The Troublemaker

Most of those who had gathered around him were now drifting away, one by one.  Many of them had been disposed to secretiveness, confrontation and resistance.  But he had advocated the changing of minds and the softening of willfulness; and he was generally disliked because he pointed out the error of worldly ways, to his followers’ consternation.

So it had come to the point where he had even asked the dozen of those who were still the most supportive, “Do you want to abandon me, too?”  However, it was agreed that the group would confine itself to Galilee, and stay out of Judea where he incurred the most rancor and hostility.

But with the imminence of the Feast of the Tabernacles, the others felt drawn by tradition to depart for the holy week in Jerusalem.  He had told them that he would remain near his beloved Sea of Galilee.  Then, after a few days, he reconsidered.  He had, after all, gained a few new adherents each time he appeared during the public holidays; and he chafened at the thought of being subdued in his activities because of timidity.  So he set out on the road south, despite the heat, this time traveling alone.  He preferred the solitude anyway.

Along the way, he could not help recalling his last couple of visits to the city.  He had come close to being stoned by the Passover crowd, just six months before, incited by local Pharisees. But he had, then, been accompanied by his closest followers; and, since they were all somewhat alike in appearance, he had managed to fade in among the others and to slip away.

He’d earlier heard what had befallen Hospeth of Arimathea during the previous year’s Feast of Dedication.  Scribes had pretended to be tolerant listeners of his gnostic teachings; but, at the first mention of unorthodoxy, they interrupted:  “Learned one, we sons of Abraham—in order to comply with the instructions of Moses—do perform circumcision on the Sabbath.  And yet it is true that the Fourth Commandment says that no activity is to be conducted on the holy day.  Are we wrong in our interpretation of the Law?”

Hospeth was said to have replied that the instructions of Moses were given by man, whereas the Commandments were given by God—and there were no exclusions or exceptions cited.  Therefore, any such instructions by man, Hospeth’s opinion concluded, must be wrong in the eyes of God.

Stopping along the road to rest, he mused on Hospeth’s exchange with the scribes.  “Better had he replied,” the thought occurred, “'Are the children of God not ordained to have a foreskin?’”

But, he surmised before resuming the road, Hospeth’s greatest mistake was likely not his direct rebuke of the scribes, but that he had also scratched on the Temple wall GOD’S TOMB.  The gnostic was not seen again after that, nor was the man’s body ever discovered.

He then recalled his own previous visit at Passover, and how it had begun in an unnerving way.  During the first couple of days that he had addressed listeners near the Temple, a tall and slender man among the Pharisees stood closer than the others, watched him more intently, and tarried until the last questioner had been answered.

Then when the Galileans walked as a group to where they were invited to spend the night, that Pharisee followed them at a distance.

After dark, their host cautiously answered a knock at the door. The tall Pharisee, now wearing a cowl, softly asked if he could come in, and in private hear the words of the teacher.  He assured the group that he was alone; and he'd brought a flagon of oil as a goodwill offering.

So the two of them had retired to the storeroom, sat on stools and talked into the night by candlelight.  He introduced himself, once they were alone together, as Nicodemus who lived nearby in Bethany.  And he said that although he was one of the twenty-three officials of the Sanhedrin, he’d been drawn to the obvious truth of some of the words he'd heard over the past two days, although skeptical at first.  He then asked probing questions, and listened thoughtfully to each response.

After a few hours, the man’s initial questions seemed resolved, and he asked that the meeting be kept confidential.  They had remarked, at one point, on something they had in common: both were unmarried.  The man extended an invitation to stay at his house, with discretion, on a future trip south, indicating that he hoped to deepen his understanding of the teaching.

Nicodemus could be the host on this trip, it occurred to him; and he picked up his pace with renewed energy in contemplation of their next discussion.  It brought a smile to remember that, on their parting, Nicodemus had said, “Thank you, Rabbi.”

Too, the kindly Pharisee had demonstrated his tolerance in a helpful way, by giving useful advice: Do not appear at the festival during the first two days, because the temple guards will be most vigilant then in monitoring public activities and might alert the investigative authorities.  And better to stay to yourself; that somber group of men sitting behind you appears threatening.  Don't place yourself where there’s a closed gate at the rear; and stay on your feet in case you need to move quickly: there have been some who’ve been stoned where they stood.  Also, don’t remain until the end of the last day, when few people are present to observe the authorities’ actions.  Nicodemus added wryly that the chances that he could be of any help, publicly, were only one in twenty-three.

He’d been amused to hear Nicodemus describe the followers as solemn; usually the ones that were quickest to set an example for inattentiveness were the pompous Peter, and John with his smugness, with either of them sometimes dozing after he’d spoken only an hour.

Nevertheless, there were some—such as that Pharisee—who did respond to the message.  This truth seems to come across clearly and simply to an open-minded person: There can be but one fount of creation, one Source, which is called God—or the Father or Lord, as the priests seem to prefer.  Have the patriarchs not said in the final book of the Torah, at Deuteronomy six, God is One?  And in this one, all that exists has issued forth.  Not anything exists apart from this one; all that is exists as the one. So God’s essence is plain to see: in everything, equally.  God is in me, in the same sense that I am in God.  The one is the other. Thus the eighty-second psalm says: You are Gods.  Nicodemus could understand the meaning of this truth.  Why is it so difficult for others?

He had to acknowledge the real difficulty, in that he was forced to speak guardedly, and only by inference.  Even his followers asked him in private what he meant by some of his public pronouncements.  This was his most vexing challenge: having to phrase his statements in the form of questions, and then having to pose more questions to those who responded.  But even so, there were a few who had ears to hear...

His reverie was disrupted by swarms of gnats as the day cooled, so he confined his attention to the road ahead.

He made his way through the festive tented booths surrounding the Temple, and on this third morning of the holy week took up a sycamore-shaded spot in the public courtyard, between the walled structures and away from the gate.

He started a discussion with two Sadducees, which interested passers-by that began to gather.  They agreed that better is it not to profess to be guided by any rules or laws than to violate one’s own stated declarations.  How is one to be trusted, otherwise? And one who is not trusted is feared.  And those who are feared are soon hated.

So what does it mean to say that we honor the Tenth Commandment: which states that we are not to covet—desire—anything which belongs to our neighbor?

And is this statute not related to the Eighth Commandment, which says we are not to steal—to take without permission?

What does this say about the armies of our rulers, who confiscate lands and goods by force? And are not those willing to support such rulers and their military in clear violation of principles which are presumed to be basic to moral behavior? At least the heathen, who does not claim these commandments as Divine guidance, cannot be held a hypocrite!

As the connection became clear in how the religious authorities are in complicity with those who would compromise the Law that they claim is God’s imperative, he began to speak more directly about the misinterpretations of supposedly spiritual revelations.

Listeners came and went throughout the day, but a few of them sat quietly on the bare earth while he developed in greater detail the importance of personally knowing for oneself the truth of one’s Divine essence—or Spirit, as the scribes called it. He recognized, among the listeners who asked relevant questions, some who had sat before him on previous visits. A few of those had even been present each day that he had spoken. It was persons such as these who followed him to Galilee, to learn what it means to translate instructive teachings into daily behavior.

He noticed warily that there was also the occasional temple officer or rabbi who passed on the fringe of the gathering, stood listening momentarily, and proceeded on. And there was sometimes at least one person sitting off to the side who appeared stiffly out of place, attempting to look studious and never smiling or laughing when the others were amused. He pretended not to be aware of these individuals, but he spoke in more traditional references in their presence, such as referring to the Eternal Kingdom rather than saying the Infinite Presence.  Typically, within an hour these individuals went on about their business.

And occasionally one of his followers would come within sight, wave and smile, and then return to the games, storytellers or magicians.  Their interest tended to wane when he was not in face-to-face interaction with someone he was ministering to.

But Thomas was the dependably considerate one: he would tip-toe through the crowd carrying a vessel of water and a chunk of goat cheese and bread, set it down within arm’s reach, nod in greeting and slip away.  As soon as some listener began to spin out a lengthy question, there would be a moment when a bite could be eaten.

The joy and peace that the patriarchs spoke of, he assured the crowd, is not in some far-off heaven; it is here now.  Peace and joy will be present for those who cease clinging to worldly forms and impermanent appearances.  While this body will not endure, the source of all life is everlasting.  If you know my source, you know me.  If you honor me, you honor my source.  I and that which is without beginning or end are of one essence.  And that essence is your essence.  While we stand in this world, at the same time we stand beyond it.  There God is, where you are now. Know this truth and it will set you free!

He glanced meaningfully toward the Temple, then fell silent. All now to be heard was God’s handiwork; the music and shouts of the dancers, the cries of children rewarding the jugglers and tumblers, the braying and bleating of market animals.

He was growing hoarse from the dust and the smoke of incense and charcoal-braised lamb.  Before picking up the water vessel and departing, some came near to offer a warm word or two of appreciation, and he hugged their shoulders.

With the lengthening shadows, he made his way quickly out of town, and arrived at the house of Nicodemus after sunset.  He was there able to shake out his tunic, bathe, and apply balm to his aching knees.  Over wine and fruit, he and his host spent awhile in conversation before he was shown to his sleeping place.

Nicodemus had pointedly spent part of the day at the Temple treasurer’s office where he could monitor the mood in the halls leading to the chambers of the chief priests.  He’d heard the exchanges of officers and rabbis who came and went, and he’d engaged in a chatty conversation with the Sanhedrin official who was the Temple liaison.  So he had much information to impart to his guest.

They distrust the crowd, he said, that your kind attracts. They observed a couple of other troublemakers the first couple of days, and had been mainly concerned with the miller from Cana who railed against the temple tax.  But in your gathering—with men and women mixed together—there were Greeks, Persians and Samaritans to be seen, as well as some of the young.  And a few had brought figs and dates, or almonds and olives, and so were ignoring the vendors’ stalls.  One sanctimonious rabbi complained that these are people not seen studying or reciting the Law, nor with heads bowed and murmuring prayers and rites, and probably not seen in the synagogue on Shabbat.  And one judge worried that the Roman consul might wonder whether such an agitated group was unquestioningly obedient to Jewish Law.

One of the officers, though, particularly disliked the one he called the rustic peasant, bareheaded and with tangled hair, who smells of dried fish and looks like he beds with the dogs and camels.  He said this one was reluctant to give name or background, but was said not to be a husband or father.  And he bridled at the friendly laughter that was provoked by your sympathetic tongue-clucking and ready wit.  But what bothered him most was to see the few silver and gold shekels that had been laid near your feet—instead of dropped into the Temple coffer.

Nicodemus grew more serious, as he leaned closer.

Now, some suspect that you are the same who caused a disruption among the money changers at the last Passover.  Since it was Passover and the crowd was unusually volatile, the Temple merchants thought best not to press the issue lest it incite more resentment.  However, this morning Narjus, one of the chief priests, asked that the two officers of the guard be brought in who had reported that they had been witnesses to this outburst—so that charges might still be brought. By the afternoon, it was learned that both men were now with the legions at Hebron, so none here are now certain that it was you.

Nicodemus silently poured the last of the wine, then showed the way to the guest room.

His second day at the courtyard was much like the first.  But on the final day, he arrived at daybreak, while the pigeons were still scurrying around after breadcrumbs.  Some of the sincere listeners were there early, too.  He told John, who was in attendance today, that he would leave after noon and travel back to Galilee with the others.  And he urged those who had consistently attended his talks to come to him in Galilee where they could continue to freely be in communion.

Soon, while he was listening to an old man’s question, those standing at the back of the crowd suddenly parted.  Two guards—their black leather vestments and scabbards in contrast to the colorful festive garments near them—pushed forward.  They motioned a knot of men behind them to pass, who came forward with a shared air of rectitude, as if on a common mission.  These glanced around menacingly, which prompted many in the crowd to exit the courtyard, startling the pigeons in the sycamore to take flight.

Moving as a body toward his left, the intruders shoved out from their midst a small young woman in a tattered and soiled gown. Trembling and sweating, eyes wet and wide with fear, she staggered away from their reach.

Glaring at the woman toward the right, who now buried her face in her hands, the eldest of the band announced loudly, "Sage, this woman was taken today in the act of fornicating with a married man!"

He paused, bringing a hand out from behind his back which cradled a stone the size of a goose egg.  He bounced the stone in his hand, and continued gravely: “You are said to be a teacher learned in our customs and the Law.  How is justice to be done here?”

Those in the crowd who still remained felt a heavy sense that, though the accusers were standing to one side, it was questionable who was the accused.

Looking into the elder’s glowering eyes, he stood impassively for a long moment.  He then studied the whimpering young woman, who was watching with lowered head.

He crouched to the ground, and in the soil drew a large figure of the Hebrew numeral seven.

The elder squinted at the figure, then said with satisfaction, “The Seventh Commandment is ‘You are not to commit adultery.’”

While he spoke, a line was now being drawn from the numeral, toward the young woman on the right.

The elder nodded and glanced assuredly at his troop.

Then a line began to be drawn from the other side of the figure, an equal distance toward the men.

The elder snapped angrily, “We are here with the adultress!” A grumbling was heard among his men, and the elder started to reach for the woman’s arm.

But another figure was now being drawn in the soil, larger: the numeral six.

“The Sixth Commandment…” The elder scowled, “‘You are not to kill.’”

A line was being drawn in a direction toward the men; then in an equal length toward the woman.

The older man stiffened, clenching the stone as if squeezing curd.  In measured words, he said: “We know what the Law says; but we have our customs.  What have you to say about justice?”

He rose from his crouched position, slowly dusting off his hands.  He turned to the accuser and his henchmen, and replied:

“I am not worthy to be in judgement.  Let him who is faultless among you be the judge, and be first to cast a stone.”

The elder lowered his gaze and looked toward his men, and they stared blankly at him.  He cleared his throat, looked in the direction where the woman stood slumping, and slowly raised his eyes to hers.  From behind his back, the stone thudded to the ground.  A patter of more stones was heard to fall.  The elder turned, muttered something to his men and led them away.

Those remaining of the crowd departed by ones and twos.  He heard a low moan and turned to see the young woman quietly sobbing.

“No one condemned you?” he said.

“No, sire.  Neither you?”

“Nor I, child.  Go.  And err no more.”

John came forward and clasped his arm.  “At first, I thought they had come for you!”

“Yea, as did I.  We must leave now quietly, so as to come another time.”