Monday, June 23, 2014

The Slave

LUCIUS read the letter carefully. 

It was so typical of his cynical old uncle—a humorous Roman—but a rogue if ever one lived. Sometimes one's better instincts resented his uncle's heartless cynicism and his frank, unblushing extravagance. 

But his witty apologies made one forget one's resentment in the roar of laughter that acknowledged his cleverness.

"Lucius, my son," he wrote, using, the young man noticed, the best parchment and not common wax slates, "the slaves I send you are a bit of Roman civilization to console you in the midst of your Jewish exile. They cost me a great deal so use them well. 

“The Gothic barbarian is strong enough to serve as porter or bully. The Greek is a skilled secretary who will write your letters or heal your aches. 

"And the girl . . . Oh, Lucius, my generous heart alone makes me send her to you when my artistic nature bids me not to do so. Think of your old uncle affectionately. Hail and farewell." 

Lucius looked up at the messenger who had delivered the parchment.

"Where are the slaves?" he asked.

"At the exchange of Synesius the Persian,” replied the messenger with bowed head. 

“He awaits your acceptance. We brought them carefully from Rome to Jerusalem by the best boats and the smoothest wheels. Your uncle bade us commit them to you in perfect condition."

"We shall see them," said Lucius sternly, using the pronoun uttered by the rich elite to emphasize their exceptionalism.

It was like his rascally old uncle to remember him in his diplomatic posting to the Province of Judea. The Goth he could use for a bodyguard. Romans needed bodyguards when mad Messiahs ran berserk on Jerusalem’s dirty streets. The educated Greek could be commanded to do many things for Greeks were both clever and useful. 

But the girl . . . ?

A disturbing gift
How like his uncle to send him a girl slave. Lucius frowned. Was his uncle a true friend or a clever enemy out to sabotage his ascent into the higher realm of Roman politics?

A girl was either trouble or a source of trouble. But a girl slave could be more trouble than she was worth. He had seen it before with debauched slave owners. 

He needed to focus all his energy on his goal of returning to Rome cloaked in glory. This slave girl, or any woman, would complicate his great, personal mission immensely.

Lucius boarded the “lectica” borne by four slaves. Four Roman legionaries clad in armored tunics accompanied the procession through Jerusalem’s crowded streets: past bales and boxes, animal cages, bunches of fruit, and through the thousand smells of spices, sandalwood and human sweat.

Lucius alighted from the sedan at the exchange of Synesius the Persian, who welcomed him fearfully. The Persian led him to a small room, rough yet fitted for human occupancy. 

Here sat the dirty, hairy Goth; the Greek, who had somehow remained spotlessly clean despite the long journey from Rome, and the girl, hidden by the shadow of a column.

Lucius appraised the Goth and the Greek quickly and with a satisfied glance. Synesius dragged the girl from within the shadow and Lucius now understood why his uncle hesitated giving her away. 

She was young and truly beautiful, her lean figure unable to detract from a charm that was magnified by her shimmering blonde hair.

“Why is she clothed in rags?” Lucius demanded.

"She would not dress in the fine garments we brought her," apologized the messenger. "I am sorry."

Lucius stared at his beautiful slave and understood why she refused the rich garments; they would have made her irresistible. He lifted-up her chin so his eyes could feast more on her lovely face. Instead, Lucius saw terror in her brilliant blue eyes. 

"Come," Lucius commanded the messenger. "'We shall take them to my house."

A brave Jewess
The burly Goth lumbered onward followed by the Greek who walked in mincing steps. The girl had to be prodded forward by the irritated messenger. The slaves were all in chains. 

This motley assemblage paused at the street entrance to Synesius’ compound while Lucius and the Persian discussed the business at hand. 

The slave girl slumps against a pillar, resigned to an evil fate at the hands of her Roman master. She begins to sob.

A gentle hand on her shoulder makes the slave girl look up and stop crying. A smiling woman embraces her, saying soothing words she did not understand but took to be words of pity. 

The slave girl raises her chained arms. The woman takes off her blue cloak and uses it to cover the slave girl’s badly torn garments.

“You! Move away from that slave!” shouts the messenger in Hebrew. 

One of their Roman soldier escorts, hearing the shout, moves towards the women, his right hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword.

Lucius looks up to see a commotion and growing crowd of onlookers. Hurrying forward, he sees his slave girl clinging to the shoulder of this woman he assumes to be a Jew. 

The messenger and the soldier wait for Lucius to speak.

“Tell the Jewess to leave,” commands Lucius to the messenger, who does so in Hebrew.

In reply, the Jewess lifts the slave girl and embraces her. 

“Tell the Jewess she will die if she does not leave.” 

And having said that, Lucius commands the Roman soldier to unsheathe his short sword. This, the soldier does and moves closer to the Jewess.

The messenger translates Lucius’ command. 

The milling crowd of Jews gasps collectively upon hearing the threat. More Jews gather. The remaining three Roman soldiers form a wall between the growing mob and their Roman master. 

The Jewess and the slave girl embrace each other more tightly than before. It tells Lucius they are ready to die together. The Jewess speaks loudly so all can hear.

“What did she say?” Lucius asks the messenger.

She begs you to set this slave girl free. The Jewess says she will pay for your slave girl with all the money she has, the messenger replies.

Lucius scoffs. How much money can a poverty stricken Jewess carry on her person?

He approaches the two women. 

“Tell the Jewess to show me what money she carries,” he commands the messenger.

The Jewess takes a purse from beneath her robe. She pours all the contents into the palm of her left hand: three Herodean coins.

The messenger breaks into loud, mocking laughter. Lucius sneers. 

“Not even enough for a pigeon,” he gloats. 

Lucius nods at the Roman soldier who moves to within a sword’s length of the women. The slave girl wails in panic, begging for her life, but the Jewess stands bravely in the face of imminent death.

An overwhelming kindness
Lucius’ eyes fasten onto those of the Jewess. Her iron gaze stares back at him. 

She is unafraid, this Lucius can see. He admires strength, which is all too often absent in women.

But as she stares at this doomed Jewess, Lucius realizes it is not hatred he sees in her eyes. It is an overwhelming kindness. 

Only now does Lucius really see her face. Unclouded by prejudice, Lucius becomes aware of an elderly woman whose great suffering has not diminished her love of God or her respect for others. 

He becomes aware he stands in the presence of a mother who has undergone the incredible pain of great personal loss, but who does not hate. He becomes aware of a woman who bore into the world The Son of God.

This epiphany stuns Lucius. It is as if someone were talking to him and telling him the story of this Jewess.

Lucius is abruptly awakened from this vision by angry shouts. He looks farther afield to see his three Roman guards pressed backwards by an ever larger mass of bystanders. He looks at the Jewess.

“Tell her I accept her payment,” says Lucius to the messenger.

“What?” the messenger replies incredulously.

 “Tell her now and shout it out! Do it . . . now!” Lucius commands.

The messenger yells Lucius’ reply. The shouting and pushing from the crowd ceases. 

“Take her money,” he tells the messenger. 

He turns to Synesius.

“Free the Goth and the Greek. Unchain the girl.”

The messenger shouts to the crowd what Lucius has done. Synesius complies with Lucius’ order and the two freed men hurry towards the two women.

“Tell them they are all free to go.”

The freed slaves thank Lucius profusely in their own languages. They shout with joy. The crowd roars with them.

The Jewess approaches Lucius and speaks.

She says she knew you would set them all free, translates the messenger. 

“We thank you,” she added.

“We?” asked Lucius, who is shocked to suddenly understand what the Jewess is saying in Hebrew. The messenger is dumbfounded to hear the Jewess speak in Latin and the Roman in Hebrew.

“My Son and I,” she replied. 

“Your son?”

“His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.”

“Your name is . . . Mary,” says the astonished Roman. “Why do I know your name and understand your language?”

The Jewess smiles faintly. “My Son has touched you.”

So saying, Mary the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, departs the Roman’s presence, taking with her the three persons freed from bondage by a miracle.