Book Two, Chapter Seven
It’s a three days’ walk straight from Magdala to Zarephath: two if you’re in a hurry. Jesus doesn’t go straight or hurry, so it takes him a week and a half.
They spend the first day in Magdala. Jesus has a long talk with Matthew and Thomas, who he’s leaving behind to care for his followers here. Mary and Judas pack provisions while the others prepare the boat.
On the second day, they cross the lake and stop in Capernaum because Jesus wants to eat again with Peter’s mother-in-law. But a single meal’s visit extends to three days when Jesus learns about all the problems for and between his followers in the nearby towns.
In Capernaum, former disciples of Jesus continue to trouble those who still respect him. They bring cases against them to the court and oppose them in commerce. They debate them in the marketplace and harass them on the long walk up the town’s harbor. Though Jairus and Zebedee have tried time after time to reach out to them, they refuse to be pacified.
Jesus can’t change the opposition in Capernaum, but he visits and comforts those who have suffered because of it, and he counsels with the most influential of his followers over what can be done to protect the vulnerable.
In Bethsaida, there’s not nearly as much trouble with outside critics. But the farmers who listened to Jesus the first time he visited town interpret his story of the unpraised servant one way, while the fisherman, who came to love Jesus on his second visit, interpret it another. They’ve argued over it since he left, and a few men have nearly come to blows over the difference.
Jesus refuses to say which party in the dispute was right and reminds them instead that the wisdom of the wise will perish. Then he tells them another story: about a vineyard where the workers are hired at different times of day but paid the same in the end. Before he leaves, he asks Philip, who’s related to half of Bethsaida’s fishermen, and Nathanael, whose father is a respected local farmer, to stay for a while as models of harmony and cooperation.
The worst problems are in Chorazin. Two brothers were among Jesus’ first followers here, and it was their extraordinary energy that helped change many from simple spectators into true disciples. But the brothers’ wealthy father has since died, and there’s a bitter dispute between them over the inheritance. For a month, the brothers’ boundless energy has been poured into winning the townspeople over to one side or the other of their dispute, and now the city is bathed in the bad blood between them.
The younger brother finds Jesus and explains that he’s been wronged. “My brother has a stiff neck and a stubborn heart,” he says. “But you can persuade him to give me my full share of the inheritance.”
“Who made me a judge to divide it for you?” says Jesus. “But I’ll tell you this: if all of your father’s wealth is left to him, and only our Father’s wealth is left for you, then you will be the richer of the brothers.”
Once he’s comforted people in Capernaum, reconciled them in Bethsaida, and instructed them in Chorazin, Jesus and his companions leave the three towns. They almost make it to the border between Galilee and Phoenicia in a single day, and then are delayed another four days in a storm.
It’s cold and it’s wet and the rain is quickly turning the steep hillside roads into rivers of mud when Jesus and his remaining companions find a sparsely-furnished cave that calls itself an inn. The place is already crowded with several merchants from Sidon and Tyre and their servants, but the innkeeper is more than willing to overcrowd his establishment if that means he can profit from the storm.
The only foreigners in Capernaum are the captain and his soldiers, who keep to themselves, so Andrew is both frightened and fascinated seeing so many strange customs at once. He wishes Matthew were here because Matthew knows how to talk to men from other nations. But even Matthew wouldn’t know how to share dishes and sleeping space with them. After all, even in the big cities like Antioch where the taxman has been, the rulers know enough to build strong walls between the quarters for the Greeks, the Syrians, and the Jews.
And what would happen if they didn’t? In the south, Jews have to fight from time to time against Greek settlers who openly desecrate the sacred. And in the ten cities, didn’t the Greeks blame all Jews when one child grew sick?
When one of the Phoenician merchants keeps watching Mary, it makes Andrew nervous. He doesn’t know what the Phoenician is thinking. Judas must be nervous, too, because he tells the merchant to stop staring at his sister. The merchant stops, and Andrew is relieved—until Judas gets sick that night and Andrew has to wonder whether it’s just the food or if the Phoenician is trying to poison him. All through the night, Andrew cares for Judas, who keeps waking up sick from his sleep. And as he tends his friend in the darkness, so close to these strangers, Andrew wishes for a wall.
But in spite of Andrew’s misgivings, Jesus and the merchants quickly grow comfortable with each other. And because Jesus is comfortable, Andrew decides to be comfortable, too. Though he never grows accustomed to the way the Phoenicians eat, and he never learns to follow discussions about their trade routes, he begins to enjoy sharing space and swapping stories. He and the others don’t mind when the merchants mumble calculations at odd hours, and the merchants aren’t bothered by how often these Jewish travelers pray.
One merchant, in particular, grows fascinated with Jesus. They all know Jesus is a preacher, but only this one wants to understand what exactly Jesus has to preach. And since the rain goes on and on, Jesus has time to explain in great detail, even has time to tell the merchant about old Hebrew prophets he’s never heard of.
On their third day in the inn, Jesus tells the merchant a story about a beggar who lies in anguish at a rich man’s door. The beggar only wants the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, but out of spite the rich man throws the crumbs to the wild street dogs, who come and lick the beggar’s open sores when they’re done. As God is good, the beggar is lifted in the next life from suffering to peace. And as God is just, the rich man is cast down after his death from comfort into torment.
In his anguish, the rich man calls out to Abraham, begging permission to go back to the land of the living to warn his self-satisfied brothers of the sorrow to come. But Abraham says they have the prophets to warn them.
“But my brothers would listen to me,” says the rich man.
“No,” says the patriarch Abraham. “If they won’t listen to the prophets, they won’t listen even to a messenger who rises from the dead.”
The merchant takes a long look at Jesus when the story is done. “There are beggars all over Tyre,” he says. “But no prophets to warn us when we step over them on our way to the docks, or have our servants shove them aside when we unload our cargo.” He grows quiet for a moment, then speaks again. “You should come to us,” he says. “I think my people would listen if they heard you teach.”
“I can’t go where I’m invited,” says Jesus. “Only where I’m sent.”
But the merchant still offers to send a servant back with them, offers to let them stay in his house. And Jesus still declines the offer, asks what interest an island city of traders who spend half their lives in boats, sailing to the ends of the earth, would have in an Israelite preacher who’s never been farther than you could walk in a week. So the merchant lets the matter rest.
That night, Mary wakes with a serious fever. The merchant is lying awake and sees how sick she looks, then sees Jesus cast the illness out. He asks how she recovered so quickly and Jesus speaks of faith. He asks if this has happened before and Peter tells about his mother-in-law. The merchant grows excited. “If you go to my city,” he says, “just heal the sick like that and soon everyone will believe.”
But Jesus quotes him a proverb from the prophet Amos: Can an ox plough the sea? So much separates our people, he says: if I was made for Israel, how can I work anywhere else?
“Then why are you on this road?” says the merchant, but Jesus just smiles and shrugs.
That evening, the merchant starts to fear that the rain will let up and their time together will end too soon, so he asks Jesus questions with an intensity that startles the other merchants. He wants to know what Jesus believes about the future, wants to know whether there’s a time when Jesus will be able to send men to his house. That’s when Jesus begins to tell him especially strange old Jewish stories, about walls that collapse without a weapon being lifted, about lambs who lie down beside wolves and a lion who eats straw like an ox while men beat swords into ploughs.
The merchant asks if in those days, the lion will plough the same sea the ox couldn’t.
Jesus embraces him. All at once, the rain stops.
On the fourth day, everyone sits outside the cave and waits for the sun to dry the mud enough to make travel safe. The merchants repeat invitations to each other’s homes, promise to meet again, then wish Jesus and his companions warm goodbyes. They go their separate ways: some back toward their homes on the coast, others farther into Herod’s Galilee, or northeast toward his brother Philip’s capitol.
The curious merchant from Tyre lingers when the others have gone. He thanks Jesus again and again for the time together and the things he’s learned. Then he turns to Mary and the eight apostles and gives them careful directions to his home. He’s confident, he says, that someday one of them will visit him.
He walks off to the southeast. Jesus watches him go. “That man is not far from the kingdom of God,” he says.
From the last hills before the coast, the ocean seems to go on forever. From the last hills before the coast, the white tongues of the breaking waves strike Mary as looking thirsty, and she thinks: this is why they say that no matter how many rivers flow into it, the sea is never full.
Maybe, Mary thinks, it’s not the wave-tips that are thirsty, but the salty air itself. No one ever told her the world could look or feel so different on the coast of the sea, and Mary sometimes finds herself getting lost in the sensation and falling behind, then having to run a little to keep up.
And while the people here look almost as unfamiliar as the land does, they’re neither distant nor unkind. Day laborers are quick to offer travelers a little of their water; passing shepherds are quick to offer advice in their thick, lilting accents on where to stop for a rest to get the best shade.
A few of them have even heard of Jesus through the servants of a merchant who came back this way. But most haven’t, and Jesus seems to appreciate the chance to be anonymous. He has time to ask the apostles about their preaching tours, time to ask Mary for details about the kinds of people who gathered around him in her hometown. Who are they reaching, he asks them all, and who else can they reach?
Their conversations slow when the hill path out of Galilee merges into a busy coastal road. Mary is torn between watching the sea and watching the people and animals they pass. At first, it’s nice to have so many sights to choose from. When the road turns into narrow steps up a chalky cliff, though, everything begins to seem too close: a passing donkey forces Mary to the edge of the road and she doesn’t like looking down the long, sheer drop to the surface of the sea. She can’t seem to help imagining her body falling and floating out, out farther than the eye can see—to Rome, maybe, or to Spain, or else past the pillars they say stand at the end of the world. Yes, Mary imagines her body floating out to a place where there’s only endless sea and she shivers as she thinks about how the prospect of violent death can drain all the beauty out of anything.
So although the sight of the ships coming and going from Tyre is still striking, it doesn’t fill her with wonder quite the way her first sight of the sea did. And although the sunset over the waters as they approach Zarephath is breathtaking, Mary finds her chest tightening with the fear that they might stumble to their deaths in the dark.
There is very little light left when they reach town, but Mary strains her eyes against the grey to keep a close eye on the path and they all survive. The local people give them directions to a handful of Jewish houses at the edge of town, and there’s a family who think they’ve heard of Jesus and is more than happy to host them for a few nights. Jesus thanks them and asks them not to mention their guests to anybody. He seems to be getting fond of being able to treat his time as his own.
That luxury doesn’t last long. Jesus and his apostles are sitting outside the house eating breakfast with their hosts when an emaciated Phoenician woman comes up and throws herself on the ground in front of them. “Son of David!” she shouts. “Son of David, remember your father’s friendship with our King Hiram!”
“Do you know her?” whispers James to the father of the family they’re staying with.
The man shakes his head. “No, but she’s dressed the way their custom requires for widows. No doubt she’ll tell her sad story—and then she’ll ask for money.”
Judas cringes. Even the poor have ears to hear: if their host can’t be more kind, Judas wishes he’d at least be more quiet.
But the woman doesn’t even glance at him: she stays focused on Jesus and presses on. “It’s my daughter,” she says. “An evil spirit has been troubling her. For almost a year, she doesn’t get worse but she never gets better. Almost a year, I’ve tended to her, done everything I can and she still can’t do more than groan. I miss my girl,” she says. “I miss her.”
Jesus looks at her, but he doesn’t say anything.
“I heard you’re a healer,” she says. “When I saw you, I knew it was true. Lord,” she says, and she weeps. “Give me my daughter back.”
“I was sent to Israel,” Jesus says, and he looks at his hosts. “There are so many of my own people suffering, am I supposed to be responsible for the rest of the world, too?”
But “Please, Lord” is all the woman says. “Please please please please,” and she kneels as if to pray, or maybe just to beg.
“Your people call mine donkeys,” says Jesus. He glances at Andrew. “And my people call yours dogs.” He looks back at the widow kneeling before him. “Tell me: how can we ever help each other when our nations share so little trust?”
The woman looks up at him. “I don’t know why men speak badly of donkeys,” she says, “when they bear the burdens which are too heavy for us. And not all dogs run wild in the streets: people take some into their homes; they love and take care of them.”
“Well spoken,” says Jesus, and the hint of a smile passes across his face as quickly as a flying bird’s shadow. Then he looks hard at the woman again: “But tell me what you think of this proverb from my country: ‘when the children are hungry, you don’t give their bread even to the pet dog.’”
“That’s a wise saying,” she says. “The children should have what they are able to eat. But when the dog comes to lie under the table, doesn’t it have a right to the children’s crumbs?”
Then Jesus laughs and claps his hands. “This proverb is even better than the first! Take my thanks with you and go home now: your daughter is well.”
It’s a sign of the woman’s faith that her eyes already dance with delight. She doesn’t need to see the girl to feel deep relief.
As he watches her go, Jesus turns again to Andrew. “Be sure to tie knots strong enough you don’t forget what she said.” While Andrew ties the knots, Jesus chants some lines from the Psalms: How can I leave the way of the judgments you have taught me? How sweet are your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter to my mouth than honey.
Jesus finishes his breakfast and rises. He thanks their hosts and tells them he’ll be heading back to Galilee now.
“Won’t you stay longer?” they say.
“No, thank you,” says Jesus. “To tell the truth, we came all this way looking for a meal, and I feel that now we’ve been well fed.”
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to travel more than a week for a single breakfast, but what else do you expect from a man like Jesus?
When they get back to Philip and Nathanael in Bethsaida, the news is not good. The farmers and the fishermen are fighting again. After a few days of trying to reconcile, the brothers in Chorazin went back to their feud and pulled the people with them, so that no one seems to remember Jesus’ promise that the meek will inherit the earth. And in Capernaum, they find the persecution has only gotten worse. Jesus’ former disciples have worked hard to trouble all the people their former Master comforted on his last visit.
So Jesus goes out near the lakeside and broods. As he stares out across the water, he seem to fall into a prophetic trance. Woe to Chorazin, Woe to Bethsaida, he says. He looks around at the apostles. “If I’d done the same things in Tyre and Sidon I’ve done here, they’d have repented like Nineveh did at the words of Jonah long ago: the whole city would have fasted, they’d have covered even their animals in sackcloth and ashes. What will those people say to the people here when the Day of Judgment comes?”
No one has an easy answer.
“I wanted to lift Capernaum up to heaven,” says Jesus, “but it doesn’t want to come. I offered them the kingdom of God, but they’d rather gnash their teeth at us as if they were already in the underworld.”
The apostles think of men they used to walk with, men who sat beside them to hear Jesus’ words. Men whose hearts seem to have room only for anger now.
“The wind is blowing,” says Jesus.
And so they climb into a boat and get it ready to sail, though they feel heavier with disappointment than all the anchors on all the ships in this long harbor.
Of all the nations on earth into which Jesus could have been born, maybe it’s true that no other would have given him so much resistance. But if that’s the case, it’s probably also true that though other peoples would have repented in sackcloth and ashes while he was alive, this is the only nation on earth stubborn enough to remember Jesus after he’s dead.
By the time they push off, a little crowd has gathered on the wharf to wish them well. There’s practical old Zebedee and his fiery wife Salome; there’s Jairus and his healthy-looking daughter, waving goodbye with all the energy of her youth. There’s Peter’s mother-in-law, folding the same hands that kneaded the dough for their bread in a half-conscious attitude of prayer; beside her is Peter’s wife, whose lantern they know is always full and ready for their next return.
As Judas watches them disappear in the growing distance, he finds himself growing angry. If it weren’t for the efforts of a few men who betrayed Jesus, he thinks, Capernaum would be close to heaven now. Surely, people like those on the dock could have walked with God like Enoch did. Surely such people could have ridden a flaming chariot straight to heaven like Elijah.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.