I don’t know how we expected to find Jesus in a place the size of Jerusalem, with its population swollen by thousands of extra visitors. With Booths following so soon after New Year and Yom Kippur it must be a very busy few weeks for the city, and I expect the authorities really look forward to getting back to normal.
I couldn’t believe how big and busy Jerusalem is. I had been before, unlike Jesus, but not during a festival. I had forgotten the awesome scale of the temple, which dominates the city and can be seen from miles away. Its walls are as smooth as skin and unbelievably high, and it covers an area as big as a village.
The thing I really noticed was the number of Roman soldiers around. In Galilee we hardly see a single one from one year to the next, but here they were everywhere and looking very alert, ready to react to the slightest hint of trouble. I suppose if anyone is going to start a rebellion, they are likely to do it at feast times when big crowds gather and the Jews become more conscious of their glorious past and their current subjugation. I hoped Jesus had managed to keep a low profile and not get himself arrested by stirring up the crowds with his controversial ideas.
Cyrus wanted to see inside the temple so we ventured into its outer areas. It was like a street market, with many stalls selling special birds and animals for sacrifice, and others offering to exchange our everyday currency for Temple money, because only pure Temple money can be used to buy the flawless sacrificial animals. I felt we should perhaps buy a pigeon to have burned on our behalf, but Cyrus turned his nose up and asked what kind of all-powerful world-creating God would need to receive paltry burnt offerings in rituals that differed little from those dedicated to pagan statue-gods. He had a point.
Then I saw Jesus, some way off in the crowds. I resisted the urge to go over and greet him and instead observed him from a distance. Far from the imposing presence he was in Galilee, he looked insignificant and withdrawn here. He was looking at the tables of the sellers and money-changers with what might have been distaste, and I could imagine a small-town man like him being overwhelmed by the crowds, the noise and the utter vastness and commerciality of it all.
I watched for some time and half expected him to spot me, but he was too absorbed in what was going on around him or inside his head. I caught Cyrus’s eye, who nodded to show he had also noticed him.
After a while Jesus walked towards a wall and started breathing more deeply, perhaps from anxiety caused by the crowds. Then I noticed he was carrying a small stool in his hand. When he reached the wall, he put the stool down and stood up on it. Oh no! We had arrived just in time to see him start preaching, here in the house of God where the most sophisticated Jewish religious leaders worked and Roman thugs stood around looking for trouble.
I have to admit he did it well, once he overcame his early jitters and the people around him quietened down and began to listen. Having preached so much in synagogues before, he knew exactly how to say what he wanted to say. He started safely enough, discoursing on the scriptures with great authority, using all his learning and experience. People recognised his Galilean accent and I heard murmurs of surprise that such a hick could exhibit such insight.
But then he veered off onto the subject of how the priests and scribes were wrong in their interpretation of the law, turning heads with his provocative talk. Hitting his stride, he progressed to his main theme, warning the increasingly attentive crowd that the end of the age was near and we must all prepare for the arrival of the Son of Man, who would overthrow the world’s leaders and rule in their place. I could see soldiers’ knuckles whitening as they gripped their spears, and the eyes of priests pointed at him like daggers.
To make things worse he criticised the Pharisees too, and some of them started moving his way. One near to me was telling a neighbour he had heard a lot about Jesus, which I thought might be helpful until he revealed that what he had heard was tales of healing on the Sabbath. Pharisees are the sort of people who might argue about whether picking your nose or scratching your backside on the Sabbath constitutes work, so healing is a no-no.
Anyway, after a long and heated argument that attracted even more attention, one of them challenged Jesus to say where his authority to say all these things came from. After all, to them he was just a semi-literate Galilean labourer. Never one for subtlety, he told them straight up that his authority came direct from God, adding blasphemy to his crimes.
There wasn’t exactly a riot, but there was certainly a lot of yelling and scuffling, and it was a relief to see that Jesus’ self-preservation instinct seemed to be working for once. As soon as he sensed real danger he stepped down from his stool, ducked into the crowds and disappeared.
He was only just in time, because a group of four soldiers was already pushing towards where he had been, knocking people over in their path. Their aggressive behaviour may have helped Jesus because any outrage at his words was immediately outweighed by loathing of the armed bullies. Men bravely stood together and risked being beaten or cut down, but during the moments while the soldiers hesitated, unsure how to respond, the atmosphere calmed appreciably. The soldiers looked at one another, shrugged and abandoned their pursuit of a very minor troublemaker.
I didn’t argue when Cyrus suggested we get out. On our return to Bethany, Mary insisted we stay the night again, but Cyrus said only on condition that he would buy the food and help cook it. I didn’t know he was so domesticated. We had a whole leg of lamb roasted in chunks with herbs and a selection of fresh and dried fruit, as well as some very tasty wine.
“Chateau Magdala,” he announced to me, laughing. “Honest, this is the wine from your wonderful vineyards Mary. I brought some with me but we couldn’t try it last night as it needed to settle after the journey. Not bad, is it?”
Not bad at all. And fortunately it’s made me feel nice and sleepy after an over-stimulating day.