Lessons at Bethany

Maryam

Yeshua’s disciples welcomed me easily. I had assumed—naturally—that they were all men, but the group also included women, including Yeshua’s mother, Maryam bat-Yoaqim, and his sister Hannah. I was also introduced to a tall, proud man with reddish hair, whose name was Shimon but everyone called the Rock, and to two men, brothers, both slender with striking blue eyes. They looked alike, and yet one of them, Yochanan, had the strangest, far-away expression. His elder brother Yaqov had a sharp gaze, and as I soon realized just as sharp a temper.

There were others, too. Never quite the same group from one day to the next, as people joined us, or suddenly remembered fields that needed tending, or families who missed them. The road was hard, after all. We couldn’t afford mounts for everyone, and so we walked from town to town, listening to Yeshua, and helping him to calm the crowds that always gathered. It was nearly six months before we returned to Bethany.

The group was small, then. Besides the seven of us there was only one other. Yudah bar-Shimon was a charming young man from Kerioth. Yudah was political, with an intense dislike of the Romans. I wondered sometimes if he really understood Yeshua and his message of love. But I wasn’t sure how well I understood it myself, and he was friendly and full of enthusiasm.

When they saw us approaching, Martha and Eleazar both ran out to meet us, falling over each other in the rush to embrace me.
“Maryam! You’ve come home!” cried Martha.

My eyes filled with tears. I hadn’t realized how much I missed my brother and sister until I met them again. They told me all the local gossip I had missed, and Eleazar complained about a cough he had that wouldn’t go away. That worried me, but I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to spoil my one night at home, and it was probably nothing.

The eight of us were ushered inside. Hannah went to help Martha to prepare the meal while the rest of us sat in a corner listening to Yeshua. I was rather relieved that Hannah didn’t join us: she and Shimon had been making eyes at each other for weeks, and it was starting to annoy me. It was partly jealousy: Shimon was widowed as I was, and he was finding someone else, while I was still filled with pain and emptiness.

Yudah was speaking. “—why we aren’t rallying the people together to overthrow the Romans. People listen to you, Yeshua. With your ability to draw a crowd—and to speak to them—we could raise an army!”

Normally Yeshua was softly spoken, mild and friendly, but every now and again he could be scary. Anger and alarm filled his face.

“No!” he said. “No, that I must never do.”

“Master, why? Do you not care for the plight of our people?” said Yudah.

“I do care,” said Yeshua, calm again. “It is because I care that I say this. I did not come to overthrow the Romans by force. Death cannot overcome death. I came not to bring death, but life, and the good news of the love and forgiveness of God.”

Yudah did not look happy, but he knew to let the matter drop. Yeshua began to speak again, about the poor and oppressed and our duty to them. That was a great concern of his. Though I found it difficult to think about, he reminded me a lot of Yitzhaq sometimes.

Yeshua was interrupted by a grumpy Martha, who had crossed from the kitchen area on the other side of the room.

“Maryam!” she said. “Hannah and I have been working for an hour to feed everyone, and here you are sitting about listening to the men talk.”

I thought that this was fair enough. I was just as much one of Yeshua’s disciples as any of the others, but I decided that wasn’t a wise thing to say, so I said nothing. Martha appealed to Yeshua.

“Lord, your sister and I are doing all the work, and this sister of mine does nothing. Tell her to help us!”

Yeshua gave her an appraising look. “Martha,” he said, “you are distracted by the things of this world. Be still. Your sister has chosen the better part, learning of the world that is to come. For this world will pass away, but the world that is to come will never be taken from her.”

That was the sort of cryptic thing Yeshua said a lot. From most people I would have dismissed it, but on his lips the words made sense. It was as though the new world he spoke of was just beyond my reach, or behind a veil of fine cloth, its form just visible but hidden.

Next day, I bid Eleazar and Martha farewell, and we set off, directly away from Jerusalem.

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Without sin

Maryam

It all started when I heard the noise of them, clamouring not far from the road. It was an ugly sound; the crowd were clearly angry—hateful, even—and wanted blood. I turned my face away and made to continue toward Bethany. Before I could leave them to their hate, though, the image of Yitzhaq came into my head—of what he would say about the flourishing of evil, that silence was complicity. My Yitzhaq, who had loved me and cared for me, who had stayed with me even when I couldn’t bear him a child. So, with great trepidation, I left the road and joined the back of the crowd, trying to look inconspicuous and wondering what I was supposed to do.

Thirty or forty people jostled in a knot around the huddled figure of a woman. She wore a ragged and filthy tunic, and her feet were bare. I saw that many people in the crowd held stones, and the woman was hunched over, protecting her head and abdomen.

“What has she done to deserve this?” I whispered to my neighbour, a thin man with a scrawny beard.

“She has committed adultery, which is hateful in the sight of God,” he replied, and bent to pick up a lump of rock.

Someone near the front began to chant, “WHORE! WHORE! WHORE!” and soon the chant was picked up by the crowd. Passers-by pretended unconvincingly that they couldn’t see or hear what was happening.

Suddenly there was a commotion opposite me. A man was pushing his way through the crowd, not seeking to hurt anyone but with the air of one who will not be held back. His face, too, was contorted with anger, but this was not the hateful rage of the mob. It was measured, controlled. The chant died away as the people realized he was there.

“What has this woman done, that you should kill her?” the man shouted.

The crowd was silent. One or two hefted their stones and looked at the newcomer. Others looked embarrassed.

“She is an adulteress. The Law says that she must be stoned to death,” someone said.

“I see,” said the stranger. “She has sinned against the Lord. So she must die.”

“That is what it says in the Torah. All who sin must be stoned.”

“All who sin?” he asked.

“That is what it says.”

“And yet,” said the man, “which of you is any different to her? Which of you can truthfully say they have never sinned? Very truly I tell you, in the eyes of God, no-one is righteous.”

A few people looked very angry at that, but the mood of the rest was shifting. Something about this man’s voice and the way he carried himself made people listen to him.

“Let one who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said. A murmur went through the crowd. Even the belligerent ones had put down their stones by now. A few people at the edges drifted away.

“Go about your business, and pray to God to forgive you your sins,” he said. The people began to move back to the road, most of them heading back toward Jerusalem, with expressions of shame. Eventually, only the man, the woman and I remained. He laid his hands on her head and said something I couldn’t hear, and she stumbled away, looking shaken.

“I wasn’t with them,” I said to him. “I mean, I was, but—”

“You were trying to stop them,” he said. “You are a good person, but you carry a heavy burden. It will be lifted, and you will be healed.”

I wondered at his words. How could he possibly know about Yitzhaq, about the sorrow his death still caused me?

“I am Maryam bat-Levi, from Magdala,” I said. “I live at Bethany now, not far from here.”

“Pleased to meet you, Maryam bat-Levi from Magdala,” he said, a playful smile on his lips. “My name is Yeshua. I am travelling through these parts and I need somewhere to stay. May I stay the night at your house?”

I had only just met this man, but some things just instinctively make you trust someone, and I always did trust easily.

“You’ll have to share a room with my brother,” I said. “I live with him and my sister Martha.”

Yeshua nodded, gazing into the distance. We set off toward Bethany.

That was the first time Yeshua stayed at our house, but by no means the last. Over dinner I learnt that he was a travelling preacher, and that his disciples were following about a day’s journey behind him. At some point, he asked me if I would consider travelling with him. I was reluctant to leave Bethany, but Yeshua intrigued me, and his message of peace and goodwill seemed harmless enough. What, I asked myself, could possibly go wrong?

Fishers of men

Yochanan

I didn’t really know where he came from, at first. I mean, I know he was born in Bethlehem, and he occasionally let slip little bits about his childhood in Nazareth, but he didn’t talk about himself much. No, that’s not the right way to begin. I don’t suppose it really matters, because this is my personal account, not the one that everyone will read, but it’s worth doing this right anyway. I am Yochanan bar-Zebadiah, fisherman and accidental saint, and this is my story.

It was just before sunset, and Shimon bar-Yonah, my brother Yaqov and I were hauling the nets in for the last time, ready to row back to the shore.

“Make sure you don’t let any fall back in,” said Shimon.

Father hired Shimon after his brother Andreas ran off to follow Yochanan bar-Zechariah, the Baptizer. He was older than Yaqov and me, and he acted as though he was in charge, which made Yaqov furious. I didn’t mind so much, since it meant I could just watch the birds in the sky while I worked.

With the catch safely stowed, we set off for home. When we were half way there, Shimon gave a shout.

“It’s Andreas!”

I shipped my oars and looked over my shoulder. Sure enough, there was a tall figure standing on the shore, waving to us. When we reached land, Shimon ran to his brother and embraced him.

“I was worried sick!” he said. “How could you run off and leave me like that?”

“Yochanan was only in town for one day—the Baptizer I mean,” said Andreas. “It was important, Shimon. I’m sorry.”

Shimon didn’t seem entirely convinced, but he said nothing.

“Shimon,” said Andreas, “it really is an important thing that we’re doing. The Baptizer always said he was only preparing the way for another, greater than he. Well he thinks we’ve found him. Come and see.”

We followed Andreas through Bethsaida to the house where bar-Zechariah was staying. It was summer, and everything was dry and dusty. The houses were mostly single storeys, the same yellow colour as the ground. As we walked, Andreas told us how the stranger had come to be baptized the previous day. What was strange was that he hadn’t come from the town like all the others. He had walked straight out of the wilderness, obviously fatigued, hungry and thirsty, and wouldn’t tell anyone what he had been doing there, or much else apart from his name, Yeshua bar-Yoseph. Andreas’ story seemed unbelievable, but I was curious to meet this man.

We reached the house, Andreas knocked, and we were ushered into the single room, which was packed with men and women. I could spot the man Yeshua without being told. He was of average height, and obviously used to manual labour, even with the starvation. He wasn’t the centre of attention—bar-Zechariah was, surrounded by his disciples asking him questions—but the room, indeed the world, seemed to revolve around him all the same. I pointed to him discreetly.

“Yes, that’s him,” said Andreas.

The stranger had noticed us come in, and came over to greet us. Before Andreas could make any introductions, he looked straight at Shimon and said, “You are to be the Rock.”

I looked at Yaqov, who was as mystified as I was, but it seemed to mean something to Shimon. I realized later that Yeshua’s message wasn’t the same to everyone, but I didn’t know that then.

“You are fishermen?” said Yeshua.

“Yes,” I said. I couldn’t get more than that out of my mouth.

“If you come with me,” he said, “I will make you fishers of men.”

At that moment, food was brought out, and the gathering broke into small groups. The four of us and Yeshua ended up eating together, and talking long into the night. Yeshua didn’t say much, but his contributions were always the most profound. Somehow, by the end of the night, I had decided that I would go with this strange dreamer, if he would have me. I was surprised that Yaqov and Shimon—most of all Shimon—said the same.

Nothing was ever the same after that.