Saturday Morning Short story: One Shepherd

December 15, 2012
To my dear readers: If you want to give a gift that a friend or sister will enjoy, please consider clicking on the little Christmas book, “The Angel’s Song” to the right. It’s an inspiring, touching story of a foster child, alone and frightened and searching for her mother. No a syrupy resolutions here. I think you’ll enjoy this second edition story. It’s available on Kindle, Nook or paperback. Just click the link and it’s easy to order.
 I hope you enjoy today’s little story, too.

One Shepherd.

Jacob squatted beside his small fire, his hairy knees protruding from under his tunic. He tore at his bread with his old, loose teeth, and washed down the mouthful with water from his wooden bowl. When he felt Matthew’s eyes on him, he moved his feet a few inches to turn his back more fully on the other shepherds. He turned the spit that held his share of the lamb that had been killed by a wolf before the shepherds could drive it away. The devil had dropped his prey when Jacob hit him in the face with a large stone from his sling. It had been too late. The lamb was already dead. Matthew had seen tears in the surly eyes when he saw that it was to have been the Passover lamb: a first born male without blemish. But now he was torn and bloody from the wolves.  

 But twelve-year-old Matthew didn’t need to see his lined cheeks or creased forehead to know that he scowled every moment except in sleep. Bitter words and harsh phrases issued from Jacob when he spoke, but thankfully, that was not often. But the boy was certain about the tears. Real tears on the brown leather cheeks.

Matthew moved away from the fire to where his father sat on a high rock to better watch over the sheep. “Do you know why Old Jacob wears such an ugly face?”

His father placed his hand on Matthew’s shoulder and drew him down beside him.

“I do know. Perhaps I am the only one left who remembers.”

“Will you tell me?”

“Yes, Matthew. But it is a sad story: a bitter story. Are you certain you want to know it?”

 “I am curious about him. He seems to hate me more than anyone else.”
“No, he doesn’t single you out. The youngest shepherds always feel his glare the hottest.” Father opened his coat and wrapped it around his son’s shoulders, pulling him into the warmth of his body.

“I’ve told you a hundred times of the night when we watched our sheep, right here on this hill. I was only your age and Jacob was a young man, newly married and very happy. He played a reed flute at night and his tunes were always merry. When the angel appeared in the night sky, I was so afraid that I fell right down on the ground and he put his arm around me to comfort me. When the angel had delivered his glad tidings, Jacob leaped up first of all, to run to Bethlehem.

The town was surrounded with poor travelers camping around it because of the census. The Romans had called for us to pay our taxes. Every nook and crook and cave seemed to have someone nesting in it as they waited for their names to be registered. But the angel told us that we would find the new baby boy wrapped in his swaddling clothes and lying in one of the stone mangers that are for feeding cattle when the grass is not enough.”

“And you found the baby quickly because of the brilliant star that hung over the place where he lay.”

“Yes. The baby was just as the angel said and his bed was bathed in the silver light of the beautiful star. Jacob squeezed my shoulder and drew me down to the earth to kneel beside the manger. He said, “We are looking at the Son of God! He is the Messiah!” To me, he looked like an ordinary baby. He was so tiny. It was hard to imagine such a little fellow could be the promised Messiah.

“But when we knew we must return to the sheep, Jacob played his flute and danced as we went. The heavens were filled with angels, all singing and praising God, and Jacob seemed to be trying to leap into heaven with them, and to blend his song with theirs. I did not feel such joy again until the day you were born.

“All of us told others what we had seen and heard. Not everyone believed us, but Jacob never spoke of anything else. The next day, he took his young bride to the camp and showed the baby to her. In those days, Matthew, there was never even a shadow on Jacob’s face, he was so joyful. We all felt the honor and joy of seeing the Messiah, but Jacob seemed to revel in it every hour of every day, even more than the rest of us.

“A few days after the birth, the Holy Baby was taken to Jerusalem to be circumcised. I suppose they went on to Nazareth from there, since that’s where his mother and foster father lived. We didn’t see them again.

“But Jacob’s joy was doubled and tripled, if that was possible, when a few months later, he learned that he was to be a father himself. He set about making a cradle before anyone could even see that his wife was expecting. He carved it with great care, and embellished it with many small stars and with a large one that would stand over the baby’s head. “So my son will never forget that his father saw the Christ!”

“We teased him that perhaps it would be a girl. He would laugh and say that was impossible. He said he was the most favored of all men, to be a shepherd, to have seen the Christ and to have a good wife who would give him a child so soon.”

“Old Jacob had a child? Was it a boy or a girl?”

“Well, he was right about it being a boy. And he was born almost to the day, a year after we had seen the Lord. Jacob went around the town with his big white teeth showing all day long. He never ceased smiling. And his flute lilted through the nights and the sheep thrived. His little son was indeed a handsome little fellow and Jacob liked to ride him on his shoulder so that everyone in Bethlehem could admire him.”

Perhaps Father’s story drifted to Jacob, because he turned and raised his eyes to them. Father nodded to him. He huddled back into his coat, covering his head with his shawl.

“It is not a sad story yet.”

“No. But when almost another year had passed, Herod’s soldiers swept down on the towns of Israel like a vast pack of wolves. Herod had heard of the birth of the Messiah, somehow, and loving power and riches, he was determined to kill this King of the Jews while he was still an infant. They started here in Bethlehem and it happened so suddenly that nobody had time to hide their children the way that Moses had been saved in the rushes. Even at this distance, we heard the screams of the mothers and fathers as all the boys younger than two years were murdered. Jacob didn’t know what the noise was about, but he left us with the sheep and ran to his own house.

“He got there before the soldiers but there was nowhere in his  stone cottage for his wife to hide their baby. So he stood in the door and when the soldiers came, he asked them why they were doing this. The soldier told him they were ordered to kill all the baby boys so that they would kill the King who had been born.

Jacob begged for the soldiers to have mercy, but they would not relent. At last he asked if he was to tell them where the baby had gone, if they would spare the rest of the children of Bethlehem. They struck the bargain and so Jacob told them the story of the angels and the baby laid in the manger. He told the captain that the parents were Nazarenes and that the baby had been born at the time of the taxing. “He will be almost two years old, now. So you see, my son is much too young to be the child. The child Herod seeks lives in Nazareth. He was only born in Bethlehem.”

Father spoke very low, as though the words were squeezed through his throat with effort. “The soldiers thanked him for telling them and dispatched a messenger to the captain. But then they said that their orders were not to find the infant king, but to kill all boys younger than two years. They pushed Jacob from the door and drove a sword through his son as the baby nursed at his mother’s breast. The sword pierced Jacob’s wife, too. Both of his family died in a moment and the soldiers carried on with their slaughter without mercy.”

A long moment lay silently between the father and son.  “I understand why he is so miserable.”

“No, you probably don’t. Of course the whole land mourned and suffered for the loss of our babies. Imagine what they had to bear in that cruel day! Jacob’s flute was silent and he did not dance or speak. He would not go to the synagogue, either. The other families recovered with time, but Jacob could not. The Rabbi said it was because of the bargain. He had told the Rabbi how he had told the soldiers where the infant Christ could be found. He believes that he has thwarted God.”

“But surely he has heard of the Rabbi in Jerusalem who has done so many miracles and teaches such wonderful things? You said yourself that you believed he was the Christ!”

“Yes, I told him. But he will not be comforted. He told me to leave him to suffer for his sins. His faith has waned to a flicker. He has forgotten the angels and the star and the child in the manger.”

Matthew studied the wizened figure hunched over his lonely fire. He felt him straining to listen to their conversation. “Father, you must take him to Jerusalem for Passover. Tonight, when he saw that the dead lamb was the Passover lamb, I saw tears on his face. “
“I don’t think he’d go. “

“Just ask him. Why were there tears on his face if he has no faith at all? What can be better for faith than Passover in Jerusalem?”

So Matthew’s father asked Jacob to go to Jerusalem for Passover with his family. Old Jacob’s lips made a hard, tight slash in his face, but he nodded once. “I will go to Jerusalem to face the Rabbi.”

The following month, when the fresh green shoots of April pushed up in the warm morning sun Jacob walked behind them, shuffling his feet as though they were unwilling to carry him forward. He scowled no less than ever. It was not a long walk, just two hour’s worth.

Jerusalem’s streets rattled and roared. Everywhere, vendors sold unleavened bread, bitter herbs and young, unblemished lambs. Everywhere they went, they heard of the Rabbi, Jesus. He gave the blind sight, the deaf, sound and the lame, legs to dance and run. He had come into the city on the colt of an ass just a few days earlier and had been hailed as the King of the Jews. People fluted and danced as they rejoiced.

Matthew saw old Jacob straining his neck to hear what was said. And when the people fluted and danced, his eyes shown in a way Matthew had never seen before. He was terribly sad, but some of the bitterness seemed to have slipped away.

That evening, when they camped on the banks of a small creek, Old Jacob came to speak to Matthew’s father. “I must see the young rabbi Jesus,” he said.

“It is very difficult with so many people.”

“But I must see him. I have something I must say to the Rabbi Jesus.” He stared at the ground, his cheeks burning.

“We will search tomorrow. You see that I already purchased a new lamb.”
“Yes.” Old Jacob clutched a handful of his own tunic over his chest. “I need some help.”

All day that Thursday, they searched. But it seemed that when news of the young rabbi reached them here or there, he was gone by the time they got there. Finally they learned that he had come in the west gate and had gone to an upper room of an Inn, already prepared to celebrate the Passover feast. The landlord acknowledged that Jesus and his closest friends had retired to the upper room, but he barred his way. It was dusk. They must not be disturbed.

“We’ll find him in the morning,” Matthew’s father told Old Jacob. We’ll come first thing.”

But in the morning, the landlord met them, pale and trembling. “He has been taken to Pilate’s court!”  he wailed. “The Sanhedrin is demanding his life. He calls himself the Son of God and I believe him. But the Elders are threatened, just as Herod was threatened by the news of his birth in Bethlehem!”

Old Jacob shook so violently that Matthew and his father held him under his arms. “I was there!” he cried. “I heard the angel myself. He said he was the Son of God! Peace on Earth and good will to men!” How can he be crucified?”

“Hurry then! Perhaps you can testify for him.”

The gates to the palace were already closed but through the chinks, Matthew glimpsed a young man, stripped to the waist, his hands tied over his head and spread wide. A centurion watched, his arms crossed on his chest, while a slave tested the strands of a scourge. Bits of bone and broken glass were braided into the whip. He drew blood from the white, unmarked back of the Rabbi Jesus with his first blow. Two, three, four, five, each found a new path until the girdle around his loins was blood-soaked.

Old Jacob turned to Matthew’s father. “You must take your son away from here! You must not let him see this.” The sound of the blows continued behind the gate.
Matthew wondered if he would faint, he was so dizzy. He leaned on his father who put his arm around him, supporting him.

“Oh, my friends, flee from this, my shame! He is betrayed! I saw him when his head was still wet from his mother! I saw the star and the angel and I heard the heavens burst for the joy of the praise of him! This cannot be! It cannot be!”  

Another man, poorly dressed watched also. “He gave me my sight. I was born blind and he opened my eyes.” Tears spilled from them then.

Old Jacob turned to the man. “How has this come to pass? How comes he here?”

“You said it yourself. He is betrayed.”

“I knew it! I knew it. Thirty one years they searched and now they have finally found him! Herod has caught his prize at last!”

“No.” Another man, well dressed and clean, spoke. “Herod has nothing to do with this. Do you not know that the prophets said he was rejected and acquainted with grief? And it was his friend, Judas Iscariot who betrayed him, not Herod.”

“Oh, it does not matter now!” Old Jacob cried. See? They wrap him in purple and mock him with a crown of thorns! I cannot bear it! I am come too late!”

The clean man spoke again. “I am Joseph, from Arimathea. He knew that he would die for us. He must go into the grave to burst its bands. He said so.”

“What else? What else?” Jacob’s torment wrung his words.

“Why have you not come to hear him yourself?”

Old Jacob rent his robe. “I couldn’t come. Not after what I did!”

 Joseph put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “His words were of forgiveness. He taught of love and kindness. He said, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

Old Jacob fell to his knees and pushed his way, crawling to the front of the throng outside the gate. He forced his boney shoulders up to a chink. Matthew could hardly make out what he yelled, the din was so great in the press.

“Oh Jesus, thou Son of God! The angel proclaimed your birth to us! I heard it! I rejoiced with the hosts of heaven and I saw you lying in a manger in Bethlehem. King of Heaven and Earth, Wonderful, Councilor, The Mighty God, have mercy on me, who betrayed you to Herod’s soldiers!”

 

The press of the crowd was too much and Matthew and his father were swept away from the old man and Pilate’s gate. The sun arched toward the west already. They met with his mother and brothers and sisters and they hurried back to Bethlehem, to be there before the sun set and the Sabbath began.

It was a week later when Old Jacob returned. He came with a flute to his lips and his footsteps light and joyful. Matthew did not recognize him without his scowl, but he went to Jacob’s house and he spoke in Jacob’s voice.

That night, as the shepherds gathered  for an evening meal, Old Jacob joined the men around the fire.

“I was there, you know. I was a shepherd that saw his star and heard the angel and met him first when he was still in his first swaddling bands. I betrayed him to save my son, and my son died anyway.” He wept again.

Old Jacob looked at Matthew and his father. He lowered his voice, as though for privacy. “It was just a glance. Just an instant in his suffering, but he heard me beg him to forgive me. Just the flick of an eyelash and I knew He had heard me.”
For the first time in his life, Matthew spoke to Old Jacob without fear. “But is your heart not broken for your dead son and wife?”

Old Jacob’s eyes shone in the firelight, two liquid pools of joy. “He was crucified. After they scourged him, they crucified him. We carried his dead body to a tomb. But he rose! He rose from the dead. And now all of us, you and I, my Miriam and baby Jacob will rise from the graves to live forever!”

And so it was that Old Jacob fluted and danced again. His scowl faded away and the soft light of peace shone from him. And everywhere he went he told the story. “I was one of the shepherds…”

 

 

 

 

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