Life was never dull on the road with the Teacher. How could it be? After all, we had anywhere from a couple of dozen to 250 people wandering the roads, camping out, sometimes being recognized as followers of the Teacher and sometimes trying to avoid recognition. And now we were headed for Jerusalem. Of course we had been there before. Who hasn’t? But every time you go to the big city it is exciting.
This time three things made the trip interesting. It started when the Teacher told us we were headed for Jerusalem. Now, we all knew that. But he went on to say that “The son of man” (one of his favorite ways of referring to himself) was going to be arrested, delivered to the chief priests and lawyers, turned over to the gentiles (which in Jerusalem would probably be the Romans) and killed on a stake. We were pretty used to the Teacher making predictions by now, but this one was disturbing. First, it was very specific. Second, it was about the Teacher himself.
Seeing someone arrested was nothing unusual. The Romans could always find some trumped up charge on which to arrest someone who looked like he had money. This has always been a favorite form of extortion. But the Teacher was not talking about the Romans. He was saying his own people, the leaders of Israel, would arrest him. That meant serious accusations. Especially if he said they would turn him over to the Romans for execution. We aren’t talking about stealing a loaf of bread here. He was saying he would be accused of adultery, idolatry, blasphemy, or something similar. This was unthinkable. We had never seen the Teacher even violate the sabbath; how could we imagine him to be guilty of a major crime?
And then there was the execution part. When the teacher predicted something, in three years I have never known him to be wrong. Now he is saying that he will be executed! Not a good Jewish stoning, mind you; a Roman hanging on an execution stake. Nails. Slow death. Torture. We Jews are known for humane slaughter of animals. That even crosses over into our executions, back when we were allowed to do them. Stoning is a quick and humane way to kill a person, compared to the Roman method. The convict was put down into a pit or the bottom of a hill. The executioners stood above him with huge boulders. His principal accuser casts the first one. Most of the time that one large rock (we’re not talking about something you can pick up with one hand) was enough to render the victim unconscious, if not kill him outright. If the first one did not do it, the second would. If the man lived to the fourth or fifth boulder, he wasn’t feeling a thing. Few lived very far into the execution process. Not so with the Romans. They delighted in drawing out the execution, sometimes taking hours or even days before the convicted man died. And this was what the Teacher was predicting for himself. What could prompt the cohanim to do this to an itinerant preacher? Sure, they had some disagreements over doctrine, but you don’t kill a man for that. At least, you don’t do it through a legal process.
As if that wasn’t enough, later in the journey James and John and Mrs. Zebedee, their mother, cornered the Teacher. We all knew what was coming. A rich woman and two momma’s boys. A man with authority. We could read the recipe for what was coming; it just was not an appropriate time, after the Teacher’s earlier announcement. Sure enough, those three marched right up to the Teacher and asked for a favor. Quickest way into the teacher’s heart, that is; his own cousins asking him for “a favor.” And what a favor. They asked to be allowed to sit at his right and left hands when he became king. No small favor, that. They only wanted to be the two most important people under the king. The chutzpa! This was the equivalent of Adonijah asking Solomon for Abishag as wife. How bold can one get?
Worse, they seemed not to have heard the Teacher. He says he is going to be executed, and they come asking to be his principal advisors in his kingdom. What part of executed did they not understand? Maybe they were counting on that cryptic remark about rising again on the third day. After all, that would be a major step toward becoming a king, dying and coming back to life. Still, to ask for such a thing now, that takes some pride.
The Teacher just took it in stride. He asked them if they could undergo what he would, and they casually replied that they could. This amused the Teacher. They had answered too quickly. So he warned them that they would indeed go through what he was about to, and that it would not be as easy as a hike to Jerusalem. Then he surprised us by admitting that someone would sit at his right and left, but that it was not his choice to make. Which is it, Teacher, execution or coronation? I just cannot figure you out.
The Teacher wasn’t done, though. One of the reasons we have followed him so long is that we know he will take any situation to teach. So it was in this case. He turned to the rest of us, and spoke. He mentioned the Roman way of rulers over rulers over rulers. The emperor ruled over the proconsuls, for example. They in turn lorded it over the praetors. For lack of anyone else, they oppressed the questors. Finally, the questors intimidated the people. The Roman way was to find somebody lower than you to crush, so you looked better. The Teacher turned that upside down. We were to be servants, and try to find someone above us to help. Instead of oppression from above, he taught that we were to spread beneficence from below. After all, he said, that was what he had come for. We had seen that throughout our time with him. Service was his watchword. He looked for ways to help others.
He said something about his going to be a ransom for many. We weren’t sure what that was all about. It sounded like he was going to buy slaves and release them. Many a Roman had served as a slave until he was able to save up enough money to buy citizenship. That was even the Jewish way. The law provided for buying yourself out of slavery if you had the money before you were (supposedly) set free at Jubilee. (We knew about Jubilee; we just had never actually seen it put into practice. The masters always seemed to find some loophole.) The Teacher was a poor man, though. What could he pay to ransom one person, much less many?
It is kind of funny that immediately after the Teacher lectured us about something, an example would come up in real life. It happened again.
As was the custom for people going from Galilee to Jerusalem, we had bypassed Samaria, passing on the east side of the Jordan. That meant we had to cross the river again, at Jericho. I always looked forward to this part of the trip. The river crossing outside of Jericho is fraught with history. It was here that the Israelites under Joshua began the conquest of the Promised Land. This was one of two places most noted for people parting the waters and crossing on dry land. (The other is, of course, the Red Sea.) As we, wetly, ford the Jordan, I like to think that my footsteps actually rest at some point on the place where the priests stood with the Ark of the Covenant while Joshua crossed over. Even though I know it is long gone, I look for a pile of twelve stones left by the leaders of the tribes after the crossing. Nor was that the only crossing on dry ground at this point. It actually happened twice again, in one day. Going from Jericho eastward, Elijah struck the Jordan with his cloak and the waters parted. After he was taken up by the whirlwind, Elisha took that same cloak and struck the waters so he could cross westward. This was a very busy crossing. It always thrills me to be walking in the footsteps of the great men I learned about in my youth. Although the Teacher could walk on water, and could probably duplicate the dry-land technique, we just crossed in the normal way and proceeded toward the City of Palms.
As I said before, a crowd of people always surrounded the Teacher. Crowds draw attention, especially on the road. So it is no wonder that people quickly found out that the Teacher was traveling this way. Well, when people find out the Teacher is near, that means the beggars come out in droves. They are beggars because they have some affliction that makes it impossible for them to work. They come; the blind, the lame, the sick of various diseases.
As we passed through Jericho, a blind man learned who was passing. He cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Some in the crowd around him tried to silence him. Those of us who had trekked with the Teacher knew better than to rebuke him, but some of the Jericho crowd told him to be quiet. Perhaps they wanted an audience with the Teacher themselves. Maybe they just did not want the Teacher to get the impression that Jericho was a city of beggars. Whatever the reason, they demanded that he not cry out to the Teacher. Big mistake. That just made the man cry out even louder. If the Teacher had not noticed him before, he now could not help but notice the row around him. So he called the man over to him.
As soon as the Teacher spoke, the attitude of the crowd changed. Those who had been rebuking the blind man now were passing on the word that the Teacher was calling for him.
The man arose and threw aside his outer garment. Why? I don’t know. Maybe he knew it was tattered and he did not want the Teacher to see him that way. Maybe he had been to enough physicians that had asked him to strip down to his tunic. Having stripped away those things pertaining to his old way of life, he came before the Teacher in trust, having no trappings of wealth or honor. Here was a humble, blind, dependent man asking the Teacher for mercy.
The Teacher asked an interesting question. “What do you want of me?” Like the man might be asking for a coin. Nobody in the crowd was surprised when the man replied that what he wanted was sight.
As soon as the Teacher had confirmed that he was begging for healing and not some temporary relief, he granted his request. Had he asked for money, he would have gotten money. By asking for his sight, he acknowledged that the Teacher had power to give him sight. The Teacher told him his trust had resulted in his healing.
The Teacher told him, “Go your way.” Immediately the man joined our crowd, praising God. It seems that once he got his sight he realized that his way had to be the Teacher’s way. He left his home, his family, his begging, and continued with us as we traveled up to Jerusalem.
Oh, I remember why I told this story. Remember that discussion with the sons of Zebedee? The Teacher had said that we were not to be lords but servants. We were not to be high but lowly. I don’t think I ever learned the actual name of the formerly blind man. Everybody just called him the son of his father: bar Timaeus. It is more than interesting to me that his father’s name means one who is highly prized. The son of the highly prized knelt before the Teacher, and by doing so he became highly prized, himself.
(Based on Matt 20:17-28; Mk 10:32-52; Lk 18:31-43)