Thaddeus – the struggle with wealth
My father was a merchant, dealing in copper and tin from the mines in Britannia. He had his own fleet of ships and owned a mine himself. I do not know how it came into the family. I never quite had the courage to ask him. He was a stern man, not given to casual conversation, or even inquisitive questions. He grew olives in his orchards, and had a small fleet of fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee. My uncle oversaw these and from time to time I would go and visit him. He is a lot younger than my father and I was named Thaddeus after him. We have always been good companions.
My brothers and I grew up in my father’s shadow. He was very strict and would tolerate no nonsense from his sons. His daughters, my sisters, were almost beneath his notice. They grew up under my mother’s guiding hand – until it was time for them to marry. Then my father stepped in and, as is the custom, would negotiate a marriage for them that would benefit the family, for it was the family that was all-important. The accumulation of wealth, the birth of children, the homes we lived in and the crops we grew were all for the benefit of the family. My father was the patriarch and so benefitted the most.
You must forgive my slightly bitter tone. I was ruled with a rod of iron and as the oldest son he had certain expectations of me. I had no choice. He demanded that I learn the business from the bottom and then follow his lead so that one day, in some far distant year, I would take over when he was no longer able to fulfil all the duties of the trade. It would be my responsibility to care for my mother, for any of my unmarried sisters and my youngest brother, who was blind. It was a heavy burden to anticipate for such young shoulders as my own, and I often felt like rebelling and running away.
But I did not. The Jewish son is obedient to his father’s commands and I did not consider any alternatives. My younger brothers were able to leave – Matthias even decided to stay in Britannia when he visited the tin mines there. My mother was heart-broken but she could do nothing. My father was angry, but he too could not do much to bring him home and in the end used Matthias’ presence in Cornwall to move the family business forward.
So there was a momentary break with tradition and family expectations on the day I met the Teacher. I had been staying in Tiberias, with my uncle and his family. I had been fascinated by a pretty friend of my cousin Salome’s and had determined that I would speak to my father about her on my return to Jerusalem. But my business was not yet finished and I had wandered up the shoreline to check some of our boats and to speak with the men who sailed them. Business had been good and the catches had been plentiful. I wanted to find out if we needed to buy more boats.
I could see a group of people ahead, and there, on the shore before me, was the Teacher talking to them about something. The crowd parted as I made my way forward, for my robes bore witness that I was not one of them. I had heard that this man always had a crowd of people following him. I suspected they were outcasts, sinners and those considered unclean, so I was careful how I walked through them. I did not want to touch anyone and then have to go through the ritual purification ceremonies. But they stepped aside and made a way for me, and I had a fleeting thought of Moses as he parted the Red Sea and made his escape with his people before the Egyptian army could slaughter them all. Glancing behind me, I saw the passage in the crowd close in again and the image was reinforced as I remembered the story of the waves closing in on the Egyptians so that my people, the people of Israel, were saved by God on that day.
The Teacher was on his knees, laughing with some children. As I approached he stood up, looked at me, and smiled. For a moment I was disturbed by the look in his eyes. He seemed to see right through me. It was an uncomfortable sensation. But he was surely just smiling his welcome and I relaxed a little. I had a question for him and as I waited it became more important to me that I learned the answer.
So I asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
I expected the normal straightforward answer about obeying the Ten Commandments. I suppose I was a bit sceptical about it all. I seemed to be at a dead end in my life with the whole path laid out before me, and I wanted someone with whom I could argue as I was unable to argue with my father. However he surprised me by replying with a question of his own.
‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.’
He paused, and I was about to answer that I knew God was good, but what about us, His chosen people, who failed so very often? I felt like a failure and I wanted some encouragement, I suppose.
The Teacher continued, ‘If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.’
Hah! He had not specified which ones and I was quick with my response.
‘What ones?’ I asked
The Teacher smiled, as if knowing that I already knew the answer but was just testing him.
‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony; honour your father and your mother; and love your neighbour as yourself.’
Well I had been raised as an obedient son and a keeper of the commandments. I went to the synagogue every Sabbath. I had even been to the Temple festivals more than most boys of my age. In fact, it was important to me that I did these things. Somehow God had played a crucial role in my life and my father had encouraged my brothers and me to worship him according to the law.
So I was able to answer, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’
I was interested to see what else he would have to say. I knew that, by now, he must be impressed with both my questions and my answers. I swaggered a bit before the crowd who were silent behind me, listening to the conversation.
Again the Teacher smiled, but this time, instead of welcome there was a profound sadness in his eyes that broke my heart. I was stunned by the strength of my emotion and almost missed his answer, but his clear, quiet voice rang out over the hillside.
‘If you want to be perfect; go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
What? How could I do that? The wealth that belonged to my family was not mine to give away. And anyway even if I could give it, what would we live on? How could one person give away the fleets of ships, the olive groves, and the mine, never mind the house we lived in, or the villa we owned to the south, on the shore of the lake? I was overwhelmed by the idea and shocked into silence. As he looked at me in that moment, the sadness in his eyes deepened. I seemed to catch the emotion and was flooded with a crushing sorrow of my own.
Breaking my gaze, I looked down at my feet and turned to walk away. Something deep inside me was crying ‘no’ but I knew that I had no option. It was too hard to follow this man. I could not give up everything for a risk such as this.
The crowd was stunned into silence and, in a sombre mood, parted once again to make way for me to go through. With a heavy heart I made my way back to Tiberias. I had planned to visit Salome’s friend, but I stayed with my family. They tried to persuade me to tell them what had dampened my spirits, but I could not talk of it. That night I informed them that I would be leaving early the next morning at sunrise. They were surprised but did not try to stop me.
I returned home, a changed man. I felt as if my heart was broken and bleeding. There was a longing deep inside me for something I did not understand. My father, thinking that maybe I needed a change of scene, shipped me out to Britannia, where I spent a year or so building trade connections and getting to know Matthias’ young family. Yet all the time there was a feeling of heaviness in me that nothing seemed to lift.
I often thought back to that conversation on the lakeshore. I could not rid my mind of what might have happened if I had done what the Teacher had suggested. If I had gone home and said to my father that I wanted to leave, and follow this man, he would have been furious and would not have understood. There would have been arguments and tears. And in the end if I had left he would have torn his clothes and sat Shiva for me, mourning me as if I were dead. What happened to ‘respect your father and your mother’? How could I do that to him? What would my mother feel? I knew the letter of the law and I would obey it to the end of my days.
No, there was no chance that I would give up my duty and all it held just to follow into an uncertain future.
Sometime later I heard that the man was crucified by Rome for his teaching – and I tried to feel justified. But the heartache persisted and did for several years. I was given one chance and I refused it. I wondered if I would ever have another.
Now I am in Antioch and yesterday I heard a man speaking in the synagogue. He was gathering quite a crowd around him. He said his name was Paul, and he wanted to tell us about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, the Messiah. Some of those who heard objected to Paul’s message. They were good Jews and worshipped God with great respect as they were commanded to do. But there were others who wanted to hear more. As I listened to his words it was as if my hard, broken heart began to soften and I felt, for the first time in years, a spark of hope.
I spoke to him afterwards, as the crowd dispersed, and told him how I had met Jesus. We went to the house where he is staying so that I could tell him my story and he prayed with me. As he did so, I saw again that smile that Jesus had given me on the lakeshore, but this time – there was just love and no sadness – as I gave my heart to him.
When I woke at dawn this morning I realised that yesterday was the day of my second chance and I have grasped it with all that I am! Where it will take me I do not know, but the heaviness that I have lived with for so long has melted away to be replaced by joy, peace and, yes, hope …