Eliakim – the servant
I served my master, Joseph, for many years. We hailed from Arimathea, and I had been with Joseph since we were boys. Although he was my master, we were close friends. He trusted me and I loved him. He was a good man to work for and as children we had been companions as much as master and servant. By the time we moved to Jerusalem I went everywhere with him. I would do anything to ensure his safety and his comfort.
Joseph was a Pharisee and I was privileged to sit behind him, waiting to attend to his needs as he debated in the Temple in Jerusalem. He was a devout Jew. Well, we all try to follow our beliefs, don’t we? I always seemed to fail, whereas Joseph, somehow, succeeded. At least that’s how it seemed to me. Perhaps that’s why he was a Pharisee.
Most of the Pharisees were eager to show how righteous they were, but sometimes I struggled with the way that some of them lived. They seemed to be righteous before the people, but I had been in many homes and some were not as righteous behind closed doors, in the way they treated their families and their servants – and sometimes even in keeping the rules they spent such a long time debating. It seemed to me that they were so particular about the tiny details that they did not get the bigger picture. Some of them were quick to criticise those whom they considered lesser beings.
Maybe that’s why I seemed to fail so much. For example, I could not remember that I was not allowed to do certain things on the day before Shabbat – like putting a needle in my tunic when I had mended a tear in Joseph’s cloak for fear that I would forget it and still be carrying it on Shabbat. Carrying a needle was deemed to be work, and I often got it wrong. I was so afraid that God would punish me. But he never seemed to do so, even when I pulled the needle out and put it away, for that was work too. There were so many details that they confused me.
I did enjoy listening to the debates in the Temple courts, though. The Pharisees were always willing to hear another’s point of view and the deliberations went on for hours –sometimes even days. Every question that was raised was open to discussion and everyone was able to have their say. There were a few times when I would have liked to have asked a question or made a comment, and once or twice the solution to their discussion seemed to be so clear to me, but I did not have the courage to say anything. Sometimes, though, I did ask Joseph, in the privacy of his quarters, and he would sit with me and explain the issue – or even discuss some matter with me to help clarify it in his own mind. He respected my opinion and my desire to learn. On one occasion, he even put forward one of my ideas and the others listened and discussed it. Such was the man I served.
We had been in Jerusalem for several years on the day when the boy came. Well, of course, many boys came. During major festivals, entire families and groups of villagers would come into the city. At the age of twelve, a boy would become a man and so we had many coming to the Temple during the festivals to take on the responsibility of manhood. I had done it myself. I remember being so excited. I arrived in Jerusalem as a child – and left as a man. Little did I know about the challenges that lay ahead of me as I assumed adulthood. But at last, I could go into the Court of the Israelites with my father and older brothers and, although it had little meaning to me at the time, I could be part of the discussions in the Temple Courts.
It was a time of celebration for me, and it would have been so for this boy too.
I remember the discussions that took place during those days. I don’t remember all the details of course, but I do remember how this boy seemed to ask such incredible questions. The men gathered around, one by one. There was a dawning realisation of the depth of this young man’s knowledge and sense of God, and their own conversations stilled. I was amazed. Not only did he ask questions the likes of which I had never heard, but he showed unusual wisdom as he answered the men’s questions too; and these were men like Joseph who were experienced debaters, knowledgeable scholars, men familiar with every fine detail of the law and all that God desired of us. Day after day he came and debated with the leaders of our faith.
But some of them did not like the boy’s comments. Who was he, this child-man, to tell them answers to questions that had been debated for centuries to which no one knew the answer? We all listened, absorbed in spite of ourselves. The boy’s wisdom was such that we had never heard before. He had a depth of insight into God that none of the Pharisees, teachers or scribes sitting around had ever had themselves. They began to murmur about him to one another. I hoped that the murmuring was amazement and not resentment. One or two still listened to him every day, without taking their eyes off him, as if lost in the words he was speaking and the meaning of the message he was giving. Joseph was amongst them. Joseph had been there every moment since the boy joined the group. Glancing around, I noticed there were several more who were intrigued.
But I began to fear for the boy. The muttering was getting louder – although he seemed to be totally unconcerned. Then, one day, there was a commotion at the entrance to the Court and a man rushed in, asking one after the other, ‘Have you seen my son?’
The boy rose and turned so that the man caught sight of him. Hurrying up to him the man exclaimed how worried he and the boy’s mother had been. They were well on their way home before they realised that he was with neither of them. They had returned to the city as fast as they could to look for him.
That was three days ago and they had searched the city until, in desperation, they came to the Temple; and here he was.
‘We must go right now to reassure your mother that you are safe!’ The man urged the boy away, but the young man put his hand on his father’s arm.
‘Why were you searching for me,’ he said, his face lighting up with a smile, ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’
The man replied but by now they had turned and were walking away from the stupefied group of men to return to their home.
Joseph sent me back to his quarters that night saying he did not need me. This was unusual, but I did as I was bid and waited up for him. He came in very late. I could see he was exhausted but he smiled at me as he accepted the cup of wine that I had ready for him.
‘I have been wrong, Eliakim,’ he said to me in a low voice, almost a whisper. ‘All these years, I have been wrong.’
‘How have you been wrong?’ I demanded, ready to leap to the defence of this man who had been so good to me.
‘I have not understood. All these years I have believed that we have to keep the law to find favour with God. But now this young man today told us there is a different way; that it is not our actions and our rigid ways that are right, but our attitudes and our hearts. When we love one another, and we love God, then we are doing what He desires of us. I have never understood it that way at all. All these years, Eliakim, I have been wrong.’
I was speechless. Joseph was heartbroken. I had been aware of the boy’s words, but they had not affected me to the extent that they had Joseph. Perhaps I was so conscious of the group’s adverse reaction towards the boy that I had not been paying as much attention as Joseph had to what the youngster said.
From time to time Joseph would mention the lad to me, and I overheard a number of conversations he had with Nicodemus and one or two other members of the Pharisees over the years. The majority of them seemed to dismiss the boy and he was not mentioned in public again.
Then one day a report was given of a man, a teacher, in Galilee, stirring up the people, talking of God as his Father, speaking of love and the importance of a man’s heart. Joseph sat up and glanced at Nicodemus. Both men concentrated, listening to every word that was spoken. That night they met together in Joseph’s quarters and spoke in whispers. Joseph called me to them.
‘Eliakim, we want you to keep your eyes and your ears open for us. You can go amongst the people whereas we cannot. We are too well known. But we want to find out more about this teacher. Go to Galilee and listen to him. We want to hear his message, for it is similar to the boy’s message we heard so long ago that had stirred our very spirits. Go, Eliakim, and bring us what news you can.’
So I went. And I listened to the man speaking of love and eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven. I watched as he healed the sick, delivered those possessed by demons, raised people from the dead. From time to time I would return to Joseph, and each time he would nod, and close his eyes as if in prayer and then send me back again to listen and watch. Being with the man for so long, I found myself caught up in his message. One day he smiled at me and I knew, deep in my heart that he was exactly who he said he was. God was his Father. I believed.
I turned and began to run. My heart screamed within me to stay but I had to tell Joseph. When I reached the city I waited for him, pacing up and down his rooms, filled with impatience. This was not the sort of news that I should blurt out in the public areas of the Temple. But I did not have to tell him.
He took one look at my face and he said, ‘It is true, isn’t it? Everything that Jesus has been saying? I can see in your face that you are changed.’ He clasped me to him and sobbed – I thought in sorrow – but they were tears of joy.
‘The Messiah!’ he said, his voice deep with emotion. ‘The Messiah has come.’
The Messiah? But this man was no warrior. This man would not come into the city riding on a war horse to deliver us from Rome. No, I was sure that Joseph had got it wrong again. And I was proved right; for this man came riding into the city on a donkey, overturned the tables in the Temple courts and told the Pharisees they were hypocrites. I wanted to stop him. Did he not know that he was heading for trouble?
Joseph was horrified and he and Nicodemus spent many hours closeted together behind closed doors whispering. I was not part of their conversation and was not invited to be there. I left wine and bread and dates outside their locked door. And when they came out, red-eyed from lack of sleep and weary to the bone, it was too late, for the Chief Priest had ordered that Jesus be arrested and nothing Joseph or Nicodemus could say would dissuade the Temple leaders from the course of action they were determined to take.
And so they handed him over to the Romans who crucified him.
On a hillside outside the city, they crucified him.
He died on that cross, mocked and derided by the very people he had loved so much.
Joseph acted straight away. With remarkable courage that he had never needed to show before he went to Pilate and requested Jesus’ body. He was given permission to take it and he gave me orders to open his own tomb in the hillside nearby whilst he went to fetch the battered body of the Messiah.
I took a group of men and we rolled the stone away to open up the burial place. My heart was aching with sorrow. I had loved this man with a love that astounded me; and now I was preparing his grave. Joseph and Nicodemus arrived, carrying Jesus, limp and lifeless, and I helped them lay him in the tomb. Perhaps, what touched me as much as anything was that Joseph also loved Jesus so much that he gave him his own tomb.
Soldiers helped us roll the stone across the grave and then stood guard before it. I did not know what they expected. But I stood outside for a while until they waved me away and I left with head bowed, mourning for the loss of one whom I knew was my friend.
The next day was quiet. Joseph and I were stunned by the events of the day before, and we celebrated Shabbat in a subdued way.
Early the next morning I woke to hear Joseph shouting for me.
‘Eliakim, Eliakim, come quickly – we must go!’
Go? Go where? This was much earlier than Joseph usually left his bed. I struggled to wake up, splashed water on my face and rushed out of my room.
‘Eliakim, come we must go to the tomb. Something amazing has happened.’
A message had been delivered to Joseph earlier that morning. I will never know why he answered the door and not me. I do know that I would never have woken him so early and so we would not have seen what we did before the news began to spread and others came. Joseph hurried out of the room calling for me to follow. Together we ran through the early morning streets out of the city and up the hill to the tomb.
Which was open.
We stopped in shock at the entrance for the tomb was not only open.
It was empty.
Joseph and I looked at each other. Then together we fell to our knees. Jesus was right. He was the Son of God. He had risen from the dead. Oh yes, I know about the rumours; that his followers stole his body to convince people of the truth of his message. But we knew, Joseph and I, and many others who had followed this man. Jesus is the risen Lord, the Son of God, the Messiah.
‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ Joseph said in a voice full of wonder. Then he threw back his head and roared out the words again!
‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’
And he laughed. Together we laughed. And together we strode back into the city to adventures we had no idea awaited us.
Today, so many years later, as an old man, I sit alone. For Joseph has gone home to his Saviour and I await my own call to go; to die. But the words that sing in my head and in my heart are those Joseph shouted on the hillside.
‘Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’
Come, Lord Jesus, I am ready to go home.