The message from John cast a gloom over the day; as they had passed through Tiberias some days before, Jesus had looked at Herod’s newly built Greek palace, and had wondered whether his cousin was still imprisoned there. But he now realised how John must chafe at his confinement, if doubts were assailing him. His whole nature had been so staunch, so confident; better death than prison for one of his kind.
Such were the thoughts in Jesus’ mind, as he wandered down to the beach by himself that same evening. He had made it clear to the Twelve that he wished to be alone.
There was a low breakwater at the edge of the town, which served as a landing place for the smaller fishing craft. Propped against this Jesus sat for over an hour, thinking of all his meetings with John in the past and of the misery of his present condition and praying to the Father to set John’s mind at rest and solve his problems as was best.
A girl’s voice broke in on his thoughts.
“Hullo,” it said.
Jesus looked round. He had been accosted like this many times before and knew what to expect. Girls of this type were the Father’s children, some of those whom he had come to help. There were several such young women now working at honest trades in Capernaum since Jesus had talked to them of the Father’s love.
The girl was standing on the breakwater just above where he sat. She was small and dark and pathetically young, barely twenty, Jesus guessed.
“Hullo,” she repeated as he had not replied. “All alone?”
“Looks like it,” answered Jesus in a friendly, but not too encouraging, voice. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Mary,” said the girl.
“That’s my mother’s name,” returned Jesus.
“Oh, is it?” said the girl without interest. This was an odd man, she thought; men didn’t often talk to her about their mothers.
“They sometimes call me Mary of Magdala,” she went on with some pride. The name of her native town seemed to add distinction to her own; it suggested she was the only Mary in Magdala whom men were likely to remember.
“If you want to talk to me,” said Jesus; “come and sit down here.”
That was better. That was the sort of invitation she understood. With the agility of a child, she jumped down and seated herself very close beside him. She looked up into his face with a smile.
“It would be better if you sat over there,” said Jesus in a matter of fact tone, “on that baulk of timber.”
Mary hesitated. Then she stood up.
“What a queer chap you are,” she said with a puzzled frown; “most men like you to—”
“Look here, Mary,” Jesus interrupted; “I’m not going to make love to you; if that’s what you want, you’re wasting your time stopping with me. But I should like to have a talk with you, if you’d care to stay.”
Mary looked at him for nearly half a minute without speaking. Was this stranger laughing at her? He didn’t look like it, but you never knew. In her limited experience men didn’t want to have a talk with her; they wanted to kiss her.
Was it just curiosity or was it the first stirring of a noble impulse which made her give in? Mary couldn’t have told you herself. All she knew was that this cool, kindly stranger attracted her as no other man had ever attracted her before. She realised that she wanted to talk to him more than she had ever wanted anything.
“Oh, all right,” she said at last, with an uncertain little laugh, “I’ll sit here if you’d rather.”
Suiting the action to the word, she sat down, propped against the beam which served as a support to the breakwater. She stared at Jesus in a timid way, like a frightened child.
“Where’s your home, Mary?” asked the stranger.
“Two hundred yards along the foreshore,” she replied. Then, as if by afterthought: “father keeps a wine shop.”
“Is your mother alive too?” was the next question.
A hard look came into the girl’s eyes.
“Oh, yes,” she remarked; “mother’s alive all right.”
“Aren’t you happy at home, Mary?” asked Jesus.
“It’s not bad,” was all the answer she vouchsafed.
“Aren’t your people kind to you?”
“Father takes no notice of me,” she said; “he’s usually tight.”
“And your mother?” continued the questioner.
“Mother’s all right if I earn enough money,” said the girl in a burst of confidence.
“And if you don’t,” suggested Jesus.
“Then I don’t get much to eat next day,” was the answer.
“How long ago did you start—this sort of thing?” Jesus asked.
“What sort of thing?” she parried.
“You know what I mean, Mary.”
She picked up a stone and threw it aimlessly into the water.
“Five years ago,” she said defiantly.
For a moment Jesus said nothing. Then, “how old are you now?” he asked.
“Nineteen,” replied the girl.
Little by little the story came out. The father, more often drunk than sober, cared nothing for the girl. The mother, loveless and mercenary, had watched the child grow up into a good-looking girl, had realised the business advantage of having a daughter who would attract men to the shop, and had encouraged her in every little vanity.
No spiritual idea had ever been presented to her. The name of God was familiar to her only in oaths. No sense of morality, or even of common decency, had been instilled into her childish mind. She had been deliberately brought up to think of nothing but men—men—men. And the careful mother had had her reward; her daughter was now able to add steadily to the family income.
Yet Mary was something more than the beautiful little animal that she seemed at first sight. She had an instinctive feeling that she had been trained for a life of degradation and that her mother was robbing her of something which she could not understand or appreciate. This was evident from the way in which she answered Jesus’ questions. He perceived in this wild creature a depth of character and emotion which, properly trained, might flower into glorious womanhood.
Yet this was not the time to broach any spiritual topic. It would be courting failure to speak of God before this child understood anything about the reality of God’s existence. He could not tell her that God was like a Father, when the only father she knew was a besotted drunkard. All he could hope for was to show her something of human sympathy, show her that a man could be interested in her welfare, without expecting anything in return. He would not hurry things; for he knew in his inner consciousness that this girl’s life was to be bound up in some mystic way with his own—that she was to be with him in one of the supreme moments of his experience.
Mary herself was frankly bewildered by the conversation. Why was the stranger asking her so many questions? More peculiar still, why was she answering them so readily? She had told him more about herself in half an hour than she had ever told to anyone else in the whole of her life. Yet she knew she wanted the questions to continue; she liked pouring out the story of her squalid life. She suddenly realised that she did not even know her new friend’s name; but that did not seem to matter; she was already intimate with him in a way in which she had never been intimate with a man before. He was clearly interested in her, but not as other men were; he appeared to care more about herself than about her looks.
He was asking another question: “Mary, does your present kind of life give you any happiness?”
“It’s not too bad,” she answered. “I’ve never thought much about it. It’s an easy way to make a living. Why?”
“You don’t feel it’s making yourself rather cheap,” the questioner continued, “to be the plaything of any man you pick up in the street?”
“I’d rather live with one man,” she replied, “if he was a decent sort.”
“Marry and settle down, eh?” suggested Jesus.
“A man wouldn’t marry the likes of me,” said the girl, in a matter of fact voice. “It wouldn’t be fair to expect a chap to do that.”
Jesus stood up; the girl also scrambled to her feet.
“I’m going to walk home with you,” he said.
“Why?” asked the girl bluntly.
“Because I don’t want you to take another man home,” was the reply. “Don’t go on as you are without thinking things over. There are plenty of other jobs open for a capable girl like you. Break right away from the old life.”
“All right,” said Mary; “I’ll think about it. But it’s not too easy, you know. I’m not going to promise anything.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to,” answered Jesus. “Only I’m taking you home tonight.”
“Come along then,” said the girl.
Not a word was spoken until they had walked half the distance. Then Mary said: “I’ve told you all about myself and you’ve told me nothing. Who are you?”
“Never mind my name,” replied Jesus; “you can remember me as the man who asked you to think.”
“But where do you come from?” persisted Mary.
“I’m working in Capernaum at present,” said Jesus. “I have a feeling we shall meet again.”
“I hope so,” answered the girl in as matter-of-fact a tone as she could contrive. It wouldn’t do to let the stranger know how intense was her longing to renew the acquaintance.
They relapsed into silence and soon reached the little den which was Mary’s home. She opened the door in the hope of slipping in unobserved. But this was not to be; a woman’s voice spoke as she entered.
“You’re later than usual, Mary,” said the voice in a tone of exaggerated friendliness; “have you brought a friend home tonight, dear?”
The door opened wider, revealing a middle-aged woman, holding a lamp in her hand. The flame, stirred by the draught, threw a flickering light on her coarse features, which still had some pretensions to good looks. She peered at Jesus in the darkness.
“You’re a stranger round here, aren’t you?” she said with a repulsive smile of invitation. “Come in and make yourself at home; any friend of my little girl is welcome here.”
“I walked home with your daughter,” said Jesus. “I won’t come in, thank you.”
“Now don’t be shy,” began the woman.
“I’m not coming in,” repeated Jesus. “Goodnight, Mary.”
“Goodnight,” replied the girl in a low voice.
Jesus walked quickly away to relieve the embarrassment of the situation. He had not taken more than a few steps when a pleasant voice addressed him.
“Good evening,” it said. “Not content with merely eating and drinking, I see. A little feminine society adds a spice to life, doesn’t it!”
The owner of the voice fell in at his side. It was Zadok, the Capernaum Scribe.
“You think I am wrong in trying to help a girl like that?” said Jesus quietly.
“Not at all,” answered the other cynically; “a very charming convert, I’m sure. Goodnight.”
And turning on his heel, the Scribe disappeared into the darkness.
Slowly and thoughtfully Jesus made his way back to his lodgings and to the Twelve.
The next two or three months passed without any particular incidents worthy of note, though they were busy ones for Jesus and the Twelve.
To each member of the band he assigned a special duty. They met twice a week in the lecture-hall to compare notes and report progress. All of them were at liberty to engage in their ordinary occupations, provided that they were able to give sufficient time and thought to the tasks allotted to them. Thus the four fishermen continued to ply their hazardous calling. Matthew had carried out his intention and invested his savings in a market garden, where James and Thaddaeus could work, while he himself kept the accounts and interviewed the middlemen in the Capernaum market. Thomas had accepted an offer from Dr. Luke to become his dispenser and unqualified assistant. Simon of Cana had taken a job with one of the local wheelwrights, and through the skill and accuracy of his work was soon promoted to foreman. There was no necessity for Nathaniel or Philip to take up any employment; but both of them put in a good deal of time on unpaid civic and charitable work. Judas of Kerioth had obtained a post as secretary and accountant to the local Zealot organisation; this was not altogether to Jesus’ liking, but he had done nothing to prevent it. It was one of his beliefs that every man must be free to choose for himself, so long as there was nothing in his employment to bring the movement into disrepute. Yet Jesus had secretly hoped, and still continued to hope, that Judas would gradually come to see that there was something higher than the catchword: “Palestine for the Jews.”
It soon became clear that Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, by sheer force of character, were taking a natural lead among the twelve. At the same time, Judas, whose inclusion had at first been a surprise to the rest, was beginning to have some influence among them. He had been careful not to push himself forward or to obtrude his views too obviously. His attractive manner and sociable qualities had enabled him to mix easily both with the better educated and the humbler members of the band. He was soon not only accepted, but popular with the rest and there was neither criticism nor surprise when Jesus appointed him as their accountant and treasurer.
It was a point of honour among the Twelve that each of them should subscribe one tenth of his week’s earnings to a common fund, from which their very modest expenses could be paid, while the remainder was devoted to helping cases of serious poverty in the neighbourhood. When Jesus had handed over the Nazareth business to Joses, it had been arranged that a very small proportion of the firm’s profits should be paid to him once a month; and from this pittance he made his own contribution to the fund.
It was some three months after the visit to Magdala that Jesus heard news which moved him profoundly. He was in Bethsaida, where he had been to see the man whom he had cured of leprosy some months previously; whenever possible he tried to keep in touch with those whom he had healed, so that he might bring to mind and soul the same relief which he had been able to bestow upon the suffering body. As he crossed the market-place, he noticed a well dressed man approaching him; on looking more closely he saw that it was Herod’s chamberlain, Chuza, whom he had not met since that fateful day when he had brought the news of John’s imprisonment.
“This is a piece of luck,” said the chamberlain, as he approached; “as a matter of fact, I was coming over to Capernaum tomorrow to see you. I wanted to consult you about my wife Joanna; for several years she has been almost crippled with a disease of the joints. The King’s Greek physician calls it arthritis and says there is no known cure. I thought perhaps you might be able to do something for her.”
“There is no limit to the power of God,” replied Jesus. “Is your wife in Bethsaida now?”
“Yes,” answered Chuza; “we are staying with Philip’s people.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Jesus.
As they walked together to Philip’s home it became more and more evident to Jesus that his companion had something on his mind. He made several attempts at conversation which came to nothing. Finally Jesus said: “Something’s worrying you. What is it?”
Chuza did not answer immediately. Then he said: “The Baptiser, John, was your cousin, wasn’t he?”
Jesus noticed the past tense. That could mean only one thing.
“He’s dead, then?” he asked quietly.
“Beheaded—three days ago,” answered the chamberlain.
So that great spirit had found release. This was the first thought which had come to Jesus’ mind. Death for him held no terrors; it was but a step into fuller and happier service of the Father. But though he knew that all was well with John, his human nature experienced the deep sense of personal loss which the death of a close friend is bound to cause. He thought once again of his various meetings with John—the occasion in his boyhood when he had felt shy in his cousin’s home, the long talk on the hillside when John had been puzzled about his future, the chance encounter in the Temple courts and on the next day on the Jericho road the walk which had ended with John’s exclamation: “That means that you are the Son of God.” And quite recently there had been the experience which they had shared in the river Jordan, followed by their midnight conversation in the cave. They had seen so little of one another; yet their intimacy had grown to be perfect.
Jesus turned to Chuza.
“Tell me about it,” he asked.
“It was the queen’s doing,” said the other. And in a few words he told the tragic tale. The king’s birthday; a great banquet; wine flowing freely; music and dancing-girls. Then a solo dance by the princess Salome, the pampered beauty of the court. Wild applause from the guests; Herod’s rash and thoughtless promise, “I’ll give you whatever you ask for, to the half of my kingdom.”
“The princess bowed low,” continued the chamberlain, “and hurried from the banqueting-hall. To her mother’s room she sped; this was Herodias’ chance. In a moment Salome was back in the hall. In a low clear voice she made her request: ‘You have promised me whatever I choose. I ask for the head of John the Baptiser in a dish.’ Herod sprang from his chair as if the girl had struck him across the face; for a moment he stood undecided. He looked wildly round the hall, and saw in the sea of blurred faces nothing but curiosity; how would he act? He had given his oath; would he go back on it? In tense silence we all waited. Then the king spoke; his voice was small and constrained: ‘Bid the executioner bring me on a dish the head of John the Baptiser.’ An attendant hurried out. The guests took their leave. No one remained in that vast room except the king and the girl. What passed between them I do not know; it was my duty to bid farewell to the visitors in the front hall. But after all had gone, it seemed an interminable age before the executioner hurried along the corridor with his gruesome burden. He passed through the bronze doors into the banqueting-hall. Of the princess and the executioner I saw no more; but a few minutes later the king, with blanched face and unseeing eyes, staggered past me and disappeared through the doorway of his private suite. On the next morning, outside the queen’s apartments, the Baptiser’s head was raised aloft on a spearhead for all the world to see.”
The irony of this smote upon Jesus’ mind. He remembered John’s early plan for making himself known; there had always been in him a desire for self-advertisement, an appeal to the dramatic. While he had languished in a prison cell, the influence of his preaching had declined. Men went about their daily routine and were fast forgetting the voice which had cried in the wilderness; but now the foolish act of a revengeful woman had brought the Baptiser once more into their minds. The blood-stained head displayed on the palace battlements proclaimed the truth of his message and called to the passers-by. “Repent; for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” John’s death had set the seal of success on his life’s work; now he would be remembered and hailed as a prophet. Men would look for the Messiah whose coming he had foretold. The spite of Herodias had not merely emphasised the wickedness in high places which John had challenged; it had raised the critic to the rank of a popular hero.
Some such thought was evidently in Chuza’s mind too; after a few minutes’ silence he added, “the queen’s revenge will only bring the court into greater discredit.”
“Yes,” replied Jesus; “John has triumphed. It is what he would have chosen.”
When they reached Philip’s home, Chuza led the way to a shady corner of the garden. A good-looking, middle-aged woman rose painfully from a chair as they approached.
“Joanna,” said the chamberlain, “this is Jesus of Nazareth. By a piece of good fortune I met him in the city. I’m going to leave you to have a talk with him.”
He strolled into the house, leaving the two together.
Sometime later, when Philip’s voice was heard calling them in to dinner, Joanna stood up. All the strain, so common in chronic sufferers, had left her face; in its place was the serenity which goes with a mind at rest.
“I can never thank you,” she said, as they walked across the sun-drenched lawn. “You have given me not only release from continual pain, but a knowledge of the truth. If there is ever anything I can do for you in return, you’ve only got to let me know.”
“Isn’t that rather a rash promise?” replied Jesus. “Doesn’t it remind you of, ‘even to the half of my kingdom?’”
“My husband told you, then?” said Joanna.
“There are some people with whom a rash promise is not rash,” continued Joanna; “I know you would never ask anything which I should be unable to give willingly.”
“Perhaps I shall put that to the test some day,” said Jesus.
“I hope you may,” returned Joanna, as they entered the house.
On several occasions since his return to Capernaum Jesus had encountered the scribe Zadok in the streets. The latter had treated him with studied politeness and had never referred to their last meeting in Magdala, when he had seen him with Mary. Perhaps after all Zadok understood and appreciated his motives in befriending the girl; or perhaps he was biding his time, until this piece of spicy scandal could be produced with telling effect.
It was common gossip in the town that the scribes and Pharisees were searching for every means of counteracting Jesus’ growing influence. Their sneers and open hostility had no result except to increase his popularity. Some more subtle method must be found to discredit him. Zadok waited for his opportunity; he had as yet told no one of his little adventure in Magdala except his bosom friend, Jambres.
The two were talking in the market-place one day when Zadok suddenly started; he turned and stared after a somewhat flashy, middle-aged man who was walking with a young girl. Seeing his interest, Jambres remarked casually: “That’s Abinadab’s latest. They say he picked her up in Magdala.”
“That’s the girl I told you about,” replied Zadok, “the girl I saw with Jesus the Nazarene.”
“I don’t want to do the fellow any harm,” continued Zadok, with a touch of malice which was not lost on his companion; “but I feel it is my duty to do something about this. Some of our leaders ought to be consulted, don’t you think?”
“Old Simon’s the man,” answered Jambres. “There’s no need for you to make any public accusation. Lay the facts before Simon; he will know how to deal with the affair.”
They crossed the square and knocked on the wealthy Pharisee’s door.
On the next morning Jesus was surprised to receive a formal little note, inviting him to sup at the house of Simon the Pharisee on the following Wednesday evening. Was there some veiled purpose in this act of courtesy? Or was the old gentleman really reaching out to him the hand of reconciliation? In any case it could do him no harm to accept. He wrote a reply and left it in person at Simon’s house.
The same afternoon Simon called on Abinadab the cloth-merchant; he was reputed to be the richest man in Capernaum and was notoriously of loose character. The aristocratic old Pharisee had never been inside the house before and had never met its owner, except at public functions. It was hardly surprising that the cloth-merchant received him coldly.
Simon noted with satisfaction that a beautiful girl sat coiled on a divan on the further side of the room; she looked listless and bored, as she idly stroked the grey fur of an enormous Persian cat which purred contentedly on her knee. The old gentleman bowed courteously and was answered with nothing but a sulky nod. He turned to his host and asked to see him privately. Without a word Abinadab led the way to an adjoining room and closed the door.
When they returned half an hour later, a complete change had taken place in their relations. Simon was a born diplomat and his host had yielded readily to his friendly advances.
“Wednesday evening then,” said the old man, as they entered the room. “I shall look forward to entertaining you. There will be music and dancing after supper; and if your—your young friend would care to look in then, I think I can promise her a pleasant evening.”
The girl looked up eagerly with a smile. After a month of Abinadab’s society, any amusement would be a welcome change. But would Abinadab allow her to go? He was so jealous of letting her meet anyone. Her doubts were quickly set at rest.
“Thanks,” said her master; “she’ll be delighted to come, I know.”
As Simon returned to his house, he felt that he had done a clever day’s work. He looked forward to this supper-party with eager anticipation.
As soon as Jesus entered the Pharisee’s house on the following Wednesday, it became evident that he was being treated with intentional discourtesy; no water was offered to him to wash his feet; instead of welcoming him with the customary kiss of greeting Simon bowed distantly to him; he was given no oil for his hair.
When they sat down to the meal Jesus found himself at the lower end of the long table immediately next to Abinadab the cloth-merchant; opposite him was the young scribe Zadok. The incivility of his host did not worry him; but he was frankly puzzled. What was the object of inviting him to a meal, and then treating him differently from all the other guests? Simon was too clever a man to think that such treatment could affect his influence.
Conversation at the lower end of the table was not easy. But Jesus was good company, and after a time he managed to thaw Abinadab to some extent. The places at the meal were so arranged that he and Jesus were reclining on the same couch; so it was impossible for either of them to ignore the other.
Under the influence of good food and wine Zadok became unnecessarily talkative; towards the end of the supper he spoke to Abinadab straight across Jesus.
“I think I saw you with your young lady today,” he said with a leer. “Charming, if I may say so—charming.”
“You’ve been recently married?” asked Jesus in all innocence.
“Not married; no,” replied his neighbour. “No, I’m a bachelor. This is a young—niece who’s staying with me,” he added with an obvious wink at Zadok. The young scribe tittered in a way which made the cloth-merchant’s meaning even plainer than it already was.
“I’ll introduce you both to her,” continued Abinadab. “She’ll be here later on. But don’t lose your heart to her, Zadok; she’s not old enough to marry yet.”
This produced such an explosion of laughter from Zadok that he choked and the subject was dropped.
When supper was ended, the tables were cleared. Sweetmeats and fruit were brought in, and a fresh supply of wine; then the servants withdrew. Through a small side door at the lower end of the room appeared the musicians and dancing-girls; they squatted on the floor awaiting instructions from the host.
Simon rose as the main doors were again opened and a party of ladies, the wives and daughters of the guests, entered the hall. As he greeted them, he gave to each a little present as a memento of the occasion and spoke a few words of courteous welcome.
Last of all and quite by herself, obviously shunned by the other ladies, came a young girl. She wore a dress of costly saffron silk; her long dark hair hung in two tresses over her shoulders, framing a small face of almost elfin beauty. In spite of the richness of her apparel Jesus recognised her as soon as she passed through the doorway. It was the girl to whom he had talked on the beach, Mary of Magdala.
He was conscious of Zadok’s eyes fixed upon him. Now the reason for Simon’s invitation to him was abundantly clear; Zadok had mentioned his encounter with them at Magdala. He and the girl were to be brought face to face; he was to be publicly humiliated by her recognition of him. Probably it was she of whom Abinadab and Zadok had been speaking a short time earlier; in that case, Mary was now living with this blatant fellow by Jesus’ side. He shuddered. Now it was clear why he had been seated next to the cloth-merchant, why the young scribe was opposite to him. The scheme was devised with simple but devilish cunning. Mary would come to join Abinadab, and then she and Jesus would meet.
It never entered Jesus’ head to pretend that he didn’t know the girl. These people must learn that he was not ashamed of his friends, even if they were despised by their respectable neighbours.
By the time Mary reached her host, the majority of the ladies were already seated by their menfolk. Every eye was fixed in contemptuous silence on the beautiful girl, whose presence among them seemed an outrage entirely out of keeping with the punctilious politeness of the old Pharisee. “Why has Simon invited a woman of that class to meet us?” was the thought in every mind.
The old gentleman seemed unconscious of this unspoken criticism. With condescending affability he greeted his last guest, handing her a small alabaster jar as he did so.
“This is spikenard, Mary,” he said; “it is much prized by ladies, though your complexion needs no artificial aid.”
The girl’s mouth twisted into an enigmatic smile; she murmured a few words of thanks.
“You’ll find your friend over there,” added Simon with an airy wave of the hand.
She glanced down the long table and caught sight of Abinadab; her face relapsed into an expression of bored sullenness as she slowly made her way towards him. She stopped behind the couch on which he and Jesus reclined.
“Got a fit of the sulks, have you?” laughed Abinadab; “come and sit down here; there’s room between this gentleman and me.”
The girl said nothing; she continued to stand stock still where she was.
Jesus looked up at her. Quietly, but quite distinctly in the profound silence of the room, he spoke her name: “Mary.”
Slowly she turned her eyes towards him; she did not look surprised. An expression as of longing fulfilled came into her face.
“You!” she whispered.
Her childlike eyes filled with tears. One large drop splashed down on to Jesus’ bare feet. With a sudden movement she bent down and brushed it away with her long hair, as if ashamed. Then something gave way inside her; she flung herself on her knees behind the couch and covered his feet with kisses, while the tears rained upon them. Half laughing, half sobbing, she tried to dry them with her black hair. Then taking the stopper from her alabaster jar, she began rubbing his feet with the ointment, as if in some confused way she thought to cleanse them from the contamination of her own tears.
Jesus laid his hand upon her head. Steadied by his touch, she looked up; her convulsive sobbing ceased, though the tears still trickled down her pale cheeks.
Abinadab was on his feet. With ill-repressed fury he spoke:—
“Old friends, I see. Very affecting, I’m sure.”
Anxious to save the girl embarrassment, Jesus looked round at once: “Yes. We’ve met before. Zadok will bear witness to that.”
He looked straight at the scribe, who attempted in vain to hide his confusion.
“He’s the only man,” said Mary in a clear and controlled tone, “who has ever shown me friendship.”
“Oh, come,” blustered the cloth-merchant.
“I don’t mean the selfish passion which men like you call love,” continued the girl; “I don’t even know this man’s name. But he once showed me friendship, sympathy, without wanting anything in return. I can never forget that.”
Jesus looked up the table; he saw Simon whispering behind his hand to his neighbour. He knew instinctively the purport of his remark: “if this fellow were really a prophet, he would know what class of girl this is who is touching him, that she’s a sinner.” He decided to take the offensive.
“Simon.” His voice was quiet, but clear. “I have something to say to you.”
“Say on, Master,” replied Simon. He contrived to throw a wealth of sarcasm into the word “Master.”
“A rich man,” began Jesus; “had two debtors. One owed him ten times as much as the other. Neither of them had the money to pay him; so he forgave them both. Which of the two do you think will love him more?”
A wary look came into the Pharisee’s face. But he could not escape an answer.
“He, I suppose,” he said cautiously, “to whom he forgave most.”
“You are quite right,” continued Jesus. “Well, just look at this poor girl. You, a respected citizen of Capernaum, invited me to your house; when I arrived you gave me no water for my feet; she has washed them with her tears. You greeted me with no kiss; she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil; she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore her sins—and they are many—are forgiven; for she has shown herself capable of great love. So many respectable people, who think they have no sins to forgive, are so selfish that they show no love for God or man.”
He turned to Mary.
“Your sins are forgiven,” he said.
The child looked up with a puzzled frown. What did he mean by sins? Sin was doing wrong to other folk; what harm had she done to anyone?
But the other guests were taking up his remark.
“Who is this man who professes to forgive sins?”
“This is the second time; don’t you remember that time when the paralysed man was let down through the roof?”
“A nice fellow to talk of forgiving sins; a friend of a woman like that.”
“Yes, that’s all very well, but you heard what she said. That didn’t sound as if he was a wrong ’un.”
Such were the comments which buzzed round the room. Unmoved, Jesus rose; he took leave of his host, then turned to Abinadab.
“I’ll walk home with you and Mary, if I may,” he said. “I’d like to have a talk with you both.”
The cloth-merchant was taken aback. But he could not in common civility refuse.
“Come along then,” he said; and the strangely assorted trio went out together. Five minutes later they were sitting in Abinadab’s luxurious room. Mary had again taken her place on the divan, her legs drawn up beneath her; she knew she was to witness a duel between two strong personalities—that her own destiny depended on the struggle. Her gaze shifted from one face to the other in anxious suspense.
The two men sat facing one another at some distance from her. Jesus was summing up his opponent, but without hostility; after all, there was the man himself, as well as the girl, to save from a life of squalor and degradation. Both were children of the Father; both needed his help and sympathy.
“I owe you some explanation,” he began, “for butting into your private affairs.”
“Some explanation,” retorted the other, “of the astonishing scene at Simon’s house. Yes.”
“I met Mary some months ago at Magdala,” said Jesus. And he gave a short and clear account of the meeting, of his walk to her home and of his subsequent encounter with Zadok. Abinadab listened in silence until he had finished.
“And that’s all?” he asked suspiciously.
“I have not seen her again until today,” replied Jesus.
“Is that true, Mary?” Abinadab shot the question at her.
“Perfectly true,” she answered calmly.
“Then, my dear girl, why that extraordinary behaviour this evening?” inquired the man. “I thought at least he had been your lover at some time.”
“Such a thing would never have entered his head,” said Mary, “or mine.”
“Do you love him?” pressed Abinadab.
“Not as you mean,” replied the girl; “he treated me differently from any other man I’ve known, almost as if he respected me. I’ve wanted to meet him again, to tell him I was grateful.”
“I told you to think, Mary,” put in Jesus; “but did you think?”
The childish eyes gazed at him in bewilderment.
“Of course I thought,” she answered. “That’s why I’m here.” Jesus looked at her in some surprise.
“Don’t you remember?” she went on, “you said something about making myself cheap by going with any men who came along. Then you talked some nonsense about marrying; well, marriage is not for the likes of me, so I did the next best thing.”
“And is this better than the old life?” asked Jesus relentlessly.
Mary looked uncomfortably across the room at Abinadab; she did not want to hurt him. But then her native honesty impelled her to speak the truth.
“No,” she said deliberately; “it’s boring to belong to a man, like his horses and furniture, to be dressed as he likes and shown off to his friends. Oh, Abinadab’s been quite kind to me; but I’m just a bought thing; I was free before; and I miss my freedom.”
“You came to me of your own accord, Mary,” exclaimed the cloth-merchant with some spirit.
“I know I did,” answered the girl dully; “and you paid mother well. I made a mistake, that’s all.”
“If that’s so, you’d better clear out,” said Abinadab, angrily; “you can get back to the gutter for all I care.”
“Can’t we talk this over calmly?” suggested Jesus. “After all, two lives depend on it.”
Abinadab pulled himself together; he felt ashamed of this show of temper before a stranger.
“What do you suggest?” he asked.
“Would you be ready to marry Mary?” inquired Jesus. Mary looked up anxiously; surely her friend didn’t mean that.
“Of course not,” replied the man.
“I thought not,” said Jesus immediately; “and I hoped not. Then isn’t it unfair to her to expect her to go on living with you against her will.”
“I told her just now that she was free to leave me,” answered the other sulkily. “There are plenty of other girls who would be glad to change places with her.”
“Would that be much better?” said Jesus. “Do you hold women so cheap as to think that their only function is to become the hired playthings of men? Aren’t they our equals in endurance and intellect, and generally our superiors in fidelity and devotion. Unless you really love and respect a woman well enough to make her your wife, isn’t it an insult to her sex and to ours to ask her to become the slave of your selfish pleasure? Think it over, Abinadab; that is all I ask. Think it over well before you ask Mary or any other woman to be your hireling.”
Abinadab got up and paced the room. At last he stopped and looked down at Jesus.
“What right have you,” he asked uncertainly, “to dictate to me? Or to Mary either?”
“No right whatever,” replied Jesus at once. “It is a matter for both of you to decide for yourselves.”
“I have no choice,” said Mary dejectedly; “he’s bought me, body and soul. I saw him hand over the money to mother.”
“Curse the money,” grumbled Abinadab; “I wish you wouldn’t keep throwing that in my face. Look here, Mary, if you’re not happy, you can go back to the old life. I’m not going to stop you.”
“Does she want to go back to the old life?” suggested Jesus.
“I don’t know what I want,” replied the girl wearily. “I used to be happy enough until you came along and upset me,” she added rather pointedly at Jesus.
He laughed at her. “Perhaps it’s as well I did come along then,” he remarked. “You couldn’t have been happy for long in that kind of life.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said without conviction.
“Well, I do,” was the reply. “It seems to me, Mary, you’ve got the choice of three courses. The first is to remain here with Abinadab; the second is to go back to the life at Magdala; the third is to cut away from men altogether and take some honest job and work for your living.”
“No one would take on a girl like me,” objected Mary.
“I know a lady,” replied Jesus quietly, “who I think would give you a trial. But it’s not going to be easy for you to turn and work. You’ve never been used to it.”
“I’d manage it,” said Mary eagerly. “I’m strong and healthy.”
“Scrubbing floors and washing dishes,” went on Jesus remorselessly, “and very little time to yourself.”
“It would be a change from this,” was the answer.
“Too violent a change perhaps,” he said.
“Just try me,” retorted Mary gleefully. “I’ll show you you’re wrong.”
“I hope you will,” he answered.
“That’s settled then,” she said, jumping up.
“What does Abinadab say?” put in Jesus.
The girl stood stock still. She had forgotten Abinadab altogether. She glanced at him apprehensively.
The cloth-merchant started, as if waking from a dream; his whole world seemed to have been turned upside down by this compelling stranger.
“I have nothing to say,” he remarked absent-mindedly; “you’re free to do as you like, Mary.”
“Then I’ll run up and get out of these things,” she exclaimed in a burst of excitement. “I’ve still got my old clothes upstairs.”
“For heaven’s sake, keep what you’ve got on,” replied Abinadab brusquely. “I don’t grudge you the things.”
“If I went to see the lady in these,” said the girl with a laugh, “I’d never get the job.”
And with that she disappeared up the staircase.
There was silence between the two men after she had gone. At last Jesus said: “You must forgive me for interfering. That child’s never had a chance; she’s got a difficult time ahead. Her only hope is in a life of routine, and some hardship.”
“I dare say you’re right,” returned the other. “And you mustn’t apologise to me; I feel in a bit of a whirl; but you have compelled me to think. I dare say I shall be grateful for that later on.”
“It’s good of you to say that,” replied Jesus simply. “You might have been merely indignant, and with some reason.”
“With any other man I should have been,” answered the cloth-merchant. “But somehow with you it’s different; you’ve been so—so decent about it all.”
That was all that passed between them; Mary had reappeared in her shabby clothes.
“I’ve been as quick as I could,” she said.
“Then we’d better be getting along,” replied Jesus. “It’s very late.”
At the door Mary turned to Abinadab. “Goodbye, Abinadab,” she whispered. “You’ve been very kind to me tonight. Don’t think too badly of me.”
“Goodbye, Mary,” was his reply. “You’ve done the right thing. Good luck to you!”
And at that moment he was nearer to loving her than ever before.
Jesus was waiting for her in the darkness of the street. She slipped her hand into his, like a little child.
“Where are we going?” she questioned.
“My landlady will give you a bed for tonight,” he promised her. “In the morning I’ll see the lady I told you about.”
And the wayward child and her saviour walked together to the quay.
Peter was standing at the door, looking out at the weather. He greeted Jesus cheerily.
“The clouds are breaking,” he remarked. “We’re taking the boat out in half an hour. Andrew’s down there already. Hullo, who’s the kiddy?”
“She can’t get home tonight,” explained Jesus. “I thought perhaps Judith would put her up. I’ll come out with you if I may. She can have my bed.”
“Bring her in,” said Peter heartily; “we’re just going to have a bite of supper.”
And so Mary had her first glimpse of a happy home life.
In the fisherman’s cottage that night the girl slept with the innocence of youth. Under the wind-driven clouds on the lake Jesus commended to his Father the child whom he had snatched from a life of shame.
In the fragrant garden at Bethsaida next morning he sat with the lady Joanna. He had told her Mary’s story and she had listened without interruption or question.
“You asked me to let you know,” he concluded; “if there was anything you could do for me. I have come to you sooner than I expected. Here is something which no one but a woman can do. Will you give this child a chance of making good? Give her some job in your household, no matter how humble it is. Let her feel the dignity of useful womanhood.”
“I must talk to my husband,” she said.
“You have any doubts about it?” he asked in disappointed surprise.
“No,” she replied with a smile; “no, don’t misunderstand me. But, you see, Chuza and I have not children; it has been a grief to us both. We have often talked about adopting a little girl. I was wondering—”
“Please don’t think of that yet,” Jesus interrupted; “Mary’s salvation lies in hard work, not in a life of ease. She has never had to work for a living, never learnt the joy of a humble job well done. It is only through the effort of willing service that she can win through. As yet she is just a spoilt and pampered little animal. But there is beauty in her nature, which under firmness and sympathy will blossom into something rare and fine. Things mustn’t be made too easy for her.”
“Of course; you’re right,” said Joanna.
“Later on, perhaps,” added Jesus, “when her character is more mature, we might discuss your generous proposal again. For the moment it must be work—and hard work.”
So on the next day the lady Joanna set off for her home at Tiberias, taking Mary with her. It was left for her to teach the girl something of the love and generosity of God; and by kindness and discipline to lead her to self-respect. And for several months Jesus saw no more of Mary, though he heard with joy of her progress and development.
Jesus’ reputation, if anything, was enhanced by the scene in Simon’s house. The impression grew that he had befriended an unhappy girl without any selfish motive. And though the Scribes and Pharisees tried to make capital out of the incident, they made little headway against the tide of public opinion.
Abinadab was reticent about the whole matter; at first his acquaintances were surprised that he did not replace Mary by another favourite; they put this down to personal pique. But the weeks and months passed without further cause for gossip; the cloth-merchant threw himself more wholeheartedly into the civic life of the city; and when it was rumoured that Jesus was a frequent guest at his house and that the two had been seen about together in public, the general astonishment knew no bounds.
Abinadab, like Mary, was learning to forget himself in the service of others; and he was experiencing a happiness which he had never known in his days of pleasure.
It was in the autumn of the same year that Jesus decided to make a second tour through the towns and villages of Galilee. He proposed to take the Twelve with him, intending to train them to undertake similar work by themselves after a short interval. He sent word to the lady Joanna to expect them in Tiberias in the middle of October. She replied with a generous proposal, suggesting that she and her husband should pay all the expenses of the tour, and asking that she and Mary might accompany them on their travels. At the same time she begged for his help for a friend of hers, named Susanna, who suffered from continual ill-health.
On their arrival at Tiberias Jesus went straight to the Chamberlain’s house. Mary opened the door. She gave a little gasp of surprise on seeing who the visitor was, but quickly pulled herself together.
“I’ll tell my mistress you’re here,” she said and hurried away.
A few moments later the lady Joanna herself appeared, and invited him into the house.
“Mary’s changed,” he remarked.
“Yes,” replied Joanna, “I’m very happy about her. She’s a splendid worker, and always cheerful and good tempered.”
“No trouble with men?” asked Jesus.
“Not the slightest,” said the lady; “she seems to have left that part of her life behind her. As we arranged, I’ve taught her what I can about God and now I feel the time has come for you to talk to her as no one else can—from your own personal knowledge.”
Jesus made no comment on this remark. He turned the subject; “I believe you want me to see a friend of yours.”
“Susanna; yes,” answered Joanna. “Would you like to come round with me now? Her house is only five minutes’ walk away.”
The lady Susanna was a rich, elderly widow, living in a large modern house on the outskirts of the town. Her frequent cough and the bright spots in her cheeks made it evident that she was in an advanced stage of consumption.
“The doctors have given me up,” she said, after greeting her visitors, “But I have seen what you did for Joanna; so perhaps you can help me too.”
“If you believe in the power of God,” answered Jesus; “nothing is impossible.”
And even as he talked to her of the love and might of the Father, Susanna knew that she could be cured, knew that at that very moment a healing force was at work, rebuilding the wasted tissues in her body.
As he rose to take his leave, she said: “Do you realise that my troubles are at an end?”
“I saw it, yes,” was the reply.
There had been no treatment, no outward sign of healing. But his words and her belief in their truth had allowed the power of God to work its restoration of her health.
As they walked home, Joanna said suddenly: “How I wish all my friends could hear you talk! Wouldn’t it be possible to form a company of women helpers, like the Twelve?”
“I have chosen the Twelve for a special purpose,” was the answer, “to carry on my own work,” he paused for a moment, “later on. But I should welcome the help of women too; they could tackle some work which men would find difficult—with girls like Mary, for instance.”
And so it came about that Jesus was asked to speak to a gathering of women at Joanna’s house the next afternoon. And the outcome of this meeting was the formation of a group of women volunteers who bound themselves to work under Jesus’ direction; to admit any women and girls, without social distinction, who wished to join the organisation; and to contribute in accordance with their means to the expense of the work of spreading the Kingdom of God. Joanna was by common consent, and with Jesus’ hearty approval, appointed president of the group.
It was further arranged that a number of these women should take part in the tour now in progress, in order to hear more of Jesus’ teaching and learn something of his methods. Among these were Joanna herself and her friend Susanna.
Jesus supped alone with the lady Joanna; her husband was on duty at the palace.
After the meal Jesus said to her: “I was glad to see Mary at the meeting this afternoon. It was good of you to let her come.”
“It was largely for her sake,” answered Joanna, “that I asked you to let us join your party. You noticed that she joined our new society. But did you see how interested she was in your talk? She sat spellbound. And do you know what she said to me afterwards? She said, ‘Now I know what God’s really like. What Jesus told us about him is just what he’s like himself. I think Jesus must be just God come to the world as a man.’”
“It is a strange remark,” was his comment.
“She has wonderful intuition,” replied his hostess.
As Jesus walked home to the inn where he was staying with the Twelve, this conversation recurred to his mind. It seemed astounding. Others had already accepted him as the Messiah, God’s agent on earth. But it was the ill-used, outcast child, whom he had only met on three occasions, who had realised the full truth. For what was the Messiah but the reflection in a human life of the love and glory of God?
The preaching tour was a success. At first, the men felt somewhat shy and awkward with the ladies of the party. But the tact of Nathaniel and Philip, coupled with the fact that Jesus treated men and women on equal terms of friendship and intimacy, soon broke down the barriers of shyness; and it was not long before all realised that they were united in a common purpose, to bring happiness in place of sorrow and the knowledge of God’s love to human homes.
Sometimes Jesus did the teaching himself; sometimes he listened while one of his followers talked. And he was delighted to find how many of them were learning to bring conviction to their hearers.
By his special request none of the men had paid particular attention to Mary during their journey; she had been treated with the same respect and friendliness as the other women of the company, old and young. Even Jesus himself had not spoken to her alone on more than one or two occasions.
But when they returned to Tiberias, he sought her out to bid her goodbye.
“Are you happy, Mary?” he asked.
She raised her eyes to his. “Utterly happy,” she replied. “In the old days I never knew what happiness was. Now I am free; I have never been free before; first I belonged to Mother, then to Abinadab; you don’t know what it’s like to be free when you’ve been somebody else’s all your life.”
“Yet you have to serve the lady Joanna,” suggested Jesus.
“There are two people I’m bound to serve,” returned Mary, “the lady Joanna and you. I love serving her; she has done far more for me than I’ve ever done for her. And in your service is perfect freedom.”
Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts