James hated dealing with the jackass.
“Come on, Jesus. The carrots are yours if you will just let me get a hold of your neck,” he cajoled, moving closer to the donkey. But every step James took forward, holding the carrots as an offering in one hand, Jesus took a step backwards; his head turned sideways so that his wide, right eye’s gaze was unblinkingly fixed on the man’s other hand…the one that held the rope. James inched forward, Jesus inched back and soon the donkey’s tail brushed against the rough acacia wood fence that formed the crudest of corrals. When the first swipe of his tail signaled to his pitiful brain the message that he was cornered, Jesus panicked. Braying like a beast getting branded, Jesus reared up and lunged at the man. James dove into the dust and Jesus ran, head down, fast and hard; crashing through the fence on the other side of the small corral and out onto the rocky slope. James picked himself up and yelled at the donkey that by then had stopped and was eating a small clump of field lilies.
“I’M NOT FINISHED WITH YOU, JESUS!” Furious, James picked up a rock and threw it so wildly that it missed the donkey, who never flinched and took another bite of greenery. “DO YOU HEAR ME? I’M NOT THROUGH WITH YOU!”
“I should hope not.” The calm voice came from behind him, startling James. He jumped sideways and stepped into a pile of manure, slipping badly enough to almost fall down. But he caught himself and spun in time to see Jesus…the other Jesus, the insane Jesus…smiling at him. Jesus was leaning on the fence with his hands propping up his dark brown, bearded face.
“I’d hate to think you were finished with me,” Jesus said and then in one motion bent and grabbed the tail of his tunic and pulled it through his legs, up to his waist and tucked it into the sash already wrapped around his middle. With his legs now free, he catapulted himself over the fence that he’d been leaning on and before James could stop him, embraced his half-brother; lifting him and spinning him just as easily as if he’d been a girl at a wedding dance.
“I’ve missed you, brother,” Jesus said, looking into James’ surprised eyes. Then Jesus quickly bent, picked up the carrots and strode across the corral, holding the rope in his other hand. When James saw Jesus holding the rope, he had to look down at his own hand to make sure Jesus wasn’t holding a different rope from the one he’d been trying to put on the donkey’s neck. Seeing his own hand empty, he scrunched up his face, the sea of anger rising in heart; he never even noticed Jesus taking the rope from him. Jesus leaped across the fence there on the other side of the corral just like he had when he first entered the small pen. He took one step towards the donkey and stopped. He abruptly turned and, with a sincerely quizzical expression, asked James,”What was that you called the ass? Oh, yes…” and, walking towards the donkey, he said,”Be a nice boy, Jesus, and come eat these carrots so I can fetch you with this rope for my dear brother James.”
And the donkey did.
The seventeenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar was the second year of the ministry of Jesus. The Jews marked time by the rotation of the earth, the cycles of the moon, and the earth’s orbit of the sun. The Romans numbered the years from the beginning of the empire some seven hundred and eighty one years before the day Jesus caught James’ donkey and the Hebrews counted the years from the beginning of creation and would have placed that day in the year 3791. But for James it was the day that he gave up all hope of Jesus returning and taking care of the family. Only later would he remember those days as the year before the cross. At that moment he could only see them as the days he was forced to take over what should have been his older brother’s responsibilities.
“So then, your mind is firmly made. You really are not coming home.” James was filling the cart with tools and supplies to last his brothers and him for the coming month. Jesus the teacher was bridling Jesus the donkey and fixing the reigns to the cart James was loading.
“My mind has never changed, brother. A double minded man is unstable in all he does. My course was forever set by the Father and I must do His will,” Jesus said this, then pulled the ends of his tunic from his sash and dropped them, adding,”what will you do, James?”
“I will tell you what I won’t be doing, brother,” the bitterness in James’ voice was difficult to hide,”I won’t be teaching, I won’t be studying, I won’t be practicing in preparation for the position the rabbi offered. I won’t be a scribe as I have prepared my whole life to be. No, I will be doing the job of the eldest son. I will be doing your job. I will take these carpenter tools and my brothers and go to up to Jerusalem. I will work. I will take care of the family and let my dreams disappear in the mist of what has become my life. I will go to that city, spend a month there and make money. That’s what I will be doing…brother.”
“You should go to Jerusalem, too,” a new voice joined the conversation and Jesus didn’t have to turn to recognize who it belonged to. The youngest of the sons of Mary, Judas came from the other side of the manger, which stood on the goat path that lead to the trail that one mile later, beyond the rocky slope, became the main street through Nazareth. Simon and Joseph, the last of the brothers, all carpenters, were not far behind Judas and now joined the three men standing beside the donkey and the cart.
“Yes, you should go up to Jerusalem, too. That’s what a man has to do if he wants to have a following. Go up to Jerusalem, rabboni,” Simon now taunted the oldest man who was standing in a circle of family not showing much respect or appreciation for him.
“Rabboni?” Judas went on, “He’s more than that. They’re calling him the Messiah.”
“And you’re not stopping them, are you?” Simon said,”don’t you see it makes all of us think you are out of your mind?”
“They’re right, you know,” James stood almost eye to eye with Jesus. Only three years younger, James could be mistaken for his older brother in every way except for their faces. James was very handsome, as were Mary’s other three sons. Only Jesus had so plain and common a face that he could easily go unnoticed or be forgotten, were it not for what he said and what he did. James was relentless and continued, ” you go up to Jerusalem. You go up there and make your speeches and get your crowds. So what that the High Priest has paid men to kill you. What’s that to someone like you? What does it matter that you’ve upset some very powerful people in the Sanhedrin?” Head down, Jesus slowly drew in the ground with his foot while James finished. “Or do their threats frighten you? Are you afraid, Jesus? Do messiahs get frightened?”
Jesus was quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time and the four brothers looked from one to the other in subdued triumph. This had been a long awaited confrontation and not one of them felt like they had been nearly as harsh as was merited. When their father had died, Jesus taught them the Torah and the skills of their trade. Each one of them could remember the times they recited holy scripture with their brother. Each one of them had memories of buildings they’d worked on together with Jesus helping them wield the correct tool in the correct place. But broken hearts and misunderstandings turn good memories into the soul’s fugitives. All they chose to remember now was that he’d left them suddenly and they wanted him to know how badly they hurt. If their mother and their sisters had been there, instead of in the village trading in the market, they might have tempered their remarks. Thinking of Mary helping to provide for the family only made them angrier, however. No, they hadn’t been blunt enough with Jesus. They were certain this was a necessary and overdue talk. But when Jesus looked up at each of them, they began to have their doubts.
“The time has not come for me to die, yet, brothers. That time will come soon enough. Sooner than you know,” he looked at James until James had to act as if the donkey needed tending to; just to break the unbearable gaze of his average looking brother. When James pretended to reset the bit in the donkey’s mouth, he looked across the small yard that spanned the distance from the tiny corral to the simple house that had been their home for almost three decades. Naomi sat in the shade of an overhang protruding from the doorway. She didn’t go into the village with the other women. She sat there most of everyday, for months now. She had lost the only son that had ever been born to James and her. After six daughters, seeing the boy being pulled from her womb immediately made all the pain of childbirth disappear. But her joy was short lived; the child never made a sound and her heart remained broken. Jesus saw her, too, and continued talking. “But you four can go up to Jerusalem. You can always go to Jerusalem. You can ply your trade and live your days. And no one will threaten you. No one will harm you. Because you do not threaten them. They threaten me, brothers, because my life threatens them. My words come from the Father and they should be comforted, but instead, they are convicted of their sin. That is why they want to kill me. You go and make money. No one will be convicted. And you will be in no danger.”
The brothers stood in silence for some time, until Judas said, “I never do understand what you are talking about.”
“All I know,” James said, controlling his frustration as best he could,” is that I will not be a scribe because of you and I can’t have a son to fulfill that dream for me. Nothing in my life is as I thought it would be. So what comes of you is of no concern to me. I’ve lost my dream and you’ve lost your mind,” and he lead the sad procession of brothers as they began their commute to Jerusalem. Only Joseph, their father’s namesake, stopped beside his oldest brother. The most quiet of the carpenters, he couldn’t always keep up with the banter, but if given enough time, he could speak from his heart clearer than any of them.
“I don’t want you to die,” Joseph said, almost in tears. Jesus smiled and gave him a warm embrace. When the four of them finally pulled out from the humble homestead, with Jesus the donkey setting the pace, Jesus the rabbi stood beside Naomi. She looked up at him and he smiled into her melancholy eyes.
“Do you not know that you are with child?” Jesus said to her.
“No. That can not be.”
“You will give birth again, Naomi. And it will be a son.” Jesus patted her lovingly on the shoulder and began walking towards the path.
“How do you know these things?” Naomi called to him. He stopped and turned and said to her, “See that you do not tell James that I told you so.”
He started to leave again and she shouted, “If I have a boy I will name him Jesus!”
Jesus stopped again and, without turning to face her, said, “No, if you would please me, name the boy Joseph.”
And then Jesus set off for Jerusalem, far enough behind his brothers that they never knew he was there.