Eli – the merchant
I had reached Jerusalem earlier that week. It was beginning to get busy with the Passover Feast approaching. That was why I was there.
I had travelled from my home town of Cana and I was bringing jars of our fine olive oil to the city. Our trees and oil presses were ancient and several generations of my family had worked the land and brought the oil to Jerusalem, just as I was doing, in anticipation that people would want it for the Passover festival in a week’s time. I was even going to take some to the Temple to offer it to the priests in case they did not have enough for the endless lamps and fires that burned there. I had ointment with me too. We needed to take every opportunity we could as the year had been hard and with Jerusalem so busy it was too good an occasion to miss.
My brother would bring more of our merchandise to the city in a few days. But in the meantime I intended to sell what I could. It was the first time I had been entrusted with some of our precious goods and whilst I was determined to make a success of the journey, I also wanted to explore the city.
I wound my way through the city streets with my donkeys, each of whom carried two containers of oil. I was heading for my Uncle Jacobus’ home. He was a wealthy man and had plenty of room for both the animals and the jars of oil. I would go to the Temple the next day and see what their needs were, and then walk the streets of Jerusalem selling the rest, as well as exploring the city.
Jacobus and his family gave me a warm welcome and a good meal. I was tired and, after checking my animals which were being cared for by the servants, I went to bed, to sleep and dream of all the amazing things I would experience in the big city.
For the first two days things went as planned, just as I had imagined they would. With Passover only a day or two away there was a good demand for our oil and I did well, selling much of it to the Temple procurers and a good deal on the streets. I had been told by my father and brother where to go and, by the time my brother arrived with his cargo of oil, I had sold most of mine.
He was an experienced salesman, and he had many skills in selling that he had picked up from my father and others over the years. He made me accompany him so that I could listen to how he did it. I was indignant as I had been successful myself but after a short while with him I realised I had a lot to learn. Within the day, all of his oil had gone, as well as the rest of mine.
We spent the next day purchasing produce that we required which we would take home after the feast. There were certain things we could not get in our town, and so we made the most of our time in the city and my brother and I scoured the streets for the merchandise we needed. Then, for one day before the feast we were free to explore the city until the Passover meal, which we would celebrate with my uncle and his family. So it was that I was near the city gate when I heard a hubbub in the distance. People were shouting and clapping their hands and singing. Intrigued I edged my way closer. A crowd was developing just inside the gate, but the gate was too narrow for me to see through it well enough to discover what was happening. I could not make out what the crowd was shouting about. The noise just got louder and louder and the people around me began shouting too, although how they knew what to shout was beyond me. They were just making a noise as far as I could tell.
Then I began to decipher a single word.
That’s what they were shouting.
I could not make out the rest of what they were saying. There were several words in between each hosanna, and I just made a noise like the rest of the crowd around me. As they approached I began to hear them.
‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
What did they mean ‘the Son of David’? I mean, I knew that the Messiah, who had been promised to the Jewish people centuries before by God, would be in the direct line of David and so could be referred to as a son of David. He would come to free us from Rome and restore our dignity and our pride as a nation. Any Jew knew that. But I had heard of no uprising, no rebellion that would overthrow the Romans. What were they talking about? Who were they talking about? I was mystified. And I became even more confused when the crowd outside the city wall began to squeeze through the gate. They were carrying palm branches and waving them in the air, dancing and shouting. Some were throwing their outer garments on the ground. It was how I had always imagined the scene described in the ancient stories of King David bringing the Ark into the city. People were happy and excited. I stood on tiptoe so I could see around those in front of me and watch the mighty warrior who would liberate his people come riding through the gate.
And he came.
And the crowd inside the gate quietened a little. He was not what we expected. As he came through the gate it was obvious that he was a humble man, not proud or arrogant, nor did he even look like a warrior.
For he came mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Those who had been making all the noise outside the city pushed their way through the gate, still shouting, dancing and waving their palm branches; and the crowd inside took up the shout.
I was shocked into silence and was unable to move. I knew this man. Some years ago my brother was married and by some mischance we began to run out of wine. This was a disaster and a huge disgrace to my father and to the whole family. I tried to think of a way to save the situation and had a whispered discussion with my father in a corner of the room. What were we to do? How could we face our family and friends – the whole village – when we ran out of wine? As we murmured to one another, concerned that someone may overhear us, I saw a woman go up to one of our stewards. She was attractive in a gentle sort of way, and she spoke to him in a low voice. A short time later a man went to speak to him. The steward nodded and turned to give an order to the servants.
My father and I continued to discuss the problem. I absent-mindedly watched a group of servants with buckets filling up the water jars that stood at the edge of the room. I remember wryly thinking that we would be able to offer our guests plenty of water when we ran out of wine!
But then the strangest thing happened. The steward dipped a cup into one of the jars, and smelt and then tasted it. He stared at the cup and then took another sip. He looked like a man in shock. Dipping his cup again, he came to my father and invited him to taste. My father was about to knock his hand away, but the aroma of the liquid in the cup caught his attention; as it caught mine. He took the cup from the steward, and drank from it, still unsure what he would taste. His eyes opened wide in surprise.
‘Eli, taste this,’ he said softly as he handed the cup to me.
As I inhaled the bouquet of the liquid and then sipped it I found it was a cool and delicious wine which had more flavour and fragrance than anything I had ever tasted. My father gave a nod to the steward who started to serve the guests.
I watched their reaction. Each one who accepted a cup was captivated by the aroma, and then astonished at the flavour. My father was a man who commanded respect and so not everyone felt they could ask him the question that was on all their minds. Only a few of his closest friends enquired why he had not served the best wine first but had kept it until now. He made up some response to them – I do not remember what it was for I was searching for the young man who had spoken to the servants. My mind was reeling. I had many questions I wanted to ask him, but he had slipped away and I never managed to track him down again. He was not from our village. Maybe my mother knew the woman who had spoken to the steward, but I was unable to describe her well enough for my mother to identify her.
Now, here he was; riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with people around him screaming ‘Hosanna’. I watched spellbound – and as I stared at his face he looked at me and smiled. I felt as if he knew me, knew everything about me. Not just that I was the brother of the man whose wedding he had turned into a local legend; a wedding that would be remembered long after we were gone to attest the truth of the matter; but as if he knew me to my inner being.
I could not move. I could not follow him. Although my heart had soared when he looked at me, I had some dark feeling of premonition about him, as if something awful was going to happen. It left me cold and shaken, and I was aware of the joy going out of the day like the sun disappearing behind a cloud as I staggered home, back to my uncle’s house.
The story, of course, does not end there. But my small part in it does. Years later, as I look back on that day I regret that I did not follow him. I regret the time lost between then and the day I met him again, the risen Lord, when I heard Peter speak in the city during the Festival of Weeks; for I could not go home again. Something in me made me stay in the city. I never went home again. My brother left as planned and travelled back to Cana. But I have wandered far and wide, telling those I meet about Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah.
Do they believe me? Some do; and I pray for those who do not. Nothing can describe life with Jesus. It has to be lived to be believed. Like the wine at my brother’s wedding, it has a fragrance and a flavour, all of its own.
Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. My Lord.