The Nephew

This meditation is about one of my favourite stories in the Gospels. The picture of Jesus holding the child as he teaches the disciples is wonderful and, to me, speaks volumes about the kind of person he was. The idea that Jesus moved to Capernaum (the Gospels make it clear that he did, and moved his family too) following the death of his father is not specifically in the texts, but seems likely to me, as is the possibility that it was his father’s death that started him on his preaching ministry.

It is also about how small things, things others might miss, can be the most important things to each of us.

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Jesus and Children, Bourton on the Water

Jesus and Children, Bourton on the Water

Childhood memories are tricky things.  I find that often it is hard, even impossible, to distinguish between what I actually remember from what others have told me.  And this is particularly true of those pivotal memories that get retold and discussed again and again.  Some things are clearly real memories—especially feelings—while others are obviously things one has been told—facts that would have been unknowable to the child you were.  Yet that leaves so much that could be either, or neither, for perhaps some things get added in the telling and in the retelling become part of the memory.

I can illustrate what I mean with a memory of my uncle that has been much on my mind:

I was nine or ten years old at the time.  We had recently moved to Capernaum from Nazareth after grandfather died.  My father and his brothers were carpenters and builders and there was plenty of work in Capernaum, not only the housing and farm implements as in Nazareth, but also the boats and fishing paraphernalia of a busy fishing community.  The move had been my uncle’s idea, for he was the oldest son of grandfather (though I was not in on the decision, being  a child—this is one of those details I learned later), but I am not sure why he chose Capernaum.  Obviously the work was important, but there had been work in Nazareth; He had friends in and around Capernaum which might explain why he chose it but not why we moved in the first place; Now that I am older I have come to think it might have been to help grandmother, to take her away from a place that spoke so much to her of grandfather.

We all lived together, each family having its own space but sharing much in common.  It was hard for outsiders to see where one ‘house’ ended and the next began, and such boundaries as did exist meant even less to us children.  The women often worked together in the common courtyard, cooking or weaving and sewing, and the men, when they were home, would often gather together to discuss religion or politics or work.

During those seasons between planting and harvest, or harvest and planting, when there was less work to be done by most people, my uncle had begun to go round the towns and villages of Galilee teaching and helping people.  His circle of friends grew as he did this and often large crowds would gather to hear him.  But we children didn’t understand that—all we knew was that our favourite uncle was away and we waited impatiently for his return.

For he was our favourite uncle, indeed he was a favourite of all the children in Capernaum.  There was something about him that drew us.  It wasn’t that he was childish, and he never condescended to us.  He was always himself, always a grown-up, but he made it clear that he enjoyed our company.  He would listen seriously to whatever we said and never brushed us off on the one hand, nor, on the other, made too much of it as some other adults would.

 

On the day I am thinking of he was due back from one of his tours.  Word had reached us the previous day that he was in Magdala and would be home in time for the evening meal.  As a result there had been an ever-changing group of children watching the road from the south all afternoon.  Finally we saw them coming.  My uncle was in the lead, walking and talking with one of his friends.  In my mind’s eye I see him with Matthew, but that is one of those things that I am not sure about.  But I do remember that there were just the two of them, then a bit of a gap, then a group of perhaps ten men, and behind that various groups of men and women.

We ran to meet him, the younger children all wanting to hold his hands.  Since I was almost a man I found that too undignified for me and held myself above all that jostling for position.  Not that I wouldn’t have taken his hand had he offered it—and been very proud of it! Anyway, it was a lively and boisterous little procession that finally made its way into the house.

Once inside one of my aunts shooed the littler ones away and set us older ones to work fetching water and towels for people to wash their feet, getting drinks, and helping with cloaks and so on.  As all this was going on, my uncle, Jesus, looked at his friends and asked them what they had been talking about on the journey.  There was a sudden, awkward silence.  Even though I hadn’t been with them, that silence made me squirm—it was exactly the kind of silence that fell when my mother caught us doing something wrong.  I well remember being surprised by it at the time, for surely adults were different from us children and I assumed that I was mistaken about its cause.  Now, of course, I know better, I understand that no matter how old we get we can still find ourselves in that embarrassed silence when we’ve done something wrong—or think that we have.

Uncle Jesus let the silence linger for a few moments before continuing with what he was doing.  It was obvious to me, at least, that he was well aware of what they had been talking about.  There is a way that adults ask a question when they want to know the answer and another way when they know the answer already and want you to know that they know.  No child could miss the distinction, though the adults seemed to this time.

 

It was still too early to eat and people were moving into the courtyard to wait.  Jesus found himself a seat on a bench against the wall in the shade and called everyone to gather around.  When they were settled he looked round and then called me to come to him.  As I made my way to him he began to teach them, telling them that whoever wanted to be the most important among them would be the least important, even a servant to the others.  From the way they looked at one another it was clear that this had been what they had been talking about on the walk.  When I stopped in front of him he was quiet for a moment, just smiling at me.  Then he put his hands on my shoulders and turned me around so that I was facing his friends and my back was towards him.  He pulled me closer, then put his arms around me.  I felt his face next to mine as he looked over my shoulder at them and continued his teaching.

I can tell you what he said, but only, I think, because others have told me again and again since.  I don’t remember his words, even the sense of them, even though my memory of standing there in his arms as he spoke is so powerful.  He said things like “You must accept children like this for in doing so you accept me and, further, the one who sent me.” And ”Whoever hurts one of my little ones, it would be better for him if he had tied a millstone around his neck and thrown himself into the sea.” He also explained how people had to be ruthless with themselves to get into God’s kingdom, that it was better to lose a hand, foot, or eye and get in than to remain whole and be shut out.

I’m told that he came back to all of these things again and again in the following months, even on the night before he died.  It was a strange and difficult lesson, that to lead was to serve, that the greatest was the one who washed the others feet, that being important gave one extra duties not added privilege.  It would have been an impossible lesson to accept except that my uncle so clearly embodied it all in himself.

But, as I said, I learned most of that later.  At the time I was oblivious to all of it.  I just stood there enjoying his arms around me, amazed that he had chosen me—amazed and a little proud, though it was the innocent pride of a child.  I felt special and loved, more so, perhaps, than at any other time in my life.

 

That was my uncle, Jesus—I guess he made a lot of people feel that way, he had a way of knowing what each person needed.  He did a lot of other, more dramatic  things for other people, but for me nothing will ever overshadow those few minutes in that quiet, crowded courtyard.  That evening really exemplifies my uncle, that mix of love and teaching, of acceptance and truth.  Others may have more exiting stories to tell of my uncle, but that’s OK.  This is the moment that changed me, that started me on a new path.  It might have been as quiet and innocuous as a hug, but for me it was also as profound as eternity.

 

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