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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Four
Jesus gets up early in the morning and leads the twelve to a quiet spot on the stream next to Bethsaida. On the west side of the stream is Galilee proper, ruled by the Herod who killed John, but here on the east side they’re safely in his brother Philip’s land.
So when Jesus looks west, Andrew has a feeling they’re about to head back in the direction of trouble.
“It’s time,” Jesus says. He takes the twelve and divides them into pairs, as if he had a heavy weight for them to carry and wanted to balance the hands on the right with the hands on the left. “Are you ready?”
“Yes. For what?” says James.
“It’s time for you to go on without me,” says Jesus. “Then we’ll gather again, and you can tell me what you’ve done.”
Now it’s not just Andrew who’s nervous. Jesus has told them about this before, about how one day he’d send them out to search through Galilee for people who listen, the way children are sent to gather berries as soon as they can distinguish the edible from the poisonous and the ripe from the unripe. But knowing something is going to happen is not the same as being ready for it, and so the twelve find themselves suddenly full of questions.
“How do we know for certain who we’re looking for?” asks Thomas.
“How does a fisherman know which fish to let into his net?” says Jesus, and the brothers from Capernaum laugh: you don’t pick what goes into your net, you sort it out afterward. “Just look for the people who are already looking for you,” Jesus says. “Remember the lost sheep? It knew the voice of its shepherd.”
“What do we say when we preach? What if we open our mouths and nothing comes out?” asks Philip.
“Don’t worry about what to keep in your mouth,” says Jesus. “Keep a treasure in your heart, and the Spirit of the Lord will bring out jewels when you speak.”
“But what if people ask questions we can’t answer? We’re not scholars—what if people who study the law challenge us and make us look like fools?”
“They’ll try to draw you into arguments that last longer than it takes bread to rise—but tell them you don’t have time,” says Jesus. “Remember the flatbread our ancestors made on their last night in Egypt. Ask the people: when God’s Day of Judgment is at hand, where’s the need for earthly lawyers?”
“What if soldiers give us trouble?” says the southern Simon.
“The laws of their kingdom say an armed soldier can make an unarmed man carry his pack for a mile,” says Jesus, “But if one does, go two miles to show him that in God’s kingdom, it’s the strong who will help carry the burdens of the weak.
“The laws of their kingdom say a soldier can slap us with the back of his hand, like he would strike a slave,” says Jesus. “But if one does, turn your face so he has to slap you with an open hand, the way he would challenge an equal!”
“How do you know it’s time?” asks Judas.
Jesus pauses, takes a close look at him. “When you see a cloud in the west, you know it’s going to rain. When you feel a wind from the south, you know it’s about to get hot. You know how to read the face of the sky: learn also to see the signs of the times. When you start to see old prophecies write themselves on the pages of life, the Day can’t be far.”
“So hurry!” Jesus says to them all. “Put your sickle to the grain before the storms come. Cast out the evil spirits, shout hope to the poor. When you find the sick, anoint them with oil like a prophet or a king—because the sick are sacred to God!
“And keep count of who is ready to leave everything to follow us, and where they are,” says Jesus, “because one king won’t move against another without first counting the strength of his troops.”
A thrill passes through the southern Simon’s body at this, and he looks around at the others: companions, friends, and fellow-laborers already, he imagines the day when they’ll also be military comrades. As he looks, though, he’s a little disappointed: no one else seems as stirred by these words as he feels. Matthew, who’s probably terrified at the prospect of fighting, just looks anxious. Philip and Nathanael don’t seem to have noticed. Even Peter’s looking at Jesus a little self-consciously, and the question that seems to be forming in his mouth doesn’t give any evidence of excitement.
“Will you pray for us before we go?” asks Peter.
And Jesus does. He starts the same way as always, the way Peter loves, calling God “my Father” instead of “Master of the Universe” or “Our King.” And he speaks like a son who’s close to his father, asking humbly that he and his companions will do the Father’s will, that when they don’t they’ll be forgiven and learn to forgive. He begs his Father that their faith won’t fail, and when he says “Amen,” it’s both affirmation and surrender: a witness that he believes the will of his Father will be done, and a promise that he’ll accept it.
When he’s done praying, Jesus leads the twelve up to the water. And then—believe it or don’t believe it, as you will—but I tell you the river parted for him that day the way it parted for his namesake all those years ago.
Only two pairs of apostles go straight to new towns: at Thomas’s suggestion, the other four pairs start in towns where Jesus has already been. Their plan is this: go find people who embraced Jesus’ teachings, ask them if they have relatives in other towns, and preach over kinship lines so they can spend more time teaching and less time looking for people to teach.
But things don’t always go according to plan.
Matthew and Thomas make a stop at a roadside village not far from Capernaum, where Jesus was received well on his last visit, but they find themselves greeted with suspicion. Old friends of Thomas’s have been here in the meantime: friends who followed Jesus, then left him. Memory is a strange thing, thinks Thomas: the people in this village have talked with Jesus, but the words they claim to have heard from his mouth sound more like the words his detractors would have left. How could they have forgotten the teachings that so recently moved them? Though their eyes remember, it’s as if their ears never really heard Jesus at all.
Judas and Simon travel farther before the rocky hillsides cut at their feet through sandals that have worn thin as they’ve walked with their Master. Luckily, they too are near a village that had gladly listened to Jesus just a few months ago. They can still remember the dance the villagers held the night before they left, still remember the toasts to new teachings, the promises people made to change.
But no one is celebrating in the village on the day Judas and Simon return. The mood is somber, and the people walk around half-slumped down as they labor in the heat. Judas and Simon try to start conversations, but no one seems interested. Finally, a tired-looking woman asks them, “What use are your teachings? John is dead, and your Master has abandoned us.” And that’s when Judas and Simon begin to understand what happened, begin to see how hopelessness has hardened into resentment here. They try to plead with people, try to revive their crushed young faith again—but it’s hard, thankless work, and they decide before long to move on.
Peter and Andrew come to the village Jesus’ brothers tried to take him home from, and everyone’s happy to see them again. They’re immediately invited back to the wine house, but there’s space today to serve real wine and they’re offered cup after cup after cup as aging men tell them how their farms are doing, and young men tell them about the thorny paths they’re taking in love. Peter and Andrew listen politely, then try to teach—but whenever they stop talking, the village men bring up the same things: farms and girls, girls and farms. And it’s clear that though they’ve nodded and made polite sounds, they haven’t been listening to the brothers at all. And though it seems each of the men invites Peter and Andrew to stay in his home that night, the brothers announce they have to move on. So late? say the men. “You remember how our Master worked,” says Peter. And then they leave and Andrew shudders at the way men can fail to realize what they have forgotten.
Thomas and Matthew, Judas and Simon, Peter and Andrew—each pair will go on to find people who are looking for truth. They’ll find places where they can do miracles and have their teachings understood, which is perhaps the greatest miracle of all. But they’ll also remember these first villages and know that no progress is immune to time. That if people stop searching for truth, they often lose even the truth they once had.
But Philip and Nathanael will have to learn those lessons from the others, because Thomas’s system works better for them than they could have imagined. At the farming village where they stop, even people who missed Jesus when he came can still recite the story of his teachings and give the names of the villagers he healed. The old women who cook for Philip and Nathanael have more questions to ask, and the old men listen with them to the apostles’ answers. When the apostles ask who’d be ready to follow Jesus if he needed them, it seems the whole town is prepared to give up crops and take only livestock, pitching tents like the children of Israel as they followed Moses and Joshua. And before Philip and Nathanael can ask about relatives in other towns, the villagers ask them to go and see their family members here and there, say they’ve sent word in advance that disciples of Jesus will be coming, and offer to send a young kinsman or two with them to witness that what they have to say is true.
How many people will hear about Jesus through each person in this village, Philip wonders. Thirty? Sixty? A hundred?
James and John aren’t teaching by the hundred: they often go whole days without finding anyone who wants to listen to them at all. But it doesn’t matter, because soon someone who’s been looking for Jesus finds them.
Her name is Joanna. She’s never met Jesus, she says, but she’s been collecting stories about him for some time now. And because she wants those little stories to fit together into a big story, she asks James and John question after question. Some they can answer: Where was he born? What’s the meaning of his story about the mustard seed? But other questions are more difficult: Why are there so many stories about evil spirits recognizing him? Why do they always seem to shout out God’s name?
“We don’t know everything,” say James. “We just know what it feels like to follow him, and that’s enough.”
“Can I talk to him myself?” asks Joanna.
The brothers hesitate. It’s not really safe for Jesus to come to Galilee now, they explain, given what he said about John the prophet just after the execution.
But Joanna smiles. Their Master doesn’t have to worry. Her husband, she tells them, is Herod’s palace steward. She and her husband know more than anyone would want to about Herod, and they know for a fact that he won’t touch Jesus, because he thinks that Jesus is John, returned from the dead to punish his killer.
“Is that true?” says James.
“I swear it,” says Joanna.
“How can we trust you? How do we know this isn’t a trap?” says John.
“Because my husband and I have sworn to serve the king,” she says.
“Yes,” says James. “That’s what we’re worried about.”
“We work for Herod,” says Joanna, “but it’s the true king of Israel we swore to serve.”
James and John don’t say anything.
“My husband’s a very wealthy man,” says Joanna. “Tell us what we can do for your Master.”
“We’ll go ask him,” says James, and he promises to meet her again the next week and tell her what Jesus says.
“Meet me in Magdala,” she says. “I have a cousin there.”
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.