Chapter 21: The Mission

A wagon in a ditch. A child lying in the road. The wagoneer sitting with his head in his hands. A crowd gathered around.

“The driver was careless!” someone shouted. “The child wasn’t watching!” insisted another. A third man shrugged “Fate” and walked away.

No three witnesses see the same accident. And no three listeners hear the same sermon. What is God’s own truth to one is debatable matter to another and perverted folly to a third.

All people hear as much with their hearts as with their ears. They listen through scars and brokenness, hope and desires. They hear what they expect to hear, what they want to hear, whatever the words.

As the philosophers say: All things respond according to their nature.


II

Crispus approached Paul after the congregation had leaked away. “I should be angry with you.” He tried to glower, though not very successfully. “You could have warned me, at least.”

Paul shrugged. “You asked me to tell the news from Jerusalem.”

“But I didn’t know, did I? What the news was?”

Paul tried to meet his gaze. But he wasn’t very proud of himself for playing on the man’s ignorance. So he looked away.

“You’re right. But if I’d told you …”

“What?” Crispus stared evenly at him. “I wouldn’t give you access to the synagogue? I’d keep you from speaking? You should have a little more faith, Brother Saul.”

“Forgive me, Crispus.” Paul looked at him now. “But that kind of faith was beaten out of me long ago.”

Crispus studied Paul’s face a moment. And then his lips twitched. “I imagine that’s true enough. Your news would not be welcomed in a synagogue or two of my acquaintance.” The smile bubbled out of him in spite of himself. “No, not welcomed at all. So, I forgive you keeping your little secrets.” The smile vanished. “But the time for secrets between us is over. Come by my house this evening, at the close of Sabbath. We’ll talk further. And Saul,” Crispus pointed a finger at his chest, “I want it all.”

“Of course.”

The two of them clasped hands and locked eyes, an admission that what had happened this day could not be undone, that they would both have to answer for Paul’s words.

Paul nodded towards the synagogue. “I hope I haven’t done you damage.”

“Not yet, I think.” Crispus strengthened his grasp on Paul’s hand. “But if I permit you to speak again …. Come by tonight. I’ll have my scrolls. And I intend to make you prove what you’ve claimed.”

He turned to leave but then paused. He had something on his mind. “Our God is such a surprising God, Brother Saul. He saved us from Egypt with frogs and locust. He saved us from Midian with torches and trumpets. He saved David with madness and Elijah with a raven.”

Crispus shook his head and fixed Paul with a wry smile. “Somehow, for God to save us with a cross doesn’t seem so strange.” He raised an eyebrow, “Tonight then?” and turned away.


III

Gaius walked away from the synagogue with a dilemma.

He’d never attended a synagogue service as exciting. His heart was still pounding with what he’d witnessed. When this Saul spoke, Gaius could feel a tingling in the air, like those moments before a summer storm when your hair stands on end. He loved what Saul told about prophets in the desert and miracles and resurrection. There were parts of the story Gaius didn’t understand or found distasteful. But he was certainly intrigued.

Even more interesting, of course, was the reaction of the crowd. Gaius shook his head thinking of it now. No more than a few words from the stranger and they were ready for blood. He’d never seen a crowd turn hostile more quickly. Anyone who could provoke such rage in so little time was worth watching.

Saul’s sermon broke onto the synagogue like a fire storm. The heat it provoked was immediate, visceral. And Gaius recognized this as a heat he could appreciate. He felt the first stirrings of the thrill.

But there’s the dilemma, he told himself. That much heat is going to burn something.

Gaius had a gift. Some people were musical. Some were good with a sword. Gaius could read power. He had a finely developed sense of who had it and who didn’t. He could see lines of loyalty and clashes of interest as clearly as others saw letters on a page. He could tell at a glance who were allies and who were enemies. The first time he went to synagogue, he knew Crispus and Sosthenes were rivals.

And today, he recognized Saul would be a threat to them both.

He’d spoken to all three of them before leaving. A “Thanks” to Saul for his message. A word of appreciation to Crispus for allowing Saul to speak. A squeeze of concern, as he shook hands with Sosthenes.

That’s what Gaius did when facing dilemmas. He tried to keep his options open. It was a skill that had taken him far in the rough-and-tumble of Corinth.


IV

Sosthenes and Berekiah walked home together, heads bent towards one another in conversation.

Both were angered by what they’d heard. Both thought Saul a dangerous man. Not ten steps from the synagogue, they agreed something had to be done.

For all their common cause, the two were a study in contrasts. Sosthenes, with his white beard and lined face, had twenty years on the younger man. Each of them was tall, but where Sosthenes was gaunt to the point of being skeletal, Berekiah was a mountain, broad in his back and powerfully muscled. The thin man whispered, the large man rumbled. Sosthenes led with questions and gestures. Berekiah more often bullied and pushed. The older man was intelligent, well-read. His companion was smart in other ways—cunning, with the feral capacity to sniff out weakness and exploit it.

The two of them made an odd paring and a good team.

“It was only a matter of time before this showed up in Corinth,” Sosthenes was saying, trying to downplay the morning. “Our friends in Jerusalem warned us these fanatics were quite persistent. They’ve disrupted synagogues back home and throughout Asia Province. And now they’re here.”

“Did you hear his sacrilege?” Berekiah growled. “To mistake a milksop for the Messiah! To think that Yahweh would permit his Anointed to hang from a Roman cross! Has the man no shame?”

“He probably believes what he says.”

“And did you hear his condemnation of the leaders in Jerusalem! Hard-hearted, he called them! Blind! Toadying to the Romans!”

“I’m sure he considers that the truth.”

“And the way he twisted that passage from Isaiah! Without so much as blinking! It was sickening.”

“No doubt he thinks he has the correct interpretation.”

Berekiah stopped in the middle of the street to stare at his companion. “You almost sound like you’re excusing this blasphemer!”

Sosthenes took the man’s thick arm and moved him down the road again. “Don’t be dense, Berekiah. I’m excusing nothing. The fact that Saul believes this tripe actually makes him more dangerous.”

“How so?”

“In the Proverbs, we’re warned about zeal without knowledge. I’m afraid what we have here is an ignorant zealot. An extremely dangerous beast. He won’t be persuaded or frightened or bought. Mark my words, my young friend. Saul spells trouble.”

“What should we do?”

Sosthenes stroked his beard as they walked. “Nothing overt, I think. Not yet. But perhaps a quiet discussion among men who think as we do? A meeting of minds?”

Berekiah, never one for inaction, agreed to set up the meeting. “Tonight. After the sun falls.”


V

Prisca and Aquila were waiting for Paul down the street. They fell in together, though the walk home was quiet, each of them reflecting on the morning.

It was Prisca who finally spoke. “I don’t guess you even considered taking the slow approach? Warm ’em up a little. Let ’em get to know you. Then stick in the knife?” It was the fear that made her harsh.

“Prisca.” Paul spoke softly. “It doesn’t matter what approach I take. It always comes down to the cross eventually.”

“Oh, I know,” she brushed aside a tear. “I’m just being twitchy. Anyway, the deed is done. No turning back now.”

“No,” Paul agreed. “No turning back. Are you all right?”

She managed a lopsided grin. “Sure. Never better. Nothing like a riot in the synagogue to bolster your spirits.”

Paul stopped and said with a kind of wonder, “Actually, I thought they took it pretty well. Crispus sure surprised me.”

Aquila put a hand against Paul’s back and started him moving again. “At least they didn’t stone you. From what you’ve told us about other places, I’d say this morning was a rousing success.”

Paul laughed nervously, feeling the tension relax. They didn’t stone me! The sun seemed a little brighter somehow, the day a bit more promising.

“And you!” Prisca swatted at her husband. “Standing up there to fight the whole synagogue. What were you going to do? Kick Sosthenes in the shin? Knock out a tooth for the glory of God?”

Aquila grinned sheepishly. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Prisca rolled her eyes. “Why didn’t you hold up a sign while you were at it? ‘The heretic is with us! When you’re done beating Saul, you can start on the tent-maker and his wife!’” Her tone was accusing but her eyes were warm.

Aquila looked at Paul with a long-suffering expression. “What is that proverb, Brother Saul? ‘A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping.’ Isn’t that how it goes?”

“A wise man, Solomon.” Paul played along.

“Wise indeed! May God bless the hearing of this Scripture to the benefit of his people.”

Both of them said the Amen.

Prisca picked up her pace, commenting on their proverb with her back.


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[Beginning of the novel]

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