The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Chapter 3
Even some tax-collectors came for baptism. Tax-collectors were hated by the people, because everyone resented paying money to the occupying forces of Rome. But John didn’t turn them away.
‘What must we do, teacher?’ said the tax-collectors.
‘Take in exactly as much tax as you should, and not a penny more.’
Some soldiers came to him too.
‘Will you baptise us? Tell us what we must do to be good!’
‘Be content with your regular wages, and don’t extort money from anyone with threats or false accusations.’
John became famous in the countryside for the vigour of his words as well as for the ceremony of baptism. He had recently said something that was widely spoken about:
‘I baptise you with water, but there’s someone else coming who is much more powerful than I am. I’m not worthy to untie his sandals for him. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He’s going to sort the wheat from the chaff; he’s got his winnowing-fork in his hand already; the grain will be safe in the granary, but the chaff will burn with a fire that never goes out.’
The Baptism of Jesus
Word of his teaching came to Nazareth, and Jesus was curious to go and listen to him. He set off for the Jordan, where he heard that John was preaching. Christ went as well, but the two brothers travelled separately. When they reached the river bank they joined the crowd waiting to be immersed in the water, and watched as the people went down one by one to join the Baptist where he stood waist-deep, wearing the rough camel-hair cloak that was his only garment.
When it was Jesus’s turn, John held up his hand in refusal.
‘It should be you who baptise me,’ he said.
Christ, watching from the bank as he waited for his turn, heard his words with astonishment.
‘No,’ replied Jesus, ‘I’ve come to you. Just do it in the proper way.’
So John held him, and plunged him under the water and lifted him up again.
At that moment Christ saw a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. It might have been an omen. Christ wondered what it might mean, and imagined what a voice might say if it spoke from heaven and told him.
The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness
After the baptism Jesus and Christ listened to the preaching of John, and it made a great impression on them both. In fact, Jesus was so impressed by the personality and the words of the Baptist that he decided to give up his trade of carpentry and go into the wilderness as John had done, and see if he too could hear the words of God. So he went off on his own into the desert, wandering from place to place, eating little and sleeping on the rough ground.
Meanwhile Christ went home to Nazareth, and told Mary about the baptism, and told her about the dove, too.
‘It flew right over my head, Mother. And I thought I heard a voice speaking from heaven. It was the voice of God, and it was speaking to me ?C I’m sure of it.’
‘Of course it was, darling! It was your special baptism.’
‘Do you think I should go and tell Jesus?’
‘If you want to, dear. If you think he’ll listen.’
So he set off, and forty days after Jesus had gone into the wilderness, Christ found him kneeling in a dry river bed and praying. He watched and waited, thinking of what to say, and when Jesus stopped and lay down in the shade of a rock, Christ came and spoke to him.
‘Jesus, have you heard the word of God yet?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Because something happened when you were being baptised. I saw the heavens open above you, and a dove come down and hovered above your head, and a voice said, “This is my beloved son”.’
Jesus said nothing. Christ said:
‘Don’t you believe me?’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘It’s plain that God has chosen you for something special. Look what the Baptist himself said to you.’
‘He was mistaken.’
‘No, I’m sure he wasn’t. You’re popular, people like you, they listen to what you say. You’re a good man. You’re passionate and impulsive, and those are fine qualities, of course they are, as long as they’re regulated by custom and authority. You could have a lot of influence. It would be a shame not to use it for good. The Baptist would agree with me, I know.’
‘I know what it is, you’re tired and hungry after all this time in the desert. If you’re the son of God, as I heard the voice say, you could command these stones to become loaves of bread, and they’d have to, and then you could eat as much as you wanted.’
‘Oh, you think so? I know the scriptures, you scoundrel. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Had you forgotten that? Or did you think I had?’
‘Of course I don’t think you’ve forgotten your lessons,’ said Christ. ‘You were as clever as anyone in the class. But consider what good you could do if you could feed the hungry! If they ask for food, you could give them a stone and it would become bread! Think of the starving, think of the misery of famine, think of the bitterness of poverty and the dread of a poor harvest! And you need food just as the poor do. If you’re to do the work that God obviously wants you to do, you can’t do it hungry.’
‘It didn’t occur to you to bring me a loaf yourself, I notice. That would have been more use than a sermon.’
‘There’s bodily food, and there’s spiritual food-‘ began Christ, but Jesus threw a stone at him, and he retreated a little way.
Presently he spoke again.
‘Jesus, don’t be angry with me. Just hear me out. I know you want to do good, I know you want to help people. I know you want to do the will of God. But you must consider the effect you could have ?C the effect on ordinary people, simple people, ignorant people. They can be led to the good, but they need signs and wonders. They need miracles. Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul. Don’t despise the very means that God has placed in our nature. If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He’ll believe every word you say from then on. He’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.’
‘You think the word of God can be conveyed by conjuring tricks?’
‘That’s a harsh way of putting it. Miracles have always been part of God’s way of convincing his people. Think of Moses leading his people through the Red Sea. Think of Elijah reviving the widow’s son. Think of the poor woman whose creditors were demanding payment, and Elisha telling her to pour her one jar of oil into several empty ones, and they were all filled, so she could sell them and pay her debts. By showing people miracles like this, we bring them face to face with the infinite power of God’s goodness, and we do it with vivid immediacy, so their simple hearts see and understand and believe at once.’
‘You keep saying “we”,’ said Jesus. ‘Are you one of these miracle-workers, then?’
‘Not just me alone, but you and me together!’
‘But think of what an effect it would have if someone were to go to the top of the temple, say, and to step off into the air, full of faith that God would do what it says in the psalms, and send his angels to catch him. “He has commanded his angels to guard you wherever you go, and they will hold you in their arms so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Just imagine-‘
‘Is that all you’ve learned from the scriptures? To put on a sensational show for the credulous? You’d do better to forget about that and attend to the real meaning of things. Remember what the scripture says: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ‘
‘What is the real meaning of things, then?’
‘God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is coming soon.’
Christ came a little closer.
‘But that’s exactly what we can demonstrate with miracles,’ he said. ‘And the Kingdom is a test for us, I’m sure: we must help to bring it about. Of course, God could lift a finger and it would happen at once. But think how much better it would be if the way were prepared by men like the Baptist, men like you ?C think of the advantages if there were a body of believers, a structure, an organisation already in place. I can see it so clearly, Jesus! I can see the whole world united in this Kingdom of the faithful ?C think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth! And there would be councils of learned men to discuss and agree on the details of ritual and worship, and even more importantly, to rule on the intricacies of faith, to declare what was to be believed and what was to be shunned. I can see the princes of the nations ?C I can see Caesar himself having to bow down before this body, and offer obeisance to God’s own Kingdom in place here in the world. And I can see the laws and the proclamations issuing from the centre to the furthest edges of the world. I can see the good rewarded and the wicked punished. I can see missionaries going out bearing the word of God to the darkest and most ignorant lands, and bringing every living man and woman and child into the great family of God ?C yes, Gentiles as well as Jews. I can see all doubt vanquished, I can see all dissent swept away, I can see the shining faces of the faithful gazing up in adoration on every side. I can see the majesty and the splendour of the great temples, the courts, the palaces devoted to the glory of God, and I can see this whole wonderful creation lasting for generation after generation and for thousand years after thousand years! Isn’t this a vision worth marvelling at, Jesus? Isn’t this something to work for with every drop of blood in our bodies? Won’t you join me in this? Won’t you be a part of this most wonderful work and help bring the Kingdom of God to earth?’
Jesus looked at his brother.
‘You phantom,’ he said, ‘you shadow of a man. Every drop of blood in our bodies? You have no blood to speak of; it would be my blood that you’d offer up to this vision of yours. What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses. Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would come into these magnificent courts and palaces like a poor traveller with dust on his feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, throw him out into the street. “Be on your way,” they’d say, “you have no business here.” ‘
‘I’m sorry you see it like that,’ said Christ. ‘But I wish you’d let me persuade you otherwise. It’s exactly that passion, that impeccable moral sense, that purity of yours that would be so useful. I know we’ll get some things wrong to start with. Won’t you come and help get them right? There’s no one alive who could guide us better than you. Isn’t it better to compromise a little, to come inside and improve something, than to stay on the outside and offer nothing but criticism?’
‘One day someone will say those words to you, and your belly will convulse with sickness and shame. Now leave me alone. Worship God ?C that’s the only task you need to think about.’
Christ left Jesus in the wilderness, and went home to Nazareth.
Joseph Greets His Son
Joseph was very old by this time, and when he saw Christ coming into the house he mistook him for his firstborn, and struggled to his feet to embrace him.
‘Jesus!’ he said. ‘My dear boy! Where have you been? I’ve missed you so much! It was bad of you to go away like that without telling me.’
Christ said, ‘It’s not Jesus, Father, it’s me, your son Christ.’
Joseph stood back and said, ‘But where is Jesus? I miss him. I think it’s a shame that he’s not here. Why did he go away?’
‘He is in the wilderness, doing what he wants to do,’ said Christ.
Joseph was saddened, because he thought he might never see Jesus again. The wilderness was full of dangers; anything could happen there.
But a little later Joseph heard a rumour in the town that Jesus had been seen on his way home, and he ordered a great feast to be prepared to celebrate his homecoming. Christ was in the synagogue when he heard about this, and he hurried out and reproached his father.
‘Father, why are you preparing a feast for Jesus? I have been at home all the time, I’ve never disobeyed your commands, and yet you’ve never prepared a feast for me. Jesus walked away with no warning, he left you with work to do, he has no thought for his family or anyone else.’
‘Well, you’re at home all the time,’ said Joseph. ‘All that I have is yours. But when someone comes home after being away, it’s right and proper to prepare a feast in celebration.’
And when Jesus was still some way off, Joseph hurried out to greet him. He embraced him and kissed him warmly. Jesus was moved by the old man’s gesture, and said, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against you; it was wrong of me to go away without telling you. I don’t deserve to be called your son.’
‘My dear son! I thought you were dead, and here you are, alive!’
And Joseph kissed him again, and put a clean robe around his shoulders and led him in to the feast. Christ greeted his brother warmly, but Jesus looked at him as if he knew just what Christ had said to his father. No one else had heard it, and no one saw the look that passed between them.