Many years before Jesus left the workshop at Nazareth, his cousin John had struck out a line for himself. The only son of elderly parents, John had grown up a thoughtful and serious-minded boy. On the first occasion when the cousins had met, Jesus had found him a little difficult to get on with; he seemed to have none of the sense of fun or love of God’s creatures, which made life such a joyous thing to Jesus himself. He thought of John as much older than himself, though in actual fact there was only the difference of six months between their ages. Jesus admired his cousin, but he did not come to know him well until later.
John had lived with his parents in the hill country of Judaea, within easy reach of Jerusalem. His father, Zacharias, was one of the priests attached to the service of the Temple and it had always been his hope that his only son would follow in his footsteps. For this reason he had himself undertaken his education, and consequently John had lived almost entirely at home and had missed the companionship of other children, which itself gives a boy a wider outlook and greater sympathy.
On the occasion of his second visit to Jerusalem for the Passover, when he was fourteen, Jesus had spent a few days with his parents at his cousin’s home; this was the only time he ever met cousin Zacharias and he well remembered his awkward feeling of shyness in the venerable old gentleman’s presence. His long grey beard and dignified bearing inspired the boy with such awe that he generally sat silent at meals and could not pluck up courage to put the countless questions which he would have liked to ask about the Temple services.
Cousin Elizabeth was different; she was a little, dried-up old lady with a kind heart and a cheerful smile; she would take Jesus aside and give him sweets, just as his Mother did at home. But he always found it hard to remember that these two old people were the father and mother of John who was almost his own age. When he looked at his own Mother, so young and nice-looking, it seemed absurd that she should have a son nearly as old as Cousin Elizabeth’s—or rather that Cousin Elizabeth’s son should be only a few months older than himself.
Jesus could not help noticing that the old couple were frequently watching him when they thought he was not looking; this made him acutely embarrassed. He felt sure they were comparing him unfavourably with John who was taller, broader and altogether older for his age. Jesus knew that his Mother was conscious of this scrutiny, as she glanced a little anxiously every now and then at the old people. He would have liked to ask her why they watched him like that, but somehow he knew she would rather not be questioned about it.
With John himself he established very little contact in this first visit. John seemed so sure of himself; though not a great talker, he was always ready to give a thoughtful and intelligent answer to any question put to him. He carried on a conversation with Joseph about the results of the Roman occupation, making courteous and sensible enquiries about conditions in Galilee. And all this time Jesus sat tongue-tied on the other side of the table, thinking how his cousin must be despising him.
The fact is that Jesus at this time was passing through that awkward stage of boyhood, when he was no longer a child, but not yet a man. He was intensely conscious of himself, and could not help wondering what other people were thinking of him. When cousin Zacharias tried to put him at his ease by asking him what he thought of the Temple at Jerusalem, he became confused and could only mutter: “Oh, it’s very fine.” And he remembered with amazement how only two years before, a child had sat in the Temple lecture room, listening to the learned doctors and without any self-consciousness asking them questions. He recollected how easily he had chattered to the two young students, Nicodemus and Joseph, about the Temple, how he had called it “my Father’s house.” And now to this kindly, but alarming, old relative he could say nothing but, “Oh, it’s very nice.” He felt ashamed of himself, and felt sure they were all amused at his awkwardness. He did not know that he was passing through an experience which has troubled countless boys before and since; he could not tell that his cousin John had only recently got over his shyness and was trying to make things easier by affecting not to notice his embarrassment.
His inability to express his thoughts certainly did not mean that he had no thoughts to express. Ideas were seething in his head at this time and he longed to talk them over with someone who would understand and sympathise. But even when he had met Dr. Nicodemus in Jerusalem a few days before, and the doctor had tried to draw him into conversation, he could not bring himself to talk about anything more interesting than the uniforms of the Roman garrison and the Temple guards. For a quarter of an hour they had talked about this subject, which did not particularly interest either of them; then Nicodemus had asked a leading question: “Do you still think of God as your Father?” Jesus had looked away; “Yes, of course,” was all he could find to answer. For a moment Nicodemus had looked puzzled; then seeing that the boy was uncomfortable, he had changed the subject.
Jesus knew only too well that his friend had been disappointed; but if only Dr. Nicodemus could know how disappointed he was himself. All the time they were discussing the different shapes of helmets, he was burning to pour out to the young man all that he had been thinking in the last two years. And he had thought a lot. That great truth which had been flashed into his childish mind, “God is my Father,” had now become a deep and certain conviction. It was the centre of his life, the one thing which had kept him truthful and pure at those critical moments when a lie would have been so easy or when the desire of his body had been strong. He knew it was some day to be his job to share this great truth with others; but in the last year a new problem had presented itself. If he couldn’t open his mouth to talk to anyone about anything that mattered, how was he to bring his good news to the thousands who needed it. He couldn’t even explain to his friend, Dr. Nicodemus; he couldn’t tell cousin Zacharias how profoundly the Temple at Jerusalem moved and inspired him. He felt thwarted and depressed.
He wondered if he could explain his difficulty to John. One thing at least the two boys had in common; both were fond of open-air and exercise. Yet as they walked over the hills, they said little to one another. There seemed to be a sort of invisible barrier between them; each was busy with his own thoughts, but they were not thoughts easily expressed or shared. So the visit came to an end, and Jesus had not taken John into his confidence.
When they next met three years later things were quite different. Jesus was no longer the shy and awkward boy of the previous visit; three years of hard work in the carpenter’s shop had already made a young man of him. A sense of his own usefulness at home had given him poise and self-confidence; above all there was the growing certainty that at some future time a greater work than his honourable trade lay before him; this filled him with joy and quiet determination. The moment had not yet come to talk about this intention, but he thought much of it, and prayed daily to his Father that he might be fit and ready to proclaim his message when the time came. Outwardly he was a tall, strong boy, healthy and active; his eyes revealed the honesty and friendliness of his character.
John had changed less; there was still the same self-possession which Jesus used to envy, still the same serious look of purpose, still the same reserve which seemed to keep you at arm’s length. Physically John had developed into a magnificent young man—lean and straight as a young fir tree. He stood six foot two in his sandals. With the figure of an athlete, the head of a Greek God and the brooding splendour of his dark eyes, he would command attention anywhere.
His father Zacharias had died two years earlier; his mother looked frail and delicate. Jesus was surprised at the change in her and noticed how, instead of managing everything herself, as he remembered her doing before, she appeared to leave more and more to John.
This year, Jesus had come to visit his cousins alone; for the first time since their marriage Joseph and Mary had not gone up to the Passover in Jerusalem. Joseph was beginning to feel the weight of his years; any undue exertion tired him and made him short of breath. So the two had decided to stay quietly at home and let Jesus go by himself. He had stayed at Dr. Nicodemus’ house; and once again Dr. Joseph from Arimathaea was his guest for the feast. Long into the night the three had talked; they had laughed over that disappointing meeting three years earlier. The two men had done their utmost to persuade Jesus to study the law and become a doctor like themselves; Dr. Joseph had generously offered to pay his fees at the Sacred College. But grateful as he was, Jesus had refused the offer.
“I can’t feel that is my job in life,” was all that he said.
“Surely it would open up more possibilities than a carpenter’s work,” suggested Dr. Joseph.
“For the present,” said Jesus, “I must help at home. Later on, perhaps.”
He paused; the others waited. No, it was not yet time to speak of his purpose, even to these two good friends. When the moment came, then he could tell them. He broke the silence with a laugh.
“Later on, perhaps, I shall be able to hand over the business to one of my brothers.”
And he would say no more.
It was a brisk clear morning. Jesus and John had got up at the first streak of dawn, taken some food with them and set off for a long trudge over the hills. They had reached a lofty spur which commanded a view of distant Jerusalem and had sat down to rest and eat.
As they munched their bread and cheese, Jesus drank in the beauty of the scene before him. The Temple shone white in the rays of the midday sun; down the side of the hill clustered the crowded houses, large and small; on a crag dominating the city stood the ancient fortress which now served as the barracks of the Roman Garrison. In the town he could make out the pillared portico of the Praetorium, the official residence of the Roman governor; on the outskirts, at the other side of the city Herod’s palace, stood in a spacious garden. His gaze was now held by the squat bald outline of Skull Hill, which brought back disturbing memories of a previous Passover, when a lost boy had watched the execution squad at their sinister work.
John was lost in thought; though his eyes were turned in the direction of the Holy City, he seemed to be looking beyond it to where a line of rugged hills ran along the horizon. Suddenly he broke the silence.
“It’s all pretty difficult,” was what he said; he seemed to be speaking more to himself than to his companion. His voice was harsh, almost fierce. Jesus glanced at him in surprise, and all at once he knew that this moment was a decisive one for them both; it almost seemed as if on this peaceful hillside the destiny of the world was to be settled.
“What’s difficult?” he asked.
“My job in life,” replied the other; “What I’m to do—what I’m to be.”
“I thought you were to enter the priesthood,” said Jesus.
“That was father’s idea,” answered his cousin, almost bitterly. “But I’m not cut out for it. I couldn’t work with that lot—narrow-minded, money grubbing hypocrites. That’s what our holy priests are. Of course there are exceptions; father was as straight a man as ever lived: that’s why he never rose to any high office, I suppose. And the friends he used to bring to our house—they were all right. But the rest, rotten, rotten all through. Father used to take me to the Temple, to the lecture-hall, to the Treasury. Wherever I went, it was the same. God’s house was being run as a good speculation. The priests were not only filling the treasury, but their own pockets. And they were all quarrelling among themselves, too. Sadducees and Pharisees bickering all day long. The Sadducees with their ridiculous notion that there is no other life after this—what’s the point of this life, it there’s nothing afterwards? But the Pharisees are almost as bad, though they do profess to believe what’s obviously true; they only argue for the truth in order to score off the Sadducees. Of course the Sadducees are top dogs now, but only because they curry favour with the Romans. Can you see me living that sort of life? I couldn’t stick the hollowness of it all for a week.”
The torrent of words stopped as abruptly as it had begun. John was still sitting, leaning forward a little, his hands clasping his knees. Jesus noticed the puzzled frown which puckered his forehead, the smouldering fire in his sombre eyes.
“Did you ever talk to your father about it?” he asked.
“Occasionally,” said John. “It seemed only fair to tell him what I felt. Father was too loyal to say anything against his own profession; but he knew I was right; he never contradicted me. He often explained to me what a priest should be like—but he didn’t say what most of his colleagues actually were like—until very near the end. But, look here, why should I bore you with all this? It’s my problem, not yours.”
Jesus laughed. “You’re not boring me,” he said. “You see, you’ve never talked to me before—not really talked, I mean.”
“No I suppose I’ve not,” said John thoughtfully. “I’m a silent sort of beggar, you see.”
“That’s why it’s rather thrilling when you do let fly,” remarked the younger boy.
“Well, if you honestly don’t mind, I’ll tell you all about my last talk with father, and what I’ve been worrying about ever since. I don’t expect you can help much; but talking about it will clear my mind perhaps.”
“Go on,” said Jesus. He rolled over and lay on his front on the soft, warm turf. He pulled a juicy stem of grass and sucked it. It would be easier for his cousin to talk freely if he were not watching him.
“About a week before father died,” began John, “mother asked me to go to his room. He was sitting propped up in bed. We all knew—he as well as any of us—that he hadn’t long to live. He accepted this with the same calm courage as he had shown in all the ups and downs of his long life.
“‘I want to talk to you before I go, John,’ he said. I sat down by his bedside and waited.
“‘Do you know that the Messiah is in the world already?’ He said this as calmly as if he were telling me that the High Priest was in Jerusalem. For a moment I thought his mind was wandering; but he went on just as steadily, ‘No, I’m not delirious. It really is as I say. The Messiah is with his Chosen People; they have not recognised him yet—perhaps they will never recognise him. It is for you, John, to prepare them to meet and know him when he shows himself.’
“And then he told me an amazing story. Some time before I was born it was his turn to offer incense on the altar in the Temple; while he was doing this he became conscious of a Presence in the Temple with him. Dimly he made out a form standing on the opposite side of the altar. The messenger told him he was the archangel Gabriel bringing him a message from the Most High; though mother and he were old people, they were to have a son; they were to name him John, a name never known in our family before. He was to prepare our nation for the coming of the Messiah. Father thought he was dreaming; he couldn’t believe it, you see; so the angel told him he should be dumb until his child was born. When he came out of the Temple, he couldn’t speak. Ten months later I was born.”
John stopped; Jesus remained silent. What did all this mean? The Messiah was in the world already? And his cousin was the reincarnation of Elijah foretold by the prophets? It was bewildering.
Before he could sort his thoughts, John went on: “Of course I asked Father if he knew who the Messiah was. He answered: ‘Your mother and I know—and two others. I may not tell you, John; and you must promise me never to ask your mother. You will know the Messiah without my help—when the right time comes.’
“I gave him the promise he asked for; and I have never spoken to Mother about it, and never shall. But I was puzzled about what he had said about me. How was I to prepare people for the Messiah’s coming? I put the question to him.
“He told me to fetch the book of the prophet Isaiah; I brought him the parchment. ‘Turn to chapter forty, John,’ he said; I found the place. ‘Now read me the third verse.’ I read it aloud to him: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight before his face.’ ‘That’s enough John,’ he interrupted; ‘now do you understand? You have been born to fulfil the prophet’s words. You are to be the voice of the herald, calling to the King’s subjects to build a road along which he may come to his Kingdom.’
“I felt stupefied. For several minutes I could say nothing. Then a question formed itself in my mind, a question which I put into words.
“‘But in what way can the road be built? How am I to start to make people ready for the Messiah?’
“‘That has not been revealed to me,’ he answered. ‘But I have thought much about it. You have often criticised the worldliness of my fellow-priests; you are yourself in training for the priesthood. Of all God’s chosen People the priests of His holy Temple should be most ready for the coming of His Messiah. Perhaps that is where you should begin, by reforming the Sacred College from within. But here I am speaking without any certainty; to you, his chosen instrument, God will reveal the way.’
“He lay back exhausted, I sat still by his bedside, thinking, wondering. My brain was in a whirl; I could not take in half the meaning of what Father had told me. Soon I found that I had ceased to think of anything; I remember idly watching a ladybird crawling up the blanket; I wondered what it would do when it came to the parchment roll which still lay on the bed. Before it got there, father spoke again.
“‘Kneel by my bed, John,’ he said.
“I knelt down; the ladybird, startled by the movement, flew to the window. Father put his hands on my head and blessed me. I rose quietly to my feet; before I opened the door, I heard his whisper: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness.’
“Those were the last words I heard father speak; the next day he was unconscious; five days later he passed peacefully to the place which according to his fellow-priests, the Sadducees, does not exist.”
John had finished; he rose to his feet.
“Now you know what I have been worrying about for the last two years,” he added with a short laugh.
“How to begin?” said Jesus.
“You have no doubts about the other part?” Jesus asked.
“About your being chosen to prepare the way?”
“No,” said John simply.
“Nor about the Messiah being in the world already?”
For a fraction of a moment John hesitated. Then he said:
“No, I don’t think so. Of course, the whole idea is rather stupefying; but father knew what he was talking about. He spoke with absolute conviction.”
“Yes,” said Jesus. “And after all, why shouldn’t it be true? It’s what we’ve all been brought up to expect.”
“Exactly,” answered John shortly.
Again there was silence for a few minutes. It was the younger boy who broke it this time.
“John,” he said, “do you think your father was right in suggesting that you should begin by working as a priest?”
“No,” answered John quite definitely, “reforming the Sacred College—that was his idea. Turning them from the love of money and power. You might as well try to reform a vulture when it has scented carrion.”
Jesus’ mind turned back to the haughty young priest on the Jericho road: the man who had objected to his being in the lecture-hall. Were all the priests like that? Without human sympathy or any idea of the love of God?
“I wonder,” he said with some hesitation, “if the priests will recognise the Messiah when he appears?”
“If they do,” retorted John, “they will refuse to follow him, for fear of losing money or influence. But they won’t recognise him; they are blinded by self-conceit.”
“Who will know him?” Jesus said, as much to himself as to his cousin.
“You and I, let’s hope,” replied John, with a laugh, “and perhaps a few others. Seriously though,” he added, “there must be thousands waiting and hoping for his coming.”
“The poor and needy,” suggested Jesus, “those who see no other hope in life—the down-and-outs.”
John looked at him quickly. “Why do you say that?” he asked.
“They are the people who most need a Saviour,” said Jesus with conviction.
“Perhaps you’re right,” answered John thoughtfully. “I hadn’t looked at it like that. I was thinking of the patriots—those who really love our nation more than money or power, more even than their own lives. Those who want to see God’s People once more free and great.”
“Are you certain that’s what the Messiah’s coming for?” asked Jesus.
“What a queer chap you are,” replied John, puzzled; “isn’t that what all the prophets have foretold?”
“Well, have they?” put in Jesus. “Five years ago I heard Dr. Gamaliel lecture about that chapter in Isaiah; you know, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;’ he said Isaiah meant that the Messiah was to suffer, perhaps even to die, in order to succeed.”
“Of course he will suffer,” answered John warmly; “doesn’t every victorious leader have to suffer? And all his followers too? But die! I can’t see how he makes that out; how can he succeed if he dies before his work is done?”
“Perhaps it is only by his death that his work can be completed,” suggested Jesus.
“Well, we must leave that to him,” said John; “it’s beyond me. Let’s get down to practical matters. My job is to prepare people for the Messiah, not to decide what he is to do when he declares himself. Now, I’ve got an idea in my mind; I’d like to know what you think of it. Mother can’t last much longer;” he stated this simply, as an obvious fact. “After she’s gone, I shall clear out of here and go off by myself somewhere, probably into the desert country beyond Jordan. There I shall be able to think things out alone. In the wilderness there will be time to think—and time to pray,” he added rather self-consciously; “God will show me what I am to do; don’t you think so?”
“If you pray about it,” said Jesus, “He’s sure to.”
In the cool of the evening the cousins walked home. Not a word more was spoken by either of them on the subject which was uppermost in their thoughts. But between them had sprung up a deep friendship, a friendship which was none the less real, though they saw little of one another for the rest of their lives.
Three months later Jesus received a letter from his cousin. It merely stated that his mother had died a week earlier: then he added, “You will not be surprised to hear that I am arranging to sell this house. When the business is finished I am off across Jordan; how long I shall be there I don’t know. That will depend on what I am told to do. When I meet him, I will let you know.”
The letter was handed to Jesus as he came in from a job in the town. He sat down on the bench outside the workshop and read it through twice; then he folded it carefully, thrust it into his pocket and went in to supper.
It was not until five years later that the cousins met again, and then it was by the merest chance. For the two years following Joseph’s death, Jesus had been too busy keeping the family business together to have any time for visiting Jerusalem, either for the Passover or anything else. It was slog, slog at the bench all the time, with the added anxiety of uncertainty whether he could keep a roof over his Mother’s head. But by the time he was twenty-two, he felt the corner was turned; the business was once more firmly on its legs; and Joses was already becoming handy with the tools and a real help. Jesus felt he had really earned a holiday and could attend another Passover in the capital.
On the day after the Feast he was walking in the Temple courts. At some distance from him he noticed a tall young man, clad in the oldest and roughest garments. His back was towards Jesus, but something in his bearing seemed oddly familiar; Jesus threaded his way through the crowd and saw that it was indeed his cousin; he touched him on the shoulder and John turned. For the fraction of a second he hesitated, then he held out his hand.
“Hello,” he said. “I hardly knew you. You’re so much older.”
Jesus laughed; “That’s hardly surprising,” he answered; “we were only boys when we last met. It’s five years ago, you know.”
“I suppose it is,” said John; “I seem to lose count of time where I live now.”
Knowing how much older he himself looked and felt, Jesus was surprised to find how little his cousin had changed; if anything a little taller, certainly more lean and gaunt, John was a striking figure. His skin was burnt brown by exposure to the elements; his cheeks had lost the fullness of boyhood and there were deep hollows under the cheekbones; his hair was rough and unkempt; Jesus noticed that he was still wearing the same rough clothes in which he had walked over the hills five years before; they were now old and threadbare, decorated with a few rough patches and one or two conspicuous holes. But the young man inside them looked splendidly fit in spite of his extreme thinness.
“Desert life seems to suit you,” he remarked.
“Better than this,” answered John. “I feel lonely in a crowd. The solitude of the wilderness is better company than one’s fellow-men. This is the first Passover I’ve come to since we last met—and it’ll be the last. I’ve been wandering about Jerusalem the past few days feeling utterly lost, and most of the time furiously angry.”
“What at?” asked Jesus, in some surprise.
“Oh, everything,” replied John impatiently. “Wherever one goes one sees selfishness and vice and meanness and beastliness. Meeting you has been like a breath of fresh air.”
While John was talking, Jesus had noticed a group of people some yards away, who were obviously watching them. They had nudged one another and nodded meaningfully towards his companion. Though John had made no effort to lower his voice, there seemed to be no ill-feeling towards him in this group; merely curiosity, mingled with some admiration.
“Are those friends of yours?” asked Jesus.
John turned and glanced at the people, who moved away in some embarrassment.
“Never set eyes on them,” his cousin replied indifferently. “Where are you staying?”
“With a friend, Dr. Nicodemus.”
“Sounds pretty smart. Doctor—one of the Temple lawyers, I suppose.”
“Well, I hope he’s not like most of them. But if he’s a friend of yours, of course he can’t be.”
“Where are you staying yourself?” he asked.
“There’s a pleasant little cave in the Valley of Rocks outside the town,” said John. “That’s where I’m putting up. It’s more like home. My own cave in the wilderness is not too bad. You must come and see me there some day. Are you starting back tomorrow?”
“Yes,” answered Jesus, “I can’t be away from home long.”
“Then I’ll meet you an hour after dawn at the Jericho gate. We may as well travel the first stage together. After Jericho our ways part.”
He turned and strode away through the crowd with long, swinging strides. Jesus looked after him and noticed that as he passed the people drew aside to make way for him, not as if avoiding him, but more as an act of courteous homage. Occasionally folk whispered to one another at his approach; one woman actually curtsied to him. John seemed quite unconscious that he was making any stir; he walked straight ahead, looking neither to right or left, passed through the gate and disappeared down the steps.
This meeting made Jesus vaguely uneasy. Two things puzzled him; why had the people shown such respect—for respect it certainly was, for this ragged and wild-looking young man? And why had John spoken so bitterly about everything? If he was to prepare the way for the Messiah, surely he must show sympathy to his fellow-men, not intolerance.
The first point was cleared up at supper. He remarked to Nicodemus that he had met a cousin up at the Temple; of course he said nothing about John’s mission in life; that was a confidence which he could not break. But he saw no harm in mentioning that his kinsman had sold his house and gone to live in the wilderness.
Nicodemus looked up with lively interest.
“What is your cousin’s name?” he asked eagerly.
“John, son of Zacharias the priest,” replied Jesus.
“John the hermit,” said Nicodemus; “that’s what he’s called now. I had no idea he was related to you. That young man has it in his power to do a great work; he has already established quite a reputation for holiness. People make pilgrimages to his cave to catch a glimpse of the holy man. Of course, this is partly idle curiosity but not entirely; John has a strange magnetic power. If he chooses, he may be a great influence for good.”
So that point was explained; John was already recognised and reverenced as a hermit. Of his cousin’s bitterness Jesus said nothing to Nicodemus; that problem must be solved tomorrow.
On the following morning, Jesus was at the Jericho gate a quarter of an hour before the appointed time; but John was already awaiting him. The two fell into step without a word.
At first neither seemed inclined to open the conversation, but as the exercise warmed their bodies, so it gradually began to thaw their shyness. Jesus made a few casual remarks to which his cousin gave monosyllabic replies; then he decided to risk a snub and asked a leading question. “Have you solved your problem yet?”
It almost seemed as if this was what John had been waiting for; he turned to his companion with one of his rare smiles. “How to start, you mean?” he asked.
“I think so,” said John. “I’ve been thinking and praying about it for five years and I’m almost sure I’m on the right lines. But it’s not to begin yet. I need more time to prepare myself, if I am to be able to prepare others for the most stupendous event in history. However, I’ve made a start. As you know, I’m living a hermit’s life in the wilderness. Already people are beginning to recognise me as something unusual; that’s what I want. I must attract attention first and build up some sort of reputation.”
“The holy man of the desert,” put in Jesus with a flicker of amusement.
“That’s the idea,” replied John quite seriously; “it’s all very well laughing at me, but what on earth is the use of a prophet if he has no one to prophesy to! I’ve got to make myself known; then, when the right moment comes, people will listen to me. I dare say you noticed yesterday how the crowd up at the Temple showed me some respect.”
“You didn’t appear to observe it yourself,” said Jesus.
“Of course not,” answered the hermit; “create an impression, but pretend you are unconscious of it. That’s all part of the plan.”
“It seems very artificial,” objected Jesus.
“It is artificial,” said John readily. “But there’s nothing artificial about the message I am to proclaim. That’s genuine enough; and so is my desire to carry out God’s wishes. It’s only the method that seems a bit odd.”
“And the bitterness with which you spoke yesterday,” asked Jesus, “is that part of the plan too? A kind of cynical pose?”
John considered this point for a moment; then he answered frankly. “Yes—and no: my hatred of evil is absolutely sincere; I feel impatient to begin my real work so as to call on men and women to change their whole outlook on life—to be done with hypocrisy and meanness and lust and avarice—to be ready to greet and fight for the Messiah when he comes. But I must be quite honest too; when we were talking to one another yesterday, I knew other people were listening to what I said. I raised my voice intentionally; I spoke more bitterly than I should have done in private; you see I want it to be known that I do not tolerate sin.”
“There’s just the risk,” said Jesus quietly, “of giving the impression that you don’t tolerate sinners.”
“Well, do you?” inquired John hotly.
“I’m quite sure God loves them,” answered Jesus, “just as much as he loves anyone else. You see, I’ve come to think of God as a Father, perfectly generous and perfectly loving. A father doesn’t stop loving his son when he disobeys him; he may punish him, but he doesn’t stop loving him.”
The earnestness with which the younger man said this made its impression on John. For a few minutes he was silent; when he spoke again, it was in an entirely different tone.
“Then you think,” he said slowly, “that God, who is perfect goodness, is willing to overlook a man’s sins because He loves him. Isn’t that rather inconsistent?”
“But that’s not what I believe,” Jesus answered eagerly; “a father doesn’t overlook his son’s faults. He does his utmost to help him to get rid of them. Perhaps when the Messiah comes, he will make everything like this plain to us. You haven’t met him yet?”
“No,” said John; “or if I have, I haven’t recognised him. The time will come, sooner or later; whichever it is, I must be ready.”
“And your plans are made?” asked Jesus.
“Yes, more or less,” replied the hermit. “God will see to it that I start at the right moment, even if I have no immediate orders from the Messiah in person. Something—probably some quite trivial thing—will start me preaching. My message is obvious. ‘Repent; shake yourselves free from sin; for God’s Kingdom is near at hand. Be ready; the Messiah is coming.’ Then, as a sign of the washing away of sin, I shall use baptism; take my converts down to the river and let them wash off their past life, as Naaman the Syrian got rid of his leprosy. For sinners can have no share in the Messiah’s Kingdom.”
Again his words jarred on Jesus. But he said nothing.
“Yes, I’ve thought it all out,” continued his cousin. “The first thing is to attract the crowds; then to give them something striking—something to make them pull themselves up. There must be success at the start; every detail has to be considered, even one’s dress; perhaps a loose garment of sackcloth, or, better still, skins—more in keeping with the character of the hermit-prophet, living in the wilds.”
“But is all that necessary?” suggested Jesus, “all this dramatic appeal to the emotions, I mean? The picturesque prophet on the river bank, crying, ‘Repent!’ No doubt you could excite a crowd to tears and sudden repentance; but would such repentance last? Would your work be permanent?”
“My dear man,” replied John, “my work is not meant to be permanent. It is only to make ready the way for one far greater than myself. The Messiah’s work will last throughout the ages.”
“Yes,” said Jesus. But he was still troubled.
“You think I am on the wrong tack;” a note of uncertainty had crept into John’s tone for the first time. “How would you set to work?”
“I haven’t thought it out as you have,” answered Jesus; “but I can only see one way—to live an everyday life among everyday people—to make friends with all, rich and poor alike—to show sympathy with the bad as well as with the good—to enter into the joys of the happy and the sorrows of the unhappy. Don’t think I’m criticising you, John; but I can’t understand your attitude towards sinners; surely they are the very people who need help and friendship most, something to restore their self-respect and sense of decency—something to bring to their minds the love and generosity of God. It’s like a shepherd, one of whose sheep has strayed into the mountains; he’ll leave his flock in the safety of the plains and set off to hunt for the lost sheep, won’t he?
“And he’ll be delighted when he brings back the wanderer. That’s just like the love of God for the sinner; and surely He wants us to do the same kind of thing ourselves? When the Messiah comes, his whole life will be a reflection of the nature of God—at least, that’s what I believe; so that he will be the most perfect Friend to everyone who will accept his friendship. And my idea is that this is what we should all aim at.”
It was John’s turn to listen now: he was profoundly moved. “Go on,” was all he said.
“What I am hoping to do sometime,” continued Jesus, “is to hand over the business to Joses, and try to live a life like that.”
“It would be a slow way of bringing people to believe,” objected John.
“Not necessarily. Each person you managed to win over would spread your influence to those he met. And to one and all I want to bring the truth.”
“The truth,” said John mystified; “but what truth?” Jesus looked at his cousin and saw his perplexity.
“I’m sorry,” he said; “I suppose I’ve been rather talking in circles; you see, it’s become so much a part of me that I forget sometimes that other people don’t realise it too. It’s like this: when I was quite a child it suddenly came to me that God is a loving Father; as I’ve grown up, I’ve seen the truth of it more and more. I pray to God as my Father; I think of Him as my Father; I’ve come to know him as my Father. I feel that my Father is with me every hour of the day and night; I’ve felt his loving help and protection when I’ve wanted to do wrong. And this has meant so much to me that I must sooner or later share the good news with everyone; I must devote my life to spreading the joyful truth, wherever it may lead me.”
“It needs thinking over,” said John; “it’s a magnificent idea. But it seems a bit fanciful.”
“It’s real, John,” exclaimed Jesus; “it’s the one thing in life that matters. For its truth I am ready to live and die. You see, to me God is my Father.”
Heedless of the other travellers on the road, John stopped in the middle of the highway. He turned and faced his cousin.
“You say God is your Father,” he said slowly.
“Then you claim to be the Son of God?”
“Every son of man is a son of God,” explained Jesus.
“The Son of God,” whispered John; “that’s to be the title of the Messiah.”
Other wayfarers were stopping to gaze curiously at the two young men.
“We’re blocking the road,” said Jesus. His cousin started, as if he were waking out of a dream. The two strode on side by side, the Prophet and the Son of God.
At Jericho they parted. As they shook hands, John said, “yours is perhaps the better way; but it wouldn’t do for me. I’ve not the patience nor the sympathy.”
And Jesus knew his cousin was right.
“I am only the uncouth road-maker,” continued John. “But if the Messiah will walk along my road, then my humble job will be worth while.”
He turned and took the road to Jordan. As Jesus watched his gradually diminishing figure, he pondered over what had passed between them. He thought of the hard streak in John’s nature; but he saw even more clearly his straightness, his utter sincerity, his intense belief in the work which lay before him. And suddenly Jesus understood. God doesn’t expect all his servants to be built in the same mould; the Father will use the best in all his children for the work to which they are most suited.
John was fitted for the hermit’s life; he himself could serve better in the homes of men. So be it. In both lives the will of God would be done.
Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts