I’m looking at all your faces and I’m wondering what I can see … you’re a little on edge, you don’t know who I am, but besides that you really quite relaxed, quite calm. You’ve heard the same readings I’ve just heard and you’re calm! You call yourselves disciples and yet you’re relaxed, comfortable. You can listen to this Gospel story and feel … what? superior, safe, reckon you know better … what?
You don’t know how it was for us, we Twelve, trailing after him, down dusty roads, into stinking towns, never knowing what was going to happen next. “Followers of Jesus”! We certainly were followers. I don’t know how many times the morning found us lagging behind as he hurtled on ahead to some private goal, driven by some inner urgency, we could barely grasp. Followers! Sometimes he left us so far behind we lost all sight of him. I don’t know whether it was our confusion that made us lag behind or our hanging back that left us confused. Because, when we were with him, it didn’t seem much to matter, the confusion. We’d stop our wrangling and find ourselves caught up again by him. By his energy, by his gaze, by the strange words that tumbled out of his lips and left an ache in the brain … and one in the heart. And the things he did! We were never sure what came next? One minute he’d be crying inconsolably over a baby’s death and the next curing an incurable old woman. “Why one and not the other?” I’d ask him and he’d give me one of his looks. I thought it was a good question.
One minute he’d be dragging us all to dinner with a bunch of whores or standing on a street corner denouncing respectable religion but then before you knew it he’d be round at their houses too, drinking and feeding his face and letting them pamper him. “How can you accept their money,” I’d ask him, “when you know how they got it?” And he’d look at me, with a smile, and say “Good question. Think about it.” Infuriating!
But at least when we were with him, like that, we felt something and all the voices of doubt would fade and we wouldn’t think of leaving him until the next day on the road.
But those days when he was hurrying ahead and we were dallying behind were different. What an assortment of weirdoes we were, with hardly a thing in common. Except perhaps that we all thought we were the special one, with a unique place in his heart. You can imagine the tension. Especially with all the sleeping rough, with the enemies he was making, with the crowds of hangers on who never left us any peace. Some of them were searching like we were, others were just out for scandal. John Mark was the one I hated the most, always there, always scrounging a story, always ready to blow it up out of proportion with the point nicely tailored to make us look like fools, make us look like we never got anything Jesus said. But he said such strange things, contradictory things. Life and death, together in one sentence, suffering and glory, betrayal and loyalty.
To hear Mark you’d think we were idiots. But we kept our arguing to ourselves. Especially when Jesus began to whisper in private to us about how he’d end up dead and broken and betrayed. It’s all right for you. You’ve had 20 centuries to get used to the idea, 15 or 16 of them adoring my friend’s broken body on the cross. But we could make neither head nor tail of it. Not that we didn’t try! Twelve of us and twelve different opinions. From pious Matthew, who would offer up every flea bite and stubbed toe, to Simon who counted every misfortune as another reason to torch the Temple, or Thomas – the twin we called him because he was always in two minds – who half believed God was in the punishment business. Confused!
Then Jesus disappears up Mt. Tabor with Peter and James and John and comes back intoxicated, glowing, and glorious but dropping details about his dying – betrayal, abuse, flogging, death on a cross.
And, in public, he begins to do his trick with the little kid, and shock everyone silly, and tell us the greatest would be the least and the slave would be the master–and the masters would quail and the slaves stare.
But when we were alone, trailing behind, Peter and James and John would tell their mountaintop story of sound and light and heaven come to earth and we would hope for a while that our tale might have a happier ending than the one Jesus seemed set on. James saw the personal potential right away, I think, and John was always one to tag along. Peter, well Peter, was as stupid as the fish he used to catch – lucky Peter!
And the story, as Mark tells it, isn’t really wrong. The two of them did get more, and less, than they bargained for and the rest of us were angry. But more at Jesus than at them. Why was he going to ruin his life and ours with all this talk about pain? When glory had been given him why was he going to let it all end in shame?
I asked him that too, the first rare moment in private. “You used to love life so much: why this obsession with death?” And again that unsettling look. Right in the eyes. “I thought you would understand, Judas, even if the others didn’t.”
I think that was when I did begin to understand. I saw his future and mine, vaguely at first. I think—I hope—in the end—I did what he wanted. I’m not trying to justify myself. Why should I care what you think? I was there. You weren’t. And he chose me for the job not you.
You should be grateful.
October 19th, 1997