“O, get out of here, kid! You’re getting in the way! People are trying to hear the preacher!” Simon snapped as he kicked young Joseph where the sun isn’t supposed to shine.
Joseph ran and hid behind a row of baskets usually filled with bread, but empty from lunch. His two friends were already waiting for him there.
“What were you doing out there?” Joseph’s friend Maria asked. “You could have gotten in BIG trouble, and taken US with you!”
“Shut up,” said Joseph, looking at his dusty toes.
“What’s that’s guy saying, anyway?” asked Jake, Joseph’s other friend hiding behind the baskets.
“I don’t know, I can’t hear when you’re talking so loudly,” Maria said, craning her neck to see over the baskets without being detected.
“Who cares, anyway? Let’s get outta here and find some food, I’m starving,” said Jake.
“Let’s wait ‘till everyone leaves,” said Joseph, “Then, hopefully, no one will see us.”
Remembering what happened to Benjamin, they decided to stay put. Their eyes grew dark as they summoned up that night when they heard Benjamin scream as his father reached for the knife. They remembered watching Benjamin’s dad dig the grave while his mother looked straight ahead into nothingness. They watched Benjamin’s father’s eyes, vacant of remorse or regret -or even anger – when his son died.
Benjamin got sick. He couldn’t work yet still had that great big mouth to feed. So he had to go. Simple as that.
Joseph, Maria, and Jake watched as Benjamin drew his last, blood bathed breath.
They had told each other this story countless times, not with words, but with their eyes. Benjamin’s death haunted their dreams and their waking eyes, because they knew that - at any moment – it could happen to them.
Each had their own story. Joseph’s dad was killed after the uprising when Caesar’s army murdered 50 men in retribution. Maria’s dad drank wine each night until he passed out, leaving her and her brother to wander the city looking for food. Jake’s dad treated him the way he was treated by his Roman boss: with hard words and an even harder fist.
Their moms weren’t treated any better than they were. Heaven help them if they couldn’t have children.
Survival was their world. Joseph, Jake, and Maria knew each day brought them closer to safety, the magic age of 13 when they were finally adults, finally receiving protection under the law. But before then, anything could happen to them. And it did. Think of Benjamin.
It’s hard to call people evil when it was just the way it was. Nobody taught them any differently. There was only so much food to go around. If you couldn’t work, nobody could take care of you. If you got into trouble they wouldn’t think twice about the harshest punishment.
Maria yelped as the baskets that were keeping them hidden suddenly disappeared. Looking up, Joseph’s eyes bore into preacher’s henchmen’s, whose furrowed brows reminded him of Benjamin’s dad’s. All angry men reminded him of that man because they could all do the same thing.
Jake tried to run. But a hand grabbed his collar and yanked him toward the crowd. He looked up, and there was the preacher standing in front of him. His eyes blazing.
Jake looked at the preacher’s hands. Hard, crackled skin. No blood under his fingernails.
The preacher knelt down, looked deeply into Jake’s red eyes before lifting the boy’s trembling body on to his lap as he sat down on a tree stump.
“Those who welcome this little child, welcomes me,” he said. “And not only that, whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
The disciples gasped. So did everyone else within earshot.
The preacher certainly wasn’t making it easy to be his follower.
First he says that a terrible death waits for anyone who becomes his follower. And he says that this is a GOOD thing!
If that’s not bad enough, he then has the temerity to say that they need to welcome children as they welcome him.
“Give me a break, preacher. That just isn’t practical,” a voice from the back said. “Children are tools.
“Also, they probably won’t live past age five so why would I want to get attached to them?” another blurted from the middle of the crowd.
“When an ox gets lame and can no longer plow the fields, we get rid of it. If a horse breaks its leg, it gets disposed of. If a child gets sick…”
The preacher brushed the hair away from Jake’s forehead, and again, looked deeply into his eyes. And without looking away from Jake, he said, “Whoever wants to be first, must be the servant of all.”
Jake’s eyes grew large. He leapt off of the preacher’s lap and ran away. Joseph and Maria quickly followed behind.
They ran to the outskirts of the city where they knew they were safe.
“What just happened there!?” Joseph asked, in between breaths.
“I dunno,” said Maria. “What do you think, Jake? Jake?”
Jake was quiet. He sat staring at his dusty toes.
“I’ve never heard preaching like that before,” Joseph said. “It’s like I heard them with my soul instead of my ears. I remember being at the synagogue and hearing the rabbi read from the scriptures, and thinking that’s what God must sound like. But today, I don’t think I heard what God sounds like. I think I heard God actually speak.”
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” said Maria, “Usually we get beaten to an inch of our lives when we sneak around and listen to the adults talk. But this guy wanted us to be there. He said that when big folks welcomed us – US – it was like welcoming him.”
“And also, he said that who wanted to be important – or big or great-, had to become like a servant - a slave. That doesn’t make any sense? Aren’t the biggest and brightest people the ones who are supposed to have servants and slaves? How is that supposed to work?”
“Maybe being great and being his follower are very different things, or at least the way we usually think of what it means to be great,” Jake wondered out loud. “When he put me on his lap, he looked at me the way no one else has in my entire life. He looked at me like I was worth something, like I was worth more than the fields that I plow or the fish that I catch. I’ve never been looked at like that before. No one has ever looked so deeply into my eyes. It was like he looked into my heart. And when he did that, everything bad about me seemed to disappear. No more shame. No more dirtiness. No more feelings of worthlessness. When I looked back in to his eyes I felt no fear. Only love.”
A tear ran down Jake’s cheek.
“If someone with a dirty old cloak, scraggly beard, and dusty shoes can make me feel loved and if he can make the world feel like that, than he really is great, despite what anyone else might say or do. And he makes me feel like we all can be just like him. Imagine that, a world where everyone loves each other and serves each other instead of fighting with one another.”
Joseph and Maria smiled at each other and at Jake.
“So, maybe greatness depends on how much we love, rather than how much we have,” said Jake. “Maybe that’s what that preacher was saying.”
As Jake turned around his heart jumped when he saw his dad hunched down with his arms stretched out. Jake stood still for a moment. Then reached for his father’s arms.