In those days we travelled to the north, to the mountainous region of Caesarea Philippi near the springs of the Jordan. The farmers living there wanted to hear about the Kingdom of God that would bring justice and peace on earth.
Jesus: ….And if your son asks you for bread, will you give him a stone? Of course not… If he asks you for fish, will you give him a snake? Of course not, because he’s your son! Well, this is what we are proclaiming here, that God is our Father who loves us. We, his children, ask him to give us a hand. God will not fail us!
As usual, Jesus easily won the attention of the people. He joined one story with another and the residents of Caesarea never grew tired of listening to him…
Jesus: Friends, the Kingdom of God is at hand! Our liberation is here! The Messiah is at our door. When he comes, he’ll bring in one hand a balance for meting out justice and in the other, a staff to rule without privileges.
A Man: Very good! Long live the Kingdom of God!
A Woman: May we see the Kingdom of God soon!
Then, amid applause and shouts of the people appeared a huge man with sun-burned skin and a very long beard, like that of the ancient patriarchs. He was making his way through everybody until he reached Jesus. He was an old Bedouin from the plains of Gilead…
Melchiades: Speak no more, brother. That’s enough… I am Melchiades, a shepherd, grandson of Yonadab, of the tribe of the Rechabites, shepherds all, as God has commanded us. Crossing the desert, we have learned to read the sky and the eyes of people. Your eyes are dark like the night and brilliant like the stars. I can read through them…
The old Bedouin drew closer to Jesus and put a hand on his shoulder…
Melchiades: Listen, brother. Our tribes have been scattered for a long time, for many generations, for many years… We’re like sheep without a shepherd. Thank you for having come. Here, take this: this is for you.
Melchiades, the Rechabite, held up in his right hand a long and knotted old staff…
Melchiades: With this staff I’ve pastured my flock since I was young. With it, I drove the wolves away and led my sheep through the plains. It belonged to my grandfather. Look: it’s a shepherd’s staff like David had in his hands when old Samuel found him and presented him before his people.
Jesus: What do you want me to do with it…?
Melchiades: It’s yours. Shepherd your people. You’re the man we need so that things may change.
Jesus: But, what’re you saying, Gran’pa…? I…
Melchiades: Take the staff. Hold it tight with your hands so that the warmth of your blood will give life to the dead nerves of its wood.
And the old Bedouin handed to Jesus the staff which was yellow like a sick bone as a result of overuse…..
Jesus: But Gran’pa, I….
A Man: Very good, Melchiades! That was very well said and done!
A Woman: We’re behind you, Jesus! You can count on us!
Man: Us too!
The thirteen of us remained talking late into that night. Soon the sky became flooded with stars. Up there at the far end was Mount Hermon, bathed by the soft moonlight…. The snow covering the slopes was just beginning to melt, as a welcome gesture to the forthcoming spring…
Jesus: This Rechabite shepherd must be crazy!
Peter: You’re the crazy one, Jesus, if you don’t take this chance. The people are excited about you!
Jesus: They are excited over the Kingdom of God.
James: And about you, too, Moreno!
Jesus: James, listen to me…
James: No, Jesus. You can’t deny it. You’ve got the people in your hands, just like that staff. Just a word from you is enough to mobilize them.
Jesus drew some lines on the ground, with the long and knotted cane given to him by Old Melchiades that afternoon….
Andrew: The people expect much from you, Jesus. Don’t disappoint them.
Jesus: And what can they expect from me, Andrew?
Andrew: A lot. They expect you to continue awakening them, to lead them so this country will mend her ways, which will end once and for all the abuses and they can live in peace…. This is what they expect.
Jesus: But, are they out of their mind? Who do they think I am?
Judas: A prophet, Jesus.
Philip: Do you know what a woman told me today? That when she looked at you sideways, you reminded her a lot of John the Baptist. She even bet five against one that the prophet John had resurrected and his soul had slipped into your body.
Thomas: Wh..wh..what a joke! Th…th…they might have his head cut off again.
Andrew: No way. I heard something else. They say that the prophet Elijah got down from his chariot and lent you the whip he used for his horses. You speak in the same way as the prophet from Carmel!
Jesus: Bah, this is plain stupidity…
Judas: The other day, they asked me if you have a wife… I said none.
Jesus: Why did they wanna know that?
Judas: Well, because the prophet Jeremiah also didn’t get married. They say you look very much like him.
Jesus: Of course. I also look like the prophet Amos, who’s also a farmer. And the prophet Hosea, since I also come from the north. Very soon they’ll say I was swallowed by a whale which threw me out of his belly like Jonas. I dunno how people can make up these stories..
James: It’s not the people, Jesus, it’s not them…
Jesus: And who else?…. Tell me then…
Peter: Look, Moreno. We’ve been together for quite some time… for several months… and we’ve formed ourselves into a group… so, we can speak out what we think, right?
Jesus: Why of course, Peter, that’s what friends are for… Okay, what’s the problem?
Andrew: Jesus, you’ve performed things right before our eyes which… the truth is…. Well, and we don’t have to go very far, you know. But the case of the deafmute of Chorazim….
James: And that girl, Jairus’ daughter… who was dead…. I even saw her….
Philip: And the Roman captain’s servant.
Andrew: How about Flor, the paralytic, and Caleb, the leper, and the madman, Triphon. And the…
Jesus: Okay, okay, that’s enough… So what? God’s the only one who has the power to cure. He takes my hands, or yours or somebody else’s and does what he wants. A lotta people do even greater things still….
Judas: But that’s not all, Jesus. It’s the way you speak. Admit it: your words hit like David’s when he hurled stones from his sling.
Peter: You smell like a prophet, Moreno, and not even alum can remove it.
Andrew: You have a way with people. You talk to them and they listen….
Jesus: The people, the people!… Today they say this but tomorrow, they say that. What do you say…. huh? Let’s lay our cards on the table, now that all thirteen of us are here. What do you really expect from me?
Peter: What every one else expects from you, Jesus. That you lift the staff and lead the people!
Jesus: You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Peter. Who am I to do that, huh? Who am I?
Peter: You? You’re the Liberator that Israel has been waiting for!
Jesus: But, Peter, have you gone outta your mind? How can you say that?
Peter: I say it because I believe, dammit! And I’m just dying to say it. I already told Rufina and my mother-in-law. Even the two women think the same.
Jesus: Peter, please…
Peter: Yes, Jesus. Remember the other night? I saw it with my own eyes. We were on the boat, on my boat. Suddenly, there was lightning and the wind from the Great Sea blew. It was a horrible storm. And I saw you walking on the waves. The wind stopped. You gave me your hand and I took it and I walked over the lake, don’t you understand?
Jesus: Yeah, yeah, I understand. If you don’t stop dreaming, then, one day you’ll wake up drowning….
Peter: You’re the Messiah, Jesus! You’ve come to free our people!
When Peter said those words everyone became silent. We were waiting for Jesus to reply. All eyes were glued on him, who was nervously clasping the staff of the old Bedouin…
Thomas: Don’t w..w..worry, Moreno… We’re b..b..behind you.
Judas: You can count on us. That’s what this group is for, don’t you think?
Andrew: You gotta make up your mind, Jesus. If this comes from the Lord, then you have no way out.
Peter: It’s not the people, nor us. It’s God who has given you the staff of leadership.
Jesus looked at us, slowly, and one by one, as if asking permission to utter the words blocking his throat…
Jesus: Yeah, you’re right. You can deceive the people, but not the Lord. For many days and nights, I’ve been thinking about this. Ever since the prophet John died, I felt that something’s changed, as if God were telling me: your time has come, the way’s been prepared.
Peter: God doesn’t give you a load that you can’t carry! So, cheer up, Moreno! God will not fail you!
Judas: And neither shall we!
James: Remember what the old man Melchiades said? Lift the staff and hold it tight!…. With you, we’ll all move on!
Then Jesus raised the long and knotted staff of the Rechabite, and held it tight with his two hands… and in one stroke, split it in the middle.
Philip: Hey, Moreno, what’s the matter? Why did you do that?
Jesus: Because… because Elijah was persecuted, Jeremiah was thrown into a pit and John’s head was cut off… Look at this, everyone… this staff is broken: that is the fate of all prophets; this is how the Messiah’s life will end too.
Peter: Don’t talk that way, Jesus. We’ll defend you, dammit! Isn’t that right, fellows?… By the good star of Jacob, nothing bad will happen to you!
Jesus: First, you’re pushing me forward, and now you’re throwing me the bait. No way, Peter. Let’s settle this once and for all. They’re gonna break my bones like this cane, but you’re gonna have to fight to the end too. From now on, each one should carry his cross too, so that later, each one is ready for anything.
Peter: C’mon Jesus, stop talking that way. Be ready and have courage!
Jesus: You too, Peter. You’ll be behind me.
Peter: What did you say, Moreno?
Jesus: Peter… Peter, the stone thrower…. Now they’ll throw stones at you, but don’t worry. You’re a good piece of rock for foundation. They won’t crush you, not even with hammer blows.
Judas: Well, well, let’s not get sentimental… Now we’re one and united, and that’s what really matters!
James: And we’re gonna move on, whatever the cost!
Andrew: Whatever happens, this group won’t disband!
Philip: Well said, Andrew! Not even the devil with his fork can go against us, isn’t that right?
Jesus: Of course, Philip. The friendship that we’ve formed here on earth, not even heaven can destroy. Do you agree?
Thomas: Of course! Just like a good lock with thirteen keys, each corresponding to each lock!
Jesus: Peter, you keep the keys so they don’t get lost!
Peter: So, we’ll work hand in hand, forever!
James: Hand in hand, fellows!
Dawn came at Caesarea Philippi. The night slipped from us as we continued our conversation and now we still had a couple of miles ahead of us… After stretching our legs we resumed our journey toward the south, to Capernaum… Mount Hermon was sparkling white behind us….
The city of Caesarea Philippi was founded by Philip, the brother of King Herod, about three years before Jesus was born. It was named Caesarea in honor of Augustus Caesar who was then the emperor governing in Rome. The city was situated up north, sharing the border with Syria. The River Jordan originates from Caesarea, and from there descends and passes through the land of Israel. The river is formed by three springs, one of which is the fount of Dan, thus giving it the name: Jor-Dan (that which descends from Dan). In Biblical language, it is common to hear the expression: “From Dan to Beer-sheba” to define the geographical boundaries of the Land Promised by God to Israel: From the north where the fount of Dan was, to the farthest end to the south, the Bedouin city of Beer-sheba. Caesarea of Philippi is presently called Banias.
The Rechabites were a group of Israelites, who, for many centuries, and out of loyalty to their religious principles, lived as shepherds, rejecting the life of sedentary farmers. They never drank wine, were zealous for their traditions and only entered the cities by chance and on special occasions. They represented opposition to urban civilization and the memory of the ancient tradition of the desert, when Israel was a country of wandering people (Jer 35:1-19).
Just as the time of his baptism and the proclamation of the good news in the synagogue of Nazareth are decisive moments in Jesus’ conscience in relation to his prophetic mission, this episode of Caesarea Philippi marks a milestone in his life. Up to this moment, Jesus, driven by the Baptist’s example and supported by his disciples, plus a continuous fluctuation between pain and hope from his people, has manifested himself before his compatriots as a prophet. As such, he has spoken and acted. He feels heir to the prophetic tradition of Israel and acts with such a conviction. In Caesarea, he takes one step further. In fact, the freedom with which he spoke about the Law and interpreted it, and the certainty with which he presented himself as emissary of the Kingdom of God who would change the course of history brought him closer to that awareness of being the Messiah. This “leap” in the conscience of Jesus takes place in Caesarea inasmuch as it’s possible to determine a concrete place and time.
Jesus accepts his Messianic mission to the community. God chose Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, but the choice did not mean Jesus was to remain on the sideline with the people he was to serve. Similarly in the Church and the Christian community, no vocation should come “from above,” nor should it be decided “singly.” All vocation, charisma and service, if understood to be intended for the community, must be guaranteed by those who make up the community. Thus, we shall see the fulfillment in history of what was Jesus’ ministry.
When, in the gospels, Jesus speaks of his passion that is to come, of his death, this ought not to be understood as a “prophecy” in the limited sense of this word, as if he were a reader of his own future. If understood this way, then the dramatic consequence of his life would not have been a historical fact. Everything would have been predetermined from the outside and anticipated from the beginning. What these words mean is that, at this level of his activities, Jesus was already anticipating a violent death. He had violated the Law of the Sabbath – the core of the system – and this was reason enough to be sentenced to death; he had been accused by the powerful priests of being possessed by the devil, which was also punishable by death according to the law; he had had encounters with the authorities and with the landlords; he associated himself with people despised by the powerful, awakening them to their real condition as exploited people; and with the others who were feared as subversives, the Zealots. He was actually instigating a real people’s movement… The religious leaders as well as the political authorities considered him to be a dangerous element every time, a rebel…. And he was all too aware of this. For this reason, Jesus never ruled out the possibility – it was almost a certainty – of his death, like the fate of all the prophets. His faithfulness to the mission entrusted to him by God and the people made him move on, whatever the risk. This growing awareness of his important mission did not alienate him from his friends. On the contrary, Jesus was a leader who inspired trust among his followers. He had a sense of humor and never considered himself important, nor set “a distance” from them. By being “one of them” he likewise revealed God’s nearness to us.
(Mt 16:13-24; Mk 8:27-33; Lk 9:18-22)