A Just Man
It was the eve of Pentecost. Jerusalem was crammed with pilgrims, compatriots and foreigners coming from all points of the Roman empire to celebrate the feast of the first fruits. During those warm days of summer, in the upper story of Mark’s house where we had experienced a lot of things together, Mary, Jesus’ mother, narrated to us the turbulent years in our country after the death of King Herod….
Mary: I tell you, we were heading from bad to worse. When the old Herod died, his sons, who were as ruthless as he, had a squabble over the kingdom, splitting it into three pieces. Each one grabbed his share, leaving the vast open field to the Romans… Those were terrible years…. More taxes, more people’s protests and more atrocities on the part of the leaders…
Neighbor: You heard it, countrymen! Two thousand crosses and two thousand crucified! This is horrible!
Old Woman: May the heavens protect us!
Neighbor: All the vultures of the country have banded themselves in Jerusalem! This city reeks of dead souls!
Mary: Everyday the caravans brought sad news to our village… It was then that a certain Judas, who had the blood of the Maccabees running in him, stole some weapons in Sepphoris, which at that time was the most important city in our province... Oh gosh, that was an agonizing moment for us!
A Man: Down with the Romans, out you go, invaders!
A Woman: Herod, a traitor!
Another Man: Israel for the Israelites!
Mary: The revenge of the Roman army was terrible. Troops were sent from the capital! They burned down a lot of houses. I think they sent half of the city to jail…. From Nazareth, which was just a few miles from Sepphoris, we could see the cloud of smoke and hear the people screaming while trying to escape…. Since then, Galilee became a battlefield. We lived in constant fear. Leaving the village one would see a dead man here and a crucified one there. Herod’s police and the Roman soldiers made us stay in our homes. They threatened us. Whenever they saw a group talking, they were hit by soldiers; whoever protested landed in jail… And of course, as has always happened, the more the people were suppressed the stronger the resistance became… As far as I can remember, that was how the zealot movement started…
Man: Do you want to join us, young man?
Young Man: Yeah. I’m going with you. What do I need to bring?
Man: Nothing. Just sharpen your knife and swear revenge against those who have trampled our country!
Mary: Jesus must have been about eighteen years old when a group of zealots kidnapped a Roman captain in Sepphoris. As ransom, they demanded the release of several prisoners. But the whole thing blew up. Well, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but that night, everything was still in Nazareth…. All of us locked our doors and went to sleep early…. We were already sleeping when when we heard some voices….
A Fugitive: Brother… brother….
Mary: Joseph!… Don’t you hear?… Someone’s at the door… Joseph!
Fugitive: Brothers, let us in!…. Open the door!
Joseph: What’s the matter?…. Who are you?
Fugitive: We escaped from Sepphoris. The soldiers are after us.
Another Fugitive: They’ve killed several comrades from the movement! If they get us, we’ll be hanged on the cross!
Jesus: What’s going on, Mama…?
Mary: Psst!…. Quiet, Jesus… wait…
Joseph: What… what do you want from us?
Fugitive: Allow us to spend the night here, friend. Please hide us!
Mary: Oh, my God, Joseph, I’m scared… it’s very dangerous....
Joseph: I know, woman… It’s a big risk, we’ll have to take… After all, they are our brothers.
Mary: We don’t even know who they are…
Joseph: It doesn’t matter. They need us. What do you say, Jesus?
Jesus: Yes, Papa, let them in… if you were in their shoes…!
Mary: And Joseph opened the door of our house for them….
Fugitive: Thanks, buddy, thanks… Pff… We have knocked at several houses in the village, but no one wanted to take us in…
Joseph: They must all be sleeping by now….
Fugitive: Yes, the people are always sleeping when they are needed most….
Joseph: You better lie down over there at the end, and use these rags to cover yourselves... Mary, why don’t you give them some bread and… we don’t have much, you see….
Mary: I couldn’t sleep a wink. Any kind of noise, even that of the crickets, scared me…. By midnight, we heard the Roman horses galloping through the village…. They were looking for fugitives on the road to Cana… Before the cocks crowed, the two men were already up and gropingly went to Joseph….
Fugitive: Brother, we’ve got to go now.
Joseph: Do you need anything for the road?
Fugitive: Wish us good luck, that’s all.
Fugitive: You saved our life, comrade. Thanks. Goodbye!
Joseph: Goodbye… and may God be with you!
Mary: They opened the door and left running…
Joseph: So you see, Mary, don’t lose heart in the face of problems….
Jesus: That’s what they want, Mama, to have us divided through fear…
Mary: Okay, okay, say what you want, but I felt the greatest shock of my life, worse than Daniel’s in the lions’ den.
Joseph: Well, woman, you can relax now… It’s all over…
Mary: Yes, we thought everything was over. But the following week, one morning, while Joseph and Jesus were working in the field….
Soldier: Hey, you, come over here…
Mary: Me?… What… what do you want?
Soldier: I said, come here.
Mary: Two Roman soldiers on horseback stopped in front of our house. I was squatting, making bread over some embers…
Soldier: What’s your husband’s name?
Soldier: We’re looking for him. Where’s he? Speak!
Mary: He has done nothing wrong… why?….
Soldier: Where’s he, I say!
Mary: I don’t know…. I don’t know….
Soldier: You don’t really know?… Now you will…
Mary: The soldiers got off their horses and came toward me with a scornful smile and a leather whip in their hands… Trembling, I had to support myself against the wall…
Soldier: Where’s this good for nothing husband of yours, huh?
Mary: He’s not here… and he’s not coming back till evening…
Soldier: Hah! Did you hear that Nestor?… He won’t be back till tonight…. Ha, ha, ha…. Come, Nestor, come, for these peasant women, though they stink a little for not taking a bath, are nice ones…. Ha, ha…
Mary: Let go of me, let go of me….
Soldier: Take this chance, Nestor… it doesn’t happen everyday!
Mary: Let go of me… let go of me….
Mary: Holy God, had Joseph not appeared that very same moment, I wouldn’t know what could have become of me…!
Joseph: Son of a bitch, let go of my wife!… Let go of her, I said!
Soldier: Huh…? Who’s this? Where did he come from…?
Joseph: Get out of my house!…. Out, out, I said!
Soldier: So you wouldn’t be home until evening…? You are Joseph, then, is that right?
Joseph: Yes, what’s wrong with me?
Soldier: We’ve been looking for you, dear friend….
Joseph: Well, I’m here now. What do you want?
Soldier: You were hiding rebels in this filthy mousetrap, right?… C’mon, don’t put on that face… Everyone here knows… You hid the two rebels who escaped from Sepphoris when the kidnapping happened…. But no one ever makes a mockery of Rome, do you understand?
Mary: Oh, please, don’t beat him… he did nothing wrong… Oh…!
Mary: They grabbed Joseph and pushed him. The stronger soldier kicked him on the face like a savage, on his back and between his legs…. The other one obstructed my way, as I was screaming like mad…. Oh, my God, and I was helpless…. At that moment, Jesus came from work… and seeing what was happening, he dropped his tools and lunged himself on the soldier who was beating Joseph…. But with one hard blow on his face, he was hurled to the ground…
Soldier: Damn these farmers. When will they learn to respect authority?… You may leave him now, Nestor, he’s all beaten up…. Let’s go!…
Mary: Joseph, Joseph… oh, my God!… Jesus, run and ask Susana to come here fast… Oh, my God!
Mary: My comadre, Susana and Nuna, and all my neighbors from Nazareth came immediately with balms and bandages….
Mary: How do you feel now, Joseph, tell me…?
Joseph: Oh… worse than Adam…. He had one rib removed from him. From me, it’s a dozen ribs… oh…!
Susana: You must thank the Lord, you’re still alive!
Mary: I already told him it was dangerous to hide these men, Susana. These Romans are ruthless and unforgiving…
Susana: Okay, okay, let him rest… And give him something hot in a little while, Mary… Don’t allow him to move… okay?
Mary: Since then, Joseph no longer felt well. He continued with his work, but at night, he would drop himself onto the mat like an old, deflated tire….
Mary: You can’t go on like this, Joseph… Don’t you want me to call a doctor from Cana to see you…?
Joseph: And what shall we pay him with, woman? We don’t even have enough to buy our food…. Don’t worry… really, it doesn’t hurt much anymore….
Mary: But as the days passed by, Joseph was not getting any better…
Mary: Jesus, your father is ill…. I’m so worried…. He says it’s just the fever…
Jesus: It was the blows he received, Mama… Those soldiers crushed Papa…. But they’ll pay for it, I swear to you, they’ll pay for it!
Mary: Call the doctor, son…. Look, take these drachmas I got for the wedding... they’re all I’ve got…. Sell them and use the money to pay the doctor…. Hurry now…
Mary: The doctor came and one day followed another….
Mary: Do you feel better now, Joseph…?
Joseph: Yes, a lot better…. At least, I don’t feel any more pain in my kidneys… Now I even have my appetite back!… For eating and fighting, mind you!
Jesus: Well, I’m ready, Papa. As soon as you’re up, then we go…
Joseph: Where to, Jesus…?
Jesus: To avenge what they did to you. Francis and I have inquired about the whereabouts of these two soldiers.
Joseph: But, what’re you talking about, young man…?
Mary: Jesus, I beg of you, forget it and don’t get yourself into trouble…! Oh, holy God!
Jesus: What?… We’ll just go on like this? They come and kick you in your own home, insult your mother and beat your father to death, and here you are, simply putting your arms akimbo? The law says “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” Is that right?
Mary: Joseph, who was lying on a mat spread on the ground of the house, looked at Jesus with his dark and tired eyes…
Joseph: Listen to me, son: the law says that, yes. But ever since Moses wrote that law, do you think there have been less broken teeth and less gouged eyes?… On the contrary… This is so because fire is extinguished with sand, not with more fire…
Jesus: But, Papa, then….
Joseph: You’ve got to think of another way, son… First of all, you’ve got to rid yourself of that violent feeling in your heart… Don’t nurture hatred inside, Jesus… He who hates, becomes a slave of his own hatred…. I want to see you free, son…. Yes, you fight, defend your family, and stand up for those who need your help, but never take revenge on those who are violent, for those who do shall end up like the scorpion, poisoned by its own venom…
Susana: Well, well, you better stop those morbid conversations, for this Nazarene is alive and well… Come, Mary and go back to your laundry chores. This husband of yours shall be up tomorrow or the day after tomorrow…
Mary: But he didn’t get up anymore. It was a Saturday, at mid-morning, when the sun was shining bright over the whole village when he passed away…. Jesus and I, and the whole neighborhood of Nazareth stayed by his side… We wept, like we were weeping for a just man… No, I can’t tell you more, because I’m getting sad… I loved him so much… When he died, I thought the world caved in on me… Jesus also cried a lot that day… I believe Joseph had taught him very important lessons: he taught him how to till the soil, how to lay bricks… above all, he taught him how to fight… to fight and to forgive…
The death of Herod the Great, after a reign of tyranny lasting for forty years, constituted a specially crucial moment in Palestine which was practically dominated by Roman imperialism. During these years, a series of armed movements emerged in Galilee which had roots among the people and from which the zealots’ groups were formed. The zealot movement had a peasant origin. Galilee, in disregard for the existing system of bureaucracy, order and law in Jerusalem, had been the traditional focus of all anti-Roman and messianic movements. Such was the case of the zealot movement, whose birth and evolution Jesus was a witness to, and whose ideals he was perfectly aware of. So much so that when he embarked on his prophetic activities and proclaimed: “The kingdom of God is near!”, it coincided with the zealots’ proclamation of hope. This proclamation became popular in the entire Galilee as their battlecry against the Roman imperialists.
Some historians attribute the organization of the zealot movement to Judas, the Galilean. During the younger years of Jesus, this revolutionary staged a great uprising against the Roman power. He captured the city of Sepphoris, a few kilometers from Nazareth, which was then the capital of Galilee. There he gained influence with an important group of guerrillas. Quintillius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, crushed this unrest. Sepphoris was razed to the ground and hundreds of zealots were crucified in the city. This was such a big blow for the revolutionary movement and it had taken years to reorganize it. In spite of the continuous repression of the zealots until the year 70 after Jesus’ death, the movement was not totally wiped out by the Romans, since it enjoyed the much needed support of the Galilean peasants and the poor sector of the society.
In Israel, as in most Oriental countries, hospitality is one of the virtues deeply rooted among the people. To deny it was a grave shortcoming, and to refuse it was not accepted. Hospitality included gestures of greeting, service, protection and companionship afforded a house guest. All this should be done even without the expressed provision of the law and with no expectation of any remuneration or reward. Hospitality must be extended to all, including foreigners or strangers. Joseph, who was a just man, had to be hospitable, and opened the doors of his house to all, even in crucial moments, when the guests were obvious risks, as narrated in the episode.
The story in this episode is not found in the gospels but it unfolded under a historical backdrop, which is the social uprising in Galilee during those years and practically during all the growing years of Jesus. There is hardly anything said in the gospel about Joseph, Mary’s husband, except that he came from the family of David, that he was an artisan, that he took Mary for his wife and that he “was a just man” (Mt 1:19)… Nevertheless, a series of legends and traditions has evolved around his person, with no basis whatsoever on the gospel nor on the customs of the period. But if Joseph was just and an upright man, whose actuations throughout his life were in the manner that we see him in any text of the gospel, then his conduct in this episode is not illogical: hospitable, courageous, willing to risk his life for others, forgiving, benevolent and loving.
The Roman troops, together with those of King Herod, maintained the “peace” and order in the turbulent territories of Galilee. They did it with the arrogance of dominating rulers, thinking they were the masters of the lives of the subjected people. Under such domination, acts of violations, beatings and seizure of properties of the peasants had become commonplace.
If we hardly know anything about the life of Joseph, we know absolutely nothing about his death. We may only presume that his death came before Jesus commenced his prophetic activities, because since then, Mary always appears solo, as a widow. Nevertheless, Joseph has always been “the patron of beautiful death” in the religious tradition, as we likewise presume that, at the time of his death, no less than Jesus and Mary were at his deathbed. To say that Joseph dies – as it appears in the episode – as a result of the blows he received from the Roman soldiers, is a product of the imagination. But it can also be said that he died of black fever or on account of a work-related accident.... We shall never know what it was. This episode of Joseph’s death provides an occasion wherein Jesus would learn one of the most important lessons in his life, which will be transmitted to us later on in the gospel (Mt 5:43-48).
Jesus learned from Joseph and Mary various attitudes toward life. In those times, the influence of the family was a lot more decisive than today, when schools and means of public communication could do the same or even more. In this episode, Joseph’s teaching legacy to Jesus is that of forgiveness, rejection of hatred and vengeance, of fighting for justice, to eliminate the blinders that obstruct one’s vision. Through this, something very essential to the message of Jesus such as love for one’s enemy will not appear in his words as just another form of moralization, but as an experience learned in his own life, and therefore, more authentic and demanding...