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The Five Books of Jesus
Book Two, Chapter Eight
Magdala’s fishermen are still out on the lake when Jesus’ boat comes in, so it’s quiet on the harbor. For a moment, Peter wishes he could push out to fish instead of heading into the city: he knows how to harvest the lake’s bounty far better than he knows, even now, how to handle the crowds. But because he made a promise, he doesn’t hesitate long. He helps secure the boat and braces himself for the walk to Susannah’s house.
The walk isn’t far, but it is slow. Women fetching water from the creek leave their work to welcome Jesus back to the city and to tell him about the continuing health of people he healed. While Jesus listens to them, word of his return spreads. Soon a baker comes to Jesus to ask for a blessing and offer him two loaves of bread. Several beggars follow to ask for bread and offer Jesus their blessings.
While the apostles break bread for the beggars, four farmers arrive to thank Jesus, who prayed with them for good late rains on his last visit, for the prosperity of their crops. As they show off a stalk of their barley, a young man limps up, leaning on his brother, and interrupts to show Jesus the puffy redness that’s developed around a bite on his leg.
Peter starts to worry they’ll spend the rest of the day on the road.
They move again after Jesus heals the young man, but not far. Two students come with a question about Haman and Queen Esther. An old man has a complaint about a sharp pain in his gut. Several women come up from the creek again, having remembered more news. A father comes running to get advice about his stubborn son.
Peter’s ears ache.
The fishing boats start coming in and people from all over the city come down toward the harbor to buy fish. They see Jesus and shout out to friends to come down by the lake to see him. The newly arrived fishermen see Jesus and shout thanks to him for drawing out the whole city to buy.
“It’s enough,” says Jesus to Peter. “Let’s go.”
So Peter takes the lead, and they push their way through thick clusters of people up toward Susannah’s. When her servant sees them at the gate, he lets them in.
Peter is ready for the quiet he expects to find in her courtyard.
But the courtyard isn’t quiet. In the courtyard, Matthew and Thomas are meeting with a group of seventy men.
When Jesus comes in, Matthew and Thomas stop teaching and start explaining.
“We hope you don’t mind,” says Thomas, “but there were too many people for us to care for on our own. So we remembered how you divided the crowd before you fed them, and we called messengers to help us visit and teach the people.”
“You’ve done well,” says Jesus. “We can use the help.”
“They tell us how your followers are doing in their quarter of the city or their village,” says Matthew, “and we send them back with advice and instructions.”
“I’d like to hear from them and counsel with them,” Jesus says. “But others will be coming here soon, wanting to get in. Where can we go to talk in peace?”
Mary is the first to make a suggestion. “My sister’s village is always quiet.”
Jesus nods. “Come two by two,” he says to the seventy disciples, “without telling others where you’re going. Mary will tell us where her sister lives and we’ll meet there in two days.”
“She’ll be happy to host you,” says Mary.
Mary leaves that night and wakes well before sunrise the next day to help her sister Martha’s family sweep the house and borrow neighbors’ dishes and gather enough food to offer eighty-five men a simple meal. Though the day’s labors exhaust them, and though Jesus and the apostles arrive in the middle of the night, Martha and Mary wake well before dawn the next day to cook.
As they bake bread and boil lentils, their other seventy guests begin to arrive. The first to come sit in the courtyard and the last find space on the roof to listen, but everyone fits in the house somewhere.
Through the morning, Matthew and Thomas introduce the new messengers to Jesus, and Jesus asks questions about the people they care for and listens carefully to their answers. When he’s met and listened to them all, he compliments Matthew and Thomas on their selections and the men on their commitment and strength.
Then he holds up a hand for attention and says something that surprises everybody, Mary and the twelve included: “I need your help, because this is the last time I’m going to tour Galilee.”
“What does he mean?” Philip asks Nathanael, but Nathanael doesn’t ask Jesus, because Jesus has already started his first story.
The story is about a farmer, who rises to care for his crops on an early spring day just like this. But when he reaches his field, it’s even bigger than he remembered and the grain is already white like in summer, suddenly ready for the harvest.
The man runs straight to the center of town, calling out to ask everyone to help him bring in the unexpected bounty. He tells them to bring their sickles and their donkeys and promises he’ll send them home with all the grain the animals can carry. The workers come, but every time the man looks out the fields seem still bigger, still whiter. Full bundles of wheat are tied to every donkey on both sides until the animals almost disappear between their loads, but the ripe grain left in the field goes on and on. The man calls for more help, offering a full day’s wage to anyone who will leave what they are doing and help him. But even with a second group of helpers, he can’t keep up with the harvest. So the man falls on his knees, prays to the God who has blessed him so richly to send more workers to his field, whether they come from the next village or are strangers from afar.
At the end of the harvest story, Martha starts bringing plates with bread and lentils to the gathered men. She looks to Mary for help, but her sister is too busy listening to Jesus’ next story to notice.
This one is about a talented merchant who’s already made more money than an ordinary man can earn in five lifetimes. One day, with very little warning, the merchant is called away to a far country and doesn’t know when he’ll be able to come back. He calls three of his most devoted servants together and entrusts them with most of his wealth: the first servant is given twice his own weight in silver, the second his weight in silver, and the third half his weight in silver. He gives them use of his name and house in his absence, and he tells them to remember him and to prepare for his return.
The first and second servants immediately go to work, investing carefully, trading on their master’s behalf. As time passes, they throw themselves into their labors with a growing abandon—after all, each new contract is another chance to hear people speak their absent master’s name. Some of their ventures fail, and it devastates them. Most succeed, and the value and scale of their operations grow.
Though the third servant has been no less devoted to the master, he’s more cautious than the other two. He worries that if he invests in a certain kind of good, its price may fall before he can sell it. He worries that if he buys a farm, there won’t be enough rain, and that if he buys a fishing boat, it might sink in a storm. He doesn’t want to disappoint his master, or for men to speak ill of his master on his account, so he stops speaking of, or acting for, his master at all. Before long, he begins to worry that thieves might come for the money—so one night, when he’s sure no one is watching, he buries it deep in the ground.
Having buried the treasure, he returns to his life’s routine struggles. He cleans the master’s house, though it’s used so little these days there’s not much to worry about. He cooks meals, though often only for himself since the master, and usually also his fellow-servants, are gone. Still, the rhythms comfort him. Gradually, they surpass his memory of devotion, and he stops thinking of his master’s eventual return. It proves more enticing just to survive than to wait, and his memory begins to blur until it seems, as if at any moment, he may forget the man he once waited for.
Trees the first servant planted mature; grapes the second servant trampled develop into old wine. Then one spring, while the breeze pours color into waiting blossoms, their master returns.
Only the truly faithful, says Jesus, will ever be able to understand how the first two servants felt when they again saw their master’s face. Only the truly faithful will understand how their hearts beat as they ran to greet him, how right the tears of long-delayed reunion felt on their cheeks.
And only the truly faithful will be ready for the question their master asked: what have you done in my name?
The first two show him their ledgers, explain how they’ve each doubled what they were given, and now it’s their master who cries tears of joy. “Well done, my servants!” he says, and then he tells them of his own incredible success, beyond anything they could have imagined. The three of them laugh together, and the master says, “I left you with a few things; I’ve returned with many things. Then you were my servants; be rulers now in the house of your lord!”
In the next room, the third servant waits. The voice he once knew so well now sounds rough and weathered to him. When the master comes looking for him, his face seems like a stranger’s.
What about you? says the master. What have you done in my name?
I knew you were strict, says the third servant. I knew you reap rewards of work that wasn’t your own, and I was afraid you’d expect more from me than I can give. So I buried the silver in the ground. I’ll go dig it up for you now and return it: to tell the truth, it will be a great relief to have it out of my hands.
“Well said,” says the master, “your hands are worthless! If you felt I was too strict, why did you accept the silver when I left? If you knew I reap the rewards of work that wasn’t my own, why didn’t you take the money to lenders at a bank for interest?”
The servant doesn’t answer. He’s forgotten the devotion that once made him afraid to disappoint his master.
And in his silence, the master can tell his servant’s devotion is gone. “I don’t want to reap the rewards of others’ work,” says the master, “but I thought you were my own. If you no longer are, leave the silver and take your freedom. You no longer belong to my house.”
So the servant leaves a free man, released from the ties that once brought him great joy. That very night, he walks out of the master’s house into the darkness, and he never comes back.
Martha’s children helped when she borrowed nearly every stone cup in the village for her guests. But Martha trusts the children better with empty cups coming from the neighbors’ than with full cups in a crowded courtyard, and Mary hasn’t noticed her hints to come help, so she’s left carrying the cups on her own. Bringing so many cups alone isn’t easy: she doesn’t want Jesus’ men to grow thirsty waiting, so she carries as many at a time as she can, but even she has to walk carefully, watching her step and her balance, to avoid giving anyone a lapful of water or turning a patch of the floor to mud.
As if passing out so many heavy cups weren’t trouble enough, she starts noticing that many of the plates are empty. She doesn’t want the men to be hungry either, so she gathers plates as she hands out cups, trying to remember which groups to bring full plates back to and which men still need to drink. In the kitchen, she tries to guess how many lentils are left so she can tell the children how much more to serve onto each plate. As they fill the plates, she wonders whether she salted the lentils too heavily or cooked them too dry. Her daughter gives her plates to return and more cups to take out and asks her mother whether they’ll have to wash all the dishes by themselves. Martha searches for words as she struggles for balance, and finds herself wishing she had four hands to hold all these dishes and three hearts to hold all her thoughts. “If we need to, we will,” Martha tells her daughter. And then she goes back out to serve.
As she moves around among the men, one of the plates stacked under her arm starts to slide out. When she shifts to catch it, a cup nearly spills. She notices more empty plates and wonders again if she made enough food. She passes out more cups and wonders whether she borrowed enough. She sees her sister talking with an apostle and again fails to catch her eye, but nearly trips while trying and imagines what a disaster it would be in the crowded, hungry space if she dropped the food and dishes in a heap in the middle of the courtyard. How would she have time to clean up and care for everyone?
And so when Jesus himself stops talking to take a cup from her a moment after her near fall, her whisper to him is a bit fiercer than she’d intended: “Could you please tell Mary to come and help?”
But Jesus looks at her, not her sister. Looks at her hard, in a way that might be disconcerting if it didn’t command her whole attention. “Which Martha should I ask her to help,” he says, his own whisper far gentler than hers, “the one who’s so careful on the outside, or the one who’s so troubled within?”
And the question itself is a strange relief, because it cuts through all the worries she’s juggling. By demanding all her attention, Jesus focuses Martha’s mind and offers it a calm she very seldom feels.
“There are so many things a person can worry about,” he says to her. “But only one thing we all need to. Mary has chosen that, and it won’t be taken away from her.”
Martha nods and mumbles an apology: “Of course. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” says Jesus, “to ask was right. Not even an ox is made to work alone: why should a human be? Let me help you.”
“You don’t need to do that,” says Martha, suddenly self-conscious. “No, everyone’s come to hear you teach. I don’t want to interrupt.”
“It’s no interruption,” says Jesus. “My voice needs a rest: it’s better if they watch me teach a while.”
And before Martha can object any further, he’s taken several cups and half the plates from her. Before she can object, he’s following her back to the kitchen and helping the children spoon out the right amount of lentils and fill the rest of each plate with the right amount of bread before he takes them back to the right people. The seventy look on, bemused, to see their Master waiting on them. Mary suddenly remembers she should be helping her sister, but sits spellbound, trying to figure out what sort of story Jesus is acting out instead.
Not until the last cups have been brought out, until all empty plates have been refilled and returned to the groups who needed more, does Jesus speak to the seventy again.
“When I send you out to do my work, I want you to go two by two. If you yoke yourselves together, even hard work can feel easy. And if you find yourself alone someday, take me with you. You’ll know I’m there beside you because the burden will feel too light.”
The seventy nod sagely, but it’s Martha who will remember this for the rest of her life.
Mary joins Martha in the kitchen when the meal is over, and they wash the dishes slowly so they can still listen closely through the thin wall as the men ask questions and Jesus answers—or at least responds. It’s not always easy to tell how Jesus’ responses answer the questions.
One man asks how to handle financial disputes between Jesus’ followers, and Jesus responds with a story about a man who’s been mismanaging his master’s wealth for some time. When the master finds out, this corrupt servant panics. He knows he’s about to lose his position, but he’s also been dishonest too long to begin earning an honest living working with his hands, and he’s been proud far too long to start begging. So he puts his guile to work one last time, calling in rich debtors and altering their accounts in his master’s ledgers. If one owes a hundred measures of oil, he reduces it to fifty. If another owes a thousand bushels of wheat, he marks it down as eight hundred. If he can’t keep his job, after all, shouldn’t he make a few good friends to fall back on?
“If even corrupt men know the worth of friendship,” says Jesus, “why do good men let their disagreements over money rob them of their friends? Tell them to learn wisdom from the children of darkness—maybe then they’ll see the light!”
Another one of the seventy points out that significant prejudice against Jesus developed in his village when some of Jesus’ followers acted hypocritically. He asks how to identify and remove those whose actions are bringing Jesus’ name into disrepute, and Jesus answers with a story about weeds.
In the story, a farmer and his servants spend all day planting wheat seeds in a field. The labor exhausts them, so they sleep soundly and don’t hear the footsteps of a jealous rival in the field that night. Even though there are laws against sabotaging another man’s wheat by sneaking in ryegrass seeds, the rival fears neither the laws of men nor of God, so he does just that. At first, no one notices, since young wheat and young ryegrass look so much the same. With time, though, subtle differences begin to appear, and when one of the servants sees them, he bursts into tears. “I thought I checked the seeds carefully,” says the servant, “so how did this happen?”
The farmer takes a close look and nods grimly. “It’s not your fault,” he tells the servant, “I think I know who did this.” And he tells the servants about his enemy, who cares for his own profit more than another man’s hunger.
The servants have worked hard planting and caring for this field, so it’s no surprise they get upset. “We’ll work from the first to the last light,” they say. “We’ll rip out every weed by tomorrow night!”
But the farmer tells them not to, tells them if they rush things now, they’ll tear half the young wheat plants up with the ryegrass.
“What can we do then?” say the servants.
“Wait,” says the farmer. “It will be easy to tell one plant from another when they’re full-grown: do your best now to nourish the wheat and save the final judgments for the time of the harvest.”
“I have a question,” says one of the seventy a little nervously. “What’s the truth about the resurrection? The last time I traveled to the Temple, a priest there told me it’s just superstition. He says Moses never taught it, and that it’s written nowhere in the sacred books.”
Jesus laughs. “Did he read about the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob? Ours is a God of the living, not of the dead.”
“So if eternal life is real,” says the man, “how do we get it?”
“You already know,” says Jesus. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength! and Don’t seek revenge or hold onto a grudge against one of your own people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”
Some of the seventy laugh—even a child should know these two passages. The man who asked, though, presses on. “Who counts in these wicked days as our own people?” he says.
“Yes, tell us!” says another, with a twinkle in his eye. “Is it enough to love our fellow Galileans, or do we have to find room in our hearts for all those people crowded into Judea, too?”
Not all of Judea is crowded, Jesus says. Jerusalem certainly is, but the road from there to Jericho winds down through rock and dust, and sometimes on that road you don’t see another living soul for miles.
Jesus looks right at the man who joked about Galilee and Judea. You don’t want to take that journey, Jesus says to him, unless you absolutely have to: the men who hide in those hills will do anything to stay alive. Then Jesus tells about a man who’s been ambushed on that winding road. The thieves have missed nothing, even ripped the clothes off his back. When he resisted, they beat him and stabbed him and left him face-down in the dust, naked and half-dead.
A chilly wind has picked up by the time a priest from Jerusalem walks by. The priest is frightened, and he doesn’t want to stop for anything, so he tells himself the man is dead, and reminds himself it’s his duty to God not to touch a corpse. He steps to the far side of the road and rushes on, hoping the corpse is cold already and the killers far away.
A Levite from the north happens by next. He slows down as he gets closer to the body, notices there’s fresh red blood alongside the dried black. He wonders if he should do something, but he knows the thieves in these hills are ruthless, and he wonders if it might be a trick. In his mind’s eye, he sees himself walking up to the wounded man: the wounded man turns and grabs him, maybe just to rob him, maybe to slit his throat. The Levite shudders and passes on the far side of the road.
Then comes a Samaritan, a mongrel and a heretic, whose people have sometimes claimed to be heirs of Israel and sometimes persecuted Israel’s sons. The Samaritan sees the body on the side of the road and he stops. The light is already going: surely, the Samaritan thinks, this man will freeze to death in the night—if there’s any blood left in his body by then. It would be terrible, he thinks, to die alone on a roadside like that: does the man have a wife and children somewhere who will wonder for years if he abandoned them by choice or was kept from home by accident? Who will wonder for years whether or not there’s still a chance that he’ll come back?
Though the Samaritan knows that thieves may be watching him, he kneels down beside the man to help. He pours oil and wine on the man’s wounds to clean them, bandages them to stop the slow escape of blood. He puts the man across his donkey’s back and starts forward again, not letting himself think about danger or knives until he’s safely at an inn, until he’s looked to the man’s wounds again and is confident he’ll be all right.
In the morning, the Samaritan has to go, but he leaves two days’ wages with the innkeeper. Take care of him, he says, and makes the innkeeper promise he won’t hesitate to spend more if necessary. Then he promises the innkeeper he’ll come back soon, and that he’ll pay whatever else it costs to make sure the man recovers and gets back the strength to return to his children and wife.
Jesus looks again at the man who joked about Galilee and Judea. “Which of the three, do you think, kept the commandment?”
The man takes a moment to search for words. He can’t bring himself to praise a Samaritan in front of everyone, but he can’t deny the force of this story either. “The one who showed mercy,” he says.
“Then forget what Sira’s son wrote about who to hate,” says Jesus to everyone, “if you want to know who to count as your own people.”
And then he turns away and starts to pray for them. “Father,” he says, “let your kingdom come. Let your will be done through these men.”
And as Jesus prays, they feel God so close it’s almost as if they can see Him. And when he finishes praying, they open their mouths and begin to prophesy without quite knowing what they’re doing. They prophesy and start to feel the shape of heaven in their mouths.
In the kitchen, Mary and Martha are also prophesying, and no one is telling them not to.
Mary prophesies about a day when a stone will be rolled aside without the touch of human hands and go on to fill the earth—but Martha prophesies about a bad wind that will have to bring more than anyone’s fill of trouble first.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.