Jesus

Maybe any one day of a life, even the most humdrum, has in it something of the mystery of that life as a whole.

People had been flocking up to Jesus the way they always seemed to when word got around that he was in the neighborhood. A Roman officer came up to ask if he would do something for a paralyzed servant back home, and Jesus said he'd go have a look at him. When the officer said he hated to take that much of his time and asked if he couldn't just do something from right there where they were standing, Jesus was so impressed by the way the man trusted him that he told him he'd see to it that what he trusted would happen would happen indeed, and when the officer got home, he found his servant up and around again. Later on, when Jesus dropped in at Peter's house, he found Peter's mother-in-law in bed with a fever, and all he did that time was touch the old lady's hand, but that turned out to be all it took.

A scribe showed up and in a burst of enthusiasm said he was all set to follow him any place he went, to which Jesus answered, "Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but if you stick with me, you'll find yourself out in the cold" (Matthew 8:20). One of the disciples asked for a few days off to attend his father's funeral, and Jesus said, "Look, you've got to follow me. When life's at stake, burying the dead is for deadbeats" (Matthew 8:22). When he saw a big crowd approaching, he figured he didn't have enough steam left to do much for them that day, so he went and climbed into a boat for a few hours' peace, only to find that the disciples were hot on his heels and wanted to go along too. So he took them. Then he lay down in the stern of the boat with a pillow under his head, Mark says (4:34), and went to sleep.

Matthew leaves out the details about the stern and the pillow presumably because he thought they weren't important, which of course they're not, and yet the account would be greatly impoverished without them. There's so little about Jesus in the Gospels you can actually see.

He didn't doze off in the bow where the spray would get him and the whitecaps slapped harder. He climbed back into the stern instead. There was a pillow under his head. Maybe somebody put it there for him. Maybe they didn't think to put it there till after he'd gone to sleep, and then somebody lifted his head a little off the hard deck and slipped it under.

He must have gone out like a light because Mark says the storm didn't wake him, not even when the waves got so high they started washing in over the sides. They let him sleep on until finally they were so scared they couldn't stand it any longer and woke him up.They addressed him respectfully enough as Teacher, but what they said was reproachful, petulant almost. "Don't you see that we're all drowning?" (Mark 4:38).

It was the wind rather than the disciples that Jesus seems to have spoken to first, as soon as he'd gotten his eyes open. "He rebuked it," Mark says (4:38). "Cut that out!" — you can almost picture him staring it down with the hair lashing his face as he holds on to the gunwales to keep from being blown overboard. He was gentler with the sea. "Take it easy," he said. "Quiet down." When it came the disciples' turn, he said, "Why did you panic?" and then "What kind of faith do you call that?" but they were so impressed to find that the wind had stopped blowing and the sea had flattened out again that they didn't get around to answering him (4:39-41).

On the far shore was a cemetery where a crazy man lived covered with scars from where he was always smashing at himself with stones and from the chains they tried to tie him down with when he got even more violent than usual. As soon as the boat landed, he came gibbering out from behind the graves and went tearing down to the beach, but as soon as he saw Jesus, he stopped in his tracks and quieted down. They talked together a little, and then Jesus healed him.

The Roman officer, the sick old lady, the overenthusiastic scribe, the terrified disciples, the lunatic — something of who he was and what he was like and what it was like to be with him filters through each meeting as it comes along, but for some reason it's the moment in the boat that says most. The way he lay down, bone tired, and fell asleep with the sound of the lapping waves in his ears. The way, when they woke him, he opened his eyes to the howling storm and to all the other howling things that he must have known were in the cards for him and that his nap had been a few moments of vacation from. The helplessness of the disciples and the way he spoke to them. The things he said to the wind and to the sea.

Lamb of God, Rose of Sharon, Prince of Peace — none of the things people have found to call him has ever managed to say it quite right. You can see why when he told people to follow him, they often did, even if they backed out later when they started to catch on to what lay ahead. If you're religiously inclined, you can see why they went even so far as to call him Messiah, the Lord's Anointed, the Son of God, and call him these things still, some of them. And even if you're not religiously inclined, you can see why it is you might give your immortal soul, if you thought you had one to give, to have been the one to raise that head a little from the hard deck and slip a pillow under it.

Matthew 8:5-34; compare Mark 4:35-41

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words