Jason and Adam rounded a corner and there was Benjamin leading the donkey and John seated on the bench of the cart. The young men looked at each other and laughed.
Hurrying to meet them, eighteen-year-old Adam explained, “Your family were a little concerned because you were later than they expected you to be.”
“We were a little delayed,” Benjamin’s eyes twinkled as he glanced at his great-grandfather.
John raised his eyebrows, amused.
Pointing at the sky, Benjamin said, “But it is not yet fully sunset.” He moved the donkey and cart to the side of the road to allow a group of people to pass.
“Are you heading home, Adam, or will you be staying the night with us?” John asked.
“I will be going home now that we have found you.”
“Then you had better hurry,” John urged, seeing a conversation with Benjamin about to start.
“Yes, Saba,” Adam agreed and said his farewells to the others, “I hope to see you soon.”
A movement caught John’s eye, and he looked behind. “Be at peace,” he told the others when he saw the Roman soldiers marching towards them. “We are doing nothing wrong.”
Benjamin, Jason and Adam, spun around and saw the contubernium of soldiers heading their way.
Benjamin stroked the donkey’s face to soothe it. The sound of eight pairs of studded Roman sandals marching toward them made the animal restless.
Blasius, the leader of the soldiers, raised his hand as they reached John’s cart and the soldiers stopped smartly.
“You, old man...” he said pointing up at John, “You are under arrest!”
“What has he done?” asked Benjamin, trying to keep anger out of his voice.
“Public meeting after dark. Some people just passed us, these…” he waved his hand at the young men, “these are still here.”
“Sunset is only starting now,” protested Adam.
“They are my family, this is no public meeting,” John said, addressing the decanus. “Let them go. Take me if you must, but leave them be.”
“No, not this time. If they take you, I am coming too,” Benjamin said rigidly.
The inexperienced Blasius stepped back while Benjamin helped John down from the cart.
While Blasius watched on, uncertainly, Benjamin directed, “Adam, take the donkey and cart and return it to your mother. Jason, go and tell the family that Saba and I have gone with the soldiers.”
“You should go home, too,” John advised, seeing his great-grandson’s heightened color and tense jaw.
“No. I am coming with you.”
“Adam, Jason, please... go now. Our families will know what to do.”
Blasius had not expected this. It had been a gift from the gods that a group of people passed, giving him the right to challenge the old man for holding a public meeting.
One of the veterani in the contubernium stepped forward. By rights, he should have been the decanus, but he had not wanted the responsibility. He was near his retirement and wanted to pass the time till then in peace. “Sir, it is just the old man we have been sent out to intercept,” he whispered.
Blasius nodded, “Thank you,” to the man, and shifted uncomfortably under the eyes of his men. His commander, Primus Vitalles had told him the old man in charge of the sect might break the law. He was not allowed on the streets after sunset, and had been warned about holding public meetings. The senior officer had hinted that, if necessary, Blasius could delay the man until it was sunset, and if there were any helpers with him, to consider it as an unlawful meeting. He had not, however, been told to arrest any followers and he brusquely told them to disperse.
Reluctantly Adam took the donkey’s leading cord, and with a last look at Saba, maneuvered the cart to face the opposite direction. As he led the patient donkey along the broad road toward his family’s home, he was grateful that he lived and worked on his grandfather’s farm, not in this city with the soldiers.
Jason, overawed by the events, watched Adam leave, then looked to John for confirmation that he was to go too, and at his nod, ran back towards John’s home.
“I thought you said they were your family. Why do they go in opposite directions?” Blasius demanded, then thought better of it. “No, don’t answer!” A reply might present him with more decisions, and his men were watching. “You were conducting an illegal meeting.” Gesturing to his soldiers to surround the pair, he barked an order and they marched them off.
At the Roman garrison
“We only want the old man, you shouldn’t have brought the other one,” Primus said imperiously when Blasius proudly delivered the prisoners. Having received the promotion he had so desired, Primus was now third in command. As yet, he had not learned how to use his power wisely.
“Allow me to report, sir.”
Primus nodded. He had been so anxious for preeminence, he had overlooked the correct procedure. He looked at the junior officer and realized that this man might well try to supplant him one day. “Your report?”
Snapping to attention, Blasius announced, “The prisoner was holding a public meeting after dark.”
“Why did you bring the younger man?”
“He followed us and refused to go.”
“And I still refuse,” Benjamin stubbornly insisted.
“You should go,” John addressed his great-grandson quietly. He worried that Benjamin would also be arrested if he could not control his temper.
“No Saba, I am staying with you.”
“Then wait here,” Primus commanded.
Unwilling to hang around awaiting instructions like a raw recruit, Blasius commanded his men to stand to attention. “Since our duty is done, we will leave and continue our patrol of the city.”
Watching them march away, Benjamin wondered how Jason had explained the arrest to the family, and how his mother was reacting.
“Will you persuade the old man to cooperate?” A voice cut across his thoughts, and Benjamin turned to see Primus standing a little behind him.
John watched, knowing what the Roman was hoping... that he could go to the commander and tell him the prisoner would cooperate. He stood quietly and prayed. He had been in this place before. His primary concern was Benjamin.
With great difficulty, Benjamin held his temper in check. Oh, how he wanted to say all that he felt! They would have made it home in time, barely, but in time if it had not been for the soldiers delaying them. He clenched his teeth on the words.
“Well? Will you persuade him or not?” Primus repeated.
Benjamin wanted to say, ‘It is exasperating to have to submit to ambitious Roman soldiers, when it should be well known amongst you all, this is John, Apostle of the Messiah. He will not worship any false god, or your emperor.’ Wisdom prevailed, but he was still angry. He took a step forward. “No, I cannot persuade him to cooperate, and, what is more, I will not try.”
“Be careful, or you too will be in trouble.”
“Benjamin,” John’s voice held a warning.
Closing his eyes, Benjamin reminded himself of what he had been told of the Messiah, and finally managed to rein in his anger.
John saw and smiled.
Stepping back, Benjamin said more calmly, “Your empire does not force the Jews to worship your Emperor Domitian. Why do you try to force us, who have similar beliefs in the one true God?”
“You are not Jews. Only Jews have the dispensation,” Titus Calpernus stated as he came out of the building. “Come indoors.” He walked into the room, Primus close behind, protectively.
John followed, and Benjamin carefully walked after them.
Primus turned back, and noticed Benjamin, “Not you. Go home, or wait outside.”
“I will wait outside,” Benjamin gave in.
John nodded his head slightly.
Primus walked up to him and pushed Benjamin out, then slammed the door.
Titus Calpernus addressed John, “You have not kept your word, old man. You said you would hold no public outdoor meetings, and would be indoors by sunset.”
“I held no public meeting, and I would have been home as the sun was setting had we not been stopped by the soldiers.”
“The report was that the man was holding a public meeting and it was after sunset,” Primus related what he had been told.
Titus Calpernus doubted the sincerity of the report as he had watched the sun go down not long before. However, he would not criticize his soldiers for trying to carry out their duties.
Primus turned to his commander, “Blasius reported it was so.”
“Thank you,” Calpernus responded. He had halfheartedly hoped that if he scared the old man enough, sending soldiers to watch as he traveled from group to group, he would wear him down. The governor’s demand for action earlier today had forced his hand, although he had not thought arresting the man would succeed.
John drooped, and staggered before regaining his balance.
Calpernus tried a different approach, “You must be tired. You have traveled a long way in a few days, and you are not young any more. Why won’t you give in and just once...?”
Drawing himself up, John replied, “I have told you before; I worship only the one true God. I will bow my knee to no man who...”
“Enough! Don’t say it.”
“I feel sorry for you, Titus Calpernus; you have,” he paused, “... an awkward position.” John could have said ‘hard taskmaster’ but decided that would inflame the situation.
Looking at the old man standing before him, Calpernus could see that the man was tired, but he stood there, calm, determined, peaceful. Calpernus sighed, the commander of the whole province of Asia Minor he might be, but against this man he had no power. He remembered his last failed attempt to make him submit to Rome’s edict. He suddenly realized beyond doubt that this would never happen. This old man could neither be scared by the soldiers, nor would he bend in his convictions. Rome would have to deal with this. He knew it was not safe for shipping now. Although he didn’t care what happened to the old man, Rome cared about the officials it sent and the old man would have to be escorted. It would be next year before he could be sent to Rome. In the meantime, so long as he was peaceable, he would let him be. As for explaining to the governor, that was something he would think about later.
“Tell the man waiting outside to take him home.” Turning to John he said, “Be advised, Rome expects its citizens to follow its edicts.” Expecting no response, he was not surprised when there was none. He warned him, “If you are taken to Rome as a prisoner, then your home, your possessions, your writings, all will be confiscated. For now, I am releasing you but be mindful of the fact you are being watched. We will not stop when your festival, or whatever you call it, is over. And watch that young man, we might arrest him next time. He has all the makings of a firebrand. If we squeeze...”
“Part of our faith is that we keep the laws of the land...”
“Then why not make the act of worship to our Emperor?” Primus interrupted.
Calpernus knew what the answer would be. He had heard it before.
“... unless those laws are contrary to the law of God.”
“Send him out, Primus.”
Running forward to greet his great-grandfather, Benjamin asked, “Are you alright?”
Acknowledging Primus, who was standing listening, John replied to his great-grandson’s question, “I am fine, my boy, just fine,” and leading the way, he walked a little ahead of Benjamin.
When they had left the quadrangle, he said, “They are just trying to scare me into submission. I am worried how your mother is coping though, but I didn’t want to say that in the hearing of that young officer. I don’t want to put her at risk.”
“You think they might try to pressure her?” Benjamin asked, astounded.
Thinking about the comment about Benjamin, John replied, “I don’t want them to have any information on anyone other than myself.” Glancing at his great-grandson he chided, “You should have gone home. That’s twice you have been seen with me.” For the moment, he withheld the fact the commander had seen Benjamin as a firebrand.
“I am not concerned.”
“You should be. Your mother would not cope if you are arrested, and your father would be torn between trying to help you, and caring for her.”
Chastened Benjamin accepted the truth of his great-grandfather’s statement and the pair hurried on, glad of the bright moonlight.
John’s family home
“Promise me you will tell no one how upset I was,” Naomi adjured, trying to hide her panic at the news that both her grandfather and her son had been taken away by Roman soldiers.
Lois and Rhoda promised as Naomi splashed her face with water and tidied her hair.
“Where is Persis?”
“I made her sit on the seat that John usually sits on, in the alcove. The kitchen is crowded with Rhoda, you and me, and I did not want to spill something over her.”
“So long as she is alright.”
“She is well, and she is comfortable,” Lois smiled.
“Then we must finish the meal.”
Lois and Rhoda exchanged glances, Naomi was not insisting they wait any longer.
The garden gate opened and Alexander hurried down the path to where Samuel was standing, deep in thought. “Are Saba and Benjamin home, or did the Romans take them?”
Samuel, who had been alone in the peristyle, looked up, “You took a risk coming out after sunset!”
Alexander merely shrugged, and said, “Adam brought the donkey and cart back and told us of the soldiers. He said that Jason was told to come home but did not know about Saba and Benjamin.”
“They have not come home.”
“Is that Alexander’s voice?” asked Jason as he rushed down the outside stairs.
“Yes, little brother, I am home,” Alexander replied. Enveloping him in a warm clasp, Alexander hoped to reassure Jason that all was well.
“I will tell Naomi that you are home,” Samuel said, leaving the brothers. Seeing Persis in the alcove, he said, “Alexander has returned.”
“Then his brother will be pleased.”
Lois came out of the kitchen carrying the plates, going to the triclinium, “Samuel! Is there any news?”
“Not about Saba or Benjamin, but Alexander has returned.”
“I will tell Naomi.”
“I heard,” Naomi announced, and continued to the triclinium with the goblets she carried. She needed some time to fully compose herself.
“Alexander, what is that on your robe?” Jason asked as he stepped out of his brother’s embrace.
“Oh. I forgot about that.”
“What is it?”
“Only dust off the road. I was helping Adam unfasten the cart from the donkey.’
“And the donkey did not like you?”
“Adam’s mother called out to him, I was taken by surprise and pulled something that hurt the donkey. It responded by kicking, the cart moved back, I lost my balance and slid down the side of the wheel.”
“It did not kick you?”
“I am glad to say that it did not. I would be standing here if I had been on the receiving end of that defensive kick. But excuse me, I better go and change into my clean robe before the meal.” With that, he took off up the outside stairs, his long legs taking the steps two at a time.
“You would have corrected me for doing that,” Jason called after him.
A laughing agreement floated back.
Jason looked around. He was alone. Walking toward the back gate, he considered leaving and making his way to the home of his mother’s neighbor. Laura had made him welcome when his father had brought a woman home soon after his mother had died. He opened the gate. It was well-oiled and did not squeak. Just to be sure, he looked back. No, he had not been seen. There was still no one in the peristyle.
Everyone was busy.
Samuel stood with Persis and watched his wife as she helped the young women carry dishes and goblets to the triclinium. He was trying to assess her state of mind.
“You are worried about your wife?” Persis asked.
“To be honest, yes. Saba and Benjamin were both taken.”
“I was apprehensive about the way she reacted when Jason came back with the news about the soldiers. When he told us they wanted to take Saba, she went to the kitchen and closed the door. That is not normal. The kitchen door is never closed near a meal time. Then Benjamin did not come home either.”
Persis reached out and gripped his arm. “It is not easy, I know.”
“Dinner was delayed, something Naomi rarely permits.”
“Did Rhoda not say something about a burned sauce needing to be remade?”
“An excuse, I am sure.”
“But they are putting things out for dinner now, so say nothing to her. Let her be. She will tell you when she is ready.”
Jason had been wandering outside the gate, trying to make up his mind. He did not want to live next door to his father and the replacement for his mother. On the other hand, perhaps his father had been right... that it was dangerous to be here. John was arrested when all he did was stop to talk to Adam and him. It did not make sense. What if the soldiers came to arrest all of them?
He looked along the road and saw the pair walking toward him. He screwed up his eyes for a better look. They were not soldiers. It was Benjamin and his great-grandfather!
Excited, he opened the gate and ran down the path shouting.
Rhoda rushed out of the kitchen to see what the commotion was, fearful the soldiers had forced their way in.
“They are home!” Jason called.
“Stay here till I find out what is happening,” Samuel told Persis and hurried to see what the commotion was about.
Alexander, in his clean robe, rushed down the stairs. “What is happening?”
“Jason says that Benjamin and Saba are home.”
“None of you believe me!” Jason protested. He turned to the gate. In his haste, he had left it open. Laughing, he said, “Look!”
John and Benjamin came through the gate.
Samuel and Alexander rushed to greet them and ensure they had not been harmed.
Rhoda went back to the kitchen rejoicing, “Naomi, your son and grandfather are home”.
“We are well,” John reassured those who asked. “Just tired and hungry.”
Samuel started directing the others. “Jason, please fetch some water from the well. Alexander, would you bring the skin of wine and take it into the triclinium, please? I will see if the meal is ready.”
“I thought we would have missed it,” John admitted.
“But we knew she would have kept something for us.” Benjamin added.
“This is one of those rare times she delayed our meal,” Samuel chuckled.
Rhoda’s news galvanized Naomi into action. “Hurry then,” she urged the younger women, and they started putting the meal into bowls and on serving dishes. Then looking to Samuel, who had appeared at the door to the kitchen, she asked hesitantly, “Have they been hurt? Either of them?”
“They are well. In Saba’s own words, just tired and hungry.”
“I will wait with the others until you call us.”
Persis stepped forward. “Praise God for His mercy.”
“Oh Persis, yes. And I am sorry, I had overlooked you. It was to save you from harm that you were told to wait in Saba’s alcove. Would you like to go to the triclinium and settle yourself? I will call the others shortly.” Naomi apologized and embraced the old woman. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Persis asked.
“For not being offended.”
“I am not young, I realize I cannot help the way I would have, the way your young helpers have done, but I appreciate being able to share this special time with you. I know it is different from the Feasts we have had the privilege to celebrate in the past, and so does God.”
“I must go back to the kitchen now, Persis. Please go and settle yourself, we will serve the meal soon.”
“Saba, Benjamin... all of you,” Samuel said when he gained their attention. “During the meal, please do not mention what happened.”
“Jason, this includes you. Please say nothing about soldiers, arrests or anything connected to them,” Alexander added.
“Everything is ready Naomi,” Rhoda told her, then she and Lois carried the last of the dishes to the triclinium.
Drawing a deep breath, Naomi went to the courtyard to call the men to their meal.
“Saba, I am so happy to see you, I have missed you.”
Samuel was glad he had spoken to the men. Her announcement set the tone. She wanted to ignore what had happened, at least for now.
“I hope you are hungry, we have made a feast for your homecoming.”
“I have only been away five days,” John protested with a chuckle, allowing her to play her role as if nothing had happened.
The men followed her indoors, their nostrils tantalized by the delicious odors coming from the triclinium.
Later, replete, and keeping in mind Samuel’s warning, John and Benjamin gave news of the groups they had visited.
“Bartholomew and his wife send greetings,” John told Samuel and Naomi.
“So did Thomas,” Benjamin added.
“The elders of all the groups we visited did,” John said. “And I am pleased to say the fellowships are all well, and growing in number, too.”
“And are they plagued with Roman soldiers as we are?” asked Naomi.
After a pause, where the others exchanged concerned glances, John replied, “We are living in a Roman province, it is only natural that they wish to keep order and prevent uprisings.”
“But...” Naomi’s response was halted by Persis’ firm, wrinkled hand on her arm.
Samuel watched his wife, wondering if she would heed Persis’ silent admonition. When she did, he released a pent-up breath.
“Now that we have three fit young men home, when will the booths be dismantled?” Naomi asked.
Frowning, Samuel looked at the others. This too could be a dangerous subject. Traditionally everyone went home after taking their booth down on the seventh day, and came back for the Holy Day meeting on the Eighth Day.
“I will start early in the morning. Jason, would you help me dismantle our booth?” Alexander asked.
“Of course, but where will we put the boughs...?”
“There is plenty of room in the vacant land next door. As it is our property, there can be no objection from the authorities,” Samuel said firmly, watching his wife.
Persis listened as plans were made, some booths were to be taken apart before the fellowship meeting, some after.
“Benjamin, would you share the chamber with Alexander and Jason for the one night?” Naomi asked.
Taken by surprise, the young men looked at one another. “There is room for a pallet,” Alexander said.
“Good. Then Benjamin, you should share with them tomorrow, after the seventh day. Persis, tomorrow when the booth is dismantled, you can move into Benjamin’s room so you can stay overnight in comfort, ready for the Eighth Day.”
John exchanged a satisfied glance with Samuel. Naomi was back to organizing.