I found him halfway up the mountain, sitting in the shade beside a rock with his head resting on hands over his knees. It had been a three-hour walk across the desert and I could feel the sweat in my clothes and grit in my sandals. I had stopped to drink a couple of times but hadn’t touched the bread, dried tomatoes, olives and figs in my bag, intending to share them during our talk. As I approached I noticed a bag to his side and guessed he had his own provisions, but the offer of something fresh would be a useful gesture. He looked up and I could see he matched the description; dark, swarthy, with a lean face and intense eyes. I introduced myself, he got to his feet.
“I’ve come here to fast, in solitude.”
“I know why people come here; this spot’s popular for doing the spiritual thing. But I also know no-one fasts for more than a day or two. They bring food and drink, or friends bring provisions.”
“I’ve been here forty days and nights. Nothing has passed my lips.”
“If that’s what you say.”
I’d spoken with three people who had seen him in the city the previous week, and no-one survived up there for more than a week with no water or food.
“This is an intrusion,” he said.
“I apologise, but it’s better that we talk here, in a quiet place.”
He didn’t reply, but stared at me in a way that made me realise why his meeting with the Baptist had caused a lot of noise. Once he made eye contact it took an effort to look away.
“You were noticed,” I said. “When you went to the Baptist.”
A faint smile appeared. His gaze lightened.
“You were clever,” I continued. “Showed you can think on your feet when something unusual happens.”
His smile grew a little wider.
“It was a moment of divine intervention,” he said. “My father revealed himself to me.”
“I’ve spoken with people who were there. As the Baptist lifted you out of the water some birds came out of the bushes, it made a lot of noise and one of them fluttered above your head for a moment. Then you declared that was God telling the world you were his son, and for a reason I don’t get the Baptist agreed and said you should have been baptising him. It was a lot of nonsense but a good show for the people at the riverside. Some of them laughed and some took it seriously.”
I kept eye contact with him, but the combination of his intense stare and the smile made me uneasy.
“They witnessed a revelation,” he said.
“They witnessed a man who can manipulate events, then they blew it into something else in their own minds.”
“If they are so simple, why are you worried?”
“Because they talk to their simple friends who lap it up and pass it on to their simple friends, and in no time there’s a round of babble about a holy man who can talk to the Almighty. That can cause trouble.”
The smile became a smirk. I felt tempted to hit it but fortunately he turned away and walked out of the shade. I followed until he sat on a bolder inside a cut in the rock that provided more shade, although not enough for the two of us. I took the water bottle from my bag, took a swig and offered it to him. He declined. I opened the bag on the floor and showed him the food.
“Would you like to share?”
“I’m keeping the fast.”
I noticed his own bag was still at his side and guessed he had enough for as long as he planned to stay. I couldn’t resist a joke at his expense.
“So how do you survive for so long without bringing food?” I kicked at a couple of stones on the floor. “What do you do? Turn these into bread?”
He glanced at me.
“Man shouldn’t live by bread alone,” he said. “But what comes from the mouth of God.”
“What are you talking about?”
He looked away from me, towards some secret presence in the distance. It felt like he was having some fun at my expense. I decided to get to the point.
“I’m here on behalf of the tetrarch. He’s heard of what happened, and we agree you may have a useful talent.”
His expression changed. I might have offended him.
“You belittle it with that word,” he said. “And whatever power I possess should not be used in the service of a tetrarch, or a king, or a caesar.”
There was a hint of contempt that irritated me, but I suppressed it and asked if I could show him something. His eyes narrowed but he followed me across the slope, to a point where it dropped sharply to one side. I looked over the edge, saw that a fall would break a few bones, and cracked a joke.
“I suppose if you throw yourself over the side the angels will catch you.”
He didn’t find it funny.
“You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
“I wasn’t tempting the Lord …” I broke off, realising he wasn’t one for jokes, then took him a little higher to a point where we could see clear across the desert to the city. Even from a distance I could sense the life throbbing within its walls.
“You see the city,” I said. “Thousands of people down there, all with their own little ambitions, desires, urges, grudges and squabbles. Most want to do good for their families and friends, but they can be selfish, obstinate, belligerent. It could all go mad; but most of the time it’s peaceful, and it works. That’s because it has a government, people with some common sense and foresight who can take a lead, make the big decisions, keep the peace.”
“You mean those lackeys of the Romans.”
“No, I mean people who want to keep the world sane, ensure that everybody has food to eat and clean water to drink, and that they get it without cutting each other’s throats.”
“Sane on their terms.”
There was contempt in his voice. It was familiar; ego feeding on claims of injustice. I tried some constructive flattery.
“You vilify them, and I’ll acknowledge there are always things that could be changed for the better, but you should come down and meet with them, learn about what keeps the city and its people alive. You’ll get a different impression and then – a man with your gifts and concern for the common people – you can work with them. You have the potential to rise, assume influence, and do more good for more people.”
He didn’t reply. I made more of the dream.
“That could be just a beginning. The Romans take an interest in talented men and raise them to positions of greater power. Over time you could extend your influence throughout the province, even into other parts of the empire. Just think about what you could achieve, how many lives you could touch. You can work with us to be a force for good.”
There was another silence. For a moment I thought I had touched his thoughts, but then he spoke.
“You serve the Romans, but it is written that you shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve.”
“I serve those who are on this Earth,” I replied. “And I do so to maintain peace, bring prosperity, provide hope for better lives.”
He turned towards me, his face full of righteous anger.
I held his stare for a moment, not wanting to back away; then he stepped back and coughed, several times, as if he was choking on his disdain. I saw a final opportunity, took my flask from the bag and offered it to him.
“Take a swig. It’ll clear your throat.”
He paused, set his eyes on me, then swung his arm to knock the flask out of my hand. As it hit the floor the stopper came loose and half the remaining water spilled out. I grabbed it up, replaced the stopper and gave it a shake. Less than a third of the water remained. That was going to make it a dry, exhausting walk back to the city. I stood up and slapped his face. It prompted a look of glee.
“Do you want to slap the other cheek?” he asked.
I threw him a dirty look then turned away, acknowledging to myself that the trip had been a failure. I took a few steps. He shouted after me.
“You’re the Devil!”
I swung back to face him.
“And you’ll wind up nailed to a cross!”
I turned again and walked off, my stride quickened by frustration and anger. I could tell he was going to mess up a lot of lives.
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Image by David Shankbone (own work) CC BY 3.0