A short story, fiction, told in the first-person.
By Gerald F. Ward (© 2005)
The First and Last Passover
Every year for Passover I invited many of the priests serving at the temple into my home. They were far from their homes and it was pleasing for me to have them come and celebrate Passover. I was a priest. I know the heart of the priest.
That year was no different than any other. There were always thousands of priests in Jerusalem for the Feast. The city swelled as people came from all places to celebrate the Lord’s greatness in the City of David. Many of the people would stay for Pentecost. From every country and place where the Lord had scattered His people, His people would come and worship Him.
I know the Lord is pleased when His people remember. We remember when He brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand against Pharaoh. Yet many question why the Lord did not do the same with the Romans. They were everywhere. Even during our great celebrations they could be seen on their patrols. Our Lord destroyed Pharaoh’s army in a moment and a flood. Caesar’s army was no different. We prayed. He answered “no.”
That Passover the discussion amongst the priests was not about the Romans, nor the Diaspora, nor the Lord’s kingdom and our place in it and how He would bring it about. No, the discussions, the arguments, were about one man, Jesus by name, from Galilee.
I was already old when I first saw and heard Jesus. He taught at the temple and people came to him like ants to honey. He drew to himself the poorest of the poor, those covered with sin and those proud of their sin. Beggars, lame and blind and deaf and mute, covered with sores, bent from disease. The Lord’s wrath was upon them we thought. All came to this one man. Prostitutes and tax collectors came to him. Even many Romans came to him. They all came to him because they thought he affected a sort of healing of their bodies. He even forgave them their sins. Who would not go to someone who pretended to have authority to forgive sins?
Not many priests went to him nor did many of the leaders and teachers among us. The Lord had shown us how sin could be forgiven. Sins are forgiven only through the sacrifices at the temple. Almighty God appointed priests to mediate for the people, to bring to them the peace of the Lord, through the sacrifices of blood. Jesus was telling the people the priests were not needed. He was driving the people away from the Lord, so we thought. He was demon possessed and worked miracles for the adversary, so we thought. He was leading the people astray, so we thought.
He was all we talked about during Passover. For good or for evil he demanded our attention and the whole attention of the people who came to Jerusalem. The whole city was stirred up by his presence.
On the first day of the week I went to the temple. I had already selected several lambs for the meal. I had gathered all the food we would need for the feast. My wife had cleared the house of all leaven. She sent our grandchildren throughout the house looking for more. We always left little piles of bread in several places so they could find it and bring to us what they found with smiles and pride. I loved watching them in their search and encouraged them to look here or look there. So, our home was prepared for the Passover. All we needed was to invite a large group of priests to come to the celebration. Many felt honored to come to my home each year for Passover.
We believed the Lord used Herod and his sons to build the temple. They were evil men who thought they could buy their way into the Lord’s presence. The temple was not yet finished, taking over forty years to build. I remember when Herod began construction on the old temple mount. He built his own palace on a hill above the temple and finished his palace long before the temple. He poured gold and silver stolen from the people into his projects. He poured the blood of many Israelites into the very stones of all he built. But the temple was magnificent and we were proud.
Yes, the priests who were there were proud. We were proud of our lofty place in Israel. All came to us at some time, many times during their lives. They were required by law to come at least once a year. They came to us. And they had to come to us in the magnificent temple the Lord built for us. The temple was the center of life in Israel. We worked for the Lord offering for the people the sacrifices required by the Lord’s holy law. We were proud of what we did. Proud of our place. Proud of our position. Proud.
I was proud I could offer my home as a place for my fellow priests to come and fulfill the requirement of the Lord in celebrating the Passover.
Did I not tell you my sons were all priests? For one to become a priest one’s father must first be a priest. All of my sons were priests. They were priests and teachers. Priests and Pharisees. Priests and also members of the Sanhedrin. My sons followed the law and taught the law and lived the law. My brothers and I were priests. So, too, were my father and his brothers. I am a son of Aaron.
Passover was a joyous time in my home. Often, my sons and their families would come. Two of my sons and their families and twelve priests would come to my home.
Alas, it was not to be.
I was in the temple several days before Passover. Jesus and his disciples were there. Many of the priests in the temple wanted to argue with him. They felt they could best him. Make him slip. Catch him in something he would say. There was a group of us there. One man, a teacher as well as a priest, asked Jesus a question. “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to do them?” Jesus had healed some people. He taught using hard to understand parables and stories. Some thought they were nonsense stories. But the people thought he was an authority so the question was a good one. Or, so we thought.
Here was Jesus’ answer. “I will ask you one question: answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.”
None of the priests liked John. But we respected him. He stood alone against Herod. None of us had the spine to do what he did. We were surrounded by people who adored John and hated Herod for killing John, an innocent man. In our eyes he was just a man. In the eyes of the people he was a prophet of the Lord like those from our history. We didn’t know how to answer Jesus. So he didn’t answer us.
Another priest asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. But he didn’t just ask. He was trying to trap Jesus in his words. “We know you have integrity and you teach the truth of God. We see you are not swayed by the thoughts or actions of men.” Why would they say such things to Jesus when they thought he was evil? They spoke with two mouths, two minds, and two hearts. With one they sought to entrap him. With the other they praised him, setting out bait for their trap. I watched this and it hurt my heart.
“We want to know what you think and feel,” they continued. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” There is nothing in our law which says we should not pay taxes to the authority over us. There are many places where the Lord tells us if we disobey Him He will send an enemy to discipline us and subdue us and punish us. We were under the Roman shield because of disobedience to the Lord. We were waiting for our deliverer to come and throw off the shield and sword of Rome. But until then we were obliged to pay taxes to the Romans. In fact, it was not the Romans who overtaxed us. It was our own people. It was priests who were tax collectors!
“Why are you trying to trap me?” Jesus asked, rebuking them. “You hypocrites!” He saw through them. “Show me a coin. One used to pay your tax. Do you see an image on the coin? Whose image is it? Who’s writing? Whose words?”
“Caesar’s,” they answered.
“Give to Caesar that which belongs to him. Give to God that which belongs to Him.”
I heard myself gasp and gulp in air. I heard them mutter. But their duplicity had lost me to them. My whole life was spent serving the Lord. They, too, were dedicated servants of the Lord. But they were not acting like the Lord’s servants. They were acting shamefully. What belonged to the Lord? Did not everything belong to the Lord? Does He not give to whom He wishes, raising up one and cutting low another? Honoring one and humbling another? You cannot serve the Lord with lies. He demands honesty from those who are his servants. He separates obedient people who are His from those of the world who rebel against Him.
Jesus’ words hit me and clung to me and would not relinquish me to my own thoughts. I did not hear much of what transpired for the next few minutes. I could think of nothing but the words “give to God that which belongs to Him.” I have felt obligated to give to the Lord everything. Do not all priests and scribes and teachers of the law feel great joy in giving their lives to Him and receiving from Him such abundant love?
I had a question for Jesus. I determined to ask it and moved closer to the man, worming my way through the crowd so I might stand in front of him. Those who were seeking to trap him glared at me. Jesus’ eyes were fire and his countenance was stone.
“Teacher,” I said, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
I heard murmurs of approval from behind me. Turning, I looked at them. Their eyes gleamed with a devious delight. They thought I also was trying to trap Jesus. My eyes were sad. I knew already the answer I sought. Their eyes showed me their deceit. They could not tell me the answer to my question. I turned back to Jesus. The fire had gone from his eyes. They were filled with tears. He looked into my eyes, never wavering.
“The greatest commandment is this,” he answered. His voice was strong. “‘Hear this, Israel. The Lord your God is one God. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and with all of your mind and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment and the greatest commandment. The second is like it. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Upon these two commandments rest all of the Law and all of the writings of the Prophets.”
“Well said, teacher,” I responded. Behind me men grumbled. “The Lord is one and you are right in saying so. To love Him with all your being and to love your neighbor is worth more than all the burnt offerings and all the sacrifices.” I knew Jesus truly loved the Lord. His answer showed this to me.
“You are not far,” he said to me in a low voice full of intimacy and love, “from the kingdom of God.” He placed his hand upon my shoulder and squeezed slightly. Behind me no one spoke. The truth silenced their lie.
Jesus continued to teach. He spoke in parables and riddles few present understood. I would say even most of his disciples did not understand what he was saying. I understood. He spoke about loving the Lord and how we showed our love for Him or how we didn’t show we loved Him. He spoke about the end of all things. He rebuked those who served the Lord but hated those the Lord created to serve Him. He revealed his heart. We thought him ungodly and devious. It was not true. He was a godly man.
I did not know it then, but I too, became a follower of this man from Galilee. I went home pondering all I had heard and seen, weighing the evidence against the agitated words of the priests. I told my wife what I heard and saw. I told my sons and daughters. I told my servants.
Over the few days before Passover they all came to me and told me they would not come to my home for the celebration. Two of the priests I invited caught my robes in the temple and excused themselves. They said their families had come to the City of David. I invited them and their families for there was much room in my home. They said “no” and left quickly. Other priests I invited came and offered differing excuses. “Where would you go?” I asked. None answered but just left my presence. They were lying to me. They did not want to come to my home. So I called my sons and asked them. My sons acted ashamed and aloof and told me it was because of my belief in Jesus. Then they told me they could not come. I was stung! How they hurt my heart. How I cried.
My home was now empty. All who would come, who would celebrate Passover with me were my wife and a few servants. I remembered crying out to the Lord in my sadness and grief.
“Have I not served You all my life?”
“Have I not trained up my family to serve You with their lives?”
“Were not families to remember and celebrate together the Passover?” My wife comforted me. Those dearest and closest to me rejected me.
One of my servants had gone out for water. His wife was ill and he, out of love for her, consented to bring water to our home so she could rest. When he returned with the water two men followed him. They told me their names, I do not remember them, and then they said their teacher needed a place to celebrate the Passover with his followers.
“Who is your teacher?” I asked.
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
I remember sitting there, gazing at these men for several minutes.
“Do you not know I am a priest?” I could see their discomfort at what I asked.
“Your servant told us what you thought of Jesus,” they answered. “Also, Jesus himself, told us to follow a man carrying a water jar and to ask the owner of the house he served for a place to celebrate the Passover.”
There is only one way Jesus could have known these things. I showed them the upper room and all I had gathered for the Passover.
That afternoon Jesus arrived with his disciples. It was not Passover but he came to me and thanked me for allowing them to use my home.
“It is two days before the Sabbath Passover,” I said. “Is it not early to celebrate the Passover?”
He looked at me with sadness and said the Passover lamb would indeed be sacrificed in time for all to celebrate Passover. I did not understand his words until later when the prophecies of the Lord were fulfilled.
He talked to me, just he and I. My wife sat and listened as we talked about the Passover and its meaning. We talked about the lamb of the Passover and how it was the blood of the lamb spread over the entrance to each home which the Lord saw. When the Angel of the Lord saw the blood He saw those who belonged to Him, ransomed from slavery. We talked about the death of the firstborn and how we were to redeem the firstborn. We talked about Pharaoh’s army and the army of the deceiver and how the Lord defeated his army and will defeat all who fight against Him. We talked about the exodus and the grumbling of the people yet the Lord remained faithful and brought His people out of slavery and bondage and into the land He gave them. We talked about loving the Lord and showing our love for Him. He taught me many things. He opened my eyes to many things.
After he had gone upstairs with his disciples my wife and I talked longer. There were tears on her cheeks and a great peace on her face. Though our sons had grieved us she was no longer feeling the grief. She was at peace and so was I. We saw the Lord’s mighty hand in all which had occurred. We went to bed and slept deeply.
Morning brought a day of horror. My friends, my fellow priests, had taken Jesus at night seeking to condemn him. When I awoke I knew nothing of these things. It was my custom to go to the temple early to worship the Lord with prayer and thanksgiving. That morning the temple was nearly deserted. There were some women in the outer court weeping. My heart felt compassion for them so I asked what was wrong. They told me the priests had taken Jesus to Pilate.
Then I wept with those women. Those who had taken Jesus knew he was an innocent man. Jesus broke none of our laws. There was only one reason they would take Jesus to Pilate. They wanted Pilate to hang him on a cross like a common criminal, like one feeling the wrath of the Romans. They were using Pilate as an instrument of murder.
I ran home and climbed to my roof. My house was on a hill near the inside wall of Jerusalem. Rarely did I go there. From the roof of my house I could see out over Jerusalem. I could also see the place of death, the Skull. It was morning and they had yet to crucify anyone.
As I hurried out on my way to the temple my wife asked, agony and fear in her voice, what I would do. I did not know what I was to do. I wanted to find my sons and scold them for being a part of this madness if they had participated. I wanted to find my friends and rail against them. I knew those responsible and I knew those who would follow along. I wanted to beat them with my fists and call down curses from the Lord against their heads. I wanted to go and convince them what they were doing was wrong and they should let this innocent man, a godly man, go. All of these things I thought on the way to the temple. But standing there, before my wife, the love of my years, I could not answer. I left and hurried back to the temple.
As I was entering the temple, covered with anguish as with a garment, I was asked by many, “where is he?” Common people asked. Women and men, tax collectors and beggars, Jews and foreigners, free men and slaves. “Where is he?”
“I do not know.”
“What will they do with him?”
“I do not know.”
“Will they let him go?”
“I do not know!” Then everyone left me and ran off down the streets and alleys of Jerusalem.
I prayed. There before the Lord in our magnificent temple, built by a tyrant with the blood of my people, I prayed. In my heart I felt the Lord close His eyes, withdraw His hand and turn His back. I knew He would not answer my prayer the way I wanted. I confessed my sin, the sin of the priesthood and rulers of Israel, the sin of the people. I wept and writhed and beat my breast. Finally, exhausted, I left.
Arriving home, I again climbed the stairs to the roof of my house. There on the hill stood three crosses. God answered my prayer. He had said “no.”
Silently, I walked back to the temple. I fell down on my face before God. I did not pray with words. Darkness fell over the temple, a darkness I felt on my skin. Others came in behind me. I did not stand. I heard them repeat many of the Psalms of David. I could hear them motion with their hands, it was so still in the world. In their voices I heard fear. How long I lay there I do not know. The stones were cold, the air was cold, and the temple was cold. I was cold.
I stood after a great length of time and then the whole temple began to tremble and shake. Those who were standing were thrown onto their faces. I fell forward, once again on my face. They cried out in fear, begging the Lord to spare their lives. I begged Him to take mine. Then we heard the sound of the curtain ripping, being torn asunder by the violent shaking. From the top it ripped to the very bottom exposing the Most Holy Place, revealing what we thought was the very presence of the Lord. Only then did those around me begin to beat their breasts. Our Lord exposed Himself. I knew Jesus had died.
I went home. It was preparation day and though it was no longer dark, darkness was coming and with the end of the day the beginning of Sabbath. My wife spent the day preparing for Passover. It was not a joyous time for her. Tears streaked her face. No one would be coming to our home.
Passover. We sat alone. We remembered the stories and drank the cup alone. With bitter tears, for we did not need the bitter herbs, we remembered how the Lord brought out of slavery those who were His. He had slain the firstborn of all Egypt and redeemed the firstborn of all Israel. His command had been to spread the blood of the lamb on the door-posts. He would see the blood and pass over. We also poured blood on the altar once a year hiding from the Lord’s eyes the sin of the people. I began silently to think through what had happened, what the Lord had done and what He was doing. I was perplexed, yet strangely, the burden on my heart was lifted. I could see softness in the countenance of my wife. After we drank the last cup we slept.
I awoke early on the first day of the week. My wife was sitting up in our bed. I could see the sun was rising over the land. My wife arose and walked to the foot of our bed and knelt. I could see someone standing there but I could not see who. I arose and stood next to my wife and then I knelt, too. Before us stood the Lamb who had been slain.