter of a fish to each of them. They pass the baskets to the young men. And then all twelve apostles silently pray as they watch the young men pass through the crowd.
The twelve keep prayers in the hearts and their eyes on the people getting food from the baskets. The twelve don’t look into the baskets to worry about how much is left: they stay focused on making sure no one is passed by and left unfed. And soon they can hear people talking and laughing, can listen to a few singing joyful psalms. If the young men lose track of where they’ve carried the baskets, the twelve show them where to go until it becomes more and more difficult to find hungry faces.
“You need to try this,” says an old man in the crowd to Andrew, and then puts a piece of the bread straight into the apostle’s mouth. It’s more moist than a baker’s, as rich as the bread at any wedding. As he savors it, Andrew wants to cry.
“It’s fit for a king!” shouts the old man, and everyone in the group looks toward Jesus and cheers. Soon the cheer spreads through the whole assembly, and the twelve make their way back out of the crowd and fall down at Jesus’ knees—but he tells them to get up at once.
“Go gather the baskets,” he says. “No sense wasting what’s left.”
So they go back, and they wander through their groups, listening to happy people share stories, until they find their baskets. Which are fuller with pieces of bread and fish than when they started.
“You still think we’ve reached too many people?” says Jesus when they come back. “Still think we need to send some away?”
None of the twelve can find words to answer him, but their awed silence says enough.
“Looks like you each have enough left to feed a whole tribe of Israel,” Jesus says, and they smile sheepishly. But Jesus’ face seems to turn a little sad when he adds, “You promise me that someday you’ll go find enough people to eat the rest?”
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.