Chapter 28: The Mission

Summer was not kind to Corinth, and even the breezes from the gulf could not dispel the heavy, stifling heat. The elevated temperature sapped Paul, making him feel lethargic and slow.

His back itched.

But summer’s heat was only an annoying reminder of that other kind of heat, the kind he seemed doomed to generate whenever he stood in the synagogue, a frustration that boiled over into rage, an impatience that flared into abusive words. It was hot in the synagogue. But the weather had little to do with the warmth.

By now, he knew the Jewish community well enough to recognize the hand of Sosthenes and Berekiah behind the escalating attacks on him. The man who stood to accuse Paul of twisting Scriptures happened to be a son-in-law of Sosthenes. The man passing on rumors that Paul engaged in perverse religious practices—drinking blood!—was said to owe Berekiah a great sum of money.

How could he answer such charges? It did little good to deny bad motives or defend innocent rituals. Paul knew the best course was to stick doggedly to the story—life, death, resurrection … the matters of first importance. But it grew harder to do that as order in the synagogue unraveled and people felt free to shout objections and speak rude, cruel words.

It was hot in the synagogue. And no matter how Paul wiped at his forehead and fanned his face, he could find no relief.

Yet he dragged himself there each Sabbath, and dragged himself to the front when Crispus beckoned, and stood stubbornly before them once again, determined to sweat things out to the end. They hardly let him speak any more. A few words were all he managed before the jibes and ridicule and charges began.

Crispus was worried. This couldn’t go on much longer.


II

Berekiah stood at the end of another long morning. “A few questions, if I may, Brother Saul.”

Paul smiled politely. But behind the smile, every instinct, every cautious bone was on alert. Berekiah, he thought, was not a nice man. He wiped his face once more and watched the man carefully, like a bestiarium in the arena eyeing the bear.

“These former colleagues of yours, the leaders in Jerusalem … you were on good terms with them?”

Paul smiled sadly. “Yes. I was a favorite. They were grooming me for a place on the council.”

“I see. A favorite. Would you say they trusted you? Liked you?”

“What do you mean?” Paul wasn’t sure where Berekiah was leading.

“I mean, did they have you to dinner? Did they introduce you to their daughters? Did they invite you into their private meetings? Did they listen to your advice? Things like that.”

“Yes. Certainly.”

“I see. And what do they think of you now, Saul? The Council in Jerusalem, the leaders of our people, these learned men who know the Law and guard our traditions. What do these men think of you now?”

Now he saw. Paul thought he might drown in the awful silence.

Berekiah waited a long moment and then put the questions again. “Would they still have you to dinner? Would they consider you a rising star? Would they invite you to speak in the synagogue? Would they listen eagerly to the story you tell?”

He gave Berekiah another thin smile. “No.”

“No? I see.” Berekiah let things hang for a moment, wanting the rest of the congregation to hear that “No” and consider its implications. “In fact, that doesn’t even touch the hem, does it, Brother Saul? It isn’t just that you’ve fallen from favor, that they don’t like you anymore. These leaders in Jerusalem, these wise and learned men, who know the whole story, who understand all the facts—they consider you a very dangerous man indeed, don’t they, Brother Saul? A heretic. A blasphemer. More of a threat to our people and our ways than any of the deluded souls you once arrested and put in prison. Wouldn’t you say that’s true, Brother Saul?”

He felt heavy, as though Berekiah himself had climbed onto his aching back. His shoulders sagged. The question was crushing him, and there was nothing he could say, nothing he could do. He stood there, trying his best to bear up, and stared at Berekiah.

“Just one more question, Brother Saul. A request actually. It’s a bit unusual, but I do hope you will humor me.” Berekiah forced a smile for the congregation and then fixed Paul with a stare meant only for him. The mouth smiled, but the eyes were full of menace. Menace and something else, something just beneath it.

Triumph, Paul realized. He thinks he’s won.

“Brother Saul,” he asked sweetly. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to show us your back?”


III

Later that evening, when his steward informed Crispus he had visitors, Crispus put away his scrolls and walked into the atrium to greet them. When he saw who his visitors were, he wished he’d stayed in his study.

“Sosthenes. Berekiah. I presume this is not a social call.”

Sosthenes smiled warmly, an ability Crispus found remarkable—the face so warm and the heart so cold.

“No greeting, Crispus? No kiss of welcome? I assure you that you would fare better in my home. Ah, well. These difficult times do tend to strain the social conventions.” The smile left his face. “As you guessed, this is not a social call. We are here one final time to talk sense to you about this matter of Saul.”

“We’ve been through all this, Sosthenes. What’s the point? As long as I am ruler of the synagogue, Saul will be allowed to address the congregation.” It had been a long day and the strain of the past few weeks was beginning to wear on Crispus. Sosthenes was not the only one to come knocking on his door in the night.

“Yes, well, it is about that very matter I wish to speak. Will you offer us seats or must we stand here in your foyer and talk in front of the servants?”

Crispus looked at the two of them for a moment, then shrugged and led the way back into his study. He moved behind the desk and gestured to the chairs set before it. As the two visitors sat and arranged their robes, Crispus composed himself for what he knew would be a difficult conversation.

“Let me come to the point, Crispus. Will you forbid Saul access to our synagogue?” The question had the ring of formality to it, asked because it had to be, asked though the answer was already known.

“As I’ve told you before, I will not forbid it. He is dealing responsibly with the Scriptures and conducting himself according to the traditions. And his claims about this Jesus, while unorthodox, are substantiated by the prophets.”

“His claims are rank heresy!” Berekiah shifted his bulk in the chair. “How can you say he deals responsibly with Scripture when every word he speaks is a blasphemy!”

Sosthenes laid a hand on Berekiah’s arm. “We did not come here to argue the merits of Saul’s exegesis. We’ve spent too much time debating as it is, and nothing has changed your mind, has it Crispus?” He did not wait for an answer. “No, we come tonight to serve notice that if you permit this man to speak before the synagogue again, you will be removed from office.”

Crispus stiffened. “On what grounds?”

“On the grounds that you have misused the privileges of your office to permit the promulgation of heresy.”

Crispus snorted. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Actually, I would.” Sosthenes smiled. “And most of the congregation will thank me for it. You’ve made me a very popular man these days.”

“Bringing charges is one thing. Getting the votes is another. The elders would never take such a step.”

“Again, I hate to contradict you, but I have the votes already.” He sat back in the chair and studied his fingernails. “One of the conditions placed upon me to secure those votes is that I come here and offer you one last chance to put an end to this matter voluntarily.” He looked up and fixed his eyes on Crispus. “But voluntary or not, there will be an end to this.”

Crispus met his eyes and saw that Sosthenes was very serious, and saw also that Saul was less the target than himself. He spoke softly. “Don’t do this, Sosthenes. It will split our synagogue apart. It will create a bitterness that will take years to resolve.”

Sosthenes’s voice grew brittle. “You’ve already done that, Crispus. We’re already divided. It was you who poisoned the synagogue, you who let the snake run free in the congregation. If I am taking desperate measures, it’s only to treat a desperate situation you have created. You’ve no one to blame but yourself.”

I should wring your scrawny neck, Sosthenes, Crispus thought, gazing at the man across the desk. But you’re right. I have no one to blame but myself. He sighed. I’m sorry it’s come to this, but not the least sorry for forcing it. Saul is right. I know it in my bones. But oh, what a price there will be to pay.

It came like a vision. Crispus saw, finally and fully, what this would mean for himself and his wife. After all their years with these people. After everything they’d worked for.

He raised an eyebrow at Sosthenes. “Who do you think will be elected to succeed me?”

Sosthenes shrugged. “Why, I’d imagine the elders will place that burden on my shoulders.”

Crispus gave a small nod. “Yes, I guess they would.” He stood and gestured towards the door. “Congratulations, Sosthenes. And condolences. It is, in truth, a burden.”

Sosthenes also stood. “I can only hope God will strengthen me to do his work.” The words were pious enough, but there was nothing pious about the way they were said. It was a boast of victory, the long anticipated gloat after a battle now won.

Crispus clapped his hands twice. “My steward will show you to the door. Permit me to say my goodbyes here.”

Sosthenes nodded and walked from the room. But Berekiah remained behind for a moment, looming over the desk and watching Crispus with unconcealed delight. “I never did like you, Crispus. But I thought you were smarter than to throw yourself away on something like this.”

The reply was calm and measured. “I regret your dislike, Berekiah. But I have no regrets about Saul. His good news is worth the cost.”

Berekiah sneered. “Nothing is worth that cost. But I swear by the gold on the Temple, I will enjoy watching you pay the fee.” His face grew rigid. “I hope it hurts and keeps on hurting, you old fool.”

He had turned to leave when Crispus spoke. “Berekiah?” The large man paused in the doorway, his back to Crispus. “You are a bully. You prey on men’s weakness. You know how to tear down, but you don’t know how to build. You have no greatness in you, no cause but yourself. How can you live like that?”

Berekiah stood still for another beat, then straightened his shoulders and walked from the room.

Crispus collapsed into his chair, thankful that his legs had lasted until his guests were gone. He lowered his head into his hands and gave himself to worrying about what was to become of him now. He’d need to warn Saul. And he’d have to find some way to make his wife understand.

Her voice came to him now, and when he raised his head, he found her seated in the chair Sosthenes had just vacated. “Well, Husband, it’s a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

She was a diminutive woman with delicate hands and features. Her hair, flecked with gray but still so thick it would not be tamed with pins and ties, had, in her prime, been her glory. After thirty years of marriage, Crispus still loved to watch her comb it out at night. Past her forty-fifth year, she was—to Crispus’s eye—the loveliest woman he knew.

“Hester, were you eavesdropping?”

She tossed her head proudly and looked at him with defiance. “This is my home, Husband, and if I choose to listen in on conversations, it is not eavesdropping. It is being diligent about my responsibilities as mistress of this household. One of us ought to be diligent about such matters.” She fixed him with a pointed stare. Had her eyes been arrows, he would not have survived.

He cringed, seeing in that look, hearing in her tone, a warning of harder words to come. It was not that Crispus feared his wife. Indeed, he loved her fiercely. But Hester was a formidable woman and he did not enjoy being on the wrong side of her temper.

“Have you considered, Husband,” and she examined her fingernails as she spoke in a disturbing imitation of Sosthenes, “what this means to our standing in the community? To our friendships and business dealings? To the peace and stability of this home?” She raised her eyes to meet his in a level, challenging way.

He spread his hands in appeal. “Hester, I should have discussed these things with you before now. I’m sorry. I thought we had more time. I hoped it would not even come to this.”

Hester pursed her lips and blew—a signal of exasperation Crispus knew well—and reproached him with her eyes. “You are naïve, Crispus, and entirely too trusting. Of course it was going to come to this. It was headed to this from the first moment Saul stood to speak. And now it is here, and you have yet to show me the respect of a full and honest discussion of our future.”

He was conscience stricken. “You’re right, Hester. I am sorry. I know my actions will have consequences for you. I should have spoken with you. I …” His voice trailed off as Hester raised her hand and waved away his apology.

“Would you stop! Oh, how I hate it when you grovel.” And then she smiled, and Crispus thought he might just breathe again. “Although it pleases me that I can still yank your leash.” Then the smile vanished and Hester got down to business. “Husband, you deserve more than a yank for leaving me out of this. I could have helped you. I could have taken some worry from you. But you’ve been too wrapped up in your scrolls and talking with Saul late into the night.”

Crispus started to explain, but Hester held up her hand again. When she spoke, her voice was gentler.

“That’s as it should have been, my dear. You had a congregation to think of. You were trying to find your way to the truth. So while you wrestled with the prophets, I spent time thinking on more practical matters.” She raised a thumb. “When you are voted out of your office, you will lose more than your title. You’ll lose your influence and respect. Sosthenes won’t just remove you. He’ll blame you publicly for Saul and the trouble he’s caused.”

Crispus looked glum. He knew it was true.

She raised an index finger. “As to our friendships, the next few weeks will show us who our true friends are. That, I suggest, is one of the pearls we’ll find in this mess.” Her middle finger went up. “As to business, it is likely that we will lose many of our customers. But, if my reading of the books is correct, we have money enough in any case. We can live off our investments and do very well.”

He looked at her with something akin to awe, and thanked the Giver of all good gifts for such a woman.

She dropped her hand. “Now as to the peace and stability of this home …” and the pause which followed was excruciating. “The only thing that can threaten our harmony is if you ever again make such a momentous decision without first consulting me. Do we understand each other, Husband?”

Crispus nodded his complete, utter, absolute, and unconditional understanding.

Hester sat back in her chair and frowned. “It will happen this Sabbath. Saul will stand to speak, the elders will inform you of their vote, and he will be escorted from the synagogue. What are your intentions, Husband? What will you do?”

“I think, Wife, I will go with him.”

She studied his tired face for a moment and then smiled. “I thought as much. It will not be an easy thing for us, Husband.”

“Us?”

“Of course. I’m going with you.”

“Following wherever your husband leads?” He could afford to goad her a bit, now that he felt safer about her good graces.

She bowed her head submissively, refusing to be provoked. “I always follow where you lead, Husband. Most often because it’s the right place to go. I have ears, don’t I? I’ve heard Saul’s story in the synagogue. I can read, can’t I? You’re not the only one in this home familiar with the scrolls.” She stood up, ready to retire for the evening. “Nor is tonight the first time I’ve listened in on your conversations, Husband. I’ve lost a great deal of sleep these past weeks, straining to hear what you and Saul were talking about. He’s a strange little man. But he can be quite persuasive.”

She left him sitting in the chair, dumbfounded. It took a moment for the sound of his laughter to reach her. When it did, she smiled.

[Next chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]


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