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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Two
As they approach the camp again, James and John hear their mother. Why she’s made the journey out to see them and what has her so animated at the moment they can only guess, but long before they can see her face, there’s no doubt it’s her. Of all the women in Capernaum, Salome has the most distinctive voice—and the one most likely to be raised when something is wrong. They pick up their pace to reach her.
She embraces her sons, then falls at Jesus’ feet. “Come back to Capernaum,” she tells him.
This is her news: Jesus’ former disciples, having failed to bring him before a religious court, have shifted their attention. They’ve brought charges against his supporters over every minor infraction of the law. They go from house to house trying to convince people Jesus and his followers are dangerous, tell them not to help Peter’s wife and her mother or buy Zebedee’s fish. And now, they’re urging the ruling elders to expel those who honor Jesus’ teachings from the congregation.
“Come back,” says Salome. “What are all their words against your might and strength, your dignity and power? If you speak to the ruling elders for us, we’ll be given the first place instead of being cast out.”
But Jesus just looks at Alphaeus’s James, and doesn’t answer.
“Come back,” says Salome. “I know you say to love our enemies, but do we have to wait for the Day of Judgment before you’re also willing to stop them?”
Jesus looks back at her. “Those who wait upon the Lord will inherit the earth,” he says.
“Then we’re ready to wait if God’s will is that we wait,” says Salome. “But come back and confront them if the King of the Universe would have you do so!”
That’s when Jesus smiles, then speaks: “Lead the way, you sons of thunder,” he says to James and John. “Your mother predicts a storm.”
When angry men first came to the council of five who govern the congregation in Capernaum to suggest charges against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, two immediately spoke against him and two for him:
“What else can we do?” said one. “We saw it ourselves: he broke tradition knowingly and openly.”
“How many years had the man’s hand been afflicted?” said another. “After all that time, the treatment couldn’t wait a single day?”
That was not the issue, said the first of Jesus’ defenders. “If it had been a sheep stuck in the mud, no one would have objected. Isn’t a man worth more than a sheep?”
“Besides, there’s no proof he did anything,” said the other, who was always a little more careful about his words. “He didn’t touch him—and if the man was healed by God alone, who are we supposed to charge?”
But the fifth didn’t take sides, preferring a peaceful escape from the controversy. “Why do you come to us?” Jairus said to those who had brought the charges. “This man is not from Capernaum: right or wrong, it’s not our place to pursue such a difficult case against a guest.”
And, oh, how Jairus wished it had been settled at that! Instead, they’d let that case rest but brought complaint after complaint: about one woman’s possible heresy, another man’s failure to keep this minor law by that minority interpretation. Before Jesus, Jairus recalled, the council’s chief concern had been raising funds to replace the old wooden meetinghouse with a new one made of stone. Before Jesus, no one had argued much about who belonged there.
Still, Jairus is fair-minded enough to admit there are legitimate reasons for concern. Jesus seems like a good man, but if he were to turn his energy toward outright rebellion, he wouldn’t be the only one killed. Maybe his former disciples are right to bring case after case against those who follow him. Maybe they’re right to want his influence stopped before it brings bitter judgment, divine or otherwise, down on the town.
The proposal Jesus’ opponents finally bring to the council is this: why not simply ask people to choose between their loyalty to Jesus and their loyalty to the congregation? If they choose the congregation, all is well. And if they choose any man over the congregation, isn’t that proof enough the man’s influence goes too far?
But by that time, Jairus isn’t thinking about how to compromise. By that time, Jairus is thinking about his only daughter: a twelve-year-old girl who has grown so pale from sickness that sometimes when she sleeps, for a terrible moment, it looks as if she’s dead. Jairus isn’t thinking about compromise because day after day, night after night, sudden bursts of panic for her health hit him like rocks.
Jairus isn’t interested in casting judgment right now because he already feels like he’s being stoned.
So he throws both caution and neutrality to the wind, and is the first to come begging when Jesus returns.
A girl is dying, but there’s a crowd to be reckoned with. Into the streets Jesus’ opponents pour to shout abuse; into the streets Jesus’ supporters stream to shout encouragement. Young men join the throng hoping things turn ugly, the way Roman soldiers who miss the adrenaline of the Coliseum sometimes bet on fights between stray dogs. Old men pour into the street to ask themselves what happened, how the spell of quiet that once hung over their lakeside town has been broken. Young girls slip out of their homes to see if Jesus can rescue the council chief’s daughter; their mothers follow them into the fray, hoping to find them and bring them home again. Thieves join the crowd looking for loose money; drunkards join the crowd in the hopes a celebration erupts; the crowd grows tight around Jesus until his apostles start to worry about how his ribs will fare in the press.
There’s a woman in the crowd who’s been bleeding since the dying girl was born. She doesn’t want to be here—for twelve years she’s been unclean from her constant menstruation and so she’s not used to being around people other than doctors at all, let alone a whole town at once. She knows she’s polluting everyone she touches, but she can’t keep from touching them as she pushes and shoves her way forward. This is not what she imagined. She didn’t even want to touch him, didn’t need to look at him: if she could just reach the hem of his robe, she’d told herself, it would be enough. Because she believes he can heal her. Though she’s believed in doctors before and saints before until it seemed all the wealth, hope, and energy were drained out of her bleeding body forever, the first time she heard a story about him, she knew she had to come. And she knows now that although she’s exhausted, she needs to make it just a few more steps, just reach her arm out a few inches farther, and it will all be worthwhile. She’ll be healed, and no one will ever have to know what sort of woman they touched. Just a few more steps, just a little longer reach, and twelve years of pain will melt and this pounding in her temples will stop and she can go home and, maybe, finally feelat home in her own skin.
She falls, strangers’ knees battering her as she lands on her own, but she can see it right ahead, and just another half inch, so she throws herself forward with everything she has left. Maybe she’ll be trampled to death now, in the middle of a faraway town’s road, but she can feel the threads against her fingers and she knows that at least she’ll die clean: she can tell at once she isn’t bleeding from the inside anymore.
“Stop!” says Jesus, and his voice is so firm that the hecklers stop shouting abuse, the young men stop egging them on. Mothers stop calling out their daughters’ names, old men stop shaking their heads, even thieves let the coins they’ve just lifted fall to the ground in their surprise. The feet around the woman don’t come down on her back or shoulders, the shins around her don’t slam into her head.
“Who touched me?” Jesus says, as she pulls herself up, as she whispers a prayer thanking God for life and health. His disciples laugh.
“Look around you!” they say. “Who here hasn’t touched you?”
“No, someone touched me,” Jesus says. “I felt some of my virtue go out.”
That’s when the woman starts to shake. When her relief turns to fear. Has she polluted him after all? Has the long impurity of her body somehow wounded this saint?
“Who touched me?” Jesus says, and she starts to cry.
Now everyone is watching her and so she has to tell the whole story: who she is, why she shouldn’t have been here with them, why she wanted so badly to touch him, and how she risked their well-being to do it. No one seems to know how to look at her. “But I’m healed now,” she says through her tears, “I’m sorry I touched you all, but now I’m clean.”
“Don’t worry,” says Jesus. “Your faith healed you. It’s all right.”
But in Jairus’s house, it is not all right. In Jairus’s house, a girl whose face is pale as death when she sleeps has stopped taking in fresh breath.
Into the crowd come servants from the mourning house. “It’s too late,” they tell Jairus, “she’s dead. You can leave him alone.” But before Jairus can let out the long wail that is forming inside him, before he can scream the wound in his heart out to fill the open sky, Jesus looks hard at him. “When we go in, don’t look at her face: it’ll make you afraid,” he says. “Just watch me and have faith.”
So Jairus walks in Jesus’ shadow like a thief who is sneaking up on fate, or like the prophet Jonah seeking shade from the unforgiving heat of this world. When they get to the house, Jesus asks nine of his apostles to keep the crowd out while Peter, James, and John follow him and the girl’s parents inside.
Everyone is crying for her: the cook whose patience she used to test with endless questions, the watchman she’d always ask for a story and a late-night cup of weak wine, the wet-nurse who helped feed her as an infant, and the wet-nurse’s son, a childhood playmate she’s recently been distanced from.
“Why are you here?” says the watchman. “Didn’t they tell you it’s too late?”
“She’s only sleeping,” says Jesus, but the watchman laughs a sour laugh because he saw her chest rise and fall until it stopped rising at all, then shook her frail body trying to bring back her breath. That’s when Jesus makes them go out, so that the house is quiet and he can talk to the parents alone.
“Will you take me to her?” he says, and Jairus doesn’t look away, he just nods, and walks to her room, and keeps his eyes on Jesus and off his daughter, just like he’s been told. But Peter sees her, and James and John, and they can tell why the watchman laughed—it’s a cruel, hard life and it can look so empty at the end.
Jesus leans over and takes her cold hand in his hand. “Wake up, little one,” he says, and that’s when her father can’t help but look at her, at the way her sleepy eyes look up at him. She gets out of bed and walks to her parents and has just embraced them, when John feels Jesus next to him start to collapse.
“No more crowds today,” says Jesus, as he leans on James and John who hold him on the left and the right. If they carry most of his weight, he seems just able to put one foot in front of the other, just able to keep himself from sinking down to his knees in the dirt.
“Where can we go?” says John, and he envies the birds for their nests and the foxes for their holes. “Where can we take him and be left alone?”
“To your father’s boats,” says Peter. “Let’s see who can follow him to the middle of the lake!”
Peter and Andrew run to bring the boat closer while eight apostles keep the crowd at bay so that James and John can help their Master take a short but halting walk to the shore. Twice Jesus nearly falls, and then a third time as they bring him into the water toward the waiting boat—the terrifying lightness of his body on this third almost-fall will linger in John’s mind for months. He doesn’t even try to lift himself into the boat, but lets them haul him up as though they were lifting a little child, and they lay him down like a child and let him sleep while they sail out toward the middle of the lake, sail out until they can’t make out the figures on the land. And Jesus’ enemies and friends, the rowdy young men and the wonderstruck girls, the distracted thieves and the disappointed drunks all give up watching from the shore, all return to their homes or the alleys where they sleep and brace themselves against a rising and ominous wind.
“Do you worry about him?” asks John.
“I worry about everything,” say both Thomas and Peter at once.
The wind pours down thousands of feet from the heights on the northeast to the low-lying surface of the lake, which bursts into violent passion the way a whole block of tenements bursts into flame at the touch of a single lightning bolt. Waves leap up like tongues of fire and lick at the cities on the western shore: Capernaum; Magdala; Herod’s new capital, Tiberius.
Off the lake comes hard rain that stings like burning embers and presses itself through small holes in a roof into the cell where John the prophet is kept. But John sees nothing in the rain. He can hear raised voices in the palace above him, knows that the center of the storm between the king and his wife is his own life or death, but shut away in the city so far from his desert, he can’t seem to hear the word of the Lord, can’t tell how this tumult will end.
On the lake, Jesus sleeps like the dead; the four fishermen do their best to keep the ship from capsizing while the others bail out the water that fills the boat and threatens to drag them down and drown them.
In the palace, the queen is shouting at her husband. “Don’t you care about my shame?” she says. “When I left your brother’s bed for yours, I thought you’d protect me. If the king stood with me, who would dare to mock? Who could speak ill of me and escape punishment?”
John the prophet moves his lips in silent prayer as the rain keeps pounding down. How long, oh Lord? he says. How long will you hide your face from me?
On the lake, Jesus sleeps still. The fishermen shout out their prayers as they work, the others bail as if they were trying to empty the sea.
“Do you want to be killed?” says the king to his wife. “Do you want people to riot in the streets until the earth shakes with them? They count him as a prophet, and the prophets have always meant trouble for Israel.”
“You’re afraid of him,” she says. “I thought you were brave enough to face anyone in the empire, but you’re too scared to face a captive in your own cellar jail!”
The king gets angry then, shouts abuse at his wife and pushes her to the floor. Then he stomps down to the prison, shakes the bars until his arms ache—but John sees nothing in the king’s visit, and the king gives up and walks away.
On the lake, Jesus is deep in sleep until Nathanael, who’s too honest to be embarrassed at himself, shakes him awake and asks with wide eyes, “Don’t you care if we die?”
Jesus gets up without acknowledging Nathanael and speaks straight into the wind, the driving rain, the froth-tipped waves: “Enough for now,” he says. “Give us some peace.”
And from Capernaum to Tiberius, all at once the storm is gone. Homeless men see the night sky clear again from their alleys and wonder at the brightness of the stars. The twelve look at Jesus in a mixture of awe and fear, wonder for the first time not just who he is, but what kind of being can speak that way to the wind and the sea.
In his cell, John is filled with the depth of this sudden stillness. He wraps his face in a tattered remnant of his robe and rises to speak with his God.
What does John say to God, and what does God say back? I don’t know.
But after they’ve talked, maybe, after John is left to study the four walls of his prison until they seem to be falling in on him, doubt sinks in, pools on the floor with the leftover rain.
So when John’s disciples come to visit, bringing him fresh bread dipped in desert honey, John wants to be sure, so he sends them to Jesus to ask.
“Are you the One?” they say to Jesus. “Or will our Master have to wait for someone else?”
“Tell him what the people here have seen,” says Jesus. “The blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear. The lepers are cured, the dead raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
John’s disciples get excited. They tell him about Herod and his wife, about the rumors coming out of the palace. Is the time soon coming, they ask him, when the words of Isaiah will be fulfilled, when a servant of God will bring out the captives from their cells, and deliver those who sit in darkness from their prisons?
But Jesus turns away before he answers.
“No matter how the Jordan twists and turns,” he says, “it always ends in the same sea.”
And is it only the young John’s imagination, or is Jesus’ thin face wet with salty tears?
That night, Jesus sends the twelve back to the lake without him. The waters are a little rough, but after seeing what their Master can do, they don’t question his direction: out they row against short wind-blown waves, straining their arms to make distance. It’s slow going, so for a long time they can still see the tiny figure of Jesus, climbing up a mountain to pray for the man who baptized him.
Years from now, James will rise from a prison cell, look into the steel of another Herod’s sword, and wonder what Jesus said to his Father this night. “Does he really have to drink this cup?” maybe, or maybe just, “Let his spirit be safe in your hands.”Years from now, James will look at steel that shines in his executioner’s eyes like this night’s moon on the lake and remember the wind, and the sounds of small waves, and the way a boat at night can rock you to sleep.
On the lake tonight, James keeps the first watch, and John the second, and Peter the third. So in the hour just before dawn, it’s Andrew who first sees the ghost.
He walks toward them against the breeze, which is strong enough to blow the loose ends of his robe out behind him. He looks as majestic as John did on the Jordan, Andrew thinks, and his heart sinks: is John dead? Where is Judas? thinks Andrew. Judas will recognize their old master.
Andrew tries not to disturb the others as he wakes his friend, but it’s hard to keep a secret when twelve men are sleeping on the same boat. Judas wakes quickly and looks out across the water: no, it’s not John, he tells Andrew, and Andrew exhales in relief. It looks more like Jesus, he says, and now they’re all alert, all staring out over the edge.
As the ghost gets closer, their panic begins to mount. “Who are you?” Nathanael shouts.
“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “it’s me.”
“Are you dead?” says Peter.
“No,” says Jesus.
“Let me touch you,” says Peter, “Ask me to walk out on the water and touch you and I’ll know.”
“Come then,” says Jesus.
And the first step is so easy. It’s so easy to climb right over the boat’s edge and put your foot down onto the water’s shifting surface and yet move forward. Yes, the first step is easy and the second’s not too bad, but after that you’ve got to keep focused on Jesus. You can’t let yourself think about the way water pools and swirls and pours, the way it falls from the heavens on a cool day or disappears in the heat; can’t even think too hard about your solid feet, just keep moving them. But then the way the wind blows the edges of his robe. And the sharp white crests of the growing waves. And suddenly your legs feel as unstable as the water beneath them, and you know you are going to drown.
There’s a hand in your hand and it’s not letting go. Jesus pulls you out of the water because he’s alive.
Because he’s alive, and because he’s the anointed one.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.