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The Five Books of Jesus
Book One, Chapter Five
Peter dreams that night of fish. In his dream, the lake has risen to his house, so that he doesn’t have to choose between following and fishing: he is inviting the sick straight into the courtyard, seating them here and there while they wait for his Master; the lake must follow him because he feels a fish swimming right past his ankle, looks down in time to see the silvery fatness of it. Soon he notices another fish and another, until he is surrounded by fish, swimming as he’s never seen them before: not below him, but darting right in front of his face, or diving from above his head, or weaving from side to side as they swim in thick clusters around the perimeter of the courtyard. The clusters of fish grow thicker until wherever he walks, Peter can feel their bodies against his chest and brushing the palms of his hands and he knows his family will never go hungry with plenty such as this.
When he wakes, a crowd has already gathered at their door. It’s hard to tell in the early morning light just how many are there, or to gauge how many are sick and how many are students. What happened, Peter wonders, to the doubts the town had yesterday when whispers of God’s judgment rode a breeze of breath through the houses, shops, and square, up and down the long harbor? Maybe certain desperate kinds of hope are simply ready to flicker at the slightest change from despair to faith, from faith back to suspicion and despair.
James and John are managing the sick today. James sees an old couple in the back and learns that the woman is so weak her frail husband insisted on carrying her most of the way from Chorazin; John leads both of them forward to be the first blessed by Jesus’ touch. At the same time, Andrew and Peter turn their attention to the seekers, those who are waiting for the touch of Jesus’ words.
Venturing out into the crowd, they can hear at once a shift in the texture of men’s speech that can only indicate a large group of Judeans has arrived. Galileans go south when they can for the Passover and a few for other major feast days, but it’s rare for so many Judeans to be in Capernaum at once: the very sound of their speech seems to give the place a holiday air, so that within a few hours, Peter predicts, it will be hard to distinguish between people who came to see Jesus and people who came to see the crowd.
“Andrew!” shouts one of the Judeans, and Andrew’s face lights up as he recognizes Judas, who also followed John on the Jordan. But before Andrew can introduce his brother and his old friend, James grabs Peter’s arm and whispers, “Where is he?”
Though he dwells now by the lake, Peter begins to realize, Jesus acts more like the western sea: he moves like a tide, rising into town from time to time then withdrawing again and again to the desert places. James and John work with Peter’s wife and her mother to keep the crowd patient and calm while Peter, Andrew, and Judas go out into the countryside searching for Jesus. They hurry out past the fields and the trees to the barren places because, as Andrew explains and Judas seems to intuitively understand, those are the places where Jesus goes to be alone.
Jesus’ eyes are closed and his mouth is moving silently when Judas sees him. At once, Judas finds himself frozen in place, moved with the same longing on the verge of tears he felt, inexplicably, when he saw Jesus immersed beneath the waters of the Jordan. Andrew and Peter see Judas standing transfixed and hike up beside him, though by the time they can see Jesus he’s finished his prayer and opened his eyes and looks expectantly toward them.
“Everyone is looking for you,” Peter says. “A big crowd is gathered outside my house.”
Jesus stands up. “Tomorrow we should go to another town,” he says.
They don’t eat the rest of the day. They’re far too busy trying to work their way through the sick and making preparations to go and answering questions from people so thirsty for truth they’ve left their own cities and homes. By dusk, the sick have been blessed and are satisfied—but a thirsty soul doesn’t go away as easily as a simple wound, so a part of the crowd follows them when they pick up their bags and take to the road.
“Is it safe for us to be heading out so close to night?” says a Judean who still has a slight limp from an encounter on the south’s robber-riddled roads.
“How much do you pay for two sparrows in Jerusalem?” says Jesus.
“A penny or so, I think,” says the man, “though you pay less per sparrow if you buy five or six.”
Jesus laughs. “No matter how many are bought at a time, not one of those sparrows can be forgotten by God.”
The man has to rush to keep pace with Jesus’ long gait. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks.
“It means don’t worry,” says Jesus. “You’re worth a lot more than those birds.”
A few of their new followers give up and find an inn at this town or that when they realize that Jesus is going to walk all night. As the first streaks of dawn lend new life to the sky, Jesus stops next to a field to listen to the songs of a dozen birds. He points to a bush.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he says to the two sets of brothers, “All it takes to make a home for such music is one tiny seed.”
Judas waits until they’re walking again to ask Andrew what Jesus was talking about. Andrew smiles, and several of the new followers gather around him as he begins to speak, untying knot after knot after knot.
Word of Jesus has spread farther than you can walk in one night, so it’s not long before people are bringing their sick to him: children whose eyes are swollen shut from infection, old men with old wounds grown stiff with pus, people with fevers or boils, with aches in their joints or in their bowels. Others come to him without complaints, but with questions. Some hope he can speak to a yearning in their minds; some wonder whether his words are safe enough to welcome. Jesus talks to the curious and touches the sick but seems ready to rest, at last, when the sun sets.
One of the men who walked all day to Capernaum to see Jesus, and then walked all night to stay near him, has a twin sister who married a man from this town. He manages to find her and arrange for the whole party to spend the night in and around their home. In the morning, Jesus leaves a blessing on the house before taking once again to the road.
Outside of town, a leper is waiting for him. The men who follow Jesus take one look at the scaly sores on his face and stop, then step back. They’ve been willing to risk their health in crowds of the sick, but a leper carries the marks of judgment from God. And who would dare to approach a man who has brought such visible and debilitating punishment on himself?
“I’ve heard about you,” says the leper to Jesus.
Jesus nods but keeps his distance.
“If you want to,” says the leper to Jesus, “I know that you can make me whole.”
Jesus starts to walk forward. He stretches out his arm until he’s almost touching the leper’s ravaged skin and says, “I want to.” He touches him. All the men watch as the leper’s skin begins to heal—except for John, who keeps his eyes on Jesus, and who is never quite sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him or whether Jesus, too, was surprised.
The leper reaches up to touch his own face and shouts out for joy, but Jesus hushes him, reminds him what the scriptures say about going to the priest, and tells him and the witnesses not to talk about what happened.
No one quite understands why they should be silent, but you don’t question someone who can, apparently, persuade God to rethink His judgments.
Respect is, of course, not the same as obedience. Consider the case of a man who asks his two sons to go work in his vineyard. The respectful son says “yes” because he honors the man who gave him life, who nourished him and taught him from his infancy. But it’s a beautiful day, and the wealthy father of a beautiful girl invites the young man over for a cup of wine, so he decides his own father’s vineyard can wait.
No, respect is not the same as obedience. The man’s rude son says “no” to his own father’s face, putting his own priorities above those of his wiser elders, and he walks away shamelessly with his head held high. Only afterwards, the rude son thinks about his father, thinks about the way the father continues to be patient with him despite their many quarrels over the years, and so it’s he who takes his tools to the vineyard, he who sees how urgent the work there is, while his model brother drinks wine at the neighbor’s and would have let the vineyard die.
The leper doesn’t question the man who healed him, but this is what he says to anyone who will listen: can you believe that before I made my way to Jesus, my skin was white as snow with leprosy?
As Jesus walks from town to town, his reputation becomes a burden. The crowds grow, but the streets and courtyards don’t, and soon bodies are always pushing and pressing on each other wherever he goes. One day the thick dust in the air and an elbow to the chest make a sick man cough blood on six people around him. Another day a woman whose cataracts have made her almost blind loses her bearings and gets sick in the churning human mass. Everywhere Jesus goes gets dirty, and ugly, and people grow more rather than less desperate when they see him getting close.
It’s not just people in need who contribute to the chaos. Peter, Andrew, James, and John struggle to sort the faith-filled sick and the wisdom-hungry students from those who have come simply to see a famous man. They want to help Jesus heal people, but there are so many now so eager to touch him and to leave with a story worth telling that they will feign disease in the hopes of finding a miraculous and imaginary cure. Soon the brothers are closely questioning newcomers about their supposed symptoms and sometimes physically restraining over-eager visitors. The more Jesus becomes known for compassion, the more his closest disciples get a reputation for being brusque.
Because Jesus is focused on healing crowds and his closest disciples are focused on handling them, none of them takes much thought for shelter or food. A few of the newer followers notice this and relieve them. Thomas, who arranged for his sister’s place after their first all-night walk, makes a point of knowing who has relatives close by, or else of getting into town early to find out whose hospitality can be trusted. Judas, who knows from a childhood of poverty how to find a good price or else drive a hard bargain, always seems to find food and stretch it thin enough to feed the growing group of Jesus’ followers—though Jesus himself and the brothers from Capernaum seldom find free moments to eat.
And as hungry hours in packed crowds stretch on and on, the brothers grow less and less patient with people who crowd around Jesus as if he’s some strange sight to see, who flock to him like they might flock to a foreign merchant—not to purchase so much as to gawk at his exotic wares.
So Jesus stops going into the towns. Thomas does his best to find shepherds who can direct him to good places to camp. Judas asks them which grasses a man can chew and eat, which wildflowers have nourishing, soup-worthy bulbs.
And though the crowds are far more manageable outside of narrow streets, they keep coming: broken bodies, hungry minds, and idle onlookers pouring in from north, south, east, and west. People flock together as if they were birds, thinks Judas, and as he surveys the crowds and tries to determine what provisions will be needed, he realizes that even the birds themselves seem to be gathering here, seem to be drawn to this man and his secrets.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.