Chapter 52: The Mission

As winter came in earnest, the granaries of Corinth fell to dangerous levels.

The previous spring, the fertile fields of the far-off Nile had suffered catastrophic flooding, and wheat supplies throughout the Empire dwindled as a direct consequence. Rome sent her barges in the summer to collect every spare kernel of grain in Egypt and Africa Province, Sicily and Sardinia, hording what she found to distribute to her own poorer citizens.

This was not an act of kindness but of political necessity. Nothing frightened the Roman senate more than hungry masses flooding the Forum demanding food. “Bread and circuses” had been the guiding policy for social control since the days of Gaius Marius. And at no time was that policy more religiously observed than during famine.

So Rome stripped the wheat provinces bare as an act of devotion to the only god she truly revered—necessity.

As a result, however, there was little grain left for the remainder of the Empire.

In Corinth, as in Rome, a shortage of grain meant little to those with money and connections. There was always bread available for those who had coin. Even then, for people who could afford cuttlefish and lamb and fresh vegetables, bread was not a matter of life and death. But most Corinthians lived on the precarious knife-edge of starvation. For them, bread was a primary staple. And they had no spare coin to pay inflated prices.

When word got out that the granaries of Corinth were nearly empty, the mood in the city turned as ugly as the weather.

The Corinthian senate called an emergency meeting and appointed Tiberius Claudius Dinippus as curato annonae—Overseer of the Grain Supply. He immediately did three things.

First, he sent agents throughout the Peloponnesus to scour Arcadia, Argolis and Laconia for surplus supplies. “Buy it, if you can. Steal it if you must,” he thundered. “But bring me back wheat!”

Second, he updated the rolls of citizens and began to ration what supplies there were. “But, Sir,” one of his assistants pointed out, “there are thousands who aren’t citizens and aren’t attached to a citizen household. They’ll have no ration.”

“Too bad!” was the gruff response. “Can’t save everyone in a famine!”

Finally, Tiberius fixed prices on grain purchased from the city granaries and in the markets, making up any differences in actual costs from his own pocket. As in Rome, this was not an act of kindness but of political opportunism. Tiberius Claudius Dinippus planned to capitalize on the good will he bought and paid for. He intended for the famine to make him a very popular man.

The winter and its shortages were, for Paul and the Christian community, both blessing and burden.

Blessing, because Paul knew from long experience that hungry people always had a greater appetite for the gospel. Uncertain times made for eager audiences. Now, when he went combing in the agora, he almost always brought back some new find to add to his collection.

Burden, because he felt as responsible for their bodies as their souls. Hungry people welcomed the good news of Jesus. But good news, though it promised peace and power and new life, wore thin quickly if it did not supply daily bread.

If he could meet the burden, it would lead to more blessing—hungry people who found bread would go out and tell others. But, of course, the blessing would mean more burden—more mouths to feed, more grain to find.

Paul tried not to think about it that way. It made him tired when he did.


II

“I appreciate you coming tonight. And your willingness to help during this crisis.” Paul surveyed the small group of people around him.

He’d asked the wealthier members of the assembly to meet with him, to talk about how to feed their growing numbers. The situation in the city was getting more desperate by the day. And, as a consequence, the needs of poorer members of the assembly were pressing harder.

Crispus and Hester were present, along with Archippus—the friend they’d brought over from the synagogue. Stephanas was there also. Prisca came, though she feared she and Aquila could contribute little to solve the problem—in times of famine, people did not spend precious sesterces on tents.

And Gaius was there. He’d been relatively quiet since the confrontation with Paul. He still participated in the assembly, making real efforts to speak politely to the menagerie of people Paul kept bringing into the group. Friendship with such people still seemed beyond him, and he would never invite them to his home. But Paul gave him credit for politeness. He was, at least, trying. He even managed to speak in civil tones to Paul, going so far as to compliment him on the occasional sermon.

Paul found it surprising, unexpected. Perhaps Gaius was changing after all.

“As I see it,” Paul continued, “we need to talk about three matters: how to find grain for purchase, how to pay for the grain we find, and how to distribute the grain once we buy it. Any thoughts?”

Crispus spoke up. “As for paying for it, that’s obvious. We’re the ones who will have to cough up the necessary coin. How much do we need?”

Stephanas jumped in. “But before we can pay for it, we have to find it. We can’t get enough grain on the rationing system. We’ll need some other source. And that’ll prove expensive, I imagine.”

“So where do we look for grain?” Paul asked. “Apart from the citizen rations.”

“There might be a few farmers over in the Sikyon area who are holding out for the highest prices,” Prisca suggested. “We could start there.”

“And, of course,” Gaius added, “there’s always the underground market. If money isn’t an issue, you can buy anything there.”

“Do you have any contacts in the underground, Gaius?” Paul asked.

Gaius gave a modest smile. “Oh, I think I could scare up one or two.”

“But those people are criminals,” Crispus objected. “We can’t have dealings with them.”

Gaius shrugged. “Which is worse? Dealing with criminals or letting people starve?”

Paul smiled in spite of himself. “Let’s do this. If Aquila will trust me with the shop for a few days, I suggest we send him to Sikyon to sniff out any hoarded wheat in that area.” He looked at Prisca. “It’s a practical way the two of you can contribute to this effort.

“Gaius?” Paul turned to the merchant. “Talk to your contacts. Let’s learn what’s out there and how much it costs. Once we know a little more, we can talk about finances. Sound good?” He looked around. Everyone nodded their agreement.

“Now. For the hard part. Once we find the grain and pay for it, how do we get it to the brothers without starting a riot?”


III

There was no grain in Sikyon. Tiberius had confiscated those supplies before Aquila could get to them. He spent a frustrating week walking from farm to farm, offering outrageous prices, doing his best to search out any hidden surplus. But, when he returned to Corinth, he came empty handed.

So they were forced to do business with Gaius’s shady contacts. Yes, there was grain for sale. But the prices had doubled, and doubled again as the normal channels of supply dried up throughout the city. In the end, they had no choice but to deal with unsavory opportunists and pay premium prices.

“It’s only coin,” Stephanas assured Paul as he placed a large purse in his hands. “There’s more if you need it.” The others were also generous. Even Gaius donated a substantial amount.

Each week, in the dark of night, they smuggled sacks of grain to the house by the synagogue, carting it in wagons topped with firewood or rugs or even Demeas’s hides—anything to disguise the precious cargo from the hungry mobs who roamed Corinth’s streets. They piled the sacks in the great hall, guarding the grain in shifts until it could be rationed out to the brothers before the next assembly.

“Be careful,” Paul warned them repeatedly. “Share what you can, but don’t tell anyone where you got it. If word gets out, we’ll have a siege on our hands.”

As the weeks passed, the distribution continued without incident. No mobs at the door. No break ins. “It’s amazing how hungry people can keep a secret,” Paul marveled to Prisca. He didn’t like hiding their provisions. He’d rather open the doors to one and all. But there was only so much grain. And even the richest of them was no Midas. So they fed the believers. And Paul consoled himself with the thought that, if they couldn’t save everyone, they could at least keep the family of faith in bread.

But he noticed that every Lord’s day, Gaius managed to take a few of the poorer members aside and hold a whispered conversation. It didn’t take him long to learn what was said.

“This is for you and your family,” Gaius would tell a hungry brother, pointing to his bundle of grain. “I hope it eases your suffering in these difficult times. I’m just thankful I had the right contacts … that the Lord has blessed me with a little disposable income. Eat well, my friend. And know that I will always take care of the members of our assembly.”

It wasn’t a lie—exactly. The contacts were Gaius’s. And he had contributed funds to pay for the grain. The lie was in what he implied—that his compassion had prompted the distribution of grain; that he alone had paid for it; and that he, as caring patron of the church, would be responsible for their future well-being.

It sickened Paul when he learned of it. But he talked himself into swallowing his bile. He didn’t want to jeopardize the steady supply. He couldn’t afford to lose Gaius’s contacts.

When he heard, however, that Gaius was boasting about his philanthropy at the barber’s, naming where and when the distribution was taking place, Paul exploded.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]


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