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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Twelve
Apostles return from the north, south, and east to their meeting place in the hills, but Matthew’s group is late. As he watches for them, Nathanael grows more and more nervous. Didn’t the other nine leave the province for a reason? Aren’t they keeping out of sight for a reason now? What might have happened to the one group that stayed in Galilee?
When he catches the first sight of them in the distance, Nathanael forgets caution and stealth and shouts out a greeting at the top of his lungs. He runs out to embrace them, and Andrew and Judas follow. They’re already sharing stories and laughing when they get back to Jesus, who interrupts to ask, “Where’s my mother?”
“We didn’t know if you would all be here yet,” says Matthew, “so we left her and Mary to wait at Martha’s.”
“Good,” says Jesus. “Martha’s is on our way.” And without another word, he heads out. His long, steady stride sets a pace now so familiar to these disciples that walking again beside him feels like coming home.
They talk as they walk. Several apostles report briefly on their journeys, but Jesus doesn’t say much until Matthew’s turn—and then he’s full of questions. Jesus asks all about his brothers and sisters, about how the house he grew up in is looking now, about how his mother did on the journey and what she seems to think of Martha and Mary. He asks whether she’s eating well, and whether she seems to be sleeping enough, and Matthew laughs.
“If you cared about your own health as much as you do about hers, I’d have had better answers when she asked those questions!” Matthew says.
After Jesus has been assured that his mother is fine, he asks Andrew, Judas, and Simon about the people they talked to in the south. He nods in approval as they tell him how many of the men they once knew as John’s disciples are eager to meet him or see him again. He slows down and asks a few questions as Simon talks about the growing excitement among his old friends.
Thomas and Nathanael share greetings with Jesus from various followers on the far side of the lake, and Philip introduces him to a beardless young trader from Pella, the only merchant who would follow them back. Jesus thanks the three for fulfilling their mission so well and walks ahead with the lanky young man. Jesus and the trader talk rapidly in low tones, and the apostles walk just out of earshot behind.
Most of them are happy to talk with each other while Jesus walks ahead. Peter tells Andrew about a man on the marsh who had a laugh just like their father did when they were young. Nathanael asks Matthew if he was nervous spending so long in Galilee after Jesus’ dream, but all Matthew seems to want to talk about is the news from the east side of the lake. Philip and James share a salted piece of fish and tell old stories from their villages’ harbors.
But John doesn’t feel like talking. He keeps thinking about the fire he felt on the mountain and about the truths he has to keep hidden for now, locked deep down in his bones. Until Jesus returns—from what? John tries and he tries, but he can’t seem to remember what Elijah and Moses said.
Simon doesn’t talk with anyone either. He wants to tell someone how unsettled he feels, but he can’t quite explain it to himself. Why should he be bothered by how quick his old friends were to call Jesus the Star of Jacob, or by how much they say they’re willing to do to help him bring judgment to the foreign nations? Is he afraid to have Matthew know his friends are Zealots? Or is he afraid of what his old friends might want his Master to become?
Thomas keeps his eyes on the road in front of him. But he isn’t thinking of that road, he’s remembering the roads that lead east out past the ten cities. He can’t seem to get those roads out of his mind, can’t forget how they seemed to call to him to walk out past the borders of the Empire, on past the Tigris and Euphrates and the mountains where king Cyrus was born—but if he doesn’t even know where those roads end, how can he explain the depth of his wish to get there?
Halfway to Martha’s, while Jesus is still talking with the trader from Pella, Philip asks the other apostles a question. “When the kingdom comes, Jesus says we’ll sit as judges over the twelve tribes—but how will that work?”
“What do you mean?” says James. “Are you asking which tribe each of us will get?”
Philip shakes his head. “I mean, most of the tribes are gone. How are they coming back?”
“Maybe they’re hidden in distant lands. Maybe he’ll send some of us out to find them,” says Thomas.
“Or we’ll fight to free them,” says Simon. “Like the judges of old.”
“No,” says Andrew, “it’s written that in the days of the Messiah, foreign nations will bring them back to us: I will give my signal to the nations and lift up a banner to the peoples, and they will bring your sons back in their arms, and carry back your lost daughters on their shoulders. Kings will be their foster fathers, and queens their nursemaids.”
“So kings will gather around us?” says Philip. “Who gets to accept children from Caesar?”
“It’ll be Matthew,” says John. “He has the ledger.”
Several of the apostles laugh.
“It wouldn’t be me,” says Matthew. He knows John doesn’t mean any insult by associating him with Caesar, but he suspects others are still troubled by his old life. “It would probably be Peter,” he says. “Caesar’s the most powerful king, so he would have to report to the most important one of us.”
“Is Peter the most important?” says Nathanael.
“I don’t know,” says Matthew. “He and James and John are the ones Jesus took with him, and they’re the first three he called, so it would be one of them. It just seemed to me like it would be Peter.”
“Andrew was called before any of them,” says Judas quietly.
“Not really before,” says Andrew. “At the same time as Peter.”
“No,” says Judas, “he was calling you because he recognized you from the Jordan. You were the first.”
Andrew wants to point out it doesn’t really matter, but before he can Thomas says, “Why should the first be most important? Judas is the one who makes sure we eat!”
Andrew laughs, but James doesn’t.
“We know the most about the kingdom,” says James, “since we’ve been with him from the beginning.”
“If you know more, why haven’t you taught us?” says Thomas.
James doesn’t answer.
“Do you have secrets? Does Andrew know something about the missing tribes that Simon and I don’t?” Thomas says.
“It’s my opinion, that’s all,” says Andrew.
“But James went north with Jesus,” says the other James. “Maybe he knows something you don’t.”
“I don’t know how the tribes will return,” says James. “Jesus knows, and that’s enough. But if we fight, my brother and I are fighting on his right and left sides. If kings and queens come to return the lost and offer him tribute, we’ll be on his right and his left when he receives them.”
Simon laughs. “I won’t dispute your place in the royal court, but if we’re fighting, I don’t see the wisdom in putting a man who’s good with a net on Jesus’ right side. I think he’d prefer someone who’s faced men with a sword.”
“That’s true,” says the broad-chested Judas. “Things are different if we fight than if angels fight for us.”
“And if the angels fight alongside us,” says James, “then faith matters more than experience. Who trusts God enough to be protected from the enemy’s arrows? Whose arms will be made strong by the hands of Jacob’s God?”
“You think your faith will be the same,” says Simon, “after you’ve seen some of your friends kill and watched others die?” He waits a moment but doesn’t get an answer. “Every man has great courage until it’s put to the test. We’ll see who’s brave when the day of trouble comes.”
James opens his mouth to respond, but Peter stops him. “I think we’ve argued enough,” he says.
And so they walk on in silence.
They’re hot and they’re tired, but John and Judas still break into a run and race each other to the house when they see Martha’s children playing outside. John gets there first, and the boys jump on his back. The little girls crowd around Judas instead—they still remember how he shared some dried fruit with them and their brothers the last time he came.
When Jesus arrives in the courtyard, his mother takes one look at him, turns around and marches off toward the kitchen.
“Don’t you want to greet your son?” Martha asks.
“Of course,” says Mary, loud enough for everyone to hear, “but look at how thin he is. He needs to eat first so there’s something for me to hug.”
Jesus laughs. “Man doesn’t live by bread alone,” he calls after her, “but by heeding the words of God.”
“By the sweat of your face you should eat your bread,” she shouts back. “God says you have to eat.”
Jesus laughs again, turns to his disciples, and throws his hands up. “My mother has defeated me!” he says, and he crouches down beside the courtyard wall to wait. Martha’s youngest daughter sits on the ground beside him and plays with the fringes on his robe.
Jesus turns to James. “Since we have some time,” he says, “maybe you can tell me what all of you were arguing about on the road.”
It’s not nearly as embarrassing to say something foolish as it is to be asked, after a period of more thoughtful reflection, to repeat it. James doesn’t think he can hide anything from Jesus, but he doesn’t want to speak up either.
Jesus looks to the other apostles. “You still want to know who’s the most important in the Kingdom of God?” he says.
And though they all shake their heads and mumble apologies, Jesus rises and scoops up Martha’s youngest daughter. She giggles as he puts her up on his shoulder.
“If you can be as small as this child,” says Jesus, “then I’ll lift you up, too, and you can be the greatest!”
The girl laughs again as Jesus spins her around and the apostles feel shame loosen its grip on their hearts. From the kitchen, the women hear the laughter, and the sisters drag Jesus’ mother away from her cooking for a moment to go with them to see what’s going on.
They come into the courtyard as Jesus lowers Martha’s daughter down off his shoulder and holds her tight for a moment in his arms. “Whoever receives even one child in my name receives the whole kingdom of God,” Jesus says.
“Then women are truly blessed,” says Jesus’ mother, and she laughs. “I’ve received the whole kingdom straight from heaven now seven times!”
“No wonder they feel so heavy inside,” says Martha, and her laugh is as full of joy as the older Mary’s.
But Mary from Magdala, who hasn’t been able to marry or give birth, just smiles: happy for her sister and all the world’s mothers, but also more than a little sad. Then Rejoice, O barren! she tells herself, break forth into singing! Your day, too, will come, she thinks. The prophets say your day will come.
That night, Jesus and the twelve talk about the route they’ll take south: between the Jordan and the endless Judean hills. Though they’ve lived off the generosity of local people alone on past missions, Jesus suggests they take along some money and a few provisions this time.
Then Jesus lets his twelve tired friends sleep and sits to talk a little with his mother before he lets himself rest.
“They seem to be good men,” she says. “All of them have honest faces. And Martha and Mary are wonderful—they have humble hearts.”
“They’re all like the salt of the earth,” he says. “I’d love them anyway, but I love them for that.”
Mary looks at her oldest son. “I wanted your brothers to come with me,” she says. “But they didn’t want to. I don’t know if they’re offended or afraid.”
“I’ll go see them again as soon as I can,” says Jesus. “You know I have other things to do now, but I still miss them. I’ve been wanting to see my James.”
Mary smiles. They sit a while quietly, not needing to talk. They’ve been happy just to sit together since he was very young. She’s been happy to sit quietly with him in times of joy or pain or both from the first moment she held him in her arms.
“Do you have to go south now?” Mary asks. “With so many good people around you, couldn’t you stay here in Galilee a little longer?”
“Meat can be seasoned with salt alone,” says Jesus. He stands up. “But a sacrifice has to be salted with fire.”
Then he kisses his mother on the forehead, and he goes to bed.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.