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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Six
Evening winds stir the lake’s waters, so it’s a rough ride back to Magdala for the apostles who grew up inland. Thomas has the worst time. While the others take turns helping row, he hangs on to the side of the boat against the swaying feeling inside him and breathes through his mouth to keep his stomach from turning at the accumulated smell of old fish.
By the time they reach the city again, well after dark, Thomas wonders if he has enough sense of balance left to walk with Jesus. After stumbling up the streets to Susannah’s house, he feels a little more stable, but still drained of strength and will by the trip.
Mary and one of Susannah’s servants are rolling out mats for them when they return. “I didn’t know if you’d come back tonight,” says Mary. “But I’m glad we prepared; you look exhausted.”
“Thank you,” says Thomas, though he isn’t sure whether he feels blessed or threatened by her competence tonight.
“If you need more time to rest, you can sleep late tomorrow,” says Mary. “No one will crowd you here—our city’s priests and Levites are leaving in the evening for their month of service at the Temple, and everyone gathers in the morning to be taught by them first. If you’d like, you can come. But no one will miss a stranger if you stay.”
“I’ll come,” says Jesus, “to honor the Temple and those who serve there. But if any of you need to sleep, rest while you can.”
Thomas smiles. Whether he stays or goes, it’ll be nice to have a quiet day when the attention is on someone other than his Master. And on a day when the people crowd around the priests, what could go wrong for the twelve?
The trouble starts with Judas’s nightmare. It’s the same nightmare he used to have all the time, though it hasn’t come since the day John washed him clean in the Jordan’s muddy waters. Until tonight. Maybe it’s the guilt he felt yesterday over ruining their quiet meeting place that brings it back. Maybe it’s all the talk in the evening about the Temple that stirs up bitter memories of Jerusalem. Or maybe the memories are always somewhere in the back of his mind, and it’s because he’s at once so tired and so determined to rise early that those dormant memories become nightmares.
In the dream, he’s waiting for his sister to get back with water. She’s been gone a long time, far longer than fetching a jarful of water should take. Judas can feel his chest tighten with anxiety, can feel it pressing on his bones. This part of the dream is nightmare enough on its own; a sudden panic used to wake Judas some nights before the dream could go on, his body tense and drenched in sweat.
But tonight, the dream doesn’t stop. His sister comes in, looking exactly the way she does in his memory. There’s a scrape across the left side of her face and a cut on her lip, some tearing at the neck of her tunic. She walks slowly, her shoulders turned in slightly as if she’d like to fold in her arms and draw in her chest, her gait awkward under hidden pain, a kind of pain no one should suffer.
Her eyes are blank; the jar she’s carrying is broken.
Judas wants to scream, but the air is trapped in his chest. He shouldn’t have sent her out. He should have gone with her. He should have gone with her and taken his knife. He should go out with his knife right now and find the one who did this. Was it a soldier? Some robber? Or else a neighbor—maybe a boy he knows, someone he trusts? Whoever it is, Judas wants to kill him. Judas wants to scream, but the air is trapped in his chest. He’s going to drown; he can feel it. He’s going to drown in the scream that won’t come out.
His sister puts down the broken jar gently by the door. Then she walks to her mat and she lies down and she doesn’t say anything. If Judas doesn’t drown in his own trapped scream, he’ll suffocate in her silence. He walks over toward her, but in the nightmare he already knows. She’ll never tell him what happened. Never give him the chance to get the guilt out from under his own skin by plunging his knife under someone else’s.
He wakes up shaking. Then he goes to sleep and has the same nightmare again. And again. And a fourth time before morning.
By the time Judas drags himself out of bed, the priests and the Levites are already doing the recitation of their genealogies. Judas is tired, and he’s starving, but he wants to get out, wants to focus on the day and drive the past from his mind. When Judas gets close to the square and realizes the old priest is reading off the names of each family’s ancestors at the time they returned from captivity in Babylon, though, Judas decides he can sprint down to the market and buy some breakfast before joining the crowd.
The run is good. Running forces air in and out of his lungs, proves to him that they’re still working. Judas sprints straight back from the market and finds a spot next to Andrew on the side of the road just as the long recitation is ending. When it’s finished, the Levites and Magdalenes mill around and talk to give the old priest time to recover before he teaches. Judas offers Andrew half the bread he’s bought with money Susannah left for them, and they lean against a wall and start to eat.
“Did you wash your hands first?” says a nearby Levite who’s apparently been watching them.
“Sorry,” says Judas. “We forgot.”
The Levite wrinkles his nose as he hears Judas’s accent. “Where are you from?” he asks.
“Jerusalem,” says Judas. “City of our kings.”
“Is that so?” says the Levite, “I know people up here sometimes forget what’s appropriate and what isn’t, but I thought men from Jerusalem knew better. Where exactly in the city is home for you?”
Judas takes a deep breath. He has a feeling it will be better to avoid this question than to have his neighborhood mocked today. “My father’s family is originally from Kerioth, just south of Hebron.”
“Do they have water there?” asks the Levite, and he laughs loudly. Then he calls several other Levites over: “I just saw these two men eating with unwashed hands.” He turns to the nearby onlookers. “If you go down to the Temple, try to remember that you’re descendants of Israel, not mannerless foreigners. We see too many of those already—there’s no need for our own people to play the part.”
Judas tries to slip away quietly, but he doesn’t want to leave Andrew alone: Andrew doesn’t seem to understand when to slip away quietly and just stands there, as if waiting to be scolded more.
Then a woman says, “Aren’t those two close disciples of Jesus? You shouldn’t treat them like that.”
Judas wonders if it can get any worse. He’s brought embarrassment not only on himself now, but also on his Master. He should never have come here. He should never have been born.
“These two are with Jesus?” says the Levite. “Does Jesus know what kind of men are following him?”
“Yes,” says Jesus, stepping out of the crowd. He looks at Andrew and Judas. “Yes, and I admire them.”
“I admire them, too,” says the Levite, “I admire this one’s fishy smell and that one’s Jerusalem-slum accent.” Scattered laughter passes through the crowd. “But if you’ve been teaching these men so long, why don’t they know yet how to keep themselves clean?”
“Better unclean hands than unclean lips,” says Jesus. The crowd gets quiet.
“I’m sorry if you think I’m being rude,” says the Levite, “but I’m trying to teach the people here how to honor our God. At the Temple we watch the gates to make sure no one who behaves like your men is allowed in.”
Jesus nods. “Then Isaiah told the truth about you.”
“You mean the prophet?” says the Levite. “When?”
“These people come close to me with their mouths, and honor me with their lips, but keep their hearts far from me,” says Jesus. “Their worship is not for me, but for the proscriptions of men.”
The Levite takes a step toward Jesus. “Is that supposed to excuse them?” he says. “Or condemn me as a hypocrite for washing my hands before I eat?”
Jesus sighs. “What goes into a man matters less than what comes out of him. Your hands can’t pollute you like your thoughts do.”
“All I’m asking you to do,” says the Levite, “is to teach your men to stop eating like dogs.”
But Jesus turns to the crowd. “Whoever has ears to hear, listen to this. He asks you to drink, but only purifies the outside of the cup. He cleans his body but sets an ambush in his heart.”
Everyone waits to see how the Levite will react, but an old priest steps in before he can respond. “Forgive me,” the priest says to Jesus. “My nephew shouldn’t be treating Magdala’s guests this way. But as this is an important day for us, I hope you’ll withdraw from our city to prevent any further conflicts.” Jesus meets the old priest’s steady gaze and nods. He motions to Andrew and Judas to follow him, and they walk back toward Susannah’s house without exchanging a word.
For the second day in a row, Judas feels responsible for spoiling good plans.
“What happened?” says Mary.
“It’s my fault,” says Judas. “I forgot to wash my hands.”
“That’s not why we’re leaving,” Jesus says.
Mary looks to Andrew. “I’m just trying to understand why the priest was upset.”
“We got into an argument with his nephew,” says Andrew.
“And everyone was watching,” Judas says.
“He just wants his life to go on as usual,” says Jesus. “But I always seem to upset people who don’t want their lives to change.”
Andrew looks down at his shirt and Judas tugs absently at his beard. No one can argue the truth of this, so it’s quiet for a moment.
“Why delay?” says Jesus. “Let’s leave now.”
“Are you sure?” says Andrew.
“I’m going with you,” says Mary.
Judas rises. “Where to?” he says.
“Zarephath,” says Jesus. “If we’ve worn out our welcome among our own people, maybe we can find a widow to feed us there.”
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.