Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Thursday, April 12, 2012
A Morning Walk
Lilies And Sparrows
Sunday, October 03, 2010
The mountain rose like the breast of a supine woman above the desert’s belly. It was late afternoon, elongating shadows snaked over hot sand, and a solitary figure walked along the horizon’s line. His beard, curly and dark, he hadn’t tended in some time. The cream cowl of the dusty kaftan he wore protected and partially hid his face from the sun, hot even at this late hour. In that face, bright intelligent eyes scanned the terrain ahead, occasionally turning upwards to watch the flight of an eagle or vulture across the blue-white canvas of sky. In his right hand he carried a long cedar walking staff – not that he needed it now, but it had been well exercised when he’d ascended that mountain. The man and his staff moved in an unselfconscious symmetry of grace, had anyone been there to see them.
The man’s hands and sandalled feet were deeply coloured from relentless heat and light. Leathered, strong hands – the hands of a country dweller or artisan. For well over a month he had been in this desert, and, though his pace was strong and assured, beneath the loose-fitting robe the spareness of his body was apparent.
His lips were moving slightly, chanting an old song gently under his breath, in rhythm with his footfalls. “You have laid me a table in the presence of my foes … my cup is overflowing … goodness and mercy follow me … all the days of my life … goodness and mercy…”
Around sunset he came to a small wadi, a shallow depression in the ground marked only by low thickets of vegetation and a couple of scrawny palms. He went to these and gazed upward, hoping perhaps to find something edible, but there was nothing.
“Ah well,” he said aloud to himself, “tomorrow I’ll reach the town. One more evening of rest for my belly – what’s that, forty? A good number, eh, Abba?”
He walked to the centre of the depression where a shallow pool of pale, limpid water reflected the reddening sun into his eyes. Kneeling at its edge, he laid down his staff and used both hands to cup water into his mouth. He drank fast and deeply, and afterwards scooped water over his face, neck and head, the cowl now thrown back from dark locks which fell damply about his temples.
The water soothed the sand-burn on his cheeks, and for a little while at least relieved the gnawing emptiness of his stomach. He filled the small water flask, which hung by a leather lanyard from his left shoulder. There was no need to do this yet, as he’d decided to stay here till morning, but desert lore teaches one early that it’s prudent to treat water with great respect, while never expecting it to be there tomorrow.
He walked back a few feet from the pool and sat on the rim of the wadi, facing the sunset, his back supported by a hollow in the sand, probably left by some other traveller who had scooped out a sleeping bunker for himself some days past. Not many people came this way, as it was not part of any caravan route (most trading happened well to the north of here), and it was unusual to meet anyone – except the occasional desert hermit or wanderer. This was fortunate as the wadi was small and too many visitors would soon leave it exhausted. A man could be reasonably certain of being alone, which is why he had come this way those long weeks ago.
“Yes, Abba, you knew where you were sending me,” he said. He’d become quite accustomed to speaking aloud his thoughts and prayers in these last six weeks. There are uncommon freedoms in being alone in the middle of a desert.
Thank you Abba, thank you for this place. Thank you for a good day’s walking. Thank you that my strength has held. Tomorrow I don’t know what will happen, but I know that you have brought me this way, and you will show me the way tomorrow, too. Just like every other day.
He watched the lengthening shadows crawling toward him from the west. Outcrops of rock, their sun-ward edges trimmed with orange-gold coronas of light, projected blue-black pools of dark on the sand, as deep and dim as the mouths of caves. At the corner of one of these shadow-pools a momentary tawny flicker caught his attention. A snake, probably, moving to it’s burrow for the night. It would be cold in an hour.
“Goodnight brother sun, it will be good to see you again tomorrow, even though you are a little hard on me. I rejoice in your light. Thank you, Abba, for the sun – it reminds me of what I am to do for you.” He sat then for some time, reciting prayers in a whisper, watching the sun touch, and quickly be enfolded by, the horizon. “From the rising up of the sun till it goes down again, your name, Abba, is to be praised.”
The orange-red sun silently bowed to earth and was gone. Immediately the cool kiss of twilight brushed the land and he felt that first involuntary twitch that the body makes when heat goes out of the air. Twilight is brief in the desert, and the escaping light furled swiftly westward, unrolling a blanket of stars in its wake. For some time he sat absolutely still, watching the vast, slow, silent wheeling of heaven, till the black of the sky and the black of the mountain were one, and the only way to tell that the mountain was there at all was by the absence of stars.
But you can see the mountain, can’t you, Abba? Day and night are the same to you.
As he watched, a sliver of silver, like a tiny thimble of snow, blossomed at the very tip of the mountain, and quickly poured down the facing slope. He stood then, turning to greet the rising moon, hugely plump and honey-coloured, its halo already softly veiling stars in the eastern hemisphere.
“Ah, sister moon! Welcome to your kingdom! You’re so magnificent tonight! May we all reflect the Father’s light as faithfully as you, my sister. You are a great inspiration to me, moon. I hope that I will be able to shine as faithfully as you.”
He knelt down, still facing east, and spent a long time in silent prayer, his back straight, hands on his thighs, eyes open and watching the climbing moon as it whitened and shrank to a more believable size.
“I will sleep now, Abba,” he said at last, “and when I wake in the morning perhaps my stomach will ache less, and you will show me the way to go from here. Thank you. I love you, Abba. I lay down now under the shelter of your wings; watch over me as the apple of your eye.”
He lay down, nestling shoulders and head into the cup of sand, his cowl pulled about his head, hands tucked into the baggy sleeves of the kaftan. Almost immediately he was asleep.
* * *
In his dream he was in the midst of a jostling, agitated crowd. Unfamiliar faces appeared very close before him, then shrank away, quickly replaced by others. Many were scowling, angry, shouting, poking at him, tugging…
Was it a faint breeze that woke him, or some shifting of sand? His eyes opened with a start, a momentary frisson of alarm. And there, across the shallow pool, sat a figure in dark robes. The hood of the man’s cloak was pulled close, and his face was only partially visible. Moonlight outlined the bones of a strong jaw, and the glow of watchful eyes. I recognise this man… But it wasn’t his appearance, it was something deeper, more subtle.
“Good evening, pilgrim,” said the stranger. “It’s unusual to meet anyone out in this remote spot. You’re a long way from home.”
“Peace to you – I could say the same for you, too.”
“Ah, we travellers weave mysterious paths through the world, don’t we? My name is Haman,” he half raised a hand in salute. “And yours?”
“Well met, Haman. I’m Jeshua,” he said, throwing back his cowl and sitting upright.
“What is your trade, friend Jeshua?”
“I’m a carpenter, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
“Ah, Galilee, I know it. Good fishing there. And Nazareth’s a pretty town. I pass through there sometimes.”
“You’ve been there before? I don’t recall seeing you. It’s not a big town.”
“Oh I’ve been lots of places. I’m what you could call a citizen of the world. I make my home wherever there is space for me. But you – what’s a Nazareth son doing all the way out here in this wild country?”
“I’ve come because God sent me. It’s much easier to spend time and be close with him when you’re away from the busyness of normal life. I have needed much time to pray and get ready, and this is a great place to do that.”
“Hmm, God. Get ready? Ah, and what is it you’re getting ready for, may I ask?”
“You’re a traveller, Haman, so I guess you’ve heard of John, the desert prophet who’s been baptising down at the Jordan?”
“Yes, I’ve seen John. It’s a while since we’ve had one of his kind around. Impressive commitment. Impressive set of lungs, too!” he laughed, half to himself.
“Oh yes he’s loud,” smiled Jeshua, ”a bit brash, some would say. But what he says is good – it’s very good.”
“Hmmm, he talks a lot about being good… Do you really think there’s much point to his sort though? He’s got a knack for stirring things up, making people feel guilty. He puts on a good show, but I bet in a few weeks most of them will forget all about whatever promises they made coming out of that water.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“Oh don’t feel sorry for me. I decided a long, long time ago that God and religion held no attraction for me. This world’s my tabernacle, my kingdom. I make my own way on my own terms and have not been struck down. My purse is not empty because I don’t tithe at their temple. But you – you obviously believe all this. I apologise if I offend your belief, but I am a man who speaks his mind.”
“It’s possible for a man to hide behind his words.”
“Am I hiding?,,, But what about you? I interrupted your story – what did Jordan John do for you?”
“John is a sign. Something new is going to happen very soon, and John is the sign that it’s ready, that it’s the right time.”
“Right time for what?” Haman moved his position, seemed to crouch somehow, alert, leaning further forward.
“For God to be with us.”
“God with us, eh! Now there’s a thought. And how is God going to do that, do you think?”
“I think you know that already, friend.”
The stranger paused for a long moment, and looked at him hard. “Ah yes, I think I do. So, you recognise me, then?”
“The moment you arrived. I knew you were going to come sooner or later.”
“You think that because I reject God therefore I must be the darkness? You judge me harshly. I have more light than you might imagine. I’m not scary. I’m just a man like you are. The only difference between you and I is that I have chosen not to live by these superstitions any longer. If that makes me lost in your eyes, then so be it. You have nothing that I don’t have, and I have one thing that you don’t – freedom. Freedom to be myself, without religion. Freedom to bow down to no-one.”
“To bow down to no-one is to be a slave to yourself. Only the truth can really make you free.”
“And what, Jeshua, is the truth? Do you think you know it? Do you think you know the world, living there in little Nazareth with mum and dad and the family? Do you think you’ve seen anything at all? You go to synagogue each Sabbath and hear the same tired words from the same tired clerics – and you think that is freedom? You spend your days in the workshop hammering out tables and chairs, and you think that is knowledge?”
“Knowledge is what lives in your heart, not the multitude of views you’ve looked at.”
“Well said, carpenter, but what use are these pretty philosophies when you’re fighting off wolves or craving for a crust of bread? Life is a matter of survival, not polite sermons! You really haven’t seen much of the real world, have you?”
“I have seen more than you think.”
“Who are you, then, Jeshua? What is your destiny?”
“I think you know that, too.”
“Jeshua. God Saves?” A note of scorn tinged his voice. “You think a little too highly of yourself, I would say.”
“I didn’t name myself. I am my father’s son. I’m just following in his footsteps.”
“I doubt there have been many carpenters come out here to finish their apprenticeships. Who is your father then?”
“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“I wonder if you really believe yourself. A few weeks of walking and fasting in the desert – oh yes, I know that’s what you’ve been doing, I’ve seen you – is nowhere near enough to turn yourself into a deity. Don’t be fooled.”
“Nevertheless, God is my father.”
“Brave words. And blasphemy back where you’re going, if I’m not mistaken. You’ll get yourself in a lot of trouble, saying that sort of thing. If you really are who you think you are, there ought to be some evidence. A tree is known by its fruit, is it not? So, how are you going to prove it? If God is a reality, as you say, then God must be tangible, demonstrable.”
“Oh, God is tangible all right. Everything we see and smell and touch and sense is part of God’s reality,” said Jeshua, running a finger absentmindedly through the sand.
“You think this is all God’s, do you? Well, then. You must be pretty hungry after all this self-denial? You’re looking a bit gaunt, even in this poor light. How about taking a couple of these rocks by the pool and making them into loaves of bread. One each, eh? I could do with a bite myself. That can’t be too hard an ask for a son of God, can it?”
“A man cannot live on bread alone. God’s word is my food. I’m well fed where it counts.” His stomach did a little groan all the same.
“Oh, clever answer, Jeshua! I can tell you’ve read your prophets. Isaiah – now there was a man with a brilliant imagination. Hopelessly romantic, of course, but a genius nonetheless. If only people didn’t take his stories so literally! That’s always the problem with you religious types, you know - literalism. It’s the cause of most the bigotry and strife in the world, if you ask me. Give me a realist any day.”
“Reality is that you deny God, and so you can’t experience him. Your cynicism cannot change the world – but eventually faith will.”
“Faith! We’re talking faith all of a sudden! So, why can’t your faith even feed yourself? What difference do you think you can possibly make to the world by running away to the desert for a few weeks to fast and pray to your invisible God?”
Haman picked up a pebble and flicked it into the pool with an impatient motion. The mirror of moon and stars contorted suddenly into a confused, swirling murk.
“People back in your dear little Nazareth are being born, eating, copulating and dying tonight, under this same old moon, exactly as they have every night since the dawn of time, and your little stunt makes absolutely no difference to them – no difference at all. Get over yourself, carpenter.”
“Even if I did make bread for you, you wouldn’t change. You wouldn’t bow to God. I hear the bitterness in your voice and feel it in your spirit. You don’t want my bread, even if I gave it to you.”
“Well, you’re right there,” said Haman, softening his tone a little. “Listen, it’s a beautiful night. Why don’t we take a walk, talk some more. You’re interesting me – I want to know more about what you think. Besides, I’m not feeling sleepy, and, I suspect, neither are you.”
“Alright, let’s talk.”
They both stood, tied on their sandals, and Jeshua reached to pick up his staff, then changed his mind. Without any discussion they set off, side by side, a couple of paces apart, the way they had both recently come, in the general direction of the mountain.
“I’ll make a confession to you, Jeshua,” said Haman after several minutes of silent trudging, “You see, I actually believe in faith, too. Possibly not in quite the same way you do, but, in my way, I’m also a man of faith. Do you want me to tell you what I believe?”
“Yes, I’d like to know how you see things.”
Haman looked sideways at him then, an odd expression on his lips. “Hmmm, know your enemy… That’s the truth of it, isn’t it? We are adversaries, you and I. Two paths that cross but never meet.”
“It is you who came to seek me out,” Jeshua responded evenly.
“Yes I have,” and there was passion in the other’s voice, “because I, too, understand the signs of the times, and I know you think you’re off on a damn fine quest, which you think is the will of God, and I predict it’s all going to end in tears.”
“Oh, there’s no shortage of tears,” this almost under his breath, “and that’s the reason I’m here. It takes tears to bring an end to tears.”
“There’ll never be an end of tears! That’s the nature of the world your God created. Dust and tears. How can anyone in their right mind worship something which has made so much pain? That’s why I choose another way.”
“The reason the world is full of tears is exactly because men choose their own way. If we aren’t part of God’s kingdom then we become our own kingdom, and our kingdoms are always fighting and plundering each other. That is where the pain comes from. Don’t blame God – pain is our own creation.”
“Oh I don’t blame God – I find it much simpler to just ignore God, actually.”
“Then what are you doing out here, following me?”
“Now don’t get ideas above your station, carpenter. I’m no disciple of yours – though I can see that you’ll have followers soon enough, if you persist on this course. You’re a smart talker. But you’ll only disappoint them. It’s always what happens in the end. You messianic pretenders – your sort have been around ever since religion was invented. You might build your little sect, sure, but you’ll die and it’ll schism, and all you’ll have done is add one more layer of shit to the dog-pile of the world. Is that what you call a life well spent, carpenter? You ought to go back to your hammer and chisel where you can at least make something useful.”
“A table is a good thing, that’s true. But what’s the use of a table if there’s no food to put on it? There are many good carpenters around, but my job is to provide food – food that will feed the real hunger in people. You want things to stay the same, and the same is not good enough! God has something better for us.”
“And you’re going to bring it!”
Jeshua paused in his stride, and the two of them stood there, eyes locked for a long minute. “Yes,” he said, “that is my destiny.”
The two men continued to stand, face to face, eye to eye, for a long time. The moon hung high in the slow turning sky, and the desert floor slept beneath their feet. There was no wind, and the only sound each of them heard was of his own – and the other’s - breathing.
“Tell you what,” Haman swivelled his gaze at last, “why don’t we go up the mountain, see the view.”
“That’s an interesting challenge, Haman. It’s a long way from here. More than an evening’s walk.”
“Well ,we’re both men of faith, aren’t we? Why don’t we use some of it?”
“Faith isn’t a magic trick for the marketplace – ”
“Agh! Don’t give me your Sabbath school scruples, carpenter! If you won’t play the game, then you’ll just have to watch me play it.”
* * *
There was no sensation of having moved, but now, as he turned, looking to the west, Jeshua found that they stood on a small plateau, about the size of half a stadia, and the steep, wind-chiselled scarp of the mountainside rose above them. Instead of low rolling dunes and clumps of desert grass, behind them now lay a jagged ledge, and a precipitous fall to the valley floor, several hundred feet below.
“That’s easier than making the mountain come to us, eh?” chuckled Haman. “You really need to know that God isn’t the only one who has power. Power is available to all, whether God likes it or not. Power comes when one completely unfetters one’s imagination - when we stop being afraid of rules, and unhelpful haggling about right and wrong. Power is not a morality! It just is! Can you see what I mean, Jeshua of Nazareth?”
As the other spoke, Jeshua felt a curious movement of air, and the cliff-edge rose, straightened, and changed colour and shape. Now the plateau became an expansive rooftop, and they were looking down on a broad courtyard, outlying buildings, and the roof-scape of a city.
Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem…
“'You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…’ Yes, I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right, that’s where we are. ‘The City of Peace’, ‘The Great Sodom’. How does it feel to be here? Not a good place for the likes of you, I’m thinking. A place you ought to avoid – "
“I will go wherever he sends me!” snapped Jeshua in a suddenly vehement voice. “And you will do well not to provoke me! Now, what are we doing here?”
“All right, all right, don’t lose your kaftan!” Haman took the very smallest step backward, hitching up the hem of his cloak as he did so. “I should’ve known you’d get a bit ruffled coming here. Do you recognise where we’re standing?”
“The roof of the temple.”
“Right. You’ve been here as a boy, huh? Looks a bit different from this perspective, though. Now, come over to the edge, have a look. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to try and push you – I’d never be so unimaginative! And besides, you’ve got protection, haven’t you, son of God?”
He placed an arm almost companionably over Jeshua’s shoulders, and guided him to the waist-high parapet. Below in the courtyard and the street beyond several people were moving about, even though it was now late and the city mostly slept.
“Your potential flock, eh? Do you think they’ll call you ‘rabbi’? Would you like that? A nice bit of acclamation, hmm? Nice to be appreciated. Nice to have a bit of influence in the community. People know you by name, speak to you respectfully. No more need to cart great planks of wood around then, eh, carpenter?”
Jeshua gazed down into the street without answering, his hands resting on the smooth marble. Not far from the temple gate a pair of youths were staggering along, laughing over-loudly now and then, obviously drunk. They stopped and lounged against a wall of one of the houses opposite.
“They’re sure having a good night,” chuckled Haman, “and why not? They’re young and unconcerned about their sins - or the sins of anybody else. Freedom belongs to the young at heart, wouldn’t you say? And what about that young maiden there?” He pointed to the south side of the temple square, where a door had just opened and a woman stepped outside, adjusting her robes and veil. As they watched, a man leaned briefly out the door, caught her by the waist, and kissed her urgently, his hands moving greedily over her body. “Well, perhaps not a maiden after all, eh! A temple whore more likely. That’s a priest’s house, I’m thinking.”
“What are you trying to prove, Haman? Why have you brought me here?”
“Jeshua, I’ve been around a long time – a long, long time – and I’ve seen a lot of things.” Haman pushed back his hood, and a shock of grey-black hair fell out. In the naked moonlight deep lines etched his weathered, once-handsome face, a face whose age would have been hard to judge for certain. But the eyes - which glowed like dark stars - seemed to look out from somewhere indescribably remote. Somewhere ancient, shrouded.
“You think that one day the world is going to be different, that everyone will see the error of their ways and change. But look at the evidence. Look at this street!” He waved his hand out and down. “This place is the very heart of the faith you’re willing to dedicate your life to, and yet who’s here? A dirty little priest giving treasury money to an uptown slut! That pretty much says it all really. Religion is just a smokescreen between hypocrites and their guilt. Those young piss-heads, I bet they couldn’t give a damn about the temple or all it’s pretence – they’re too busy having their lives. Human nature isn’t going to change, carpenter.”
Jeshua watched the young woman as she crossed the square. Suddenly she stopped, stood very still for several moments, and turned and looked up toward the temple and the sky. It almost seemed she was looking at them, and Jeshua could see the pale oval of her face quite clearly.
“Gorgeous, isn’t she?” said Haman quietly beside him. “Do you have a woman waiting for you in Nazareth, carpenter?”
“No, I’m not married.”
“Would you like to be married?”
There was a pause. “It’s better for me not to marry, because of the work Abba calls me to do.”
“You’d like to have a woman, though, wouldn’t you? You’d like to be held, to be loved?”
“We all want to be loved.”
“Ah yes, but to be caressed – to be kissed… And children. What about children? I bet you’d love to have a little brood playing around your door. Sons to build toys for; little girls to cuddle and tell bedtime stories. You love children, don’t you, Jeshua? Are you going to give up the possibility of ever having your own?”
Jeshua did not reply, but continued staring down at the woman, who finally turned away and walked slowly out of the temple precinct and out of sight down the street. The silence went on so long that Haman finally looked sideways and saw that the man was crying. Silver rivulets ran down his cheeks, and he made no attempt to brush them away.
“Oh my, carpenter, I’ve upset you! She got to you, I think. You’re not starting to regret your vow of celibacy, are you?”
“These tears are for her – for the sadness of her life. There will be another time to weep for myself.”
“Oh indeed there will, young Jeshua. Indeed there will.” There was a tone in the other man’s voice – a coldness, a calculation. “The time will come when they’ll hurt you, you know – really hurt you. These people for whom you shed your tears, they will make you scream. Are you prepared for that?”
Jeshua turned then and walked away from the other man, along the length of the roofline to the north-east corner, where he looked down to see the area where sacrificial animals were killed. He shivered, though it was not from the cool air.
“How far are you really willing to trust God?” came the soft voice behind him. “You know the prophecies. Are you really strong enough to go through all that?”
“He doesn’t need my strength – he only asks my obedience.”
“Then surely he doesn’t need your sacrifice! Doesn’t the prophet say ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice’? So, why the sacrifice?”
“He doesn’t need my sacrifice – they do.” He stretched his hand out toward the sleeping city, and swept a slow, wide arc through the air, turning as he went, his eyes tracing the horizon till they met the other man’s eyes, which were staring at him with something like guarded fear.
“If you are the son of God, prove it! I dare you to! Down there is the place of sacrifice - throw yourself down! Do it now! Get the whole damn thing over and done with. Why wait? You can shorten the anguish. After all, doesn’t the psalmist say ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’? Surely God wouldn’t want to see his son suffer! Jump! Prove he loves you!”
“It is also written ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.” There was anger in the Nazarene’s voice now. “Get behind me, or I will name you by your true name! As I said, I know who you are, and I know why you are here, and I know that you think as men think. I am going now.”
* * *
Jeshua stood alone in the wadi. The moon, now well to the west of its zenith, shone brightly in the water. He was suddenly very thirsty, and his stomach ached with hunger. His body also ached with tiredness. He knelt by the pool and began scooping water up in his hands and drinking ravenously. Afterwards he sank down on the sand and rested his head in the crook of one elbow. Oh, Abba, to sleep would be good, he prayed silently.
Again he dreamed, and he saw a great and dark eagle soaring in a storm-dressed sky. As he watched, the bird spotted him and, turning, swooped towards him. He knew it was going to pluck out his eyes, but when he tried to raise his hands to ward the blow, he found that they were pinned somehow, his arms stretched out and held fast.
Jerking awake, he almost cried out. He found himself lying awkwardly on a pile of stones, his body at an uncomfortable angle. Cold wind blew across his face, and hissed in the night overhead. The moon, now very low in the west, shone in his eyes, and he saw that he was not alone. The outline of a cloaked figure sat against the skyline several feet away on a large boulder. He knew where he was – he’d been here before. They were on the summit of the mountain.
“’Time to awaken, o sleeper’,” quoted Haman, turning to look in his direction. “’Trouble may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’, eh? I thought you might like to watch the birth of a new day, ‘coming of the light’, so to speak. I wonder what it will bring…? Anyway, the view is so much better from up here. Actually, light is a bit of a passion of mine – my speciality, you could say.”
“When a man turns his heart from God, the only light left in him is darkness.” Jeshua scrambled to his feet and stretched, looking around. He gathered the folds of the kaftan closer about him against the wind.
“Oh you’re such an expert! You in your young body! – how old are you? Twenty five? Thirty? You think you know so much about life, about truth! About God.”
“God’s truth is written on all our hearts.”
“God’s truth? I’ll tell you about God’s truth, carpenter. Didn’t he say, ‘You are gods’? The ability to overcome, to reach fullness, has always lain with man. God knows this, and it sticks in his throat! It was, if you like, his biggest mistake. He made man too well, and now he can’t control them. Religion has always diminished man, reinforcing the lie that he is needy and unworthy. But even your scripture says that when God made man he made him ‘in God’s own image’ – he made man like himself! And he looked at what he had made and said, ‘very good’.”
“You’ve become very fond of quoting scripture all of a sudden, Haman.”
“Well, you know what they say – ‘Every heretic has his chapter and verse.’ Those poor, dumb sheep down there, learning their lessons at synagogue every week, trying so hard to say and do the right thing, and all the time never knowing the marvellous potential that waits for them if they’d just step outside the camp. Oh yes, the scripture is true, carpenter. You are indeed wonderful creations, with more potential than you know. But you’ll never find it in synagogue or bible class. You know I’m right, don’t you? Cast off this dreary shackle of rules! – Look! The world is waiting, like a willing and eager lover, for the man who will take her to his heart.”
“’We all like sheep have gone astray…’. You said yourself that the world is corrupt. That’s why the world needs the kingdom of heaven to come.”
“The world is a perishing mess, not because men are evil, but because they’re ignorant! – they have been kept ignorant. What are you going to teach them, Nazarene rabbi, that’ll set them free from their ignorance?”
“I’m going to teach them – and show them - that God loves them, and that they are forgiven.”
“Forgiven! Bah! Don’t give me those tepid words! I see no forgiveness in this world, carpenter! An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that’s the sort of justice I see in God’s world! And love! What the hell do you think those perishing sheep are going to do with your love? You know what? They’ll kill you for it! Yes, that’s right, that’s how they’ll repay you for your love, carpenter!”
Jeshua felt a cold slap across his face, though the other man had not moved, and an icy grip on his heart, though it wasn’t the wind-chill. He looked out across the plain to eastward. The first grey pre-dawn light made a thin line above the horizon, and the stars there were beginning to fade. He felt weak and tired.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Haman’s tone was soft, conciliatory. “This world is a beautiful place, just as it is. If you’d only accept what is, and stop torturing yourself with the illusion of changing it. Let it all go. This burden you’re choosing for yourself, it’s too heavy for you, and you know it. If God loves you, as you say he does – if God is really your father – he’d never ask you to carry the weight of all the sin of the world. The sins of one man are too much of a burden – you’ve seen how it breaks them. It’ll break you, too.”
The man’s words felt like weights about his neck. He couldn’t think how to answer, so just stood, staring out at the creeping greyness – a cold light which somehow didn’t seem to be bringing any cheer to the landscape. He shivered, hugging his arms to his chest.
“It’s time to be free of all that guilt. Really. My way is a much lighter load, an easy yoke to wear. If you’d just come with me, I’ll teach you how it really works. You’re an idealist, and that’s a noble thing to be, but I can teach you a much better way to save the world – but first you must save yourself. You came out here as an apprentice, looking for the answers to life. Well, maybe God has answered you. Believe me, I am a master at living – you see what I can do. Come with me and I’ll show you how to be master of all this – for it is already mine.” He turned, gesturing towards the approaching dawn. “You know this is true, carpenter. I can give you the keys to the only kingdom that really matters – the kingdom which is already here! But you need to trust me – “
Jeshua did not answer for a long time. He found his head bent, gaze fixed on his sandaled feet. A boyhood memory unexpectedly came to him. He had stubbed a toe in a game of chase, and his mother untied his sandal and lifted his foot into a basin of water, ever so gently washing the blood away. As she massaged his foot, she crooned a little song. “God walks with you … and I love you too … we will always be there when you fall…”
“You would ask me to walk in your footsteps, to obey you, to bow to your will, and to worship you, in time,” he said quietly then, not looking up. “This is what you’ve searched for, all your exile life, isn’t it? To be the one at the top of the hill to whom all must come for wisdom, for approval – for blessing.”
Haman twisted to look at him, an expression of surprise on his face.
“It’s been a long time, as you say – a long, long time, since you lost God’s approval. You’ve had much time to roam the earth, and so you think that it’s become your possession, and that it always will be. But in your heart of hearts you know that’s not true, don’t you? You know the scriptures – you know how this ends.”
Jeshua lifted his head as he spoke, and now he turned to face the other fully. A strong gust of wind swept the mountain top, and Haman’s hood blew back. In the grey-white pre-dawn light his face appeared haggard and gaunt - almost skeletal. He took a step backwards.
“I understand why you brought me here, to show me the wonders of the world and make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. But I can refuse it. I do refuse it. You told me that I think too highly of myself, but you should take a look into your own heart. I know who you are. I know where you come from – how far you’ve fallen. I know where you’re going.”
“You think you know me!” shouted the man, raising a trembling finger and pointing directly into Jeshua’s face. “You know nothing at all! Do you want to know what they’re going to do to you when - ”
“Be silent!” commanded Jeshua. “You may have power in this world for a while, but you have no power at all in the kingdom of heaven. And the kingdom of heaven is now come! You tempt me with your smooth tongue, you shake your fist at me and try to make me afraid. But you have lost, and you know it. This world is not some pearl that you can sell off to the highest bidder. Men and women aren’t trinkets that you can stuff in your pocket! I told you I know your real name – Lucifer – and now I tell you once and for all, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him!’ Get out of my sight, Satan!”
* * *
The man Jeshua stood alone by the pool in the light of a clear dawn. He could feel the heat of the day starting to seep into air and sand. He looked behind him to where the mountain stood aloof as a silent sentinel. Golden light touched its summit, and the sky was quickly changing from grey-white to blue. He bent down and retrieved his staff and water bottle from where he’d left them on the sand, then turned eastward and started walking briskly away from the wadi.
Though I walk through the valley of shadows … you are with me …
After a few minutes, a train of three donkeys, two of them mounted, appeared over the lip of the dunes not far ahead. He knew they were looking for him. They would have food, and news of life beyond the wilderness. He could make out the man riding the lead animal, and the man was waving.
“Thank you, Abba, for the gift of today. I feel like I’ve been born again this morning.”
Jeshua quickened his step, eager to greet them. And on the horizon appeared the brilliant, golden halo of the rising sun.
Labels: a short-ish story