Chapter 58: The Mission

They exchanged pleasantries for a few moments, Crispus waiting for Berekiah to raise the matters he’d come to discuss … Berekiah content to draw out the uncomfortable moment for as long as possible. It was like a staring match, each waiting for the other to look away first. When Crispus cut his eyes away, Berekiah tried not to smile.

“I guess you’re not here to ask about my health,” Crispus said finally. It wasn’t a question. It was an invitation for Berekiah to get on with his business.

“True enough.” Berekiah leaned forward. “We’ve had a steady trickle of people leaving the synagogue to join your collegium—or whatever you’re calling yourselves. Not many. But steady. Enough to cause us concern. Sosthenes and I thought we should raise the matter with you.”

Crispus put his elbows on the desk and templed his fingers in front of his mouth. “What’s the point of that, Berekiah? It won’t change anything.”

Berekiah raised his hands, a gesture of his desire to be reasonable. “Frank discussion between men of good will is never pointless, Crispus.”

Crispus had to bite his tongue.

“These defections are difficult—as you can imagine. They keep the synagogue in turmoil. Everybody’s worried about everybody else. Who’s going to be next? Who else is leaving?” Berekiah smiled, the very picture of reasonable good will. “We intend to plug the leak. That’s why I’m here.”

Crispus looked puzzled. “I’m not sure how I can help …”

Berekiah interrupted him. “Oh, I know how. You can stop talking to your friends about this ‘Jesus.’ You can turn them away when they knock at your door. You can decide to stop stealing my sheep.” Still his tone was reasonable, calm. They might have been discussing a business venture.

Crispus look at Berekiah with amazement. The gall of the man! “Are you telling me what I can talk about with whom? What to do with guests who come to my home?” He shook his head. “After what you’ve done to my household, showing your face here is nerve enough. You have no right to make demands.”

“That’s very true.” Berekiah was being agreeable. “So no more demands. Instead, perhaps a threat or two are in order.” He smiled at Crispus—a cold, unblinking, reptilian smile. “Sosthenes wants to expel you from the synagogue, put you ‘out of the camp.’ You know what that means, Crispus. All ties cut. All contact forbidden. No more friendly visits like this one. Your business ruined. Your wife completely isolated.” He smiled again, trying to put some sympathy behind it, but failing utterly. “I think, perhaps, I can change his mind if you agree to be reasonable.”

Crispus studied him for a long moment. “You really are loathsome, Berekiah. Besides, most of our old friends have cut us off already.”

Berekiah looked up brightly. “Wait! I’m not finished yet! If you refuse, we’ll do the same to the friends you still have, to anyone who talks to you or comes here to visit. We’ll make heroes of people like Obed—men who put away their wives or disinherit their sons to protect our faith and community. We’ll draw the line so sharply between the synagogue and the house next door that anyone who puts a toe across it will wish they hadn’t.”

“They’ll still come,” Crispus said softly.

“A few, no doubt. But not many. And those who do will be ruined. You,” he punched a finger towards Crispus, “will be responsible for broken homes and abandoned children and ruined careers.”

Crispus bristled. “You draw the line. You inflict the suffering. But I am responsible? Is that what you’re saying?” He rose from his chair and pointed towards the door. “Get out! Don’t ever come here again.” His finger shook as he pointed. His anger was getting the better of him.

Berekiah smiled one more time as he heaved his bulk from the chair. He was glad to know he’d drawn blood. “One more thing, Crispus. A message for Saul. Tell him I’ve not forgotten about him. Right now, we’re getting our own house in order. But, when that’s done, I’m coming after him. However I can.” Berekiah’s face twisted in rage. “Tell him to watch his back. It won’t do him any good, of course. But I want him to feel me behind him, to wonder where and when.”

The sneer resolved itself into an insincere smile. “Well, good day, Crispus. As always, I’ve enjoyed our talk.”

Crispus watched him leave without a word, too angry to trust his voice.


II

Crispus found Paul at Gaius’s house, sweeping out the hall in preparation for their next assembly. They stood in the middle of the room, Paul with a broom in his hand, while Crispus told about his meeting with Berekiah.

Paul listened to the report without comment. He stared down at the floor, feeling sad. This is how it always goes, he was thinking. First the attacks on me personally. Then the attacks on those who believe me. And, last of all, the attacks on the innocent and the merely curious. Those, he knew, were the most vicious of all because they were so unfair, so unexpected. People who don’t see the blow coming are hurt worst, he lamented.

“What can we do?” Crispus wanted to know when he’d finished.

“Nothing,” Paul said, wishing it were not true. “It’s the cost of faith. The Hebrews pay for it one way, the Gentiles another. But everyone pays for it somehow. Faith never comes without cost.”

“But what about Abi? It’s her marriage, Paul! It’s her home and her children. It’s too much to ask!”

Paul looked at his friend for a moment. “Is it? Is it really?” He led Crispus over to a bench and sat down with him.

“Abi is doing nothing more than you did, than I did. She’s choosing. And the choice has cost her her home. It cost you your place and influence. It cost me … well …” He looked away briefly. “Abi’s making choices, like we all have. She’s dealing with the consequences of those choices, like we all do. You would spare her those consequences.” He stared at Crispus, though his friend would not meet his eyes.

“Don’t confuse pride with compassion, Crispus. Your convictions merit the sacrifices, you tell yourself. Your choice was made carefully, consciously. But her? Her convictions can’t run as deep. She shouldn’t be allowed to make the choice you made, to sacrifice as you have. But that’s not compassion,” Paul told him. ”That’s condescension.”

He looked away for a time and then put his hand on Crispus’s arm. “I was like that once. In the early years. Deciding who could sacrifice what, what was enough and what was too much. And then it dawned on me—if I was willing to die for what I believed, why couldn’t I permit others the courage of their convictions?” He let the question work for a few moments.

“We can’t protect people from the consequences of faith, Crispus. I couldn’t protect you. You can’t protect Abi. We’ve got to grant others the same privilege we ask for ourselves—to believe … to choose … and to live with the results as best we can.”

Crispus heard. He knew Paul was right. Still, it was awful. So awful, he found it hard to breath. He shook himself and delivered Berekiah’s message.

“He told me he was coming for you.”

Paul nodded grimly. “Yes. I imagine he is.”

“He said whatever it took.”

Paul nodded again. “Yes. That’s the way it usually works.”

“What will you do?”

Paul glanced at his hands and then back at Crispus. He shrugged. “Nothing. Just keep going. I’ve made my choice. Berekiah has made his. We let things fall out how they will.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]


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