Chapter 24: The Mission

Paul was dyeing hides at the shop when the messenger arrived. He took off his stained leather gloves to accept the note held out to him. He grimaced at two fingers glowing red. The gloves, apparently, leaked.

The note was from Stephanas. An invitation to dinner that evening. Directions on how to reach his villa. Paul stared at the note for a long moment, thinking, and then smiled at the waiting slave. “Of course. I’d be honored. Tell your master I’ll be there at sunset.”

The timing of Stephanas’s invitation concerned Paul. Always before, he’d waited for a break with the synagogue before starting more intimate contact with Gentiles. Conversations in taverns were one thing. Entering their homes and eating their food was something else. It was a line he never crossed until the synagogue door slammed shut.

But Stephanas had asked him to dinner and Paul could not tell him ‘No.’

So he’d spoken vaguely to Prisca about plans for the evening. She assumed he was going to Crispus’s house and he let her assume. He didn’t like the evasion, but knew she was not ready to hear how far he’d strayed from the habits of his people. He’d have to endure the purification rituals after tonight, before entering the synagogue again. But that was all right.

Stephanas was worth it. Paul knew he was almost ready.

“It wouldn’t hurt to spruce yourself up a little,” Prisca nagged him, pointing to his grimy tunic and the dirt on his neck. She sniffed delicately and lowered her eyes. “Humility is shown best by the way we act, not the way we smell.”

He surrendered his tunic to her for a good washing. But the dirt and stains were so ground in, her scrubbing had little effect. “It really needs to go to the launderers for a proper urine bleach,” she complained, holding the offending garment at arm’s length.

“You’re right,” he told her, deflecting her mood, “but we don’t have time.”

While she dried the tunic and mended the tears and frayed seams as best she could, Paul took himself off to the baths wearing Aquila’s robe.

Long ago, he’d learned to appreciate the Greeks’ addiction to baths, though negotiating all that nakedness was challenging for Paul. Not their nakedness; his own. He knew his particular naked body was offensive. He was circumcised, of course, and Greeks found circumcision repulsive. But his back was even more difficult for Greeks to stomach. Scarred and torn, it drew stares and whispers and the occasional confrontation. It was a slave’s back, a criminal’s back. A man with a back like that didn’t deserve to enjoy the privileges of respectable citizens.

So when Paul went to the baths, he was always careful to wear a cotton shift beneath his outer clothing. He kept it on after undressing so that he could walk about and bathe with his body covered. That brought stares and whispers as well, but at least people left him alone.

When he lowered himself into the waters of the caldarium, they were so hot, he thought at first he could not stay. A few moments later, though, he wondered if he would ever leave. The heat felt so good, burning off tension and fatigue along with the dirt. He took a sponge and scrubbed at his old body, proud that it still served him so well after so much abuse. He wet what was left of his hair and checked himself for lice. He soaked until his fingers wrinkled and his cheeks glowed red.

A quick dip in the fridgidarium, a rub down with olive oil and a strigel, a brisk toweling, and Paul was a new man.

As he dressed, he took a hard look at his boots. Worn, torn, and rotted, they were hopeless. Reluctantly (he and those boots had marched many roads together), he decided the time had come to go in search of new boots, good ones.

A man who walked a great deal, Paul knew better than to scrimp on boots.

Prisca stood him before her as he prepared to leave for the evening—in his new boots and cleaner tunic—and pronounced him almost presentable.

“Have fun at your dinner. And don’t be home late.”

“Yes, Mother.”


Paul walked to the northwest wall and passed out of the Sikyon Gate. He made his way down a gentle slope to a knot of villas a quarter mile away. This was where the richest of the Corinthians lived, segregated from the press and odors of the city. The houses were large, surrounded by gardens and groves.

When he read the directions to Stephanas’s home, Paul realized for the first time just how wealthy the man was. It was, besides Prisca’s nagging, the reason for the bath and new boots and washed tunic. You didn’t go to such a house looking and smelling like a dock-hand.

The door opened to his knock and a domestic, Achaicus, introduced himself.

“Be welcome, Paul of Tarsus. We been expectin’ you.” He closed and bolted the door, but then lifted the candle he carried to give Paul a closer inspection. “It ain’t a common thing for this house, I tell ya—a dinner invitation. Been years since the last one. You musta made quite an impression on the Master.”

Achaicus led Paul into the atrium and then to a door which he pushed open. “The Master’s waitin’ you in his study.”

Stephanas glanced up, smiled, and then came around his desk. “P-P-Paul! Welcome to my home.”

“Greetings, Stephanas. Thank you for the invitation.” But then his voice caught and he looked around the room with awe. Scrolls and manuscripts were stacked on shelves that ran from floor to ceiling—hundreds of them. A desk stood in the middle of the room, piled with quills and ink pots, wax tablets and even more scrolls. Two dusty leather chairs were arranged before the desk, but, evidently, they were not for sitting. Scrolls were piled high on each of them as well.

“I see you like books.” Paul had never seen a private collection so large.

Stephanas grinned, a little embarrassed about the number. “I think if I were down to my last aureus, I’d buy a book instead of food.”

“Well fortunately, judging by your villa, I don’t think it’s come to that yet.” Paul looked around the study again, smelling the parchment, hearing the scrolls call out to him. “You like this room, don’t you?”

Stephanas followed his gaze, a great fondness lighting his face. “I could live here. There have been times … well … let’s just say, this room is my safe p-p-place.” He fingered one of the scrolls, a caress. “These books have been good friends to me.”

He shook himself, as if remembering his responsibilities as a host. “Come, P-P-Paul. Let me show you the rest of my home.”

They poked about for a while, looking into rooms and standing before statuary. Stephanas walked Paul through the garden outside. When they returned to the atrium, the household servants were lined up, waiting to be introduced.

“Achaicus you’ve met.” Stephanas moved down the line, introducing the cook and gardener, his maid and livery servant. Until he came to a young man with burning eyes.

“And this,” Stephanas raised an eyebrow at Paul, “is Fortunatus.”

He was a handsome lad, tall and broad-shouldered, with blonde hair and fair skin and a fine, straight nose.

Paul smiled at him and offered his hand. “You’re not Greek, are you?”

But the boy did not smile. He paused before shaking Paul’s hand, just long enough to convey his lack of enthusiasm. And when he spoke, he gave nothing more than required. “No, Sir, I’m not.”

“How long have you been with this household, Fortunatus?”

The boy glanced towards Stephanas and then looked Paul in the eye. “A lifetime.”

The other servants shuffled nervously, embarrassed by the boy’s rudeness. Stephanas looked away.

But it didn’t bother Paul. “It’s good to meet you, Fortunatus. I hope we have time to talk in the future.”

The boy nodded curtly and said nothing more.


The two men moved into the andron and reclined on eating couches. The servants brought in platters of food—vegetables and bread, olives and cheeses, and moist slices of pork. Paul’s mouth was watering before the servants could set the food before him. Long ago, in Antioch, he’d learned how good pork could be.

They ate in silence for a while, enjoying the fare and one another’s company. Until, finally, Stephanas wiped his hands on a cloth and leaned back against a cushion.

“Who are you, P-P-Paul?” He looked directly at his dinner companion. “We’ve talked a lot about me, but you remain an enigma. You wear the clothes of a workman.” He pointed to the tunic. “Yet you’ve read widely and you speak like a teacher. You’ve traveled a great deal, but you’re not a tourist … no … you travel for a reason. We met in a crude p-p-place, but you are not a crude man. So, tell me, who are you, P-P-Paul?”

Paul wiped the grease from his fingers as he sent up a silent prayer. “I was born Saul, in the city of Tarsus, as I told you. I am a Jew, raised in the ways and faith of my people.”

The blood drained from Stephanas’s face. He bolted upright. “Oh, P-P-Paul! You should have said something. You shouldn’t be in my house. You shouldn’t be eating my food. I know how your p-p-people feel about such things.”

“It’s all right, Stephanas,” Paul assured him.

“I meant no disrespect by inviting you here. I didn’t know.” He was stricken.

“Stephanas, I mean it, it’s all right.” Paul took another slice of pork and popped it into his mouth, as if to prove the point. “I put aside my scruples about food and table fellowship years ago. It is an honor to be here and share a meal with you, my friend.”

“But kosher laws are so important to your countrymen.”

“They are. And they were to me. Before I learned better. Before I discovered something that meant more to me than the traditions of my people.”

Stephanas settled back into his couch, relieved that he had not offended. “Still, it can’t be easy to go against a life-time of habit. And your customs! What could mean more to you than your heritage?”

It was the question Paul was waiting for.

He told him.


The way Stephanas moved towards faith reminded Paul of something that had happened to him a long time before, when he was a young man in Jerusalem.

He remembered standing in line with the Passover crowds, a cord wrapped firmly around his fingers and tied to the lamb by his side. He’d stood like that for hours, shuffling forward from time to time, waiting for his moment at the altar. As the line moved and the altar drew near, the lambs around him picked up the coppery scent of blood and heard the panicked bleating of their fellows going under the knife. The other lambs grew restless the closer they got, tugging at their tethers and adding their plaintive bleats to the general bedlam.

But not his lamb. The lamb at his side stood perfectly still, making not a sound.

Almost there, Paul could see the animals ahead fighting against their restraints, kicking and bucking as their terror increased. He could see the priests grab the protesting animals by the scruff of the neck and drag them to the foot of the altar, hooves splayed and scrabbling to resist the movement. It took several priests to secure the lambs and make the sacrifice.

But when Paul’s turn came, his lamb was completely calm. Paul remembered handing the cord to a priest, remembered watching that lamb walk without any urging to the altar, remembered wondering if it would stick out its neck for the knife.

He thought of it now because Stephanas reminded him of that lamb.

Some people came to faith kicking and screaming. That’s how it happened for Paul. It took God dragging him to the altar, Paul fighting every inch of the way, before he finally surrendered and accepted.

But some people welcomed faith. They walked to it calmly and with confidence. They stretched out their necks for God’s knife, knowing—somehow—that the hand that strikes can also heal. Stephanas was that kind, Paul realized.

Paul talked a long time. He told Stephanas about Adam—one man’s sin. He told him about Jesus—one man’s righteousness. He spoke of the cross and the empty tomb. He confessed his own story. He explained what had brought him to Corinth.

Stephanas listened. Like Paul, he had the gift of listening. He took in Paul’s words with his ears and eyes and face. He encouraged Paul’s story with a nod or a gesture. And when Paul finished, he continued to listen, letting the silence expand between them so that words just spoken would have room to grow.

At last, he asked, “The story you told me the other day, about the king and his sons? That wasn’t just a story, was it?”

Paul smiled. “No, it wasn’t. It was the first time you heard the gospel, though you didn’t know it.”

“I didn’t care for your story very much.”

“I remember.”

“I didn’t like those ungrateful sons. I didn’t like the father’s sacrifice, that it made so little difference. But that was your p-p-point, wasn’t it?” Stephanas shook his head in wonder.

“Yes, that was the point.” Paul studied his face.

“Are we really that stubborn? That rebellious?”

Paul raised an eyebrow and smiled “This from a man who’s spent his whole life running from the gods and cursing his fate?”

Stephanas looked down at his hands. “True enough. I’ve been fighting them as long as I can remember. I fight them. Fortunatus fights me. I guess he and I have more in common than I realized.”

“We are all stubborn sons to some father,” Paul agreed.

Stephanas fell silent, lost in thought. When he spoke again, it was in a whisper. “Oh, but P-P-Paul, what a sacrifice! Who would have thought he’d do that?”

Paul remembered asking the same question of Jesus. He gave Stephanas his Lord’s reply. “It does come as a surprise, doesn’t it.”

Stephanas sat up. “Most of my life, I’ve felt the gods were hounding me, driving me towards a fate I did not want but could not escape. I hated them for that. I felt small and insignificant, a feather tossed on their storm. I thought they cared nothing for me.” He searched Paul’s eyes. “But I was wrong, wasn’t I.”

“Yes,” Paul said simply. “I believe so. There is a God who has been hounding you. But not towards some terrible destiny. He has been driving you to himself. He loves you. He wants you to love him. So he sacrificed himself, his Son, to show you a grace that might win your heart.”

“I liked that p-p-part of the story,” Stephanas smiled. “Very much. ‘Only grace has the p-p-power to change the human heart.’ I knew it was true the minute you said it. I knew it was one of the truest things I’d ever heard.” He closed his eyes.

“For you, Stephanas. For me. And for Fortunatus. God has shown us an unimaginable grace. The question is what will you do with it? What kind of son will you be?”

After running for so long, after running with such dread and desperation, Stephanas decided maybe it was time to stop. If, when he stopped, the gods wanted to squash him, who was he to resist them? Running only prolonged the inevitable. But if a God wanted to catch him and walk with him and speak to him as a son, why should he resist? Running, in that case, would be foolish. Standing still might be the best thing he’d ever done.

For the first time in a long time, Stephanas felt hope that his life wasn’t something fixed, driven by heedless gods. There could be a choice. A decision.

He looked at Paul. “I want to be a grateful son.”

 [Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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