Today started badly. My neighbour Thaddeus, who literally scrapes a living from his smallholding for himself and his family, turned up at my house in a right state this morning. He only has a small strip of land and a couple of goats, and wouldn’t even be able to keep his family from going hungry if I didn’t give him some paid work at harvest time.
“Mary, Mary, what am I to do?” he pleaded breathlessly, his dusty face a grimace of fear and worry. The dust revealed recent tear-tracks.
“What’s up, is someone ill? I’ll get a doctor,” I said. “Sit down, have some water and tell me what’s wrong.” I poured him a cup from the jug I had just filled from the well and he took a large gulp.
“No, we’re all fine, for the moment at least,” he said, “but not for much longer I expect. What can I do?”
“How can I help if I don’t know what’s wrong?” I said. He took another gulp of water and made an effort to compose himself, closing his eyes and slowing his breathing down.
“It’s Matthias,” he said eventually. At the sound of the name my whole body tensed. Matthias is a wealthy and nasty individual who owns a huge tract of fertile land the other side of Thaddeus’s strip of dirt, and he’s connected with the Herods and a known friend of the Romans. “He sent his men in to seize half my land today. They had a piece of paper which they said proved it belonged to him. They showed it to me but you know I can’t read. For all I know it’s a fake, but even if it is, how can I stand up to a rich and powerful man like that? They said I would still have plenty of land left, but he’s claimed the low-lying area at the far end, the only bit that’s good enough to grow wheat and vegetables. We’ll all starve!”
He bowed his head and sniffed loudly, choking back sobs. I put a hand on his shoulder but I needed reassurance myself. There’s almost nothing you can do against the rich if they decide to make a grab for your land. Resorting to the law is too expensive for most and they always win anyway. You can’t fight them because their men will always outnumber yours, and anyway you risk being arrested and put to death for disturbing the peace. I feared for myself too. My lovely farm is always potentially under threat from monsters like that. I have some money and influence but I’m way below their league.
A bleary-eyed Jesus appeared at the door, squinting against the light. The commotion must have disturbed his lie-in. I quickly told him what had happened and awaited a helpful response. I didn’t expect him to raise an army and march to Thaddeus’ rescue, but he’s supposed to be intelligent and wants to be a leader. He rubbed the straggly ginger beard on his chin and considered the options.
“Thaddeus,” he said eventually. “What can you do to resist an evil rich man? Nothing. You know you can’t fight him with your hands or in the courts. But don’t worry, because when God comes to save his people, the rich will be cast out into the darkness and the poor will inherit the earth. And if he dies before the world ends, he can’t take any of it with him.”
Thaddeus looked up at him, his eyes now wide in amazement. “I may only be a simple man,” he said, “but I’m not simple enough to be comforted by crap like that. Sorry Mary.” I smiled and nodded to indicate I wasn’t offended by his language, and he continued.
“I need bread on the table now, not some sort of heavenly banquet at the end of time, when my family and I will be long dead from starvation anyway. I’d heard you were mad but where on earth do you get ideas like that from?”
“Nowhere on earth, my friend,” he said. My stomach, previously clenched with anxiety, now proceeded to tie itself in knots of embarrassment.
“Think about it,” said Jesus, laying his hands on Thaddeus’ head. “You may not be able to save your land, but you can save your eternal soul.”
Thaddeus stood up and raised his hand. I was planning how to protect my crazed husband from the onslaught when I realised all the fear had left Thaddeus’ body. He looked a foot taller. Instead of striking Jesus as he deserved, he put his arms around him and hugged him.
“It’s not the answer I was hoping for,” he said, “but maybe you’re right. Put it this way, I’ve no hope of any assistance from humans, so I might as well try God for a change, at least until the food runs out.”
None of us knew what to say next.
“Come inside,” I said to Thaddeus eventually. I gathered together some small loaves of bread I had baked yesterday, a few dried fish and some of my precious store of figs and olives, and wrapped them up in an old cloth. “Take these to your family. I will ask around and see if anyone has some work for you, so you can buy food.”
Thaddeus thanked me profusely, then thanked Jesus again and set off for what was now a very small smallholding.
I looked at Jesus in disbelief. He had talked such utter rubbish but even I had been unaccountably comforted by it.
“You’re no use to me around the house or on the farm at the moment, and you’re not much company either, but I’m wondering if that little episode might have given you back your inspiration,” I said.
“I don’t know; maybe it has,” he said. “To be honest, I was pretty surprised myself with some of the things I came out with just then, but, when you think about it, God must have a plan. He wouldn’t allow all the poor people to be oppressed by the evil rich, or the Jews to be ruled over by pagans, unless he was going to come down and reverse all this wrongdoing and reward all the downtrodden people.”
“I think you need to go and find Tom,” I said, “and tell him all these ideas you’ve had so that he can make them part of the message he’s supposed to be working on. It still sounds mad to me but it’s not like anything I’ve heard before and it will certainly appeal to all the poor people.”
After that we had an almost normal day. He had snapped out of his torpor and was actually helpful around the place and chatty to me and the servants. He’s even talking about sharing my bed tonight. Thank you Thaddeus, and I hope you and your family survive.