WHEN ONCE IT RAINED IN BETHANY
2003 by Philip Birmingham. All rights reserved
The man Simon, son of Jonah, eased his bulky frame toward the doorway. He lifted the latch of a heavy wooden door, pushing inward at the same time. The door opened part way, then shuddered to a jarring stop as it struck against something on the other side. Something that he could not see, something that was wedged between the dirt floor and the bottom of the door. He pushed harder, gaining a few more inches, but could not get the door opened enough to squeeze his broad shoulders through. He glanced up at the dark sky, scowling back at it, and felt the cold, drizzling rain strike his face. He shivered, then returned his attention to the door, pushing at it a second time. It would not budge. He breathed a sigh of annoyance at his present predicament, the latest of many in the past week of turmoil and doubt. He tried once more. The door still resisted. His temper flared, followed by an attempt to vent his frustration by lowering his right shoulder slightly and slamming his weight against it. He felt something gouging a deep scar into the mixture of dirt, clay, and ash that made up the hard-packed earthen floor.
The door gave way to his strength and he entered. The room belonged to a neighbor of Lazarus and his sisters, a man who had reluctantly satisfied his moral obligation to offer accommodations to the Rabbi and his twelve during the feast of Passover. The building was like so many others in Bethany, simply constructed of mud and bricks. It was comprised of one room, furnished in haste with a low wooden table and woven mats; suitable for sitting by the seekers of hospitality. The room had one curtainless window, open to the outside air.
Once inside, Simon looked behind the door and saw his inanimate enemy, a carpenter's adz with its metal head still stubbornly braced against the door and its wooden body entrenched defiantly in the dirt floor. He grasped the door with one hand and kicked at the tool, forcing it free. The door swung easily in his hand as he closed it. He bent, grasped the adz by the head, and flung it angrily toward the corner of the room, hearing it clatter against some other objects in the darkened corner. At the same time he muttered an obscenity, cursing his own stupidity as a sharp corner of the adz cut deeply into the palm of his left hand, He brought his left hand quickly to his mouth, pushing his tongue firmly against the cut. He tasted warm, salty blood as he walked several steps to the table and lowered himself onto one of the mats, facing the open window.
His forearms came to rest on the rough, arm-worn table as he slid forward, shoulders drooping. Weariness and depression waved over him as he closed his eyes. Gravity sent a thick droplet of blood trickling slowly and steadily down his palm. As it was about to fall free from his hand, he licked at it absentmindedly. His head rose slightly, wearily, to gaze vacantly out the window at the steady, hissing rain and the high rock escarpments beyond. He saw through the mist a wet, grayish mass of trees and mountain rock that caused him to shiver as he recalled dark and rain-filled days from his past. The days when he had balanced himself on the edge of a tossed wooden boat and pulled at heavy nets with an aching back and numbed fingers.
He curled one of his large, weathered hands inside the other, feeling tingles of pain as the torn flesh of his open wound scraped against itself. His face, as weathered as his hands, was set in a scowl. His mouth curled petulantly inside a thick, wiry beard. He massaged the back of one hand with the other as the doubts in his mind roiled like black clouds and began their downpour of dark thoughts. He was glad to be alone, away from the others. He needed time to think, but it was such a great effort.
As his shoulders began to sag yet lower, he strained to make some sense from the events of the past week. The Rabbi had said many strange and mysterious things over the past three years, things that touched his soul and were cherished by his slow moving mind, but often left him with more questions than answers. During the past few days it had become worse. The Rabbi's words were cryptic - no, bewildering! And Simon was not alone, he had noticed the other eleven as well. Their looks of puzzlement, the occasional wagging of uncomprehending heads as the Rabbi had gently, ever so gently, spoken of leaving them.
Three years ago when Simon had left his boats to follow the Rabbi, it had seemed such a noble idea. He recalled his joy when he jumped enthusiastically from his boat, grinned widely, and answered, “Yes...yes, I will follow you and become a fisher of men!” But recently Simon’s emotions had gone from an ecstatic high, when the Rabbi had entered Jerusalem to the exultant shouts of the Passover crowds, to absolute fear and panic, when Jesus had angrily tipped over tables and sent the money changers and their coins scurrying for cover in the court of the Gentiles.
There had been shouts and protests that he was possessed, and even Simon had wondered as he watched the spectacle. The Rabbi was not a man given to explosive moods. What had come over him? The Rabbi was a hunted man- they all were! He could have lost himself in those crowds. Better, he could have proclaimed himself King when he had had the chance. Hadn't the Pharisees and Sadducees and that whole lot given up trying to trap him with their words? And who could have stopped him during that triumphant entry into Jerusalem? The Sanhedrin? The arrogant Romans? Not likely. The crowds would have followed the Rabbi anywhere then, done anything. They were ready, and Simon had been sure that the kingdom the Rabbi had preached about so often was at hand. But not now-the moment was lost. It was gone.
Simon lowered his head in his hands and rubbed vigorously at his eyes. The sound of someone walking outside reached his ears. He looked up, but not in time to see who passed the open window. He did not want to see anyone now, especially not the Rabbi. His hope that he had not been seen through the window suddenly evaporated. He winced as a familiar voice called him by his new name, the name the Rabbi had given him three years previous.
He did not reply. His eyes closed slowly under heavy, tightened eyebrows. A few moments of silence passed before he heard the latch move on the door and felt cool air brush his face. He opened his eyes to see the Rabbi’s rain-soaked face silhouetted against the doorframe. The Rabbi was smiling, his shoulders held back, his spirits high. The flickering oil lamp that he carried reflected the puzzlement in his eyes at receiving no response to his call. Simon half-heartedly returned the smile as the Rabbi turned to close the door, pausing with his hand on the latch. After a moment, he turned a concerned countenance toward Simon. The smile then returned to the Rabbi's face as he spoke.
“I thought you might be here, Peter. I have brought light.”
Couldn't the Rabbi see that he wanted to be alone? And didn't the Rabbi often go off by himself in the same fashion? The Rabbi placed the lamp on the table, seemingly insensitive to Simon’s dark visage, and walked to the window.
“Come see, Peter, how our Father sends His rain to the earth. Come, I will tell you some secrets of the trees.”
“No, Rabbi,” he answered, casting his face downward to study his folded hand, “I have seen enough rain.”
The Rabbi turned from the window and walked to the table and sat down facing him. Simon, still looking intently at his own hands, saw the Rabbi's folded hands come into view. They sat in silence for some moments before the Rabbi spoke.
“What troubles you, Peter?”
Without looking up Simon gave a quick, negative shake of his head and made a helpless gesture with his hands, as if to indicate nothing, or nothing he wished to talk about. He watched the Rabbi's hand reach out to grasp his own left hand, turning it palm upward to expose the cut. “Peter, what have you done to your hand? Here, let me see.”
Simon impulsively pulled his hand back sharply, feeling it brush the Rabbi's wrist. “Nothing, Rabbi, nothing! It was my own stupidity!”
More silence followed until Simon finally looked up, annoyance showing on his face. The Rabbi was then looking at his own left hand. Simon followed his gaze to the Rabbi's wrist and the smear of his own blood on it. The Rabbi stared at it. He seemed to be fascinated, lost in thought. Simon grasped the Rabbi's arm quickly and pulled it toward himself. The Rabbi, like a child, offered no resistance as Simon began rubbing at it with the sleeve of his tunic.
“Now, see what you have done,” Simon remarked as he wiped at it, wondering why it would not come off easily.
The Rabbi continued to stare at it intently as Simon continued rubbing. Finally the smear was removed, but the Rabbi still appeared to be deep in thought as he caressed the wrist with his fingers and swallowed slowly.
After a time, he turned the hand over and looked up at Simon, his smile gradually returning. The light from the lamp flickered in the draft, deepening the softness of his eyes. Those eyes, thought Simon, those eyes that knew so much.
“Tell me, Peter...please.”
Why was the Rabbi intruding like this on his privacy? He felt his jaw begin to set, his anger rising as his own flashing eyes met the Rabbi’s concerned gaze.
“Leave me be!”
Simon's whispered shout made the flame cower and he felt instant regret as he saw a flash of sadness and hurt cross the Rabbi's face. The Rabbi swallowed slowly again, then flattened his hands on the table and made a movement to get up. Simon thrust a hand forward and pressed one of the Rabbi’s hands firmly against the table.
The Rabbi relaxed and sat down back, placing one hand over Simon’s. Simon pulled his hands back quickly and curled them on the table. He cast his eyes downward again and began to massage one thumb with the other. His mouth opened slightly as his lips groped for words. When he looked up, his face was contorted with inner pain, doubt and bewilderment. He made another helpless gesture with his hands.
“I do not understand, Rabbi. I do NOT understand! When we began, it was all so clear. Now...now, I have many doubts.” Words then poured into his mind, overflowing into the room, as though trying to drown the Rabbi in their torrent. “And I tell you, this is not the first time. Over these past years I have had to pray many times for strength. There were days when I almost left you, yet there were other days when I was filled with certainty. Days when I saw the wonders you performed; the healing of the blind, the lame, all of it.”
A vivid mental picture of Lazarus, wrapped tightly in funereal cloth and standing in the entrance to his tomb, came into Simon’s mind. He shook his head, still refusing to accept what he had seen with his own eyes. He had spoken to that same ‘dead man’ less than an hour ago. The Rabbi listened placidly, without looking up, his eyes now studying his own hands on the table.
“I know of your doubts, Peter, I…”
“Do you?” Simon shot back, surprised by his own lack of respect for the Rabbi. He stood abruptly and strode to the window, looking out at the still darkening sky. He hated this place, this room. He turned sharply, looking at the Rabbi's back. “Do you?” he repeated gravely. It felt good to lash out, relieve some of the heaviness he felt. For these past moments, he had lost his awe of the Rabbi. He felt justified in his rage and bold to have it heard.
“Yes.” The Rabbi answered quietly as he turned slowly and lifted his gaze to look up at Simon's set jaw, “Yes.”
“Then tell me plainly, Rabboni, as you now look at me.” Simon paused, suddenly fearful to ask, but his anger thrust the words forth. “Are you really the Christ? Are you He that was prophesied?” As he listened to the response, Peter could detect only softness in the Rabbi’s eyes.
Simon seemed to be hearing it for the first time as their eyes caught and held in the semi-darkness. His heart began to pound as he looked intently at the Rabbi, almost hoping he would see some deceit there. He saw none. He turned back toward the window and inhaled deeply, then sighed audibly. His eyes closed, trying to shut out the Rabbi's words that were then reaching his ears, words that were looking into his very soul.
“I expected the doubt from the multitudes, the Pharisees, the elders. But if my words will not convince you, if all I have done will not convince you, what more can I do? What more, Peter? Don't you see, my Brother, my beloved fisherman, that if I were to perform yet another wonder now, before your very eyes, you would still one day doubt. This time that we have now is so precious to me, Peter. Each second is a rare and costly ointment. The time is very near at hand when I will have to leave you. Your brothers will need you then, desperately. You must be strong.” Simon responded to the open window.
“I am not strong in that way, Rabbi, don't you see? I have no desire for this burden you put upon me!” Simon turned, looking down at the upturned face that was now set in shadow, surrounded by an aura of light from the lamp. Simon breathed sharply again, the words backing up in his throat. The deeply hidden doubts, the fears that had plagued him all these months, all the secrets of his heart that were now being exposed by the Rabbi's soft words. “Don't you see, Rabbi? Have you become blind?”
The Rabbi stood as Simon turned back abruptly to face the window. This was the last thing he had wanted, to have his weaknesses exposed. He had left his boats a strong man in mind and spirit, exuberant to the cause. Over the past three years, he had become weaker and weaker as he had trod dusty roads with the Rabbi. It had taken more effort, day after day, to hide those weaknesses. He felt at that moment as though his heart was being torn apart. He could not hold himself together much longer. Their lives were threatened, all of them. And Judas...he did not trust that man! That was another thing which seemed to escape the Rabbi’s attention of late. The Rabbi would need a strong arm now and Peter had always thought to be the one. “You are my rock,” the Rabbi had said to him once, and his heart had thrilled to hear it. It was only now, in these past hours, that he had felt the impact of those words for the first time. Now he wanted only one thing…to run away. It was time the Rabbi knew the worst. Simon clenched his fist, his lips tight against his teeth, summoning what little emotional strength he had left. The words burst forth as he turned.
“I am weak, Rabbi, and I am frightened! Worse, I am a sinner! I cannot be what you want me to be!”
A clap of thunder sounded in the distance, underscoring his words. As he turned, the scene that met his eyes struck him dumb. The Rabbi stood facing him, his arms parted, almost timidly. The palms of his hands were spread open and the soft eyes spilled over with a strange admixture of love, acceptance and shared pain; his mouth an undecided smile. A feeling of brotherhood and forgiveness engulfed Simon, tearing away the last trembling cordons of his pride. He stood frozen to the spot, afraid to move. The Rabbi took the first tenuous step forward, then another, and Simon fell into his arms like a wounded child, feeling the Rabbi's firm grasp on his back and shoulders. His breath came out in a gush, releasing months of withheld tears and sobs that racked his body. He tried to pull back.
“Release me, Rabbi, I am not some weak-willed woman, or helpless child!” He tried to pull back again, but the Rabbi's grip tightened.
“Three years ago, Peter, as the sun was setting and I knew the time was at hand to begin, I knelt to pray to our Father. I asked for His guidance and blessing to choose my twelve. I promised Him that I would not lose them. I prayed the night, and when the warmth of the morning sun greeted me, I rose with it and was guided to you. Release you, Peter? No, I will never let you go. But you have always been free to leave.”
“Jesus,” barely audible, came from Simon’s lips. His body sagged again in total surrender as the Rabbi, eyes closed and cast upward, moved his lips silently. Unbeknownst to Simon, the last of the Rabbi’s spiritual resources for the trial ahead began to drain from him. The two black silhouettes that had danced on the wall in the light of the oil lamp were now one, and Simon suddenly began to feel like the exuberant fisherman again. His strong arms began to come to life as he returned the tight embrace of the Rabbi. |
Several moments passed while Simon gratefully filled himself with a strength that he did not understand. Finally, the Rabbi released him as he mouthed a silent, “Thank you, Father,” and then spoke softly into Simon's ear.
“Remember, Peter, when I said to you, “Come,” and you left the boat and stood upon the waters? Remember?”
Peter stood back, wiping tears from a reddening face. He nodded his head “yes” vigorously as a broad grin seemed to double the light coming from the small lamp. “Yes,” he said aloud, “I remember it well, Rabbi.” “Did you ever try to walk on the water after that?” The Rabbi’s eyes were alive with merriment and teasing insight as they both broke into laughter.
“Yes,” Simon answered sheepishly, “many times, but always alone. I never succeeded.” The Rabbi gripped Simon's shoulders firmly.
“Verily I tell you now, Peter, one day you will do greater things. And as for Judas, do not let Satan have his way with you. Love him, Peter...love him.”
Had the Rabbi read his mind? “Then you would still want me to be a fisher of men?”
“Yes, Peter, a fisher of men. Catch them all for me!” The Rabbi turned away. “Come,” he said suddenly, walking toward the door, “I have already sent the others on the road to Jerusalem and we must go quickly to be with them. I have things to tell all of you.”
Simon extinguished the lamp and followed the Rabbi out through the doorway, coming abreast of him a few steps later. Simon’s shoulders were held back, his steps energetic as they began walking down the twisted, rocky path toward Jerusalem. Another roll of thunder caused Simon to look up. The cool rain felt good on his flushed face. He grinned, feeling the rain strike his teeth, and turned toward the Rabbi who walked with his head down, deep in thought.
“It is a fine rain, Rabbi.”
“What about the trees… what secrets will you tell me?”
“Perhaps another time, Peter.”
“Where do we now go?”
“We are going to Jerusalem for the Passover meal. It will be my final supper with all of you and there are many things that I wish to tell you. After our meal together, I will be going to the garden at Gethsemane to pray. I want you to be with me, Peter. I will need my brothers close to me then. You see, Peter…”
“Do not worry yourself, Rabboni, of course I will be with you.” Simon’s arm spanned the Rabbi's drooping shoulders affectionately as he patted the short sword at his side reassuringly.
As he squeezed the Rabbi's arm with the smooth palm of his left hand, something stirred in Simon's mind as unusual, but he paid it no mind and quickly put it away. He would remember, but it would be at another time, on another day.
“I will always be with you, Rabboni,” he said huskily, sensing that the Rabbi’s mood had saddened. “I want you to know that. Mark what I say, there is trouble ahead, I feel it. We must stay close to each other.” They walked but a few more steps when Simon’s heart, now filled to the brim again with faith and love spoke, using his voice only to color the words with emotion.
“I love you, my Brother, and if it comes to the worst…I would even die for you.”
The Rabbi did not reply at first. He looked down at his sandals appearing on the rocky path, one ahead of the other, as they trudged along. His rain-soaked hair began to release droplets of water that skittered down his cheeks, marrying with and hiding the tears that came. Tears that the man Simon, now called Peter, would never see.
“And I for you, Peter.”