The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Chapter 2
‘Oh, yes. He wants us to go back and tell him where to find you, so he can make sure the child is safe.’
‘If I were you,’ said Joseph, ‘I’d go straight home. The king is unpredictable, you know. He might take it into his head to punish you. We’ll take the child to him in good time, don’t worry.’
The astrologers thought this was good advice, and went their way. Meanwhile, Joseph packed their goods hastily, and set off that very night with Mary and the children and went to Egypt, because he knew King Herod’s volatile ways, and feared what he would do.
The Death of Zacharias
He was right to do so. When Herod realised that the astrologers were not going to come back, he flew into a rage and ordered that every child in Bethlehem and the neighbourhood under two years of age should be killed at once.
One of the children of the right age was John, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth. As soon as they heard of Herod’s plan, Elizabeth took him up into the mountains looking for somewhere to hide. But she was old and could not walk very far, and in her despair she cried out, ‘Oh mountain of God, shelter a mother and her child!’
At once the mountain opened and offered her a cave in which to shelter.
So she and the child were safe, but Zacharias was in trouble. Herod knew that he had recently fathered a child, and sent for him.
‘Where is your child? Where have you hidden him?’
‘I am a busy priest, Your Majesty! I spend all my time about the business of the temple! Looking after children is women’s work. I don’t know where my son can be.’
‘I warn you ?C tell the truth! I can spill your blood if I want to.’
‘If you shed my blood, I shall be a martyr to the Lord,’ said Zacharias, and that came true, because he was killed there and then.
The Childhood of Jesus
Meanwhile, Joseph and Mary were deciding what to call their sons. The firstborn was to be named Jesus, but what to call the other, Mary’s secret favourite? In the end they gave him a common name, but in view of what the shepherds had said, Mary always called him Christ, which is Greek for Messiah. Jesus was a strong and cheerful baby, but Christ was often ill, and Mary worried about him, and gave him the warmest blankets, and let him suck honey from her fingertip to stop him crying.
Not long after they had arrived in Egypt, Joseph heard that King Herod had died. It was safe to go back to Palestine, and so they set off back to Joseph’s home in Nazareth in Galilee. There the children grew up.
And as time passed there came more children to join them, more brothers, and sisters too. Mary loved all her children, but not equally. The little Christ seemed to her to need special care. Where Jesus and the other children were boisterous and played loudly together, getting into mischief, stealing fruit, shouting out rude names and running away, picking fights, throwing stones, daubing mud on house walls, catching sparrows, Christ clung to his mother’s skirts and spent hours in reading and prayer.
One day Mary went to the house of a neighbour who was a dyer. Jesus and Christ both came with her, and while she was talking to the dyer, with Christ close by her side, Jesus went into the workshop. He looked at all the vessels containing different coloured dyes, and dipped a finger in each one, and then wiped them on the pile of cloths waiting to be dyed. Then he thought that the dyer would notice and be angry with him, so he bundled up the entire pile and thrust it all into the vessel containing a black dye.
He went back to the room where his mother was talking to the dyer, and Christ saw him and said, ‘Mama, Jesus has done something wrong.’
Jesus had his hands behind him. ‘Show me your hands,’ said Mary.
He brought his hands around to show. They were coloured black, red, yellow, purple and blue.
‘What have you been doing?’ she said.
Alarmed, the dyer ran into his workshop. Bulging out of the top of the vessel with the black dye was an untidy heap of cloth, besmeared and stained with black, and with other colours as well.
‘Oh no! Look what this brat has done!’ he cried. ‘All this cloth ?C it’ll cost me a fortune!’
‘Jesus, you bad boy!’ said Mary. ‘Look, you’ve destroyed all this man’s work! We’ll have to pay for it. How can we do that?’
‘But I thought I was helping,’ said Jesus.
‘Mama,’ said Christ, ‘I can make it all better.’
And he took a corner of cloth, and said to the dyer:
‘What colour is this one supposed to be, sir?’
‘Red,’ said the dyer.
And the child pulled it out of the vessel, and it was red all over. Then he pulled out each of the remaining cloths, asking the dyer what colour it should be, and so they were: each piece was perfectly dyed just as the customer had ordered it.
The dyer marvelled, and Mary embraced the child Christ and kissed him again and again, filled with joy at the goodness of the little fellow.
Another time Jesus was playing beside the ford across a brook, and he made some little sparrows out of mud and set them all up in a row. A pious Jew who was passing saw what he was doing and went to tell Joseph.
‘Your son has broken the sabbath!’ he said. ‘Do you know what he’s doing down by the ford? You should control your children!’
Joseph hurried to see what Jesus was doing. Christ had heard the man shouting, and followed close behind Joseph. Other people were following too, having heard the commotion. They got there just as Jesus made the twelfth sparrow.
‘Jesus!’ Joseph said. ‘Stop that at once. You know this is the sabbath.’
They were going to punish Jesus, but Christ clapped his hands, and at once the sparrows came alive and flew away. The people were amazed. ‘I didn’t want my brother to get into trouble,’ Christ explained. ‘He’s a good boy really.’
And all the adults were filled with admiration. The little boy was so modest and thoughtful, not a bit like his brother. But the children of the town preferred Jesus.
The Visit to Jerusalem
When the twins were twelve years old, Joseph and Mary took them to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. They travelled down in a company of other families, and there were many adults to keep an eye on the children. After the festival, when they were gathering everyone together to leave, Mary made sure that Christ was with her, and said to him:
‘Where is Jesus? I can’t see him anywhere.’
‘I think he’s with the family of Zachaeus,’ said Christ. ‘He was playing with Simon and Jude. He told me he was going to travel home with them.’
So they set off, and Mary and Joseph thought no more about him, imagining him safe with the other family. But when it was time for the evening meal, Mary sent Christ to Zachaeus’s family to call Jesus, and he came back excited and anxious.
‘He’s not with them! He told me he was going to play with them, but he never did! They haven’t seen him anywhere!’
Mary and Joseph searched among their relatives and friends, and asked every group of travellers if they had seen Jesus, but none of them knew where he was. This one said they had last seen him playing outside the temple, that one said they had heard him say he was going to the marketplace, another said they were sure he was with Thomas, or Saul, or Jacob. In the end Joseph and Mary had to accept that he had been left behind, and they packed their things away and turned back towards Jerusalem. Christ rode on the donkey, because Mary was worried that he might be tired.
They searched through the city for three days, but Jesus was nowhere to be found. Finally Christ said, ‘Mama, should we go to the temple and pray for him?’
Since they had looked everywhere else, they thought they would try that. And as soon as they entered the temple grounds, they heard a commotion.
‘That’ll be him,’ said Joseph.
Sure enough, it was. The priests had found Jesus daubing his name on the wall with clay, and were deciding how to punish him.
‘It’s only clay!’ he was saying, brushing the dirt off his hands. ‘As soon as it rains, it’ll come off again! I wouldn’t dream of damaging the temple. I was writing my name there in the hope that God would see it and remember me.’
‘Blasphemer!’ said a priest.
And he would have struck Jesus, but Christ stepped forward and spoke.
‘Please, sir,’ he said, ‘my brother is not a blasphemer. He was writing his name in clay so as to express the words of Job, “Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?” ‘
‘That may be,’ said another, ‘but he knows full well he’s done wrong. Look ?C he’s tried to wash his hands and conceal the evidence.’
‘Well, of course he has,’ said Christ. ‘He has done it to fulfil the words of Jeremiah, “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before you.”‘
‘But to run away from your family!’ Mary said to Jesus. ‘We’ve been terrified! Anything could have happened to you. But you’re so selfish, you don’t know what it means to think of others. Your family means nothing to you!’
Jesus hung his head. But Christ said:
‘No, Mama, I’m sure he means well. And this too was foretold. He’s done this so that the psalm can come true, “I have borne reproach, and shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.”‘
The priests and teachers of the temple were amazed at the knowledge of the little Christ, and praised his learning and quickness of mind. Since he had pleaded so well, they allowed Jesus to go unpunished.
But on the way back to Nazareth, Joseph said privately to Jesus, ‘What were you thinking of, to upset your mother like that? You know how tender-hearted she is. She was worried sick about you.’
‘And you, Father, were you worried?’
‘I was worried for her, and I was worried for you.’
‘You didn’t need to worry for me. I was safe enough.’
Joseph said no more.
The Coming of John
Time went past, and the two boys grew to manhood. Jesus learned the trade of carpentry, and Christ spent all his time in the synagogue, reading the scriptures and discussing their meanings with the teachers. Jesus took no notice of Christ, but for his part, Christ was always forbearing, and keen to display a friendly interest in his brother’s work.
‘We need carpenters,’ he would say earnestly. ‘It’s a fine trade. Jesus is coming on very well. He will be able to marry one day soon, I’m sure. He deserves a good wife and a home.’
By this time the man John, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, had begun a campaign of preaching in the country around the Jordan, impressing the people with his teaching about the need for repentance and with his promise of the forgiveness of sins. There were many wandering preachers in Galilee and the surrounding districts at that time; some were good men, some were wicked charlatans, and some were simply mad. John was unusual in his simplicity and directness. He had spent some time in the wilderness, and dressed roughly and ate little. He invented the rite of baptism to symbolise the washing-away of sin, and many came to listen to him and to be baptised.
Among the people who came to listen to him were some Sadducees and Pharisees. These were two rival groups among the Jewish teachers. They disagreed with one another about many matters of doctrine, but each was important and influential.
John, however, treated them with scorn.
‘You brood of vipers! Running away from the anger to come, are you? You’d do better to start doing some good in the world, better to start bearing some fruit. The axe is already lying at the root of the trees. Watch out, because it will cut down every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit, and they will be thrown on the fire.’
‘But what should we do to be good?’ people asked him.
‘If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have more food than you need, share it with someone who is hungry.’