Keeping it safe

‘So you do not blame them for sleeping?’ asked John. Jesus had worked the Ten Bridesmaids up into a good story and had been telling it during the day.

Those days, with the crowds, the only time we really got to talk was the night. I looked at Jesus. He looked fit to drop. Here, in private, and in the house with just the little light flickering he let himself look worn out. I knew that in the day, with the crowds, he would sparkle as bright as ever.

‘I do not blame anybody for yearning for sleep, no. But the point is, they have forgotten what they are there to do. Like the bridesmaids who have forgotten to get oil, or just not bothered to get it, I see people every day who have simply forgotten what this people of God are actually supposed to be doing. They have totally lost track of what they are here to do. It is such a waste.

‘Let me try it another way. There were three slaves, all belonging to a rather rich, grand master. He was pushing off to visit some estates and these slaves were to be left alone. So he gave them all money, silver. He told them he wanted them to do something with it. Big sums of money, you realise. One got over a million pounds, and another half a million. The third chap only got a quarter of a million.’

‘Only!’ said Matthew.

‘Only,’ said Jesus, ‘Well off went the rich man, and the slaves considered their course of action. The man with the million went into business and in a year, doubled it. So did the bloke with half a million.’

Matthew, who understood the currents and swirls and eddies of money, frowned. ‘It is pretty good going to do that. My reckoning is you would be lucky to put say twenty per cent on to your money. If you were being at all honest.’

Jesus lowered his eyes, and looked out under his lashes. ‘Whoever said anything about honest?’ he replied, almost flirtatiously ‘Because the slave owner comes back, and he summons his possessions, and asks for an account. He gets back two million, and a million, and then the third chap comes in. Grubby. He hands his master back the same quarter million he started with. He did not want to trade dishonestly, and he was afraid to trade honestly. He dug a hole and buried it. Now he has dug it up. His master told him he should at least have lent it to the money lenders at a good rate of interest’

‘But that is against the law,’ protested Judas, horrified.

‘Oh yes,’ said Jesus, happily, ‘But burying it? He had not made a penny. He was afraid. Afraid of loss, and wanting to keep himself pure. Of course the master took the whole sum off him, demoted him. Poor guy went back to ploughing the fields.’

We looked back, horrified. ‘But he was the only honest one!’

‘He was the only one who forgot what he was supposed to be doing,’ said Jesus.

Sleeping

They were young and beautiful, in the simply way the very young are. They did not realise this, the most of them anyhow, and by the time they did, the beauty would have drawn back a little. They were also, to a bridesmaid, asleep. It was late and they were young. Even excitement could not hold them awake.

The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, delayed by the ceremonies and excitements, and the tediums of politeness at her old home. Her new one awaited. Probably with a difficult mother-in-law, but today nobody was thinking of that.

One small lamp burned. ‘Keeping the oil for the big moment,’ said Jesus, ‘but I hope they have plenty.’

‘Perhaps they should have stayed awake,’ said John, rather piously.

‘Perhaps,’ said Jesus, ‘But it can be a long wait. No the important thing is to have oil. I mean, to have what you need, to be ready when the moment comes. Because the wait is long, agonising. Justice? Love? How long a wait. It would make a good story, I think. Twelve young girls. The ones with enough oil, and the ones without. The point is, sleep, but then be ready – when the moment comes where you CAN make a difference, then be ready… I shall work on that story. It would be a good funny one.’

Blaming an enemy

He wriggled his back against the tree a bit, and narrowed his eyes. ‘A better story,’ he said, ‘There was a rich farmer – rich enough to have slaves to work the fields.’ We nodded, envious. Imagine that. Not working under the hot sun. ‘And he had his field sowed with corn seed. And it came up, nice green, and so so thick. Then, horrors. A servant, walking by the field, realised the horrible truth. Darnel! Looks just like wheat when it is young. Good for nothing, though, and once it is far enough up to tell it from the wheat – well!’

We paused to consider. Horrible situation. Try to weed it out, and you would grub out a lot of wheat too. Leave it in, and it was shading out the wheat. ‘So nothing for it, but tell the master. And you tell me, what do you think is going on?’

‘Well, they do say that sometimes your enemies will sow darnel in a field, just to do you down.’

‘Um, and when do you think they would do it? At dead of night when nobody would see?’

‘Not in my village,’ laughed Matthew, ‘What, creeping out at night? Listen, if his wife did not beat him round the head with a cooking pot for looking for a fancy woman, it would be all round the village the next day that he had been up to some kind of mischief, and just what would be the subject of wild rumours for weeks. Once the darnel came up, he would get the blame, whether or not it was his fault.’

‘In the daytime?’

‘Then everybody would see!’

‘So?’ invited Jesus.

‘Teacher, everybody knows weeds do not need sown. Weeds just happen. That is farming. We wish it was not, but it is.’

‘What can you do?’

‘You are best to wait. Wait till harvest, I reckon. Pull out the darnel then, and use if for kindling. Beat the seed out of the wheat.’

‘Well,’ said Jesus, ‘I think I will tell the story and have the rich man blame his enemies. that will get a laugh. Get it remembered. But you – you remember you simply cannot go through life blaming other people and trying to pull out all the faults and inconveniences of the world. You do more harm than good.’

Waiting for the angels, perhaps.

I remember those days and I think of the huge throng that dragged around behind us. A great train, men and women, young lads. People you felt honoured to meet and people you would not introduce to – well, never mind you would not introduce them to your aunt. You would not introduce them to your street-wise uncle.

Several of us tried to warn him. I am tempted, now, to say: ‘Judas tried to warn him,’ but that would be a lie, or rather, I am sure Judas DID warn him, but so did I, and several others, and I can imagine the cool, funny, witty rebuke that would have followed, if Jesus heard me just blame Judas. So I won’t.

Jesus has taken us twelve off out of the press. I know, to my shame, that that particular day it was me who tried to warn him. He was sitting with his back to an olive tree, not very comfortably, but cool in the shade.
‘Um,’ he replied, ‘so let me get this clear. You are – well you USED to be – a fisherman.’ He stopped and looked at me. I nodded, no idea where this was going. ‘Right, so you used to throw out a net, and you caught just the fish you could sell, right?’

I grinned ruefully. I am no fool, and now I was second-guessing him. But I played along. It was best to. He liked that. And well, he had that way with him, that somehow you wanted to make it easy for him. ‘No Rabbi, all sorts got caught in the net.’

‘Ah, so once the net came near the surface, you could see what was what, and only bothered to haul in the good.’
‘No, we just hauled the whole lot in. You cannot open the net under water without losing the whole catch. Well, really you can’t open it at all.’

‘So as soon as you got them in the boat, then you sort them?’
‘No, in the boat you just had a great flapping confusion. We took them to the land, and sorted them there, into baskets. Valuable, saleable but not valuable, worthless.’
‘Where you could take time, and judge what you had?’
‘Yes, where we could make a good calm decision.’

And then he confounded me. I thought he was going to say some of the people were good and some worthless –but no. He said: ‘Each time I meet somebody, their lives are a huge mix, a bundle of fish in a net. Some of the things in their lives are good, valuable. Some are run-of-the-mill, needing a lot of work to make much of. And some parts of their lives are worthless, and some are utterly poisonous, deadly. One day, maybe, they can throw away the parts which are poisoning them, and dispose of the boring parts to some good use, and take the exciting valuable bits and build on them. But asking them to do that too soon just means that everything gets muddled and lost. We have to wait, and perhaps for a lot of it, we have to wait until the angels come and do it for them. Perhaps. Meanwhile, we take the struggling bundle along with us.’

Egypt

Egypt is a beautiful civilised place. I had always imagined that I would either die in Jerusalem or be carried off with the rest of my people to Babylon. I had long been told by Yahweh that the core of my people would grow and prosper in Babylon. I had sent them word again and again that they would be safe there, should settle down, marry, trade, learn. It is an utter blessing that my Baruch is a scribe. How simple that made these long-distance conversations.

I had seen other things too – that Baruch, younger than I, would live a long and peaceful life, travelling where he chose, always protected by Yahweh, and that this was a reward. Yahweh was right, that was exactly the reward I would have chosen for my service. He had also shown me something of what it had cost him to destroy Judah, which had been his own work. I had a glimpse into his pain, and did not fully understand, only wondered. It made my own suffering easier to accept, and his promises easier to believe, that life in Babylon would be for the good of the people.

But I did not end up in Babylon. I ended, with a tiny dissolute rump, in Egypt. It should have been a time of horror. Egypt is a place of exile, of slavery. It was not terrible. It was a time of peace. Although I continued to try and call them to obey the will of Yahweh, and continued to fail, I knew we were safe.

I had word from Babylon that my people there were beginning to turn to Yahweh. To learn from what had happened, and to gather themselves for that return to their home, to Jerusalem, which I was sure would follow one day. I had utter confidence that when they had learned enough they would go to Jerusalem, and there it would indeed become true that they would learn how to worship Yahweh with their hearts and lives, offering the truest worship of a life well lived, of justice and – well, frankly if you do not know the rest by now …

One day I suggested to Baruch that we might go to Babylon and see the people there. We were sitting under a date palm with a small jar of wine, and a loaf of bread. He had been singing to me. He has a beautiful voice. He looked down at me as I lolled in the shade. ‘Let us stay here, where Yahweh has brought us,’ he said gently, ‘Let us enjoy the peace.’