[Today’s story, the conclusion to the Scribe of Nicodemus, is actually the one I originally intended to write (since I write more-or-less stream of consciousness, it is easy to get sidetracked!). The impetus for this project was the fact that Jesus seemed to expect Nicodemus to understand what he said in John 3. I found myself wondering what kind of response Jesus was looking for, and whether Nicodemus — or anyone! — could have handled it better.
I thought about writing myself into the encounter with Jesus, but I wanted a character who hadn’t already studied this passage a dozen or more times. On the other hand, there had to be some plausible way for the character to improve on Nicodemus. This led me to the idea of Nicodemus’ personal secretary: bright, educated, young, and in a position to benefit from Nicodemus’ example. I chose the name Samuel because, frankly, it was one of the few Jewish names I could spell! Similarly, I mentioned Gamaliel at the beginning simply to burnish Samuel’s resume. Their climactic encounter at the end of Part I — and the significance of his namesake — caught me completely by surprise.
As will today’s narrative, because as of right now I have no idea how Samuel will react when he meets Jesus…]
I wait in the darkness, shivering — not from the cold. Most would call what I’m doing disloyal; some would call it blasphemy. I can’t help it; I have to know. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can barely think. My familiar world — everything I’ve ever believed in — is hanging by a thread. I’m terrified that the thread might snap; yet, a part of me is hoping that it will. That just maybe there’s something bigger, brighter, and more beautiful awaiting at the bottom of this seemingly dark chasm I’m dangling over.
But just when I’m ready to give up hope, He comes…
I stare at the man who has turned my world upside down. At first glance, it seems impossible that this gentle, humble Galilean had overturned the tables in the temple — until I see the fire sleeping in his eyes. I do not make the usual signs of respect due a rabbi, but neither do I spew the vicious words I had fantasized. He smiles slightly, his face compassionate, as if he can read my heart and understands the battle raging therein even better than I do.
“Teacher”, I say, my voice choking on the word. “I have come to believe that God brought you into my life, though I don’t understand why. The things you have done… trouble me. They don’t seem to make any sense — yet perhaps it is better to say that I can’t make sense of them.”
I pause, uncertain how he will respond to my ambivalent plaint. He smiles, though it is a grim smile. The fire in his eyes leaps to life, and he speaks directly into the depths of my soul:
‘Do you want to know the truth? If you desire to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.’
I stagger back as if struck by a whip, falling to my knees.
“But teacher,” I cry. “I was born a Jew, a child of Abraham. All my life I’ve longed for nothing more than to live out that birthright. My greatest joy, my highest pride, my deepest thankfulness, all this and more flowed from my birth, my parents, my community, my leaders. How can you ask me to give that up?”
‘As long as you live the life you were born to in the flesh, you will never understand the life lived by the Spirit. It is not solid like earth, that you can sculpt and mold to your will. It is like the wind, free and unpredictable. All you can do is acknowledge it and work with it, rather than attempt to contain it.’
The truth of his words pierce my heart. Fool! Did I really think that when Messiah comes, he would fit so neatly into the theological boxes we had built for him. Had I forgotten that Abraham was called of God before he was circumcised? Had not God’s Glory left Solomon’s temple when it ceased to honor Him? That though it is idolatry to worship outside the temple, is it not blasphemy to worship the temple instead of God? Is not true faith to worship the God behind the veil, the One we cannot see — so that we can recognize His Spirit when it comes?
“Master, who are you? How do you know these things?”
‘You have studied the scriptures from your youth, and yet you still do not know? I speak the truth because I know the truth, for I have seen the truth. Are you ready to face the truth about the earthly things you once believed in? If not, why should I bother to show you heavenly things?”
I cast myself at his feet, finally showing him the respect due a great teacher. The same respect I had once shown Gamaliel and Nicodemus.
“Master, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
I feel a soft hand on my shoulder, as he kneels before me.
‘Know that I have heard your cry, Samuel son of Jacob. Not just this cry, but all the anguished longings of your heart. I am the one who has come down from heaven to reveal the things of heaven, but I am also the one who must be lifted up to return to heaven, that all may see me and know the way to eternal life.’
I lay there a long time, weeping — whether from joy or sorrow, I know not. I find myself wishing I could die right there and then, so that I need never leave that Presence.
Finally, he dries my tears and stands me up. Forcing myself, I look him in the eye:
“Lord, what must I do to be saved?”
‘Simply believe. And follow.’
“Lord, I do not fear for myself, but what of Nicodemus? Who will tell him, care for him?”
‘He must walk his own path. But you must walk mine.’
“Will I ever see him again?”
‘Follow me,’ he replies. ‘And at the end, when I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me. Including the one you once called master.’
At that, he leaves. As do I, in the footsteps of my new Master…
I stand on a God-forsaken hillside, staring at the broken body of the man I had left everything to follow. The jeers of the crowd and the laughter of the guards might just as well be for me. Fool! I of all people should’ve known better. Scribes exist to record history, not make it. In the end, death and power and cruelty always wins. Even if Jesus was whom he said he was, all it meant was that God Himself had finally left us. I had followed a dream, and ended up alone.
So wrapped up am I in self-pity and self-loathing that I do not hear the man approach until he lays a hand on my shoulder. I turn with a snarl, which melts instantly at the sight of that oh-so-familiar face. Weathered by three long years of age, and a longer night of grief, it is still like the face of an angel to me. I embrace my old master, and we both break down into weeping.
When I regain a measure of control, I look haltingly into his face. “Master, it is good to see you here, and I am grateful. Yet, I can’t help but wonder, if you had come earlier, if… this could have been prevented.” I flinch, fearing my words will cause him further pain. To my surprise, he laughs, if only a brief snort.
“Ah, Samuel. You understand much, except for how little you understand. This chapter has closed, but the story is not ended. Follow me, for God still has work to be done, even by a pair of religious hypocrites like us.”
At that, he leaves, heading towards the cross. As do I, in the footsteps of my Master…