Chapter 19: The Mission

Three days later, Paul bumped into his tavern friend—quite by accident, as some would say, though Paul would not refer to such things in those terms.

“Oedipus!” Paul laughed, extending a hand.

“Ahh! It’s you!” his Corinthian friend smiled. “You’re growing a beard, I see. Not very fashionable in Corinth, I’m afraid.”

Paul put a hand to his face and smiled. “A friend of mine told me the beard would cover much that needed covering.”

“Oww!” the younger man winced. “The gods save us from our friends.”

“Do you have time for another cup of wine? I happen to have an afternoon on my hands with nothing very important to fill it.”

“Actually, I find myself in the same p-p-predicament. But only if you’ll let me take you to a cleaner p-p-place that serves better wine. I was slumming the last time we met. Feeling a bit sorry for myself.”

“Running away from something?” Paul teased.

“Always,” his companion answered cheerfully.

The two of them fell into step together. “I’m Paul, by the way. From Tarsus in Cilicia. I realized I’d let you get away last time without introductions.”

“I am called Stephanas. Born and raised right here in Corinth. And, just for the record,” he whispered conspiratorially, “Though I was tempted in my youth to murder my father, I would never marry my mother.”


The place was nicer. Spanking clean. Better service. Better clientele. And far better wine. The only thing that wouldn’t be better, Paul imagined, was the bill.

“I loved his father, you see,” Stephanas was saying in his quiet way as they huddled over a table, sharing a drink. “Orantes was his name. More like a father to me than my own. He was my p-p-pedagogue. It was he who taught me to love books.” His eyes misted, an emotion he tried to cover with another sip from his cup.

“Fortunatus was the child of his middle years. Orantes took a woman, one of the household servants, long after I thought he had no interest in a wife. I don’t know why he did it. She was kind enough but very p-p-plain. Maybe it was the kindness that attracted him.” Stephanus shrugged, as if explaining the ways of men and women were beyond him.

“The boy came from that union, some seventeen summers ago. His mother died when he was still very young. So, for most of his life, Orantes was both father and mother to the boy. They were inseparable. He taught the lad to love books, just as he did me. And I, without a son of my own, grew quite fond of the boy. Spoiled him, I suspect.”

He paused and took another drink. “About a year ago, I had a difficult business situation in Asia P-P-Province.” His glanced up. “Near your old stomping grounds, come to think of it. I have trade connections throughout Aetolia and the P-P-Pontus. Anyway … one of my managers there … well, it turns out he was swindling me blind. Cheating my suppliers and driving business into the ground. So I sent Orantes to sort out the mess. I trusted him, you see. I needed someone over there I could trust.” He looked away, as if trusting could not absolve him of responsibility.

“In mid-summer, he sailed from Cenchrea to Ephesus and then traveled overland to Laodicea. He made good time, but the work took longer than we thought. The books had to be audited. The manager was arrested and p-p-prosecuted. A new manager had to be trained. By the time Orantes made it back to Ephesus and set sail for home, it was winter season. As you know, not a good time to be on the water.” Stephanus took another swallow from his cup, as if to soothe a festering memory. “Orantes’s ship went down with all hands in a storm, and the boy has p-p-punished me ever since.”

“I see.”

Stephanas sighed. “He’s grieving, I know. He misses his father. But he’s also angry. He blames me for his father’s death. I’m sure he wishes I’d gone instead, that it was me at the bottom of the Aegean rather than Orantes. I can’t say I haven’t wished as much myself. ” He smiled glumly at Paul.

“Fortunatus doesn’t say any of this, of course. But he shows it. He’s insolent and resentful. He shirks his duties and causes trouble in the household. And, recently, he ran away.”

Paul frowned. “A serious matter, for a slave to run away.” He stared at his wine cup, twirling it between his fingers.

“Frankly, I’m at my wit’s end. I can’t p-p-punish him as he deserves. I won’t sell him. I’d free him, for the sake of his father, if he could make a living. But he’d cut himself off from my household, refuse my p-p-patronage.” He sighed again. “Freeing the boy now would be cruel.”

“So what will you do, my friend?”

“I’m open to suggestions.” Stephanas spread his hands, inviting.

The two of them sat for a while, thinking about the boy.

When Paul spoke at last, he offered not a solution but a story.

“Once there was a father,” he began. “A king who had many rebellious sons. He was a good father, loving and kind. He gave his boys everything. In return, he asked only that they love him and trust him enough to do as he commanded. But that was too much for his stubborn sons. They disobeyed his wishes and shirked their duties. They were resentful and disrespectful—just like Fortunatus. And they were always running away, trying to get as far from their father as they could. It broke the king’s heart.”

“What did he do?” Stephanas leaned forward with interest.

“Well, he tried everything. He looked the other way when they disobeyed. He steeled his heart against their disrespect. He pleaded with them and warned them and threatened them. He sent servants to find them and bring them home when they ran off. Finally, he ran out of options. So he punished them when they disobeyed. He banished them from the house. He let them stew in the consequences of their own choices.”

Stephanas nodded. “A stern father.”

“No,” Paul shook his head. “Just determined. He wanted his sons back.” Paul sipped his wine. “This father found himself right where you are with Fortunatus.”

“Where’s that?”

Paul smiled. “With the question all fathers of rebellious sons must ask. How do you persuade someone you love to love you back? How can you win a heart?”

“Yes,” Stephanas agreed, staring at the table. “That’s it exactly. Keeping Fortunatus under my roof isn’t the point. How can I change his heart towards me?”

“You can post a guard over his body and keep him from running away. But if his heart’s on the run, what can be done about that?”

Paul rubbed his bald pate. It was such a simple question really. But it had plagued Paul for years. It taunted him when he preached in the market place. It nagged at him during synagogue debates. It echoed in his head as he shared a cup of wine with a lost soul who worried about his young slave.

It was God’s question in the end, the one he’d asked about all the lost sons and daughters since Adam.

How do you touch someone’s heart?

As far as Paul could see, time didn’t do it. Not really. Oh, people matured a little. They mellowed or hardened with the drip of the years. But time couldn’t make a fool listen or turn greed into contentment or give compassion to a cruel man.

He’d grown up believing that education changed people. If only they learned enough, if only they had the right information, people would change. That, of course, was the illusion on which the Law was built—that people who knew better would be better. But it didn’t work that way after all.

He knew threats didn’t change people, or consequences, or fear of punishment, or regrets. Perhaps surface changes … brief changes. But none of those things could transform the heart. And every day, Paul was reminded it is the heart that needs changing most.

“P-P-Paul?” Stephanas touched his arm, bringing Paul back from whatever far place he’d gone. “How does the story end? What did the father do?”

Paul studied his friend for a moment before continuing. “His sons were kidnapped by a rival. A pretender to the throne. A truly foul man who hated their father more than they did. So he set about abusing the boys, torturing them. He even killed one or two. He knew he could hurt the king by hurting his children.

“The king was hurt. He was heart-broken. In fact, he was so distraught he decided to give himself up for the sake of his sons. He sent a message to his rival. ‘Let my sons go, and you can do what you want with me.’ This, of course, delighted the rival. He agreed at once. He freed the boys and sent them on their way.

“The king met his sons along the road. He hugged them and kissed them and told them how much he loved them. He explained his arrangement with his rival. He urged them all to go home, to behave with honor and decency, to live as he’d taught them to live all along.”

“What happened?”

“The king surrendered himself to his rival and was crucified.”

Stephanas sat back in astonishment. “That’s no way for a king to die.”

“No. No it’s not.”

“And what happened to the boys?”

“Not much.” Paul managed a thin smile. “They went home and lived as if nothing had really changed. They ate the father’s food and spent his wealth. Most of them returned to their reckless, disobedient ways. The memory of their father faded.”

Stephanas waited for the rest. But Paul just stared at his hands. Finally Stephanas sputtered, “Is that it? Is that the end?” He couldn’t believe it. “What kind of story is that, for goodness sake? By the gods, I thought I was gloomy talking about Oedipus. But this has got to be the most melancholy tale I ever heard!” His hand slapped the table. A customer across the room looked over in alarm.

Paul held up a hand. “There is a little more, my friend, if you care to hear it. And it even has an edifying moral at the end.” His eyes twinkled.

“There were a few of the king’s sons—not many, but a few—who thought long and hard about what their father had done. Giving himself up for them like that. Putting their lives ahead of his own. His sacrifice haunted them. It would not let them be.

“And the more they thought on it, the more they realized how much their father loved them, how wrong they’d been to resist and resent him. They grieved for their stubbornness. They repented of their willful, selfish ways. They mourned what they’d done and what they had lost. It was in their mourning that something new began to grow.”

“What?” Stephanas wanted to know. “What?”

“Gratitude,” Paul said smiling. “Overwhelming, consuming gratitude. For their father’s love. For his blessings. For his sacrifice. They knew they’d been given something they did not deserve. And knowing that changed them. They felt differently about their father. They remembered his kindness and began to love him.

“Those few boys lived in their father’s house for many years. Every day, they blessed the memory of their father and his love and tried to live in ways that would please him. They grew up and then grew old. When eventually they died, people gathered from all over the kingdom for the funerals. They looked at those bodies, washed and ready for the pyre. And they commented on how much the sons looked like their father. I think that would have pleased the boys very much. I know it would have pleased the father.”

A fly landed on the table and the two men watched it closely for a long time. As if, in its movements, they might discern the meaning of life.

“Do you want the moral now?” Paul asked.

Stephanas gestured to the barkeep. “If it’s anything like the story, I’ll need more wine to wash it down.” He was still perturbed.

“Here it is, then,” Paul said when the wine arrived. He leaned forward.

“Grace is the only power great enough to change the human heart. Undeserved, inexplicable grace. Extravagant acts of mercy. Unreasonable, immoderate feats of self-giving love. Only grace has the power to transform the heart. Only grace.

“You can’t force a change of heart. You can’t teach it. You can’t manipulate or manufacture it. You can only show grace and then let grace do it’s work.” Paul reached for the pitcher to fill Stephanas’s cup. “That’s the only hope you have with Fortunatus, my friend. He needs a new heart. And you’ve got to find a grace that is larger than his loss.”

Stephanas chewed on that for a while, almost ready to forgive Paul for troubling him with his tale. The moral made the tale worth hearing after all. “But even grace doesn’t guarantee he’ll come around, does it? I mean, the father sacrificed himself but it didn’t make a difference for most of his sons.”

“True enough. There are no guarantees. But maybe the few were worth the sacrifice.” He said this with such sadness, Stephanas thought for a moment that Paul could be one of those wayward boys.

“But, hey!” Paul slapped the table and sat back, startling his friend. “It’s just a story, right? Besides, you don’t believe any of this, remember? There’s no such thing as change. We’re fated. We’re driven. There’s no escape. Fortunatus can’t change his destiny. And you can’t change Fortunatus. So what’s the point?”

Stephanas smiled sheepishly. “I thought you might throw that back at me.” He fell silent for a moment, thinking. “The gods could still spare Fortunatus. It’s happened before. But I find it hard to hope for mercy from the gods. They haven’t shown much mercy to me.” His face clouded over.

“Why do you say that?”

“The story of Oedipus. Remember? We kill what is most p-p-precious to us. We marry the thing that destroys us.” He doodled with his finger on the table. “As it turns out, I murdered my father. Like Oedipus. He’s lying at the bottom of the Aegean because I sent him to Laodicea.”

“You didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“Doesn’t matter. It was fated. The gods weren’t in a merciful mood.”

“So who did you marry?”

Stephanas looked up with eyes so haunted Paul had to look away. He took a long, last pull from his cup. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Another tale for another time.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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