a contemporized, fanciful , but not-necessarily-apocryphal slant on His-story

bar doorThey had known of his death sentence. And the day and time it was to be carried out. But they, relieved to know of the official condemnation, in their happy vindication, being rid of “that vexatious disturber of our peace”, so a court official had trumpeted, hadn’t felt any desire and less of any need to be present. “Just let me know when it happens,” the one nicknamed Pons (short for Pontius), a portly gentleman, tugging at his too small waistcoat that barely covered his ample belly, chuckled, loudly clinking his glass with his bar mates and downing a third shot of rye. “And when it does, the next round for the house is on me!”

hiding placeAcross town, in a tiny room, another group gathered. The mood somber. The atmosphere, spiritless. No words were spoken. The only sounds, deep, prolonged sighs of melancholia and the occasional sniffle accompanied by the rumble of throats being cleared of the phlegm and spittle of remorse.

bar doorThe door flew open. All turned, in anticipation staring at the flushed face of their friend who, breathless, fell across the threshold. “It’s done!” he shouted. “The deed’s done! He’s dead!” A smiling Pons cackled, slamming his chubby palm on the counter. “Barkeep, drinks are on me! And keep ‘em comin’!”

“Uh…not…not so fast.” Rising to his feet, the herald of the glad tidings, a small man with stooped shoulders, wizened brow, and heavy-lidded eyes, wringing his hands, bowed solicitously.

“What the hell is it, Kai?” Pons demanded.

“He’s dead. Saw him die myself. But,” he gulped, “word on the street is…”

“Is what? C’mon, man, out with it!”

“He’s alive!”

What?

hiding placeA rap, soft, barely detectable. One of them, Nat, rose, Bart and Thad trailing a half step back, both slowly, gingerly stepping toward the door, then, having second thoughts, afraid, stopping, freezing in place. Again, a knock. Louder, persistent. Then a hushed voice, “It’s me. I know you’re in there. All of you. Open!” Rocky got up, impatiently brushing past his tentative comrades. With a grunt he dislodged the makeshift barricade, cracking open the door ever so slightly, the dim light from the hall faintly illumining the room. “Maggie!” (Her given name was Mary, but for as long as anyone knew everyone called her Maggie.) He began to reprimand her for coming, possibly being trailed by their enemies, giving away their hiding place, but her countenance, altogether familiar, looked different, strangely, not eerily, but radiantly aglow. The look of awe.

“Maggie?”

“He’s alive!”

Maggie?

“I have seen him with my own eyes! And he sent me to tell you…to tell you all…”

What?

bar door“Kai, you’d better not be joking!” Pons, reeling from his friend’s strange declaration, having fallen back against the bar, caught himself, pulling himself upright. “This,” his mouth was twisted into half a hopeful grin and half a tentative grimace, “is a joke. Right? You’re pulling my leg,” he leaned forward expectantly. “Right?

Kai slowly turned his head back and forth. “Nope, Pons, I’m not kidding you. Folk are sayin’ Jesus is alive!”

Cursing, Pons thrust himself to his feet, knocking over his stool, slamming his meaty hands on top of the bar, his attempts to steady himself having no good effect on his roiling, retching bowels.

hiding place“Maggie, come in! Hurry!” Barely had she stepped swiftly across the threshold as Rocky, just as quickly, bolted the door; the company of those in the room – Andy, Rocky’s brother, James (who refused to be called “Jimmy”) and Johnny, the usually rambunctious siblings who, at Jesus’ arrest and death, fell into sepulchral quietude, Phil, Matt, and Jimmy, also named James (who, like James, hated to be called “Jimmy”, but it was the simple way to distinguish one from the other) – murmuring, gathering around the two of them. Squinting, Rocky looked down at her. “Now, what are you saying?”

“I said…”

Never mind!” he glared at her. “I heard you. This better not be…”

“A joke? No, Rocky, I never would joke about something like this. Jesus is alive!”

bar door“Pons,” Kai rushed to his side, reaching out to embrace him, “you gonna be alright?”

No, damn it!”, he sputtered, “I’m not gonna be alright! And get off of me!” With one hand, Pons grabbed Kai’s wrist and with the other, he wrapped cruel fingers around Kai’s neck, squeezing hard.

C’mon, Pons, don’t kill the messenger!”

hiding placeWhere?” Rocky, skeptical, almost thought better of asking, but he was more than curious. What if Maggie, ever thoughtful, caring, and loyal, was telling the truth? “Where did he…did Jesus say to meet him?”

“Galilee. That is what he told me to say. ‘Tell my friends I will go ahead of them to Galilee. Tell them to come. There they will see me.”

bar doorPons released his grip. Kai, rubbing his bruised neck, slumped to the floor. “Damn, Pons!”

Shaddup, Kai!” Pons, though rotund, remarkably agile, both in body, turning on his heel, and in thought, pursing his lips, entertained the dawning of an idea. “Uh, I’m sorry, Kai.” Lowering his voice to a soothing rumble, Pons spun back toward his fallen friend. “Here, let me help you up.”

“Um, thanks, Pons.” Kai reached for the hand that a moment ago sought to strain the life from him that, now, hoisted him from the floor. “Um, you alright?”

“I’m fine. Even better than fine. C’mon to the bar. Have a drink on me. And tell me what you think of my brainstorm. It’s brilliant! I’m brilliant, I tell you!”

hiding place“OK, people!” Rocky barked. “Let’s go to meet Jesus. But first, we must find Tommy. He’s out there somewhere. Sad and alone. And knowing him, we’ll have to convince him, somehow, to come with us.”

And so it was (though it took a while, a good many generations for it to come to pass)…

Jesus’ friends left their hiding place, found Tommy, and went to Galilee. There, they saw Jesus, who breathed on them, imparting his spirit to them, in them, and, with the authority of his love, commanding them to tell abroad the story, his story, which they called “gospel”, “good news.” And to this day, billions are the numbers of those who, over centuries, have heard and believed.

The idea, born in a bar – after, first, an explosion of bitter anger at the hearing of the shocking news of the inability, the cosmic incompetence of death to keep Jesus dead – which came to be known as “Pons’ plan” also has been fulfilled.

“Suppose it’s not a trick and it proves to be true that Jesus is alive.” Pons, with a bit of rueful admiration, shrugged. “OK, I’ll give him that. He won the first round. But listen to me, Kai, and pay attention. So Jesus gets together with his friends, telling them to spread his message. And it really doesn’t matter what it is, because whatever it is, it will be a challenge to what already is. You know, our beloved status quo. Well, at least, beloved by all of us,” he chuckled. “Gracious sakes, there simply must be some benefits of being in the privileged classes! Don’t you agree? Of course, you do! But I digress. Jesus’ message, let’s see, will probably be something ridiculous and unachievable, you know, pie-in-the-sky stuff like love and justice.” Looking into the bewildered face of his friend, Pons grasped Kai around the collar. “I told you to pay attention, man! Stay with me on this! So, a movement gets launched. Ah, let’s give a name. The ‘Jesus-movement’. No, he came across a pretty humble. He wouldn’t put his name on it. Hmmm, how about something striking, attention-grabbing, something having to do with living…no…a way of life. That’s it! The Way! So, Jesus, through his friends, starts a movement. The Way. And like all movements, it moves! Spreads from person to person. Goes places. After a while, it’ll be all over the place. Then, and here’s the genius of my plan. Though, too bad, I probably won’t live to see it happen. But that’s alright. Things always work out this way. You start with a movement. Sure of its truth. Pure in its purpose. Then, mmmm, a few, maybe a couple of generations later, the followers will start arguing about what the truth and purpose are. They, at least some of them, may even begin to worship Jesus, like he’s a god. And you know what happens to…well, I really mean what happens for gods. Worshipers start building things. Buildings, for one. Monuments. Citadels. Even more, they’ll write books and design rites and rituals and call them sacred to the point where they’ll worship them, too, along with the buildings and monuments. And as convinced as they’ll be about what they’re doing, they’ll be confused about who’s who and what’s what. Who and what should be worshiped. When and by whom. And how. And who’s in and who’s out. And that’s when the movement will have become an institution! And all those who are in will be concerned mostly about self-preservation and self-perpetuation. They’ll be just like us!” He roared, his belly shaking with glee at the irony. “And that’s when death and the devil will have won!” Pons sighed. “Like I say, I probably won’t live to see it. But, in my gut, I know it’ll happen. Always does. So, barkeep, pour us another shot of rye!”

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My Story by Jonah, son of Amittai

prefaceWhy am I writing My Story? The book in Hebrew scripture bearing my name has been around nearly 3,000 years! It’s not a bad read. And it’s not that I disagree with it. It is about God, creator of earth, sky, sea, and all creatures that walk, fly, and swim (even big fish!). And I get how a patient God wants to save everyone. Even disobedient folk like me. And even those I don’t like (but the Ninevites! Really?)

Here’s the…my problem. The Book of Jonah doesn’t bear a trace of my viewpoint, an echo of my voice. It’s not that I want to rewrite (much less replace) it. (I’ve got pride, but I’m not that arrogant!) But I do want to tell my story…

rewriteGod’s word came to me. I don’t recall when (it was long ago!), but I remember how. A dream.

I heard God’s voice, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and cry out, ‘Repent!’” Jolted from bed, my head ached, my heart raced, my stomach churned! Must have been something I ate. My second thought? Whew, it was a dream…a nightmare! Go to Nineveh? That crowded, noisy place? Or so I’ve heard. And the Ninevites? Those awful people? Or so I’ve heard.

I tried to go back to sleep. Then I heard it. Thunder. Then God’s voice. “Go!” This time, God didn’t say where, so I asked.

“To Nineveh! Must I repeat everything?”

What a sense of humor! I almost laughed, but it wasn’t funny! “C’mon, God! Nineveh? Why there? Why me?” More thunder. And closer. The voice, louder.

“Because I already told you. I want Nineveh to repent.”

“OK, I got that part, but why…”

You, Jonah? Because I say so!”

“C’mon, God…”

“Jonah! Don’t make me come down there!”

I shuffled…ran to my closet. Scratching my head, on my life, I couldn’t decide what to wear. Some days, it’s hard to get it together. Multiply that difficulty by a zillion when you don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. Again (God read my mind), the voice, “Jonah!” “OK, I’m going!”

But I didn’t. And here’s a little (well, it’s about God, so it’s a big) secret. God, as the psalmist says, “fearfully and wonderfully” created us, knows all about us, and, I know from my own experience, talks to us. But God, who loves us and wants our love in return, therefore (here’s the secret!), won’t make us do what we don’t want to do! And I didn’t want to go to Nineveh!

I went in the opposite direction to Tarshish by ship from Joppa. Yes, the psalmist also says, “Where, O God, can I run from your presence?” Nowhere! I really didn’t think I could get away with trying to get away, but, remember, I also knew God wouldn’t make me do what I didn’t want to do!

I got onboard. We pushed off from the dock. I felt free at last, free at last, thank (well, as I was running away, I honestly couldn’t thank God Almighty, so) my lucky stars, I was free at last!

Then I learned something else about God. I could choose not to do what God wanted, but God could be very persuasive in convincing me to change my mind!

Jonah, storm at seaBarely clearing shore, a storm rose. Mighty winds. Thirty foot waves. The swells rising and falling so hard we feared capsize! The sailors tossed cargo overboard to lighten the load. I ducked below deck and, mercifully (I was so tired!) immediately fell asleep! But no rest for the weary. The captain woke me up, insisting I pray to halt the storm. “Me? Why me?” (No matter where I go, somebody, God or whoever always expects me to do something!) The captain grabbed my collar (how rude!), hauling me on deck, yelling, “Pray!” I bowed my head, half-closed my eyes, and clasped my hands, but before I could utter a word (I wasn’t sure God would answer me anyway!), I saw the sailors casting lots. Now, I’ve never thought that tossing stones from a cup demonstrated anything more than gravity and random order. But some folk believe that God’s will is revealed. And I was nervous when I heard one of the sailors say, “These lots will tell us who to blame!”

One toss! I couldn’t believe it! That’s all it took and the lots pointed to me! “Who are you?” they screamed. “What did you do to cause this storm? Tell us!” (Why is everyone, God and everybody else, always so demanding?) “I’m running…well,” I admitted, “I’m trying to run away from God.”

The storm grew more furious by the instant. The sailors were terrified (me, too!) and angry, gathering around me, shrieking, “What shall we do with you?” I was resigned to my fate. God wasn’t going to let me go. I threw up my hands. “Toss me into the sea and all will be well.” But they were honorable. Knowing I would drown, they wouldn’t do it. Rather, they rowed mightily trying to get back to shore. But their efforts were useless. Who can withstand the power of wind and sea, especially when driven by God’s breath?

Their strength spent, they stopped rowing. They, I…we knew what was next. They set down their oars. With sad eyes, they tossed me into the sea. Immediately, the storm ceased, the sea calmed. Doomed, I sank deeper and deeper, then lost consciousness.

I awoke! Either that or I was dreaming. But in order to dream, I would have to be asleep, and in order to do that I would have to not be dead. I pinched myself. Ouch! Yes, I was in the land of the living! But where?

JonahAll was dark and damp. Wet! I was soaked. And, phew, it stank! And I felt pressure. Heavy, then light, then heavy again…like going down into the deep and rising to the surface, then back again. How could that be?

I prayed, “Out of the depths of my distress, I cry, O God! Only you can help! I ran from you. You chased me, casting me into the sea. I thought I would die, but I’m alive, yet in darkness. Deliver me!”

Jonah, washed up on shoreGod heard and answered my prayer! I washed up on the shore. Turning round, I saw a great fish heading out to sea. I was in its belly! Who else but God could do such a thing? Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Thrilled, I headed home. Then, thunder. I could’ve cried, but I should’ve known! How could I think God would or could forget anything? “Jonah, go to Nineveh!” Too tired to argue, much less run again, this time, I went. After a while, I arrived.

Jonah, NinevehNineveh was a great city. It would’ve taken me three days to walk end to end. And, once I entered the city limits, I could see that everything I’d heard about the Ninevites wasn’t true. They were people. Just like me!

Still, they were foreigners. I was puzzled. Why would God want to save these people? More thunder. “OK, God, I hear you! I’m here, so I’ll do my job!”

Yet even after all I’d been through, I knew God wouldn’t make me do what I didn’t want to do! So, this is what I said: “God, you want me, even though I don’t understand it, to preach to these people? OK, I will do your will, but I will not go throughout the city, but only a day’s journey. I will proclaim your message, but I will not cry out, only whisper. So, only a third of these people and only those with good hearing will have a chance to hear your word, which, I presume, they’ll reject. Therefore, in your righteousness, you’ll have to destroy them! Ha!

I climbed a hill outside of the city and sat, waiting to see what would happen. Night came. Then morning. Nothing! For much to my shock, the Ninevites repented! And God did not destroy them. I was hopping mad!

The sun rose. The wind, hot and dry, blew. Baked in the heat, battered by the wind, and embittered because the Ninevites escaped judgment, I begged God, “Let me die!” Then I heard a still, small voice.

“Jonah, Jonah…”

What!”

“Are you angry, Jonah?”

No!”

“Jonah?”

“No, God, I’m not angry. I’m mad!”

“Alright then, you are mad. Is it because I did not destroy Nineveh?”

“What do you think? You know everything! You tell me!”

“My dear Jonah, you are angry…excuse me, mad because a people you did not create, a people who you really do not know, heard my word and repented?”

Yes!”

“Then, Jonah, I wonder, and you tell me. Do you really know me?”

she speaks up…finally!

Martha and MaryJesus visits Martha and Mary. Martha’s in the kitchen breaking a sweat, bustin’ pots and pans to prepare a meal for her guest as Mary listens to his teaching. Martha wants her sister’s help. Jesus reproves her fussy hospitality, praising the generosity of Mary’s attention.

The quality of greeting, offering what the guest most wants, is essential. Still, I sympathize with Martha. As human, I believe my qualitative sense of worth comes from being created in imago Dei, in God’s image. Yet I also still hear an inner voice (after all these years, sounding like my parents!) that counts my value in quantitative terms of doing – the more, the better.

I side with Martha for another reason. Kindness. The host’s responsiveness to the guest is important. So, too – when the host has given the best she can – is the guest’s mutual hospitality and generosity expressed in the gratitude of offering a heartfelt “thank you”; surely never a reprimand, however mild, well-intended, and instructive.

In the Cain and Abel story, another tale of rejection and acceptance, God, without cause, dismissed Cain’s harvest fruits, gladly receiving Abel’s lambs from his flock. A dispirited Cain committing fratricide, the Bible’s first murder. Martha had good sense not to throttle Mary, at least not in front of Jesus, who, as the authority, perhaps is less callous, but no less capricious than the God of Genesis. And though he, in a first century counter-cultural act, welcomes Mary, a woman, as his student, he, in dismissing Martha, acts in a decidedly culturally commonplace manner.

I don’t know what Martha thought or felt, or what she may have wanted to say in her defense. Standing with her, I offer this possibility…

Martha spun on her heel, storming back into the kitchen, the rebuke of her friend ringing in her ears. She tried her best. Wasn’t that good enough?

And what was the learned rabbi trying to teach her? She had overheard his word to her sister. A parable about a “neighbor” being anyone in need and being a good neighbor by lending help. That was provocative, especially with a Samaritan in the starring role, and worthy of consideration. After all, Mary wasn’t the only one given to prayerful contemplation. But now was not the time for idle hands! Besides, being helpful was what she was trying to do. And there was a meal to finish and the stew almost burned. What would Jesus have her do? Throw it out and start over? Serve nothing at all? Never!

Martha took the pot off the fire and headed out of the kitchen. For a moment, standing in the doorway, she gazed at Jesus speaking to Mary, who adoringly looked into his eyes. She cleared her throat.

“Jesus, I’m very sorry, but I’m still distracted by many tasks! And I’ve thought about what you said. ‘Martha, come out of the kitchen. And don’t fuss. Mary has chosen the better part.’ Chosen? Ha! Who wouldn’t choose the ‘one needful thing’ if she had a choice and if only one thing was needful and if there wasn’t a houseful of people? You and your hungry disciples! Mary chooses to listen to you. Great! Who feeds you and, I repeat, all your disciples? You who fed 5000 at a time because they were hungry and you loved them enough not to send them away. You who told a parable about sheep and goats, the sheep inheriting God’s kingdom because they, welcoming and feeding the neediest, welcome and feed you! “See, I have paid attention! And that is what I’m trying to do! Welcome and feed you!

“And here’s another needful thing. It’s all about love. Food and drink. Pots and pans. Preparing and setting the table, and cleaning up after you. That’s one way I show my love for you. That, Jesus, is my instruction about what’s going on here.

“Now, you didn’t ask me, but let me give you some advice. I think you need to re-think your teaching so it makes sense out here in the kitchen. In fact, Mary, stay right where you are. Jesus, you get up and follow me!”

confessions of the fussy follower

(A recent archeological dig in the Kidron Valley on the eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem uncovered an earthenware jar in which were discovered papyrus fragments. The following is a translation of the original Aramaic into today’s English.)

Jesus is a hard act to follow! I remember when he called us. First, Simon and Andrew, casting for fish, and James and John, mending their nets. Then the rest of us. We all stopped, dropped what we were doing and followed. What were we thinking? To this day, I can’t say, save there was something charismatic about him in a rugged sort of way.

Jesus & disciplesI hate to be fussy, but everything hasn’t been perfect. Jesus called all of us, but he likes Peter, James, and John best. I see why he keeps Judas Iscariot at arm’s length. You can’t trust someone who never looks you in the eye. But I wonder how Andrew, Simon’s brother, feels about being excluded from the inner circle. Me? With all of my inclusion and abandonment issues, I feel left out! (In the picture, I’m the one standing at the far right with his arms crossed!)

Still, at the beginning, all was well. The parables. The miracles. The crowds.

Then he decided to go to Nazareth. I expected a huge hometown welcome! I also wanted to learn more about him. He can be enigmatic. One moment, genial; guarded the next. I’ve asked him many questions. About him. He always answers: “The kingdom of God is like this…the kingdom of God is like that…” (I keep guessing he’s trying to tell me something, but I just don’t get it!) In Nazareth, I planned to talk with those who really knew him.

At first, the townsfolk were amazed. Jesus was his spellbinding best. They “Oohed!” and “Aahed!” at his teaching. Then one by one, they grumbled, “Who is he to speak to us like this! Don’t we know him?” Talk about familiarity breeding contempt. Exasperated, he sighed, “Prophets are without honor in their land.” Somebody in the back of the crowd hollered, “Who said you were a prophet?” I hated to be fussy, but I said, “Let’s get outta here!”

We went to surrounding villages where Jesus continued teaching. One day he told us to count off by sixes and to go out two-by-two and do what he’d been doing. No one spoke up, so I did. “Excuse me?” I hated to be fussy, but after Nazareth I wanted no trouble! But he gave us a look. His was a command, not a request. I got paired with Peter who has real control issues. Always taking charge. Dealing with him was tough enough, but then Jesus told us to take nothing: No food, no money, no extra clothes! I hated to be fussy, but I said, “Would you please excuse me?” He gave me that look.

The trip wasn’t bad. Everyone didn’t welcome us, but most did. We taught. We anointed the sick. Some were healed! We even cast out demons! Peter and I were thrilled! We couldn’t wait to tell Jesus! By the time we got back, the others were there, too. Peter spoke up and took all the credit as if I wasn’t there. But I was too tired to argue. Even if I had complained, Jesus probably would have said something like, “Fuggetaboutit! It doesn’t matter who gets credit as long as it gets done.” I hate to be fussy, but that’s easy for him to say. He does miracles every day!

He then told us to go to a deserted place to rest. “Thank you, Jesus!” But the people followed us. When he saw the crowd, something inside (must be the extrovert in him) lit up. He began to teach. God, that man can talk. I hate to be fussy, but there are times when I wish he’d shut up! A few hours later, he was still talking! And we were still tired. Hungry, too. So was the crowd. “Jesus, (I wasn’t the only one this time; we all said), will you please tell the people to go? They’re hungry!” He said, “You feed them.” We all complained. He gave us that look. All we had were five loaves and two fish. But he took them, blessed, broke and gave them to the crowd. I still don’t know what happened. Did he give each person only a morsel? Or did others, seeing his generosity with little, share their provisions? Or did he multiply the provisions, maybe making fish cakes? I don’t know, but somehow all were fed. Leftovers, too! I scanned the crowd and stopped counting around 10,000. I hate to be fussy, but the authorities always lowball crowd estimates. They reported half that number. Whatever!

Then Jesus told us to get into a boat and go to Bethsaida. Finally, he would dismiss the crowd and catch up with us later. The water was choppy. It was slow going. Then, the wind. We were getting nowhere. I was bailing as fast as I could, but the boat was swamping. I also got seasick. I hated to be fussy, but it was fine for Simon and Andrew, James and John. They’re fishermen and used to it. Not me! I was screaming, “Help! Somebody! Anybody!” “Shaddup!” they yelled, “O ye of little faith!” But they were scared, too. Suddenly, out of the mist and over the waves, we saw a figure, a phantom walking on the water. Scared the bejeezus out of us! Then we heard a voice, “Fear not, it’s me.” It was Jesus! He stepped in the boat and the storm ceased!

All is calm now. Everyone is relieved and happy. Except me. I’m a wreck and I’m mad! I hate to be fussy, but I want to ask Jesus, “What in heaven’s name…nah, what in Hades took you so long?”

As soon as we get to shore, I’m leaving! I bet he’ll try to convince me to stay. And, truth to tell, I do believe this journey is going somewhere. Something marvelous, some miracle of miracles is going to happen. Maybe it’s already happening…to me! I can feel it. And I really don’t want to miss it!