I always love how Katherine sees the world and then writes it out. Now, as a pastor, she’s brilliantly retelling the old Gospel stories for the skeptics and cynics. I couldn’t wait to share her latest short story with you. I think this is an amazing idea – I cannot wait to keep reading along as she works her way through the stories of our faith with a heart for the disillusioned.
He didn’t want to go. In fact, he could think of ten different things he would rather do than follow some charlatan prophet off to the mountainside and listen to him yap all day. They all said the same thing, more or less. The only real variation was in skill. Some of this new crop of would-be Messiahs had the con down to an art form. They were slick, believable. You had to look hard for the tell-tale glint betraying the contents of their corrupt hearts. Others were hilariously skeevy, scarcely bothering to hide their true motives. Savvy or not, each one siphoned hope from a population who was already on the edge of despair. Each one pilfered coins from a people two pennies from destitution. It ticked him off, and he wanted no part of it.
This so-called prophet and his entourage had passed by the man’s house at the crack of dawn. It almost looked like they were trying to sneak off as they moved quietly and purposefully toward the shore. The man found himself glancing once, twice, three times in the direction they’d gone. At last he gave in to his nagging curiosity and stopped his chores to watch. Despite the prophet’s apparent attempt not to attract attention, from his vantage point on the hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the man could see that droves of people were on his trail. The prophet – was his name John? Or was this the one called Jesus? yes, Jesus, that’s it – boarded a small boat with his disciples, and even then they couldn’t lose the crowd. The people simply dashed along the shore to keep pace with the man who seemed to function as a sort of human magnet.
To be clear, the man was not curious about the prophet himself. He was, as always, flummoxed by the foolishness of his neighbors. Would they ever learn to see the truth, that there was never anything behind the smoke and mirrors? The man shook his head in disgust. He was just about to go back to his work when his sister raced up the path, her baby son on her hip. Come with me, she said breathlessly. This one is for real. I know you don’t believe in this stuff, but I’m telling you: I’ve seen it with my own eyes. He’s healing people, Brother. He started to protest, but his sister wasn’t having it. Just come. You don’t have to buy any of it, just come and see for yourself.
So he went, telling himself he should keep an eye on his sister and nephew. You never knew what sort of people these prophets attracted. He made sure to issue a few audible sighs as they made their way to the shoreline, and when they passed a man and a woman struggling to carry their paralyzed child the long distance, he rolled his eyes and shook his head. He didn’t know if he was more angered by the con artistry or the gullibility.
They heard the crowd before they saw it. They had expected hundreds, but thousands had gathered on the other side of the shore. People were arriving from every direction. At first it seemed Jesus wasn’t even going to address the crowd; as the man squinted, sizing him up from afar, he decided this particular prophet looked worn out. Scraggly, even, as if he hadn’t eaten or rested properly in weeks. As the people lined up around him, calling out for a teaching, lifting sick babies above their heads, begging for miracles, Jesus relented. He hung his head for a moment – in resignation? in prayer? – and tiredly pushed himself up off the ground. He began to speak; the crowd pressed in closer, shushing one another to hear the prophet’s words. It was amazing thousands of people could be so quiet, but they hung on his every word.
The man listened. It was a good teaching, that he could tell. It seemed very old and very new at the same time. Very gentle and very hard. Very human and very holy. Which is all to say that he was more irritated than ever. This Jesus had no authority to teach with such authority, no right to be so strangely wise. Surely he was the worst of all swindlers – or the best, depending on how you looked at it. The man intentionally stopped listening and started looking around at the people in the crowd. His sister bore a look of unalloyed joy; her mouth was fixed in a wide, open smile, and tears streamed down her face, dropping on her sleeping son’s sweaty curls. Variations of the same heightened emotion were plastered on every face he glimpsed. A boy a few feet away pressed his palms to his cheeks, frozen in his astonishment.
The man turned his attention back to Jesus, looking for the chink, the seam, the dead giveaway that this was yet another scoundrel, but he couldn’t find it.
The day grew late. The man had barely noticed how much time had passed by as he braced himself against the swirl of mixed emotions this whole odd experience evoked in him. He had not yet succumbed to anything as embarrassing as joy, per se, but he was impressed. Yes, impressed. One can be impressed with a prophet without losing one’s head, right? The man was impressed.
And the man was hungry.
He wasn’t the only one. The crowd was starting to get restless. It was as if everyone realized, all at once, what they’d done. They’d raced off to a deserted place without bringing so much as a canteen of water, let alone anything to eat for supper. And it was time for supper. Jesus had stopped addressing the crowds and was conferring with his disciples. There seemed to be a disagreement among them, but the leader prevailed. The man chuckled as he saw one of the disciples putting on a show not unlike the one he had pulled that morning: the heavy sighs, the eye-rolling, the head-shaking. But the disgruntled disciple appeared to be following through with what his teacher had told him to do. He retrieved a few loaves of bread and a couple small fish and presented it to Jesus. A wave of gasps and exclamations roiled the crowd. Was he going to feed himself and his disciples and let everyone else go hungry? Surely, that didn’t seem to fit with all those stories about love and mercy and forgiveness and the Kingdom of God.
The man all but sneered, his mild admiration for Jesus draining away in an instant. There’s the true nature of this so-called Messiah. God is going to prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies, all right, because thousands of hungry people are about to turn on this fraud.
Jesus took the bread, blessed it, giving thanks for it, and broke it.
The man couldn’t entirely make out what happened next, between his own disgust and the crowd’s bated commotion. But a moment later, the Disciples started moving away from Jesus toward the people, carrying something in their arms. As he saw the people eagerly take it from the disciples and stuff it into their mouths, he realized what it was. Food. Bread, and fish. Far more bread and fish than had been there before. It was impossible. The Disciples worked their way through the crowd, passing baskets down each row, each person serving the one beside him.
His sister accepted the basket from the man next to her, his weathered hands gripping the bread as she broke off a piece and ate it. She turned to him, holding out the bread and fish that surely could not, in fact, exist, and murmured, “This is for you. Take, and eat.”
So he did.
Katherine Willis Pershey is a minister ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a movement that humbly professes “no creed but Christ.” Her husband, Ben, is a stay-at-home-father to their daughters, Juliette and Genevieve. Katherine loves preaching the gospel, racing in triathlons, baking bread, and listening to Over the Rhine. She is the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family. You can find her blog here.