Chapter 37: The Mission

Prisca found it deeply disturbing—how small the things that unraveled the habits of a lifetime. One step through a doorway and into an uncircumcised household. A kiss of welcome, so natural and yet so defiling. A single bite of forbidden food, tasting sweet and bitter at the same time.

She sat at the table in Stephanas’s house, suppressing a shudder as she thought about how fine was the line between obedient Jew and unclean pariah. Looking around, she recognized that, tonight—fine line or not—she’d crossed over.

She looked across the room to where the men reclined and marveled at the way Paul adapted himself to this new situation. He is a changling, she thought, shifting shapes to fit any circumstance. There he lounged, at Stephanas’s right, laughing and eating as though the Gentile’s house were his native environment. No hesitation. No sense of unease. Just a constant watchfulness she could sense from across the room, a vigilance for the right time, the right subject, for turning the conversation to higher things.

Timothy and Silas seemed equally at home, helping themselves to the dishes before them, eating everything in reach without qualm. This was old territory for them. They’d crossed these boundaries long ago and often. Even her husband, cautious at first and selective in the dishes he sampled, had abandoned his reservations as the meal progressed, reaching his fingers into whatever bowl was handy without even thinking about the contents.

Only Crispus maintained his reserve, looking carefully before eating, all the while casting anguished glances across the room at his wife. Glances which Hester studiously ignored. She was too busy savoring the exotic dishes placed before her, reveling in the taste and texture of each new course. She required the old steward waiting on them to explain the food being served, how it was prepared, the sauces and spices that came with it.

“That’s crab, m’lady,” the steward encouraged. “From the coast of Laconia. Very tasty. We boil it in the shell and then shuck the meat. Try a bit’a garum with it, m’lady.” He held out a small bowl of sharp-smelling paste.

Hester wrinkled her nose. “What on earth is that?”

“Ground up fish parts, spiced and pickled. The Master loves the stuff. It’s got a very … well … distinctual flavor.”

Hester held her crab meat tentatively above the bowl. “Does it taste better than it smells?”

The steward lowered his voice, “I don’t touch it m’self, m’lady.”

“Ah,” Hester nodded, pulling back her hand. “I think I’ll pass on the garum.”

He smiled and moved on.

“Hester,” Prisca whispered. “How can you bring yourself to eat such things? I can barely choke down a little bread and you won’t let a plate pass by!”

“It’s quite good. You should try the crab.” Hester licked the juices from her fingers and pushed the plate towards Prisca.

She grimaced. “It’s not a question of flavor, Hester. It’s a question of conscience.” She stole a glance in Paul’s direction.

“My dear child,” the older woman laughed. “As I was trying to tell my husband back in the agora, this is a new life we’re starting. Paul’s right. We can’t afford the luxury of old sensitivities. You and my husband had better get used to that.”

“But how can you abandon so much so fast?”

Hester studied her for a moment and then shrugged. “I’ve made my choice. I made it before my husband was forced from office, before they hounded Paul from the synagogue. Jesus is the Messiah. If I’m wrong about that, a little crab meat is the least of my worries. If I’m right about him … well … it means Jesus died for that man too.” She gestured towards their host. “It means God cares more about Stephanas than about what food we eat or whose house we enter.”


II

The dishes were cleared away. A bowl of scented water was carried around so Stephanas’ guests could wash their fingers. He nodded for Achaicus to distribute fresh cups of watered wine. As that was being done, Stephanas pondered that this was surely the strangest symposium he’d ever attended.

No libations to the gods. No flute girls and bards. Heavy robes instead of gossamer gowns. Beards or raw-shaved cheeks rather than freshly barbered chins.

But he knew it wasn’t just strange to him. What must the white-bearded one make of all this? And the women? He could guess how difficult this meal had been for them, what it meant for them to be in his home. He marveled once again at the power of Paul’s Gospel and at the power of faith to lead people into such uncharted waters.

He’d read of miracles in their holy books. He’d heard of miracles in the ministry of Jesus. But it seemed to Stephanas he was witnessing a miracle himself tonight, a gathering of people who’s common faith forced them to soar above all other differences.

He cleared his throat to get their attention. “I want to thank you for being under my roof tonight, for sharing my table. It is a great honor for me to host this dinner. I recognize that being in the home of a man … of a man like me is unusual for you, p-p-perhaps even p-p-painful.” He smiled at Prisca. “But I do welcome you and thank you for coming.

“As we ate, P-P-Paul told me a little about each of you. Silas and Timothy,” he nodded at them, “who have walked with P-P-Paul for more than a year now. Crispus and Hester,” he raised his cup to the couple, “leaders in the Hebrew community.” The husband and wife shared a smile over that description. “And Aquila and Prisca,” he nodded again, “leather-workers from Rome.

“All of you believers in the Lord Jesus. And for that, I welcome you most of all.”

He paused and took a sip of wine. “When I saw Paul speaking in the agora this morning and admired his mutilated cheeks, I knew something had changed. Seeing you here tonight only p-p-proves it. I’ve been trying to get the story all evening, but P-P-Paul suggested that you, Crispus, are the one to tell it. Would you mind?”

Crispus looked to Paul and Hester and then sat up on his dining couch and swung his feet to the floor. “Thank you for your invitation to dinner, Stephanas. And you’re right. Being here is painful for me. I’ve never been in the home of a Gen… of a Greek before. I do business with Greeks and even call one or two friends. But, as you know, sharing table with those who are not of our race is forbidden by our customs. Which brings me to what has changed.

“For the past twelve years, I have served as ruler of the synagogue here in Corinth.” He smiled to himself. “Which is a fancy way of saying that if there were any repairs or expenses incurred by our congregation, they sent the bill to me.”

“There’s a little more to it than that,” Paul interjected.

“True. It was my duty to choose who gave the readings and spoke the prayers.” He glanced at Paul. “And I determined who spoke to the synagogue each Sabbath.

“The first time I asked Paul to speak, I did not know what an exasperating man he could be.” He cut a glance towards Prisca who smiled broadly. “But even when I heard his story and learned about a crucified Messiah, I kept asking him to speak. I insisted on it.”

He told Stephanas the story of the past few weeks at the synagogue. Of the increasingly heated debates over the prophets and the Sanhedrin. He told him about the pressure to keep Paul from speaking again.

“Our Sabbaths this summer have been the most contentious and quarrelsome I’ve ever witnessed. And we Hebrews have a great capacity for contention and quarrels. It couldn’t go on. So last Sabbath, the elders removed me from office and told Paul he was no longer welcome. We all walked out with him. And that’s what has changed.”

Stephanas blinked. “You walked out?”

“They gave me no choice.”

“But all those years. All those p-p-people. It must have been agony for you.”

Crispus looked at Hester. “We lost three sons—a long time ago. It feels like we’ve just lost one hundred more.”

“Then why did you leave?”

“Because I believe what Paul says about Jesus.” He smiled bleakly. “Leaving the synagogue was like having an arm cut off. But staying, putting the synagogue above Jesus, would have meant cutting out my heart and soul.” He shrugged and fell silent.

After a few quiet moments, Stephanas said, “I know what it is to be rejected, Crispus … Hester. I know how it hurts. And I am truly sorry for your p-p-pain.”

There it is again, Paul thought. The story I don’t know.

“Thank you, Stephanas.” Crispus studied the Gentile for a long moment. There is decency in you, young man. And kindness. And then he smiled across at Hester. “We’re tough old goats. I suspect we will survive.”

“You are indeed an old goat, Husband,” Hester’s eyes flashed. “But I would be careful describing me in that way.”

They all laughed and the laughter broke the somber mood of the synagogue story.

Stephanas looked at the two couples. Paul and the others knew Gentiles. But these four, they had no experience with men like himself. Not really. Yet here they were, all of them bound together in common cause. If the bond were to hold, they needed to understand something important.

“I’ve been reading your Scriptures in recent weeks.”

“He bought the translation of the Seventy from a book dealer,” Paul told Crispus.

Crispus was suitably impressed. “That must have cost you a few denarii.”

Stephanas grinned. “You lost an arm in the synagogue. It cost me an arm and a leg to buy those scrolls. Best coin I ever spent though. Your Scriptures are truly remarkable.”

“Which parts do you like best, Stephanas?” Hester wanted to know.

“I loved the Psalms. And the book of Job. There’s a great deal I don’t understand, of course. But one thing became clear the more I read.”

“What’s that?” Aquila asked.

“Everything I’ve ever heard about your p-p-people, the little I know of your culture, emphasizes how different you are from the rest of the world. You keep yourselves apart. You live by different standards. You have your customs and traditions. You’re p-p-proud of those differences. You work hard to p-p-protect them.”

Crispus and Prisca nodded their heads in agreement. That’s true, they were thinking. We are a distinct people.

“Your Scriptures talk about those differences. God chose you. He gave you the Law. He sent you the p-p-prophets. But your Scriptures also tell me you’re not so different after all.”

“What do you mean?” Prisca leaned forward, curious.

Stephanas looked down, frowning. He was having a hard time finding the words. “Well … it’s the stories, you see? It’s the p-p-people in those stories. They’re … well … they’re p-p-people! They’re afraid and happy and angry and ashamed. They get sick and discouraged. They lie. They struggle with their marriages and worry about their children. You’re stories tell me that we have a lot in common.”

Crispus could not take his eyes off his host. Paul could not stop smiling.

“If I read in your Scriptures that no one ever disobeyed or lost hope or yielded to temptation, I’d have to admit that you Hebrews really were different. But your stories sound like p-p-people I know—greedy, loving, violent, gracious, laughing, struggling p-p-people. You have heroes and villains … so do we. You make bad choices and noble choices … so do we. Some Hebrews are wicked and some are good … it’s the same with us. You need forgiveness and guidance and hope. Well, I do too.”

He turned to look at Paul. “It seems to me that your differences have all been given to you. You’re like Joseph and his coat. God has wrapped you in his love and Law and p-p-purposes. He made you Hebrews his favorites. But cut through what God has done for your p-p-people, cut into the skin beneath, and what you find is someone who looks a lot like me.”

Paul looked around at his companions, raising an eyebrow at Crispus—Well?—and sharing a nod with Aquila—See?

But Stephanas was not quite through. “I think the cross was God’s way of saying we’re all favorites now. It’s how he wrapped the rest of us in all those blessings he has given to your p-p-people. He put Jesus on the cross and said, ‘Here is my love for you. Here is your access to me. You’re all the same, deep down—broken and needy. And my Son is available to any who will have him, whatever their failings, whatever their race.’”

He looked at everyone in the room, but especially at the two Jewish couples. “I share your need for the grace of God. I share your trust in the Son of God. That’s a lot of common ground. I hope it will be enough to reach over our differences. If you’ll let me, I want to be your friend.”

Paul glanced at Prisca and Hester, and knew that Stephanas’s words were hitting the mark. He looked at Silas who beamed back at him and cocked an eyebrow as if to say, Who are we to argue with God? He looked at Crispus and saw the glisten of tears in his eyes … and the glimmer of understanding.


III

It was while Stephanas was showing them his library that Prisca remembered Stauria, sleeping through the evening in a strange room. She gasped when the thought came to her and hurried over to whisper urgently in her husband’s ear. They explained quickly and then excused themselves; walking, then trotting, then sprinting through the dark streets towards home.

A fear hounded Prisca all the way, chasing her, gaining on her no matter how fast she ran. But it wasn’t fear of the dark night or the shadows that lurked in doorways. It was fear that Stauria would wake to their absence, feel abandoned, and make her way back to the familiar streets.

Be asleep, Stauria, she prayed as she ran. Be where I left you. Give me a chance to tell you we are not so different after all.

When they burst into the apartment, however, Stauria was gone.

And so were a new pair of sandals, two loaves of bread, and a leather knapsack.

And one silver lamp stand—a wedding gift from a proud father to his beloved son, from a happy mother-in-law to her new daughter.

It was their only possession of any value or sentiment.


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[Beginning of the novel]

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