Would-be prophet Jesus gets dragged along to a society wedding in Cana by his family. There he gains another follower, a tax collector called Matthew who he met over canapés, but the real fun starts when there’s a mix up involving water and wine.
Jesus, Thursday June 15
I’m desperate to get my mission started now but I agreed to give Tom a few more days to get work and family sorted out and work on those themes of his. I thought about heading back to Magdala but Mum got all awkward and said I had only just come back from there (Did she know I hadn’t really been in the wilderness all that time? She never asked.) and it was about time I spent some time with them. Of course what she really meant was I wasn’t allowed to miss this ghastly rich man’s wedding in Cana that was taking place today. I thought about saying that I hardly knew the family and that they could surely all go without me, but it wasn’t an argument I had a hope of winning with my mother. I asked her how we could afford a decent present for a posh do like that, and she just said, “Your father will provide.” What’s that supposed to mean?
It’s very late now and the celebrations are still going on, but I’ve had quite enough excitement for one day and have slipped out before anything else happens. Mum and my brothers are still there whooping it up, but Dad was tired and I offered to walk him home as an excuse to escape.
It all started around midday. The bride’s father, Jonathan, is one of the richest men in the area and everything – the food, the drink, the clothes, the décor, the wedding service – was even more lavish than I had expected. He owns a fair amount of land but has made most of his money from trading and doing deals for the Romans, so he’s quite loud and flamboyant and is looked down upon by ‘old money’ families – who nonetheless didn’t turn down the chance of a good day out when invited. Nor did it stop the firstborn son of a noble but relatively impecunious family asking for the hand of Jonathan’s daughter Alexandra and accepting a very generous dowry.
The ceremony was surprisingly moving, and I’ve never seen so much food and wine as we had at the feast. Perhaps the kingdom of God will be like that all the time. We were hidden out of the way in a corner with some of the other poorer families and were among the last to be served, but we still had the same as everyone else. Jonathan’s house was more like a palace, and the feasting took place in a large hall. Even so, there were so many guests that people were spilling out into the main courtyard to stretch their legs and take a breather before going back in again.
Mother was anxious about our wedding present. She was still being secretive about where it was coming from, and I knew it would have to be good to compete with the gifts and money that were being showered upon the happy couple by the other guests. We had only been invited because of a family connection by marriage on Mum’s side, and she clearly wanted to impress. Whoever the mystery benefactor was who was going to save our face, he was late. He was also possibly my father, which bothered me, because either Mum is admitting I was born out of wedlock, or she’s making some reference to God, who doesn’t usually do wedding presents, or she’s saying Joseph has a secret side we know nothing about, but I hadn’t been able to get any more information out of her after her initial comment. She called one of the servants over, whispered some instructions in his ear and sent him out on his way. Jonathan wouldn’t miss one servant for a short time.
The feasting and dancing carried on all afternoon and into the evening, when huge torches were lit in the hall and around the courtyard. Guests started to mingle and I found myself talking to a man of about my own age who appeared to be on his own.
“Hi, I’m Matthew,” he said.
“Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth,” I said.
“Sounds familiar. Is there any reason I might have heard of you?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” I said. I could have asked if he had heard of the Bastard or the Rain Man, but it isn’t much of an introduction. “Are you here with your family?”
“Yes, I’m with my parents in law and my daughter.”
“And your wife?”
“Died. Died in childbirth a few months ago. Nasty business; I’ve only just finished mourning, though of course I’ll never get over it fully.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. God gives, and God takes away. There must be a reason for it in the divine scheme of things. That’s what they tell me, and I’m sure they’re right.”
“So what do you do?” I asked, changing the subject.
“I’m, er, um…there’s no nice way to say this. I’m a tax collector,” he said in a low voice. I could sense the conversation leaping from frying pan to fire. “It’s not something I set out to do because I enjoy impoverishing people; I sort of drifted into it. And you? Wife, family? What do you do for a living?”
So I told him. Told him that I was married but separated, that I had no kids, that I was the son of a poor carpenter, actually quite a good but badly off carpenter, that I helped out in the workshop and had worked as a shepherd and goatherd in my time, and that I liked to read and discuss the scriptures. I stuck to the small talk. This wasn’t the occasion to tell him I intended to save the world.
“Ah, so maybe you could have been a Pharisee or something,” he said. I find it hard work talking to these professional types; always probing, questioning, storing the information away for next time they do some networking. Still, he seemed a nice enough bloke. “So how did your family find the money to pay for your education?” Probing? Downright nosey.
“Oh, um, my mother had a small inheritance and I was the firstborn. I suppose I should have made more of it really. I’ve always been a disappointment to her.” If I was honest, I’ve often wondered where the money came from, like today’s wedding present, but she always changed the subject when I tried to ask her. And here I was, frittering away my advantages. No, hang on. My turn to be probing.
“So, do you think we’ll live to see the end of the world?” I asked. He blinked and shook his head as if I had slapped his face.
“Oh, that’s a tough one. I do sometimes wonder if these end-of-age types have a point, and I have to say I’d hate to be caught collecting taxes on behalf of an oppressive pagan regime when the harvest of the chosen people starts and the wheat is separated from the chaff.”
“I think it’s coming in the next few years. Months even,” I said. “The time is near. I have a sense for these things. I feel a real sense of urgency. I want to be there when God descends to create a kingdom on earth and then takes the chosen ones up to heaven. And I want to save as many people as I can to join me.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” he said. “I knew the name rang a bell. You’re the Rain Man, right? No, I’m not taking the proverbial. No, I’ve heard a few rumours about you: miraculous fishing feats, stealing the show at Eleazar the Exorcist’s last appearance – as well as a complete inability to make it rain. I even heard it whispered that you have some sort of divine or royal blood in you. I don’t know what to believe. Funny, I’ve often wondered if there’s more to life than swindling people. When I say swindling, I mean taking what’s due in accordance with the law, of course. So, what’s the best way to ensure being one of the chosen ones then?”
“Well,” I said, wishing Tom was here to help out. If only he had finished working out his themes. Tom had mentioned something about a ten point plan but I had no idea what he meant by that. Maybe it was something like the ten commandments. That was a good starting point for an answer. “The most important thing is to obey the Jewish laws. Then I think it’s important to concentrate on being ready, and not caring about material things or even family. I mean, money and family are important, but the kingdom of God is a far bigger prize, and…”
“Well, you really seem to have thought this through,” he interrupted. Probably getting bored. “Fancy a refill? Then we can talk some more.”
So he was interested after all. He came back a couple of minutes later with our cups only half full. There appeared to be a crisis on the catering front. Our host, despite all his riches, was starting to run out of wine, and of course there was nowhere to go to get more at this time of night. You could tell by the laugher and singing that a vast amount had been drunk, so it must have been just a simple miscalculation. Matthew said he had a few bottles at home and, after a word in Jonathan’s ear, left the building.
I went over to the family table, where everyone was unusually cheerful and had drunk far more than they were used to. Mum looked pensive when I explained the situation, then took me to one side.
“Go outside, beyond the courtyard. Take some servants with you. See if there’s anything there and bring it back,” she said. “It will look bad for our host if people have nothing to drink.”
“But what’s this got to do with you, Mother?” I asked.
She gave me one of her looks. Tom often accuses me of giving him strange looks and I wonder if I got it from her. It was easier to obey than argue. I went out on my own at first, carrying an oil lamp as I stepped into the darkness beyond the entrance. I waited for my eyes to adjust but there was nothing there. What was Mother on about? I went back through the entrance into the courtyard and looked around. There, by the wall in the gloom, were some stone water jars. If there was no wine left, the merrymakers would probably prefer water to nothing. In fact, many of them would be grateful for it, to avoid becoming dehydrated.
I called a handful of the servants over and told them to fill one of the jars and carry it into the feast. It was the best we could do, and they might be grateful.
Some time later the servants struggled in with the jar, which must have contained something like twenty gallons, the strain showing on their faces. When they came near to the head table, Jonathan came over to have a look and peered inside. He put in a cup and tasted it.
“Water? We’re running out of wine and you bring us water. Very kind. How very thoughtful of you,” he said.
I cringed, but at least he hadn’t been too bad about it.
“Look everybody,” he shouted out in his big booming voice. “The Rain Man has brought us a jar of rain water to slake our thirst. We have no wine, but who cares? Give the man a cheer.”
I sensed that this was one of those occasions when my face went redder than my hair. If God really cared for me, the earth would open and swallow me up.
The earth shook. We get a lot of earth tremors, caused either by God or demons, depending on the circumstances. The timing was perfect. There were a few screams, then silence, and the crowd looked at me and at Jonathan. I had to take advantage and say something.
“Peace be with you all, and enjoy God’s gift of water while you can,” I announced, raising my arms for effect. Then, as conversation returned, I withdrew to our table.
As I approached I saw the servant that my mother had sent out earlier. He ran over to her and said something, then disappeared again.
“What was all that about?” I growled at my mother. “I have never been so embarrassed in all my life. And if there were plenty of people here that didn’t know of me when we arrived, there aren’t any now.”
The servants were struggling to carry the jar away.
“Don’t be such an ungrateful brat,” she hissed. I was stunned. What had I done to deserve that? “Go outside again, and bring back what you find,” she said. “Go on, be a good son for once.”
She was clearly losing her mind, but again there was no arguing with her. I took the servants with me again and went outside. There, against the wall between the porch and the water jars, were possibly hundreds of beautiful leather bottles of wine, all neatly stacked up, with a note attached to one of them. I read it. To Alexandra, on your wedding day. Love from Mary, Joseph and family. I didn’t know how she’d managed to arrange this, but her behaviour was starting to make some sense now. All I needed to do now was organise the servants to take some of the bottles in and everybody would be happy. I could explain the situation quietly to Jonathan and he could arrange to replenish the gift in a day or two’s time.
Then I had a different idea. It felt like a divine revelation. I called some servants over and told them to get hold of another empty jar, exactly like the one they had just carried out, and take it round the corner so they were out of sight from the porch. Then I had them bring over half the bottles of wine too. I repositioned the label on the stack that remained, which was still a very generous wedding gift, particularly from a poor family such as ours, and went to supervise the work and ensure the empty bottles were well hidden. I would deal with them later.
Half an hour later, the servants staggered towards the high table with the jar.
“Well, what have we here then,” announced Jonathan, rising from the table and coming over to inspect it. “More water perhaps?” Despite the joviality there was strain in his voice. He had made a joke of the water incident and poured scorn in my direction but it had still made him look a bit stupid too. More to the point, he knew he would look a lot more stupid when the good wine ran out and he had to give his most important guests the everyday stuff the servants drank. To his credit he played along and, in a theatrical gesture, dipped his cup into the jar. Everyone went quiet and started smiling at one another and looking in my direction. He took a sip.
“Hell’s teeth, it’s wine!” he shouted. A ripple went round the diners. Could it possibly be true? Wasn’t that just the kind of language you’d expect from a nouveau riche trader? “Look everyone, Jesus of Nazareth has turned the water into wine!”
Everyone gathered round and started filling up their cups, sharing their host’s amazement when they realised that it wasn’t just wine, but was better than the good vintage they had been drinking all day. Jonathan didn’t know what to make of it and was delighted and furious at the same time, signalling both simultaneously with a big beaming display of gritted teeth. When he saw the servants struggling in with a second jar he just shrugged his shoulders and decided to make the best of things, accepting the credit he was receiving for providing such a welcome surprise. Before returning to my seat I went back out to double check that the servants weren’t taking any more bottles from the gift stack. Our family had to keep face as well as Jonathan’s, after all.
I went back to our table whispered a brief explanation to Mum. She smiled, and patted me on the hand.
“Thanks love,” she said. “Jonathan need never know about this, but if he finds out I’ll take the blame.”
“But who, what…?” I started to ask. She shushed me and smiled again. “Your father cares for you, that’s all you need to know. I’ll explain another day, but not now and not here.”
In the meantime Matthew had come back with two dozen bottles of his own, which were no longer needed. He had missed the water episode and had arrived just as Jonathan made his announcement about the water turning into wine. He came over to me and bowed his head.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I really could do with a change of direction, especially if the end of the world is coming as you say it is. I’ve no wife to worry about either – I told you God has his reasons. And my in-laws look after my daughter most of the time anyway. And I have to say that my job gives me less pleasure than ever these days. It just makes me feel dirty. What I want to say is, have you room in your following for a tax collector?”
“Follow me and I will make you a collector of men,” I said, before I could stop myself. Tom would have laughed but I didn’t know where to look. Thankfully he wasn’t offended.