Timothy brought the invitation by the middle of the afternoon.

“Paul wants you to dine with him tonight, if you can. At the home of a friend.”

Hester and Crispus glanced at each other. Hester answered. “Well, young man. As it happens, our social calendar has become very flexible recently. We have entire months available for supper engagements. Yes, I believe we can squeeze in a meal this evening.”

Crispus winced at her tone, though he knew her bite was not directed at him. She was just disappointed with former friends, saddened that old relationships should prove so tenuous. Still, he knew the disappointment hurt Hester deeply. Perhaps supper tonight would be good for her.

“Where and when?” he asked Timothy.

“Paul said to meet him at the Bema before sunset. He’ll guide you from there. Aquila and Prisca are coming. Even Silas and I get to go!”

“And who’s hosting our supper, young man?”

Timothy looked puzzled. “Come to think of it, he didn’t say.”


II

“She’s a pitiful creature,” Prisca commented, telling Paul about her afternoon with Stauria and the story that had spilled out of the broken woman. They stood in the agora, waiting at the foot of the Bema for Crispus and Hester. Also known as the Judgment Pavement, the Bema was a raised, rectangular platform that stood near the center of the agora. The proconsul stood on it to try cases in public hearings. From it, he issued edicts and pronounced sentence.

Paul took in Stauria’s tale—one more heartache to add to the others. “She’s had a hard life, Prisca. Harder than either of us could imagine.”

Prisca shuddered. No, she could not imagine. She knew only a few facts, and hearing about them was difficult enough. But to live the facts! She shuddered again. “I took her to the apartment and gave her a decent meal. She was hungry, I tell you! Poor thing. Half starved. Half dressed. And exhausted. I barely had time to get her to bed after she ate. She was asleep before I could take her sandals off.”

Paul’s eyes scanned the agora crowd, searching for any sign of the Jewish couple. But he paused long enough to turn and look squarely at Prisca. “She’ll need you, Prisca, and she will push you away. She’ll want your friendship but won’t feel worthy of it. She’ll resent you for the life you have, for the life that could have been hers. Don’t give up on her.”

“I’ve never dealt with … well … with someone like her.”

“She’s not that different from us, Prisca. We’ve all sold ourselves for something.”

“I have never …” Prisca started to object.

“Yes, you have, Prisca. And so have I. Traded pieces of ourselves for something we wanted. Gossip for acceptance. Lies for advantage.” He moved closer to her, their eyes on a level. “If they’d taken Aquila away, back in Rome, what would you have done to gain his freedom?” He lifted an eyebrow. She lowered her eyes. “It’s only a question of which pieces we sell … and what price we ask.”

“But not like that, Paul. I could never do that.”

Paul smiled at her fondly. “No, I imagine not. Praise God, he has protected you and given you the love of a good man.” He turned, then, to scan the crowd once again. “My guess is Stauria has never met a good man and never known a moment of love. Jesus would have befriended her. Now we must do that in his place.”

She stepped up beside him, her eyes joining his in the search for Hester and Crispus. “I will be her friend, if she’ll let me. I just hope I’m equal to the task.”

“Oh, you won’t be,” Paul chuckled. “But maybe, between all of us …”

They caught sight of Crispus’s white beard at that moment and moved across the agora to meet him and Hester. The group stood together as the sun dropped behind the Temple of Octavia, talking about Paul’s morning at the Babbius Monument and Prisca’s afternoon with Stauria.

“Tonight,” Paul said finally, “we’ll be eating in the home of a man who has come to the same conclusion about Jesus that you have.”

Crispus looked puzzled. “Who would that be? I’ve been watching faces pretty closely these past few Sabbaths. I didn’t realize someone else was so close to faith.”

Paul smiled. “Uhmm … He wasn’t at the synagogue these past few weeks.”

Crispus frowned in concentration. “I know quite a few brothers who aren’t as faithful in their attendance as they should be. But I can’t think …”

Paul’s smile broadened. “He isn’t associated with the synagogue, I’m afraid.”

“Someone new to Corinth?” Prisca asked, though a niggling suspicion began to worm its way into her thoughts. “A brother from Athens, perhaps, or Ephesus?”

“No. He’s lived in Corinth all his life. Tonight, we eat with a man called Stephanas. A merchant. A Gentile.”

They took the news in mute stillness, absorbing his announcement and frantically thinking about the implications of what they’d heard.

“I met him in a tavern. I’ve told him the story of Jesus. He’s made the good confession. And now he is our brother.”

“Paul,” Prisca whispered. “I told you I’m not ready yet.”

“But you are, Prisca. Today, you touched a Gentile prostitute … and fed her at your table … and put her to sleep in your bed. You’re ready to meet Stephanas. The question is, are you willing?”

“That’s different, Paul. That was an act of mercy.” She looked around to the others for support. “I can purify my home tomorrow, and go and wash in the …”

“Wash where, Prisca?” It was time she faced facts. “In the cleansing pool at the synagogue? It’s forbidden to you now, remember? And even if it weren’t, what happens the next time you meet Stauria? And the time after that? Do you go through the purifying rituals again? Do you remind her of who she is, of how she defiles you, every time you wash your hands after touching her? Do you let her think she is so contaminated, so impure, that you have to wash down your home whenever she visits?”

Prisca was stunned. “I didn’t realize … No, of course not. Well … maybe … Oh, Paul!” She stamped her foot. “Why do you make this so hard!” And she turned to her husband for help.

But it was Crispus, the scholar, who took up her argument. “The traditions don’t help much when it comes to showing a kindness to prostitutes. But they are quite clear about entering the homes of Gentiles and eating food that is not kosher. We cannot do it. Their homes and their food defile us, however that may hurt their feelings.”

Paul turned to Crispus. “You’re right. It is not done—by Hebrews who obey no higher law than Moses. But when we walked out of the synagogue last Sabbath, we recognized a higher calling on our lives than the Law.” His eyes darted from Crispus to Hester, from Aquila to Prisca, dragging them into a changed world, the mission too urgent to permit the luxury of delay.

His voice hardened, grew more intense. “Listen to me. The synagogue has shut its doors to us. Our people will no longer listen to our message. We must focus on the Gentiles now. And if we are to reach them, we can’t hide behind rules designed to keep us separate from them.”

Silas broke in, aiming his words at Crispus and Prisca. “I know it’s hard. I’ve been where you are. A good Jew. Proud of my obedience.” He touched his clean-shaved face and grinned. “As you can see, things changed. Part of it, for me, was Paul—pushing me just like he’s pushing you. Part of it was getting to know some Gentiles, seeing their need. But most of it …”

Prisca rounded on him. “What, Silas? What could possibly convince you to go against the laws and traditions of our people? So Paul can be irritating! So the Gentiles are lost! Those aren’t reasons for disobeying God!”

“Most of it,” Silas continued, ignoring her interruption, “was something I remember Peter saying … back in the early days … back when he baptized the centurion Cornelius. Have you heard of Simon Peter, Crispus?”

Crispus glanced at Paul. “A little.”

“One of the Twelve. He was very close to Jesus. After Jesus was resurrected, he sent Peter to the home of a Roman centurion. Peter didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to step through that door. He didn’t want to eat their food. But because Jesus asked it, he went.” Silas kept looking from Crispus to Prisca. “Right before his eyes, God poured out his Spirit on those Gentiles. Peter recognized then and there that the rules had changed. And later, when he was criticized for entering Cornelius’ home and eating his food, the only defense he had was a question—‘Who am I to argue with God?’”

They stood huddled in the darkening agora, thinking about Peter’s question. But Silas was not finished. “I don’t understand it all, Prisca. Somehow, in the cross, God broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. Somehow, in Jesus, all people are chosen, all people have access. I don’t know exactly what happened or why. But I do know this. I’ve seen God’s Spirit fall on the most unlikely people—Gentiles and soldiers and potters and prostitutes. And I am going with Paul to eat with Stephanas because I cannot argue with God.”

It was the longest speech Prisca had ever heard him make. And the most persuasive. Still the thought of the evening filled her with dread.

It was the spouses, however, who made the decision. “I’ll go with you, Silas,” Aquila spoke up. Prisca looked at him in surprise and waited for an explanation. But none came. He shrugged at her, knowing his reasons would not persuade her, knowing she would have to find reasons of her own.

And then Hester joined in. “I’ll go with you too.”

“But Hester,” her husband protested. “You can’t do that. I won’t permit it!”

“Permit it?” Hester bestowed on Crispus the kind of brittle smile that could curdle milk. “I permitted you to alienate our friends and destroy our standing. I permitted you to follow your conscience, even though it cost both of us the only future we’d ever dreamed. And I permitted that,” she used the word in a way that made Crispus and the others flinch, “because it was the right thing to do, because both of us believed what this man told us.” She pointed to Paul.

“Do you think entering a Gentile’s house will cost me more than being run out of the synagogue? Do you think a little pork will go down harder than what I’ve swallowed from my friends lately?”

She poked her finger squarely in her husband’s chest. “I have honored you, Husband. Now honor me when I tell you that our lives have changed. Nothing is the same anymore. If you think I walked out of the synagogue just to support you, you’re wrong. I walked out to become part of something bigger than the synagogue, bigger even than Moses. If Jesus is the Messiah, he is the one ‘greater than Moses.’ If Jesus is the Messiah, he is the one who sets the rules, who says what is clean and unclean. And if Jesus could touch Gentiles and befriend prostitutes, I guess I can do the same.”

“But Hester,” Crispus pleaded, the look on his face a mix of shock and embarrassment.

She cut him off. “Husband, it’s too late for second guessing and half measures. That time ended when you put Saul’s message above the synagogue, above your position, above your wife.” She moved closer to him, the finger poking his chest replaced by the palm of her hand, a gesture of intimacy. “You were right to do that, Beloved. Because what Saul says is true. Because that message counts for more than anything else. Well?” She cocked her head and looked at him without blinking. “Your convictions gave you the courage to leave our old life behind. Will they give you the courage to make a new one?”

It was not an easy exchange to witness. Aquila stared at the dust on his boots, all too familiar with the bitter-sweet blessings of living with a strong-minded woman. Timothy and Silas, bachelors for whom women remained largely a mystery, gave silent and fervent thanks that they had not been the objects of Hester’s outburst. Prisca stared at Hester with new respect.

There were times, Paul found, when the Spirit still surprised him. He felt it now, listening to Hester speak so boldly. He realized, watching her, how alone he felt, how the task of pushing and confronting and stretching people mostly fell to him. Yet here was this good woman, taking his part for the moment, and doing it better than he could. Part of him felt ashamed that he had so little faith in the way God moved through others. It’s a kind of pride, he thought sadly, not for the first time. But most of him felt a gratitude that made him weak … for someone else to share the burden once … for someone else to speak—if only for a moment—the words that had to be said.

He turned to walk towards Stephanas’s house, hiding his emotions from the others. Timothy and Silas followed, eager to leave the awkward scene behind. Prisca took a deep breath, muttered to Crispus, “That’s the most exasperating man I’ve ever met,” and reached for her husband. They, too, followed after Paul, hand in hand, ignoring proprieties in the gathering dark.

Hester and Crispus stood for a moment longer, her hand still pressed against his chest, until she whispered, “I love you, Husband. Will you come with us?”

“Do I have a choice?” he asked, though the question was a flag of surrender.

“Of course you have a choice. Do as you wish.” She removed her hand and stepped back. “But you may want to consider this.” Something tugged at the corner of her mouth, but in the fading light, Crispus did not see it.

“Consider what, Wife?”

“I am going tonight, with or without you. I will enter the home of a Gentile. I will eat whatever they serve.”

“And?”

“Will that make me unclean?”

“Certainly. In the eyes of the Law and the community.”

“And what about in the eyes of my husband?” She was taunting him now.

He blinked once into the darkness. “I don’t know. I’ve never had reason to think about it.”

“’Touch no unclean thing.’ That’s what the Law says, isn’t it? If you can’t touch Gentiles and you can’t touch their food, then I guess you won’t be able to touch me.” She sighed dramatically. “What a shame that will be.”

She turned on her heels to follow the others. Crispus whispered an uncharacteristic oath and hurried to catch up.

[Next Chapter]