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The Five Books of Jesus
Book One, Chapter Six
An angry shepherd accosts Thomas: one of his sheep has either been stolen or else become confused by the crowds and wandered off. Is this any way to treat someone who freely offered his advice and hospitality?
“Calm down,” says Thomas, “it’s just one sheep.”
“It’s my sheep,” says the shepherd. “I don’t think you understand!”
When Jesus hears the commotion, he asks what the trouble is. The shepherd shouts abuse at him, but Jesus doesn’t seem to notice. Instead he asks how long the missing sheep has been gone, asks what it looked like and, if it did just wander off, where it might have headed.
Jesus holds up his hands and announces to the crowd that he won’t teach or heal until the sheep is returned.
The students object: they have urgent questions! The sick object: they have pressing complaints! But deep down, they all know Jesus is crazy, so they give up objecting before too long. Many head home in frustration. Others dart this way and that, trying hard to look busy, while still others look for the sheep as if all their own hopes depended on it, as if Jesus will have no choice but to give them what they are looking for if they can be the first to find what he wants.
As they search, Jesus turns to James, and for the first time since Nazareth, he quotes from the book of Isaiah: These people run about like hunted gazelles, he says. Like sheep without a shepherd.
Andrew, Judas and some students find the sheep, but the presence of so many unfamiliar humans frightens it badly: they have to call over the shepherd, whose voice the sheep knows, to calm it and carry it home. With the shepherd pacified, the sick and the students start to gather again, but Jesus insists on leaving these pastures tonight before more harm is done.
“Where are we headed?” asks Thomas.
“Can you find a place where I won’t have to strain my voice so much to talk?” Jesus says.
The way the hill curves does the brothers’ corralling work for them: everyone who’s followed Jesus is gathered by the shape of the land into one place. As soon as Jesus calls for their attention, Thomas knows he’s been given good advice: from where Jesus stands, his voice carries over every present body, so that anyone with ears can hear. Only a few of them, though, would need to listen closely to recognize the passage Jesus starts to quote. A few of them, like Jesus, already know it by heart.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, says Jesus, because he anointed me: to preach the gospel to the poor—
A hush falls over the multitude. Jesus stops. Closes his eyes. Starts again.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, says Jesus, because he anointed me: to preach the gospel to the poor.
He looks out at Judas.
“Blessed are the poor,” he says, “because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
He looks at Andrew.
“Blessed are the meek,” he says, “their inheritance is the whole earth.”
Then he starts to recite again. The Spirit of the Lord is on me, says Jesus, because he anointed me: to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted—
“Blessed are those that mourn,” says Jesus, “because they’ll be comforted.”
“Blessed are those who are starving for righteousness,” he says, “because they’ll be filled.”
He takes a deep breath. The Spirit of the Lord is on me, says Jesus, because he anointed me: to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives—
“Blessed are the merciful, because they’ll find mercy” he says.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, who remember they are children of God.”
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, says Jesus, because he anointed me: to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, to recover the sight of the blind—
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” he says. “They will see God.”
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he anointed me: to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, to recover the sight of the blind, to free from prison those bound in chains.
“Blessed are the persecuted,” says Jesus. “Blessed are the mocked, and the whipped, and those cast in chains like the prophets. Blessed are those who men falsely accuse, who people lie and speak evil about.”
Jesus falls silent for a moment and surveys the crowd.
“Blessed are you,” says Jesus, “blessed are you who follow me in the times which are about to come.”
And then his face relaxes and he begins to preach. And he doesn’t stop until the sun sets behind him.
As they walk away from the hill in the darkness, Andrew is busier than ever untying and retying knots. His thoughts today have been like the thread in his hands: turned upside-down, doubled back on themselves, old lines of thought being crossed and bound together in ways he never expected, and never wants to forget. “Salt of the earth,” he whispers, and is reminded of the salty sweat which stains the shirt sleeves whose frayed threads he is tying and untying. “Shining light,” he whispers, and is reminded of the way the sun shone over the hill’s peak at dusk. Then he turns to the most important knots, the ones he has tied at the four corners of his shirt to remind him of what Jesus said about the law: about murder and anger, peace offerings and making peace, about adultery and lust, about honesty, about justice, and about love.
Thomas is watching Jesus for clues about where they’re headed, and Judas is watching the crowd and the fields to figure out what they can eat, when Jesus calls them to him and tells them not to worry: they’re going back to Capernaum.
“Where will we stay?” asks Thomas.
“In two women’s faith,” says Jesus.
“What will we eat?” asks Judas.
“In the evening, a feast,” says Jesus.
Thomas looks skeptical, but Judas smiles wide. It’s been a long, long time since he’s had a feast.
Though Jesus and his followers try to be quiet, Peter’s wife hears footsteps, or maybe just breathing, and meets them with the lamp she keeps ready by her bed. She manages to find space in the house and courtyard for everyone, and thanks God that she ground new grain to fill their empty pot of flour the previous morning.
Gossip spreads like a plague, rumor like the wind, but word that Jesus is back in town spreads like a fire: the cooled hopes of those who put off seeing him before his last sudden departure are reignited, and spread quickly to many who hadn’t planned on seeing Jesus at all and to others who hadn’t imagined how much they would want to see him again.
Jesus hasn’t yet left the house when they start arriving—so it fills quickly, until an overflow crowd is packed tightly around the door. The brothers assign some other disciples to keep a space clear around him: if everyone tries to touch him at once, they’ve learned, dense crowds like this can turn dangerous. Instead, they try to let the sick through one at a time for blessing, taking time for questions and answers whenever Jesus seems to need time to regain his strength. For hours, Jesus teaches and heals and heals and teaches, but the crowd shows little sign of letting up.
In the thick of the crowd, four friends, who came early to hear Jesus teach, remember another friend who no doubt wished to come. So they give up their places, fight their way out of the house against a current of people trying to fight their way in, and go to the run-down shack where their friend lies on a low, woven bed. They try to lift his paralyzed body this way, then that, until they give up and simply grab the corners of his bed to carry him back.
That’s when their plan begins to unravel. The crowd is too dense to force a whole bed through. The four are almost ready to take the bed back to the shack and try another day, but the paralyzed man begs them not to give up, not to leave him immobile and alone.
Inside, Jesus is telling stories. A certain man, he says, once received an unexpected but important guest in the middle of the night—the man’s heart sang for joy at the chance to extend hospitality to this guest, but it sank when he realized his kitchen was completely bare. What could he do? Because the man knew how much a guest matters, he snuck out through the back door and rushed to the house of his good friend, knocked as loudly as he could to wake him without waking the whole neighborhood, and called out asking to borrow bread.
“Be quiet!” said the friend, “I’m asleep, my children are asleep, you should be asleep—go back to bed!” But the man kept on knocking, kept on begging, because he knew he couldn’t fail that night, knew he would never forgive himself if he couldn’t offer this guest, of all guests, something to eat.
“Please,” he said, “Please, please, please please please!” and he knocked until the friend let him in and gave him bread just stop the noise.
“Think,” says Jesus, “of what Isaiah said: can a mother forget her nursing child? I ask you mothers: which of you has ever had a hungry baby who would let you forget?” The women all laugh, and their husbands, too, but Jesus turns serious. “Pray like that,” he says. “Pray like the man who wakes his friend at night—pray like a hungry baby who wails until his mother comes.”
And a tile from the roof comes off. Two men shout for space and jump down into the courtyard while another two men pass down a bed, jostling the crippled man as they lower him down. They elbow people away, push forward toward Jesus.
The two left up on the roof shout down. “Please!” they say, “Please, please, please please please do something for him.”
Jesus looks at the four who have gone to such lengths, and he nods at them. “Your sins are forgiven,” he says, and the crowd falls strangely silent.
Some of the men who came from far cities just to hear him, who have willingly followed him on walks that last all through the night, stare at him in undisguised shock and apprehension. To be a keeper of wisdom, a great Master, is one thing—but only God himself can forgive sins. Has he simply misspoken? Does he mean something other than what he appears to have said?
Jesus looks at his followers, and John can’t help but notice that he seems suddenly sad.
“What’s easier?” says Jesus, “To tell these men their sins are forgiven,” and then he turns back to their paralyzed friend, leans down to him and offers a hand, “or to tell this man to get up and carry his own bed from now on?” The man rises and raises his arms up in thanks to God. He picks up the cot—and thick as the crowd is, it parts like the Red Sea to let him out.
And the man whose body has just been healed walks out past followers of Jesus whose confidence in their master has just been broken.
Let’s give them credit. To forgive sins sounds like a wonderful, generous thing. But how difficult will it be for a man who claims the power to forgive sins to convince his followers to commit some? Don’t earthly kings pardon at their own whims—and aren’t earthly kings, as a consequence of this power over justice, almost always corrupt? And how can a man who usurps even the power of divine forgiveness be trusted not to reach for more power still?
Let’s give them credit. To believe in someone is terrifying to begin with: only a madman bets both this life and the next on a prophet. And, oh, the ecstasy of that madness! But, oh, how the knife of betrayal stings when it cuts!
They stagger out of the house of intoxicating madness, away from the now-chilling clarity of purpose they’ve seen in Jesus’ eyes. But what is his purpose? Where is he headed? they wonder. What is he really planning? they think. And they cast their minds over everything they’ve heard him say, weigh it again in the light of his unthinkable presumption.
They shake their heads against a heavy, aching feeling as real as the stupor that follows a night when the wine flows freely until dawn, then ask themselves the most important question of all: how is this man possibly going to be stopped?
Word that a group of Jesus’ disciples has left him reaches Matthew within the hour through an old woman who has come to pay the latest installment on her overdue taxes. This is the arrangement Matthew the taxman makes in such cases: rather than having debtors beaten or thrown in prison, he allows them to pay gradually—on the condition that with each payment, they bring a fresh piece of news as interest. One advantage to this arrangement is that anytime something exciting happens, everyone who’s behind on payments immediately thinks of Matthew and their taxes: they’ll pay what they can at once while they still have something good to share.
The woman relates the incidents of the morning and the apparent crisis to the best of her knowledge, though she’s a little uncertain about who was forgiven and why: after all, she was only in the house to see Jesus because she can’t hear well. Matthew thanks her anyway and makes a note of her small payment in his records. As he glances over his ledger, Matthew notes with some amusement that Jesus has been good for business: with all the traffic he’s brought into town, local people are making more money, and with all his entrances and exits from the city, with all his healings and cryptic teachings, late payers have been unusually quick to run in breathless to Matthew’s office with an update and a coin. Thanks to Jesus, Matthew may also be able to buy up a nearby town’s tax collection contract next year.
The thought is bittersweet, because it’s his line of work that has kept Matthew from ever seeing Jesus—especially since the Judeans showed up in town. After all, in the south a taxman is considered a collaborator, a traitor to his nation, and people there might shake the dust from their feet as a curse when they walked away from your office. In the north, things aren’t so bad: religious families would think twice before marrying their sons to your daughters, but they’ll greet you on the street, ask how your uncles are doing, and if they can, they’ll pay on time. Even in the north, though, it’s understood: anyone who wants to be holy should steer clear of those who deal too closely with the Romans. So Matthew collects stories about the new local saint, but he doesn’t spoil anything by trying to visit him.
Yes, best to let Jesus do his work, thinks Matthew, while Matthew continues to do the work he has chosen for himself: to be a taxman who still quietly studies the sacred books, who bids on government contracts to protect the people from outside brutality and extortion. If the people’s hopes come true and the occupiers are overthrown in this generation, Matthew knows he may be murdered in the night. But if the Romans are here to stay—and knowing the methodical persistence of the empire he serves, Matthew will be very surprised if they are not—someone has to be willing to compromise principles of purity and cooperate.
Matthew sighs. He is hardly ever very surprised.
That afternoon a crowd approaches the tax office. For a moment, paranoia grips Matthew and he envisions a mob coming to tear his accounting book to pieces along with his skin. But as the crowd draws near, he catches sight of two fishermen he knows and realizes one of the men in the crowd must be Jesus, who they’ve given up everything to follow.
The crowd seems to slow as it gets closer, as if time itself has been stretched ever so slightly by the force of his curiosity. Will he be able to recognize Jesus? In all the reports he’s heard of Jesus’ movements, he never thought to ask what the man’s face looked like.
The crowd stops right next to the shade of Matthew’s office.
“Are you coming?” a man who must be Jesus says, but Matthew is too confused to answer.
“I want you to follow me,” Jesus says, his voice ringing loud and clear. And Matthew is very surprised now to find himself standing up, leaving his ledger unattended, and walking away in the current of an unexpected crowd.
Toward the back of the crowd, whispers thick with the accents of the south work their way through the dust-clogged air. “What is going on?” some of the men who have followed Jesus for weeks mutter. He never asked them to follow him, so why did he go out of his way to ask a taxman?
“Maybe the others were right to go,” says one disappointed man to his companion.
“Wait,” says the companion, a southerner named Simon, “let’s not decide that just yet.”
In the front of the crowd, a minor prophecy is about to be fulfilled.
“What shall we eat tonight?” says Jesus to Judas with a half-smile. But before Judas can answer, Matthew blurts out, “Let me go home and prepare something for you. Teach a few more hours, then come to my house.”
“Sometimes, a large number of people follow us,” says Judas.
“I like a big dinner,” says Matthew. “If you’re willing to come yourselves, bring as many guests as you’d like.”
Jesus says, “We’re willing,” and Matthew hurries off to give instructions to his servants.
Judas looks up at Jesus. And You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger, he thinks.
It’s just past dark when a messenger from Matthew’s house arrives with word that the food is ready. This is what those who left Jesus that morning see: their erstwhile Master, under cover of night, leads his remaining disciples into a feast in the home of a taxman—essentially a den of thieves. How quickly the descent goes for the corruptible!
“Didn’t he teach us that God loves the poor?” they say to each other, “But as soon as we get into town, he cozies up to the rich!”
“Didn’t John and his disciples fast on the riverbanks?” they say, “But the man we called Master only yesterday already wants to drink fine wine and stuff his face!”
Let’s give those who left some credit: plenty of the men still following Jesus are thinking exactly the same things.
The meal Matthew has prepared is superb. He’s set out pomegranates, figs, and nuts to start and poured new wine, but even outside the house you can smell the freshly caught fish he’s had cooked with olive oil and exotic spices bought in city markets, plus the festive scents of goat and sheep meat. He’s had flat breads and leavened breads prepared, purchased honeys and cheeses and yogurt, kept cucumbers in cool water to bring out at just the right time.
Jesus walks into the house and embraces his host. Servants and neighbors Matthew has employed for the night help seat Jesus’ followers: here go the fishermen, here Judas and Thomas, there a few, here a few—but many aren’t coming in. Though there’s no shortage of room left in the house, they insist on standing outside.
Jesus frowns and apologizes to Matthew for their bad manners. No need to worry, says Matthew. He says he understands. But Jesus says he doesn’t understand, and sends Peter, James, and Judas to call in whoever still wants to follow him.
The southern Simon speaks for those who would rather stay outside in the night: “Is this the kingdom he’s promised us?” he asks.
But Peter just says, “He wants you to come in.”
Simon shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says. “Where I come from, you don’t break bread with anyone who works for the Romans.”
“He’s one of us now,” James says. “You saw our Master call him.”
But Simon turns away from James. “I took an oath, Judas,” says Simon. “You know that.”
“Pray to God to forgive you,” says Judas. “Maybe it wasn’t the right oath.”
“Who is he?” says Simon to Judas. “And who does he think he is?”
“Come and find out,” says Judas. “If you want to find out, too,” he calls to the men still gathered in darkness, “you’d better come inside.”
And Judas walks back into the house, with Peter and James, then Simon and two others following him. The rest stay outside the taxman’s house: no feast or teacher can coax them in.
“Don’t they know God made us all in his own image?” Jesus says. And he starts to tell a story.
The story is about a king who prepares a great wedding feast for his son and invites all his nobles, but they don’t show up. So he sends out his servants to remind them, but they still don’t come. The king gets upset. I’ve killed whole herds for this meat, he says, and pressed a whole vineyard for this wine. If the nobles won’t come, send out my servants into every highway, bring as many as you can to this wedding feast! Don’t distinguish between the good and the bad, just bring enough guests to fill the house!
They all sit for a moment after the story is done.
“What does it mean?” Matthew asks.
“Do you have any friends?” says Jesus.
Soon Matthew’s servants are on the road, calling in every Jew in Capernaum and Bethsaida who ever worked a Roman contract in taxes or construction while some of Jesus’ followers take to the streets, calling in to the feast anyone who will listen.
By midnight, the house is packed until every spare surface is taken, every wine-cup full. Jesus’ disciples mingle not only with Matthew’s colleagues, but also, owing to the late hour when their invitation went out, with every thief, vandal, and prostitute in two towns.
In the morning, Peter wakes Thomas and Judas and asks how many of Jesus’ followers have left him in the past day. Thomas and Judas don’t have to make a count. They’ve already seen who’s left. Nearly half, they tell Peter after converting faces into a fraction. Nearly half of those who walked with us through the nights are gone.
That afternoon, the city’s centurion comes to visit Jesus. Though he’s not a Jew, he explains, he’s heard about Jesus through Matthew and believes he has real power from his God.
“I have a servant who’s in great pain,” says the centurion. “Even for me, it’s hard to watch.”
“Take me to him,” says Jesus.
“I’ve done too many violent things in my life,” says the centurion. “I’m not worthy to have you in my home. But you don’t need to touch him any more than I need to use my own hands to see an order fulfilled. If you give the word, it’s enough.”
“He’ll be healed, then,” says Jesus. Then he adds: “I haven’t seen faith like yours in all Israel,” and for a few more of his followers, this flattery of a foreigner at their expense is the thing which is finally too much.
There are two parties in Capernaum now, about to become locked in a deadly contest.
Those who have left Jesus take their motto from the Psalms: My zeal has consumed me, because my enemies have forgotten your words.
Those who have stayed with Jesus are also thinking of a passage from the Psalms: I’ve become like a stranger to my brothers, a foreigner to my mother’s children—because the zeal of your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproached you have fallen on me.
All week they argue and seek grounds for conflict with one another, and when the Sabbath comes, they don’t rest.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.