Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court -- part 3


The following morning Jerry Francis and his 1st century companions—Benjamin, Simon the Zealot, and the other two men—left the tiny room in which they were staying and made their way toward the Temple in Jerusalem. The previous evening had been frantic for Jerry. After being separated from the other men when a near-riot broke out in the Temple courtyard, caused when Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and released all the doves before they could be sold, he did his best to retrace his steps back to the small, squalid room. At first Jerry thought he could find the run-down boarding house, but then the maze of narrow streets and alleys in ancient Jerusalem completely baffled him.
Jerry must have wandered for two or three hours. He felt so lonely in this strange place during this strange time. He desperately wanted to be back in his suburban Connecticut home in the 21st century with his wife and kids. He was so despondent he almost prayed. But not having done so for over 20 years, he didn’t know how. And besides, he really didn’t believe it would do any good because, frankly, he didn’t believe in God. Jerry had no clue how he had been whisked away from his modern, New England world into 1st century Palestine. He had to admit during the past two days he was somewhat fascinated at seeing in person the man who seemed to be the historical Jesus Christ, but he didn’t believe any of the things he was taught about Jesus in the catechism classes of his youth, the superstitious, supernatural stories his wife Brenda sincerely embraced.
Exhausted and frightened that previous evening, Jerry was just about to give up. Eventually he stopped walking and he sat down along the side of a narrow street with his back against a building. He began to weep. After about 20 minutes he heard a voice say, “Jeremiah! Is that you?”
When Jerry looked up through teary eyes he saw Benjamin. He was never so happy to see a familiar face. It was dusk, and in another ten minutes it would’ve been too dark for Benjamin to recognize him. “Oh, thank God!” Jerry blurted out, completely missing the irony of his statement. After Benjamin helped Jerry to his feet, he escorted him back to the small room. The rest of the band of zealots had already returned. They shared their meager rations of stale bread, dried fish, and weak wine. After eating, Jerry’s stomach still grumbled, as it had been doing since he arrived in this strange world. Jerry thought of the Boston Post Road back home that ran through the towns of Milford and Orange, with a seemingly endless stretch of fast food franchises and family restaurants. I’d give anything for a Big Mac right about now, he thought.
The men talked long into the night about the day’s unexpected events. Jerry listened for a while, but fatigue overcame him and the smelly hay on the dirt floor seemed as luxurious as a king sized bed at the Plaza Hotel. Jerry fell into a long and deep sleep.

*  *  *

Now it was Tuesday morning. The men walked briskly toward the Temple. Jerry had to hurry to keep up with them. They continued to talk about the previous day’s events. From the bits and pieces of what Jerry heard, it seemed the main problem—at least from the point of view of Jewish zealots who wanted to wage war against Romans—was that there were no Romans. The soldiers who had caused the panic were Temple guards, all fellow Jews. The Romans rarely appeared in the Temple courtyard since Gentiles are forbidden to enter. That would really cause the people to riot. Jerry smiled and thought to himself, I guess I’d better not tell these guys I was born and raised Catholic, not that they would know what that word means. Not that I really know what it means either.
As they walked and talked, Simon the Zealot seemed very concerned. Some of the bits and pieces Jerry heard him say included, “Jesus didn’t say anything about the Romans,” “Why did he attack the Jewish merchants? We need them on our side,” and, “He’s not going to rally the people to fight Rome if he keeps talking only about spiritual things.” 
Jerry also heard some of Benjamin’s comments in response to Simon, such as, “Don’t worry, he knows what he’s doing,” “He has to act like he’s focused only on spiritual things so the Romans don’t get suspicious,” and, “When the right time comes, he surely will switch from preaching to fighting.”
Although Jerry paid little attention during the catechism classes of his youth—and he summarily dismissed those lessons as nonsense when he became an adult—he did remember some of the stories. He walked a little quicker to catch up to Benjamin, and said quietly so as not to be overheard, “You know, Benny, you might be misjudging this Jesus. Like I told you the other day, I don’t think he has plans to fight the Romans.”
“You too?” Benjamin said angrily. “Just because Jesus did not begin the revolt yesterday, you’re suddenly doubting that he wants to lead Israel?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure he wants to lead,” Jerry said. “But not as a military leader. He’s a religious leader.”
Benjamin laughed. “Throughout our history, our best leaders were both!” he said. “You have such little faith, Jeremiah. You remind me of my brother.”
Finally the men reached the Temple and entered through one of the ornate gates. The courtyards were just as crowded as the previous day. This time they found Jesus on the opposite side of the same open area, away from the moneychangers’ tables. A large crowd of common folk surrounded Jesus, but unlike yesterday, there were also about a dozen distinguished looking men nearby, decked out in fancy robes. These men appeared to be arguing with Jesus.
Simon, Benjamin, Jerry, and the other men pushed their way forward to get as close to Jesus as possible. When they got within earshot, they heard one of the distinguished men say to Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar?”
Jesus replied, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius.” Someone in the crowd passed a small coin forward. Jesus took the coin and said, “Whose image and inscription is on this?”
After hesitating for a moment, a couple of the distinguished men said, “Caesar’s.”
Jesus turned and spoke loudly so the whole crowd could hear him: “Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God!”
The distinguished men appeared stunned. They glanced at each other with quizzical expressions and said nothing. The other people nearby, who at first seemed just as confused by Jesus’ statement, began to cheer when they noticed that Jesus had silenced his adversaries.
Jerry nudged Benjamin and said, “Who are those guys?”
Benjamin answered in a slow monotone, as if his mind was preoccupied with a completely different thought. “They are the chief priests, scribes, and elders,” he said.
Just as Benjamin finished speaking, Simon spun around and put his face inches from Benjamin’s. “Did you hear what he said?!” Simon shouted angrily. “He said, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’! What does that mean?! According to the Romans, everything belongs to Caesar. In addition to our taxes, are we supposed to give Caesar our homes, our animals, our children, and our lives, too?!”
“I don’t know what it means, Simon,” Benjamin said, a pained expression on his face.
“I can’t believe it!” Simon shouted, his face turning red as he spoke. “Jesus just told us to pay taxes to Rome! He’s a traitor!”
Benjamin tried to calm Simon down, but his heart wasn’t into it. He felt hurt and confused by Jesus’ words. Then Simon looked past Benjamin into the crowd and his eyes opened wide with recognition. “Iscariot!” he yelled. “Over here! Hey Judas!”
Simon pushed between Benjamin and Jerry, and a moment later came back dragging a tall, thin man with a terrified look on his face. “This is Judas the Iscariot,” Simon said to the others while forcing a cordial smile. “Maybe he can explain Jesus’ words for us.”
Benjamin stared at Judas, then glanced quickly at Simon and arched his eyebrows in surprise. Benjamin was amazed that Simon would even acknowledge Judas, let alone speak to him in a friendly voice. Benjamin had spent many nights listening to Simon complain about his fellow disciples, asking how someone as brilliant and shrewd as Jesus could’ve chosen so many ignorant men to be his trusted inner circle. Simon referred to most of them as “blockhead fishermen” who didn’t even realize they were being oppressed by Rome. However, when it came to Judas the Iscariot, Simon admitted that he was an intelligent man, but referred to him derisively as “the coward.” According to Simon the Zealot, Judas the Iscariot was afraid of his own shadow. Judas would not take any risks at all.
“So, Judas, my friend,” Simon said, his attempt at camaraderie quite unconvincing. “You understand Jesus better than those fishermen. What did he mean by, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’?”
“I, I don’t know,” Judas stammered nervously. “I don’t know anything anymore. I thought I understood Jesus. Really I did. But now, I… he…” Judas closed his eyes and hung his head.
“Now, now, old friend,” Simon said. “Surely you have some idea. Let’s talk about it.”
Judas looked up toward Simon and was about to speak, but then he noticed some scribes and Pharisees nearby. A wave of fear swept across his face. “Not here,” he said. “It’s not safe here.”
“OK,” Simon said. “Let’s find a quiet place. Where shall we go?”

Benjamin and Jerry watched this scene in silent amazement. Benjamin was confused, and wondered what Simon was doing. He wondered even more what Jesus was doing. Jerry looked at the scribes and Pharisees who so obviously instilled fear in Judas. He looked around the vast courtyard and the diverse crowd. A feeling of paranoia came over him. He shuddered involuntarily. The idea of a quiet place suddenly sounded very attractive. 

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