“We must start back for the Feast tomorrow,” said Jesus about a week later. “James and John have promised to meet their mother in Jericho in the evening, so we may as well all travel that way. It’s some years since she came up to Jerusalem for the Passover, isn’t it, James?”
“Five years it must be,” replied James. “She was set on it this time, but she couldn’t get Father to come.”
“He won’t leave the boats, when we’re away,” added John.
“We tried to persuade her to give it up,” went on James, “but it was no good. She’s getting on now; she’ll tire herself out.”
“I’m more sorry for the donkey than for Mother,” remarked John with a broad grin; “she’s put on a lot of weight, the last year or two.”
“Have you made any arrangements about rooms in Jericho, Master?” inquired Thomas; “the place is bound to be crammed.”
“I dare say we can find someone to put us up,” said Jesus indifferently. “If not, we must sleep in the open. It won’t be the first time.”
Once again the anxiety of the Twelve found expression. This time it was Philip who voiced it.
“Master,” he urged, “it surely isn’t necessary to go up to the capital at all. What is the point of putting your head straight into the lion’s jaws?”
“The Son of Man cannot shirk his destiny,” was the quiet reply. “He will be betrayed to the Chief Priests and Council. They will judge him worthy of death and hand him over to the Romans. The Romans will mock him and insult him and spit on him and scourge him and put him to death. And on the third day he will rise again.” He paused for a moment and then added decisively: “oh yes, we are going up to Jerusalem.”
Jesus had spoken more plainly and openly than ever before; he wanted to prepare their minds for what was bound to come. Yet still the Twelve failed to understand; they thought he was speaking metaphorically of dangers and difficulties through which he was about to pass triumphantly to the formation of his new kingdom. And it was Judas of Kerioth who most stoutly insisted that this was the only possible explanation of his words.
Yet the next morning when they set out along the narrow track leading from Ephraim to the main southern road they could not help remarking the change in Jesus’ manner. They noted the resolute air with which he strode ahead, the look of grim determination on his set face. Fear gripped them, fear for the Master they loved, fear for the cause to which they had dedicated their lives, fear for their own safety.
Could it be that the words he had spoken last night were literally true? Did the Master know he was going to his death? Could he realise that his death would shatter the hopes of thousands who had come to believe in him as the promised Messiah?
Hardly a word was exchanged until they joined the main stream of pilgrims on the congested Jericho road.
They had stopped for a meal, and were sitting like other groups of travellers by the roadside. Suddenly John let out a whoop of pleasure.
“Here’s Mother coming!” he cried. “Look, James.”
Advancing towards them down the road was an immense woman riding on a small, sturdy donkey. She and her mount together presented the appearance of a boat with all sail set and the hull half-submerged.
Anyone who looked at Salome could see at a glance where the sons of Zebedee had acquired their magnificent physique. In her youth she must have been a woman of fine, powerful build; but advancing years had added bulk to her big frame. She, and her wiry, apelike little husband, were as great a contrast as could well be imagined.
If the truth must be told, Salome had very little sense in her handsome head. She had always idolised her two big sons and would have spoilt them outrageously, had not their father with greater wisdom and truer affection instilled into them a sense of discipline, unselfishness and honourable conduct. Now that they were men, they realised their indebtedness to the little fisherman and knew that it was he who had saved them from growing up into self-satisfied louts, which their mother’s over indulgence might well have made them. Fond as they were of her, they often chaffed her about the blatant way in which she showed her pride in them; and among their neighbours she was always known as “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.”
As the top heavy vessel bore down upon them, James and John stood up and waved. Salome tugged at the bridle and the donkey came to rest, with an expression of resentful compliance.
“Well, there you are, my dears,” she sang out in a deep contralto voice; “I told you I was coming up for the Feast, and here I am.”
Her sons helped her to dismount, a somewhat slow and laborious process. The donkey shivered, whether from relief or a sudden sense of chill was not evident, and turned with a contemptuous shrug to crop the dusty grass at the side of the road. The rest of the picnickers got up to pay their respects to the mother of Zebedee’s sons. With a sigh of contentment she sank down between James and John.
After the meal Jesus held the donkey’s head while Salome was hoisted into position by her two sons. It was some little time before she was comfortably settled and her pack of provisions had been strapped on, to her satisfaction, with the result that the rest of the Twelve were some distance ahead before the little animal resumed his patient plodding.
“Have you got a room in Jericho, Mother?” asked John.
“Trust me for that,” was the cheerful reply; “my friend Hannah’s expecting me. She’ll be delighted to put up you two boys as well, I’ve no doubt.”
“She won’t want two great fellows like us suddenly foisted on her,” said John with a laugh. “You can’t expect your friends to have the same high opinion of us as you have yourself, you know.” And he winked at his brother.
The little cavalcade moved on in silence, relieved only by the chatter of other pilgrims and the clop, clop of many donkeys’ hooves.
“Master,” said James suddenly, “I think you ought to know about Judas. John and I were talking it over last night and came to the conclusion we ought to tell you.”
“What’s Judas been up to now?” asked Jesus quietly.
“It’s not what he’s done,” continued James a little uncertainly, “but what he says. He keeps on saying openly that you ought to be starting to organise your kingdom, to appoint your chief ministers and so on.”
“Yes,” added John, “and hinting that he’s the only one among us who’s capable of doing that sort of work.”
“Well,” asked Jesus, “what’s your own opinion?”
“It’s a bit difficult to say,” said John; “of course Judas is an able chap, we all realise that. But I don’t think any of us would be quite happy to see him really in control of everything.”
Jesus said nothing. But his heart sank. Even Zebedee’s sons were quite wide of the mark; they had no realisation even yet of the meaning of God’s Kingdom, still less of the fate which awaited him. Did none of the Twelve understand?
“I’m not so sure,” went on James, “that Judas isn’t right in saying that it would be a good thing to nominate us all for special jobs when the time comes. It would put an end to all uncertainty and to Judas’ obvious desire to get the plums for himself.”
“The idea of that Judas thinking himself better than James and John!” interposed their mother with a snort; “I never did care for him; above himself, that’s what he is. Why not say straight out that when you start your kingdom, James is to sit on your right hand and John on your left?”
“Oh, do shut up, Mother,” John put in hastily, to hide their embarrassment.
“Well, I don’t see who he could find better,” said Salome, bridling. “And it would put a stop to all wrangling.”
“You none of you know what you’re asking,” put in Jesus quietly; “before the Kingdom can be founded, there is much suffering in store for us all. Are you two capable of drinking the same cup of suffering which I must drink, and of going through the initiation of pain and insult which I must soon endure?”
“If you can do it, Master,” said James seriously, “so can we.”
Jesus gazed straight along the road, as if he saw the future closing in upon them. “My cup of suffering,” he said, “you will both drink. With the baptism of pain and humiliation you will, like me, be baptised. But to sit on my right hand or on my left is not mine to give; it is for those who are called to that honour by the Father.”
Later in the day Jesus heard James and John recounting this conversation to the rest of the Twelve. Both of them had been secretly amused at the embarrassing situation in which their mother’s tactlessness had landed them; and they wished to share the joke with the others, omitting, of course, the references to Judas which had started the subject.
But their friends were not in the mood to enjoy the joke; several of them obviously thought the sons of Zebedee had tried to steal a march on them by broaching the matter at all. Words were running high when Jesus came upon the scene.
“Trying to peg out the best claim for yourselves.”
“All very well saying it was your mother; but who put her up to it.”
“You two are always trying to get round the Master.”
Such were the angry comments which came to Jesus’ ears. He shuddered. Had the chosen Twelve learnt so little of the nature of the Kingdom that they were squabbling for the best places in it? Then what was to happen to the Kingdom when he himself was no longer there?
Jesus’ voice rang out, masterful and strong.
“Let’s have no more of this! You seem to think that the Kingdom of God is to be like the heathen Kingdoms, where the strong oppress the weak and rulers lord it over their subjects. That must not be so among you. Anyone who wishes to be great in God’s Kingdom must be ready to do the humblest services for others. He who is ambitious for power and authority must learn that greatness lies, not in controlling others, but in helping them with sympathy and understanding. The Son of Man has not come into the world to be served, but to serve, and to give his life to save mankind.”
So, humbly and shamefacedly, the Twelve asked pardon of the Master.
A diminutive figure was walking up the main street of Jericho. He was a dapper little man, well dressed and well turned out. The street was crowded, but the crowd only made him feel more lonely still; people with whom he had often done business either ignored him, or, worse still, turned and stared rudely. He was used to their contempt, but this made it no easier to bear. It was no pleasant job to be chief tax-collector in a thriving city like Jericho.
Suddenly he stopped in surprise. A sound of cheering had broken out beyond the north gate. Other people stood and stared up the narrow street; several of these started to run in the direction of the noise; one man cannoned into the little tax-collector and jostled him out of the way. Then several boys came running the opposite way, yelling at the top of their voices: “it’s Jesus the prophet from Galilee! He’s just given old Bartimaeus the use of his eyes! We saw him do it! Bartimaeus can see!”
Everyone in Jericho knew Bartimaeus, the old blind beggar who sat year after year outside the north gate, his mangy dog by his side. The little tax-collector had often thrown a small coin into his box as he passed. It was a relief to be thanked by someone who did not know what his profession was, even if it was only a blind beggar.
He had often heard of Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher and wonder-worker from the north; he had been interested in the accounts of his cures. But what had attracted him most was the fact that he was called “the friend of publicans and sinners.” The little man knew plenty of sinners who had hosts of friends; but a publican never seemed to have any; he collected taxes for the Romans, and it was bad form to know him. So a prophet who was a friend of publicans must be rather a remarkable character. And now there was a chance of seeing him.
By this time a singing crowd was advancing slowly down the street and people were lining up on both sides to watch it pass by. The tax-collector found himself hemmed in behind a jostling line of folk, all of them much bigger than himself; he stood on tiptoe but could not see over his neighbour’s shoulder. He edged his way deftly past the back of the crowd and managed to reach the open square ahead of the procession. Here things were worse than ever; the place was thronged with people waiting in open-mouthed expectancy for the coming of the prophet who had restored the sight of their own blind beggar.
There was a group of big sycamore trees in the square. Being an active little fellow, the chief publican swung himself into the lower branches of one of these. Now at last he could see. He squirmed himself into a comfortable position and surveyed the scene.
The procession was very close now. As Jesus entered the square in its midst, another spontaneous cheer broke forth. He stopped, a smile on his face; then he caught sight of the little figure on the branch. Their eyes met.
“Who’s that in the sycamore?”
Though Jesus did not raise his voice, the words were clearly audible. All heads were turned towards the tree, and a burst of laughter followed the question.
“Never mind him, Rabbi,” said a stout, overdressed man; “he’s only our chief publican, Zacchaeus.”
A chorus of derisive boos and catcalls greeted the words. Jesus waited calmly until the demonstration was over.
“Come down, Zacchaeus,” he said at length. “You and I must know one another.”
The little tax-collector scrambled down and advanced towards Jesus. He did not reach up to his shoulder.
“My friends and I are hoping to find quarters for the night,” Jesus went on. “Is it too much to ask you to put us up?”
“My house is outside the west gate,” replied Zacchaeus; “I’ll show you the way.”
Puzzled and a little resentful, the silent crowd parted to let them through. The tall prophet and the tiny tax-collector walked ahead, followed by the Twelve.
“Did you ever see the likes of that?” remarked the stout man in a loud voice. “Calls himself a prophet and goes off to lodge with a dirty swine of a publican. You never can tell with these religious blokes, that’s what I says.”
But in the poorer quarters of the city the recovery of old Bartimaeus was the chief topic of conversation. A man who could give sight to the blind might lodge where he liked, even if his choice did fall on a tax-collector. After all, little Zacchaeus wasn’t a bad fellow; there were plenty of poor folk in the town who had been more than once grateful for his charity, though they might not have liked to admit it.
Zacchaeus’ pleasure at entertaining his distinguished guest was almost pathetic.
“I’m a lonely man, Rabbi,” he said; “a publican has few friends.”
“My friend Matthew was a publican before he joined me,” replied Jesus; “he will understand how you feel.”
Zacchaeus turned to Matthew with interest.
“You resigned your job?” he said. “I’ve often thought of doing that. But I’ve nothing to turn my hand to.”
“It took me a couple of months to make up my mind,” returned Matthew, with a laugh, “but I’ve never regretted it.”
“People don’t try to understand,” said Zacchaeus sadly; “it makes no difference to them that I set aside half my income for helping the poor. And I try to be fair in my assessments: if I find that I’ve taxed anyone too heavily, I always make a rule of repaying him four times as much, out of my own pocket. But I’m a publican and therefore barred from society.”
“Zacchaeus,” said Jesus with sympathy, “you are as worthy a descendant of Abraham as any other Jew. My work is to seek out and help all those who need sympathy and assistance. Perhaps our chance meeting has brought to this house the feeling of friendship you have always missed.”
And the next morning, when he said goodbye to his guests, the little publican said: “You have made me feel a different man. For one evening at least I have mixed with people who never once made me feel I was not wanted.”
“There are other jobs in life,” remarked Jesus, “besides tax-collecting.”
“True, true,” replied the little man thoughtfully; “I shan’t forget that I have met at least one publican who has had the guts to give up a good income.”
Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts