Chapter 35: The Mission

Paul sat on the steps of the Babbius Monument, listening to the parade of “teachers” who rose to address a constantly shifting audience of old men, shoppers, soldiers and tourists. He listened through much of the morning, depressed by their antics and shameless panderings to the crowd, watching for a chance to insert himself into the exchange. Not until the sun had climbed high overhead did Paul sense his time, when a philosopher of Sophist pretensions stood to address the bored and sun-wearied crowd. Paul recognized him from prior trips to the agora.

“Knowledge is power, citizens of Corinth. Remember that! Power over those who do not possess it. Power over those who possess it incompletely. Power, even, over the gods, who possess all knowledge but must also yield to knowledge, because knowledge is but a reflection of truth.” He glared at the crowd, daring anyone to contradict him, eager to demonstrate—there and then—the power his knowledge gave him to put others in their places.

“Let me give you an example, something to help you see my point. Who wins at court? The man who has studied rhetoric and trained himself in the Law? Or the bumpkin who simply stands and mutters his case? It doesn’t even matter who’s right or wrong. The educated man, the man of stature and influence, wins every time. Knowledge is power!” He smiled around at the crowd, pleased with himself and his unassailable logic.

Yes, yes, yes, thought Paul with irritation. Knowledge is power. I have knowledge to share. With that knowledge, you can become powerful. Consider my fee an investment. He knew where the speech was headed. It was a standard refrain in these agora orations.

But not this time.

Paul stood and interrupted, addressing the crowd. “It’s true that knowledge gives us power over others. The shallowest knowledge. The knowledge that is not wisdom.” The crowd turned towards him, wakened from their daydreams by the smell of controversy. Paul looked over their heads towards the philosopher. “A man who can count has power over the one who can’t—he can cheat him. But knowing how to add numbers is not the same as being wise. Wisdom should be our aim, citizens of Corinth, not knowledge.”

The philosopher sputtered, offended at the interruption and even more at the presumption of this poorly-dressed plebeian. He smoothed his immaculate toga as if to underscore the vast differences between the two of them. “Of course wisdom should be our goal. But wisdom comes only from long study and deep understanding.” The crowd turned back. Ah, that’s better. “First, I will teach you knowledge both practical and mysterious. Knowledge of the stars and the heavens. Knowledge of rhetoric,” he gestured prettily, “and the secrets of numbers. You have much to learn before we attempt wisdom. Master what is easy first.”

“Something tells me, however, that ‘easy’ will not be cheap,” Paul countered, smiling. The crowd laughed and turned. He pointed across the way. “Again, my colleague is partly correct. Wisdom is rooted in knowledge. But of what? How can geometry make you wise in the ways of life? What do the movements of the stars or the study of gestures and pauses have to do with true wisdom?”

The philosopher sniffed. “You’d have to understand such things to answer that question.”

“Oh, I do understand such things.” Paul responded with an edge. “And if you wish to debate Aristotle or Euclid or Diogenes or Hippocrates in order to establish my credentials, I would be only too happy to oblige.”

The philosopher blanched. Suddenly a debate did not sound so appealing.

“And I still say that such matters, while interesting and practical, have nothing to do with true wisdom. In fact, knowledge is often the enemy of wisdom.”

The crowd grew quiet. All around the agora, shopkeepers hawked their goods and soldiers tramped and conversations buzzed. But in this corner, hard against the Fountain of Poseidon and the Babbius Monument, there was not a sound raised to interrupt Paul’s voice. “Knowledge is used to control; wisdom is used to free. Knowledge is about power; wisdom is about right living. Knowledge often leads to pride; wisdom can only spring from humility.”

He paused, and his competitor used the silence to regain the initiative. “Don’t listen to this fraud! Who is this man? Where are his letters of recommendation? Look at the way he’s dressed! Why, he doesn’t even have a decent haircut. How can he teach you anything?” But the crowd ignored him.

Paul pressed on. “I have traveled a great distance to tell you about a new teacher of wisdom. His name is Jesus the Anointed. He speaks of a God who knows all things, who created the stars and set them on their course, who invented numbers and words, who has the power of healing and knows the secrets of the human heart. This God is not opposed to knowledge. But his greatest gift is wisdom, a wisdom that comes not from what you know but from who you know. Jesus teaches us to know God. And from that flows all wisdom.”

The philosopher was desperate now. He had to win back the crowds. His status was at stake. His income was at risk. He laughed loudly. “Ha! Who can know the gods? They are wrapped in the clouds. Their ways are mysterious. Who can fathom their motives or their reasons? You could as easily teach Pythagoras to a pigeon!” He liked that. He’d have to expand on that theme in the future.

But the crowd was unmoved. The philosopher’s voice no longer registered. They were fixed on the tilted little man in the ragged tunic.

Paul bent over and plucked a seedling from a seam in the marble paving stones. He held it up for the crowd to examine. “This plant seems so fragile, so powerless. But give it sun and rain, give it time to grow, and it will crack the stones on which you stand. That’s how God’s wisdom works. The philosophers would pave your lives with facts and theories and pretty words. ‘Learn these and you will be strong,’ they tell you. ‘Learn these and you will become powerful.’ But God’s wisdom is like a seedling. It seems so weak. It seems a foolish thing. But give it time and it will heave and break the things that appear strong. Give it time and it will reduce the wisdom of the philosophers to rubble.”

He raised his voice to run his point home. “Jesus the Anointed tells us that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. The ways of this world are broken and backward. It isn’t the philosophers,” he flung out a hand towards his opponent, “or the generals and kings of this world who are great. It’s those who are humble and kind. It isn’t armies and wealth that create power. It’s service and sacrifice and love.”

“Do you see?” cried the philosopher. “He spouts nonsense! He turns things on their head! Why, next he’ll be telling us …” And he stopped cold, a flood of recognition washing over him. He stood in mid-sentence, mouth agape and eyes wide, remembering a man with the same message months before, a man he’d heard while wintering in Athens.

His silence, apparently, spoke more eloquently to the crowd than his words, for they turned to him in the pause, watching as the memory swam up from the depths. A self-congratulatory smile spread over the philosopher’s face. He found his voice once more. “I know this charlatan. I heard him speak in Athens, at the Areopagus.” His tone grew more confident. “He might fool simpletons like you, but not the Athenians. Never. They questioned him closely. They sifted his teaching with a fine sieve. And then they laughed him off the hill and out of the city. Didn’t they—Christian!” He put his hands on his hips and jutted out his chin, throwing the name across the gap as an insult.

The crowd turned to hear Paul’s reaction. But he said nothing. He knew the man in the toga was not finished. “Yes, citizens of Corinth. This man is a Christian—a particularly loathsome strain of Jewish disease that perverts everything it touches.” He wagged his head and chanted in a sing-song, childish parody, “’Weakness is strength and folly is wisdom!’ Of course he’d say that. He turns everything upside down because he thinks that sounds wise. But he is not wise, my friends; he’s confused. And no wonder. This sect attracts only slaves and fools! It panders to simple-minded weaklings! Pity him, if you like,” he waved a dismissive hand, “but listen to him?” He laughed again.

The philosopher paused and looked around. I have them now, by Apollo! “Do you know who this Jesus was, my friends? This teacher of wisdom? This speaker for God?”

Go slowly, he warned himself. I want to enjoy this.

“He was a Jew, of course.” He snorted in contempt. “A carpenter by training.” He smiled, the improbability of it amusing. “A wanderer who impressed superstitious farmers with tricks and illusions.” He smirked and held out his hands to invite the crowd to marvel with him at the gullible nature of barbarians. “They say he was born a bastard. They say he was possessed by an evil daimon. They say …” and he paused once more, tapping a finger against the side of his head, feigning a lapse of memory. “What else do they say, Christian? What was it? Something about the way he died … Oh, yes!” he beamed, his triumph just one word away.

Savor this, he admonished himself. Moments like this don’t come often.

“They say he was betrayed by a close companion. They say his own people turned on him and handed him over to the Roman authorities. They say he was condemned as an insurrectionist by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea. And they say he was then executed on a cross.”

The crowd rocked back on its heels. Some laughed out loud, the idea was so absurd. They turned towards Paul as one. They wanted his defense. There had to be an explanation. There had to be another side to the story. Nobody would stand before them and make claims of wisdom on behalf of a crucified rebel. It was ludicrous. It bordered on the seditious. There had to be more to the story than the philosopher was letting on.

They stared at Paul and waited. Well? their eyes demanded. What do you have to say? their upturned faces asked.

He looked over their heads at the gloating orator and could not suppress a smile. The poor man thought he’d been so eloquent. He thought he’d backed Paul into a corner with his well-chosen words. He thought he’d painted the gospel in so poor a light that no rational, intelligent person would listen. Paul closed his eyes for a moment and worshipped from the depths of his soul. He remembered the words of Job: God catches those who think they are wise in their own cleverness.

When he opened his eyes to look over the crowd, he felt no anxiety. The philosopher had prepared them to hear the unhearable. Not all of them would listen. But some would, a precious few. And they would be a start.

He held up his hands for quiet. “Citizens of Corinth. And even you, my friend,” he gestured across the way, “who are too wise to learn from a lowly carpenter. Let me tell you a story….”


II

Several people approached him when he finally stepped down from the Babbius Monument. A soldier whose brother had written from Crete about the new faith. A grieving widow with questions about resurrection. A slave who doubted any free man could understand enough about service and humility to recommend them as a way of life.

Paul asked each of them their names and patiently answered their questions. He told them about Gaius’s house, the one next to the synagogue, where they could come in the evenings to learn more.

Others stood off a few paces, not committing themselves to a question or giving their names, but listening and weighing what they heard. Paul memorized the faces and prayed a silent prayer for each one. As the conversation slowed, in the gaps between answers and questions, these listeners turned away to get on with their day.

With each turning, Paul felt the urge to run after them and make them listen, to force faith on them by the sheer power of his will. Their carelessness about his message felt like a personal rejection to the Apostle. It was hard for him to accept that spiritual hunger was something you could not give another person. It was hard for him to remember that unless the hunger was present and pressing, faith would not grow. Most of all, it was hard for him to trust them to God, to watch their departing backs and comfort himself with the notion that God would pursue them even when they passed beyond Paul’s reach.

When the last of his questioners melted away, Paul turned to cross the agora and head back to Gaius’s house. It was only then that he saw Stephanas standing in the shade of a shop, a wide grin on his face. He walked over to join him.

“That philosopher looked like he’d been run over by a wagon,” Stephanas chuckled. “You stole his audience, P-P-Paul. He won’t forgive you for that.”

“There’ll be other audiences for him to bore.”

“True enough. Still,” he smiled, “you weren’t exactly gentle.”

Paul raised his eyebrows. “But at least I wasn’t boring.”

Stephanas laughed. “No. No you weren’t.” He turned serious. “How do you think it went?”

“Why don’t you tell me? You can read Corinthians better than I.”

Stephanas squinted back towards the Babbius Monument. “They were listening.”

Paul waited for more and was faintly irritated when it didn’t come. “They listen to anyone who’ll stand up there and flap their jaws.”

“No they don’t.” Stephanas said it quietly but firmly. His eyes found Paul’s. “They don’t come here to listen. They come here to watch. There’s a difference I think.”

He nodded back towards the Monument. “Everyone knows what these ‘teachers’ and ‘philosophers’ are. They’re p-p-performers. They’re actors p-p-playing a p-p-part. The crowds come to watch them. But they’re not really listening. They want to be entertained. The words are just a backdrop for that.

“But they listened to you, P-P-Paul. They were thinking. And that’s unusual. So I’d say it went very well today. Now,” his voice became firm. “Why don’t you tell me what’s happened?”

Paul frowned, caught off guard by the change of subject. “What do you mean?”

Stephanas pointed to the Monument. “I’ve never seen you speak to the crowds before.” He pointed to Paul’s raw face. “You’ve shaved off your beard.” He pointed to the northwest, towards his villa. “You haven’t been to my home for over a week. I’d have thought you couldn’t stay away from the scrolls that long … or my sparkling conversation.” He smiled. “Something’s changed. What’s happened?”

Paul looked up fondly at his companion. I like this man. “You’re right. Something has happened. But it’s a long story. If you’re willing, I’d like to come to supper tonight and explain.”

“Certainly.”

“And I’d like to bring some friends along. It’s time you all met.” He grinned at the thought of it.

“Bring as many as you like. There’ll be p-p-plenty of food.”

“Some of that excellent pork we had before?” The grin stretched from ear to ear.

“That can be arranged, I imagine. About sunset then?”

“Yes, we’ll be there.”

“And P-P-Paul,” he pointed to Paul’s ravaged face. “You should let a barber do that. Either your razor is very dull or you’re standing too close to it. A few more shaves like that one and you won’t have any jaw left to flap.”

Stephanas walked away very pleased with himself.


III

Paul left the agora to wander around the city for a while. He needed time to think. And since walking was when Paul did some of his best thinking, he turned his feet loose, unconcerned about destination, and set himself to musing.

He’d walked for almost an hour when it dawned on him that he was being followed. It was just an intuition at first, an eerie feeling that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. But the suspicion grew so strong, it took an act of will to keep himself from turning in the middle of the road and searching every face for a sign of threat.

Was it Berekiah and some of his bully boys? Who else could it be? Paul quickened his step and changed directions. He couldn’t go back to Gaius’s house with a gang of ruffians on his heels. And if they were Jewish ruffians, the vicinity of the synagogue was the last place he wanted to be.

He moved into unfamiliar streets, pausing occasionally to look at a cobbler’s wares or a potter’s bowls, trying to catch something from the corner of his eye. He walked on, hoping to keep to public places, the safety of the crowd. But in the maze of narrow roads and overhanging insulae, he lost his way. Every turn took him farther from the city center and into quieter quarters, apartment buildings deserted for the day by laboring men and women.

He cut to the right and walked a few paces before realizing he’d entered a dead end. Ahead of him rose a three-storied building that blocked his path. He heard the footsteps behind him now—only one set—and knew he was trapped. Paul offered a quick prayer, set his jaw, and turned.

She looked as frightened as he was. Wary eyes. Disheveled hair. Threadbare tunic. Her face was marked and her bones showed through the thin fabric. She stood ten paces off and would not, quite, look him in the eye. But she would not look away either. It was obvious she was there for him.

Paul felt liquid with relief. He wanted to laugh. But he thought a laugh might frighten her away. Instead, he stood quietly, grateful he would not have to endure a beating today, waiting for her to speak.

She tried to begin … and stopped … and tried again. Paul thought for an instant she might have a stammer. But then he saw the tears on her cheeks and the tremor in her shoulders and realized she was holding on by the smallest of threads, that a wrong word, a false start, might send her over some brink he could not imagine.

“I’m called Stauria,” she began at last, though her voice trembled and caught. “I followed you away from the agora. Don’t be angry, I beg.”

Paul spoke with great tenderness, a tone for a frightened child. “It’s all right. Can I help you?”

“I wanted to catch you in the quiet, where you wouldn’t be shamed.”

He smiled. “Why should you shame me, Child? I’m happy to speak with you anywhere.” And he took a step forward.

She stepped back, covering herself instinctively with her arms, grabbing fistfuls of her tunic and rubbing the fabric nervously. “I … I ain’t the kind of woman a man like you would keep comp’ny with. Not in the open. Not where others could see.”

“Oh,” he said, understanding now, reading her story in her face and manner. “But in private? Would a man like me spend time with you in private?”

“Many have.” She touched her hair self-consciously. “They used to, yestertime. But not you, I ’spect. Not that way.” She met his eyes fully for the first time. “Would you talk to me a spell?”

It was such a plaintive question, such a simple request, Paul felt his heart give way. She’s at the end of her rope, he realized. She has nowhere else to turn. “Of course. What would you like to talk about?”

“I gave ear to what you said in the agora. About this Jesus. He sounds like a good man.” Her face twisted into a cynical smile. “And the gods know there be few enough o’ them about.”

“Yes,” Paul agreed. “God does know that.”

“You said he were a poor man and that he liked to be around poor folks.”

Paul nodded.

“You said he were a friend of tax collectors.”

“And prostitutes,” Paul added quietly.

“Is that the real of it?”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“I mean, in a clean way, if you hear what I’m saying.”

“I hear what you’re saying. And, yes, in a clean way. Some of his closest friends used to be prostitutes and thieves.”

“Used to be?”

Paul smiled. “Before they met Jesus.”

“Do you credit people can change then? Really change?”

Paul, the one-time Pharisee and persecutor and self-righteous prig, smiled again. “Yes. I’m quite sure they can. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

She paused to consider that for a moment. “You talked afore bout second chances. Bout a new life. I’m not sayin’ you meant for the likes o’ me,” she hurried to explain, pulling at her tunic and looking down. “But for some folks? There be a chance to start over?”

Paul studied her for a long moment. “Stauria. Do you have a place to sleep tonight? Do you have any coin for food?”

She looked up quickly, on her guard again. “Are you offerin’?”

“Yes.”

“And what do you want if I’m agreeable?”

“I want you,” he said and took a step towards her. He watched her face harden at the words and her shoulders slump. He held out his hands and crossed the space that separated them. She was close to tears again.

“Not your body, Child,” he whispered. “Your trust. Your willingness to believe there might be some glimmer of good left in the world. Your openness to the idea that God loves you. There are second chances, Stauria. There is new life. Even for you. Especially for you. That’s all I want from you, Child. A chance to talk to you about life.”

She stood at arm’s length and weighed her options. It’s not like I’m flush with choices, Girl, she thought. It’s a bed and some grub. And maybe more. But if not, t’won’t be any worse than the brothel. She looked at him hard for a moment. Will you pain me, Mister?

He knew what she was thinking. Taking her elbow, he led her out of the alley and down the street in the direction they’d just come. “I have someone I want you to meet. You’ll like her. And I think she’ll like you. But I’m lost, Stauria. Can you get us back to the agora?”


[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.