Just two days after we were in Jerusalem, Magistrate Nicodemus, whom we had met on one of our trips, comes early in the morning to Lazarus’ inn, in Bethany. He wanted to see Jesus…
Nicodemus: Believe me, Jesus, this guy has an open mind. He has heard a lot of things about you and he wants to meet you. He asked me to invite you to have lunch in his house.
Jesus: Fine. Tell your friend that if he really wishes to meet us, then he must invite all of us…..
Nicodemus: Of course, Manasseh is also inviting your friends, Jesus, but I’m not sure about this Matthew, the tax collector… and that woman…
Jesus: Who, Magdalene?
Nicodemus: Yes… Maybe she won’t feel comfortable with the group…
Jesus: That doesn’t speak well of your friend with an “open mind.” Look, Nicodemus, we’re like ants, you know: where one goes, everyone goes.
Nicodemus: Yeah, I know…. I just wanted to keep you out of trouble, that’s why… You should go easy with these people…. I hope you understand, Jesus.
Jesus: They should understand, too, Nicodemus: all or no one.
So everybody went. The thirteen of us including the women. That afternoon, we left Bethany at dusk, entered the city through the Gate of Siloh and climbed the long street until we reached Manasseh’s house. The pharisees and Nicodemus’ friends were there, in the upper barrio of Jerusalem…
Nathanael: Hey, your sandals are full of holes, Philip…. and there are decent people in this house…
Philip: And what did you expect, Nat? You don’t want me to come barefoot, do you? It’s the only pair I got!
Nathanael: You should’ve asked Lazarus. He’s got the same size as you.
Philip: That would’ve been worse! His sandals stink, didn’t you notice?
Magdalene: Well, I’m okay here. See my new scarf! These men can’t say I’m not properly attired!
Peter: Look who’s talking! Listen here, lady, you’d better shut up and just wait to be served so you don’t make a boo-boo of any sort!
In Manasseh’s house friends of Nicodemus were waiting for us: three Pharisees and their wives. The Pharisees were regarded as the most ardent followers of God’s laws and the ways of our ancestors. The word “pharisee” means “separated.” They felt they were chosen by God, and were the best in the world….
Manasseh: Welcome to my house, my friends! Come in, come in… Servants, please attend to the guests!
Nathanael: Brace yourself, Philip! Wait till they see the holes in your shoes!
Philip: Sshh! Quiet, Nat…
Three servants waiting at the door removed our shoes and washed our feet. That was a sign of the hospitality with which the master of the house welcomed his visitors. Inside the hall where the food was to be served, there were six big jars of water for the initial washing of hands. The Pharisees were very scrupulous with cleansing rites. Since we were not used to these however, not one of us washed our hands when we got inside….
Persius: Well, gentlemen, I think an introduction is proper here. Before we all gather ourselves to eat, it is good manners that we acknowledge each other’s presence.
Manasseh: Well, Nicodemus must have already told you about me, Jesus. This is Sarah, my wife….
Sarah: It’s a pleasure to meet all of you…
Nehemiah: I am Nehemiah, the magistrate from Sanhedrin.
Persius: He’s also in charge of the textile trade with Tyre, he, he…. That’s where you see him, he’s the fifth man in the whole of Jerusalem, starting from the top…. He’s got half of the city in his pocket!
Nehemiah: This is Melita, my wife…
Melita: My pleasure! I’ve long wanted to see a prophet at close distance!
Manasseh: And this is Persius here, a doctor of the Law. He studied the holy Scriptures since he was twelve years old, and he knows them by heart, from top to bottom and vice versa… he’s quite a man, you know, he can recite the laws of Moses even in his sleep!
Magdalene: Well, I sympathize with his wife…
Peter: Sshh! Hush, Mary!
Manasseh: Well, Jesus, we would like to meet your…..er….. your friends.
Peter: It’s easy to know us. I’m Simon. I’m known as the troublemaker. This skinny guy here is my brother, Andrew. Those two, the red head and the other one are James and John. We’re fishermen and…… well, I guess that’s all.
Philip: I’m Philip, a junk dealer. I sell things in my cart and with my horn. Starting from the bottom, I’m the first man of Bethsaida! This bald-headed guy here is Nathanael, a friend of mine. He owns a shop of woolen fabrics: business is not so good! Sometimes he gets some profit and sometimes he loses.
Nathanael: For God’s sake, Philip…!
Melita: That’s funny indeed….
When the introduction was over, the servants proceeded to prepare the table, while the pharisees’ wives whispered among themselves, looking at us with disdain, and giggling occasionally….
Melita: Well, isn’t it obvious that she’s the…… hooker? The nerve! She seems to have no qualms about coming here!
Sarah: They say her name is Mary…
Melita: No, my dear, the prophet’s mother is called Mary…
Sarah: Then she must be another hooker… because her name is also Mary! Hey, be careful, if you don’t watch out, her husband might suddenly pick on you!
Melita: Nonsense, she’s already hooked to her prophet… They say that Jesus brings her everywhere….. I’d say there’s something going on here…..
Persius: Hey, those little gossips bespeak poor manners…
Sarah: Not to worry, Persius. We’re talking about the prophet and the hooker and the long-haired guys with him… They’ll be famous for the lice they carry on their heads, ha!
Persius: You bet!…… What were you telling me about the tax collector who looks drunk? I’m so disgusted, really….
Manasseh: Friends, the table is ready!…
Persius: Well, but first, our custom….
Manasseh: Of course….. you may now wash your hands…..
Since we were so starved, we did not hear Manasseh, the master of the house, invite us to wash our hands, according to the rite of purification of the Pharisees. They sat at the table only after washing their hands…. In a short while, we became so agog at the sight of the wine and the good food that we forgot about the cold welcome we received initially. Peter was so excited he licked the spare ribs one by one…. Philip, who was beside him, thoroughly searched the tray for the pieces of meat that were left…..
Philip: …….and I changed the wick from the oil lamp. Then the guy said: an oil lamp without a wick, of what use is it?…. Ho, ho, ho!….. What do you think?
Nathanael: Could you pass the gravy, Mary, it’s very good!
Peter: This lamb is fantastic, I tell you. Rufa, my mother-in-law, says that when you eat good meat, you must be ready for the consequences.
Melita: Well, well, can’t we talk of something else aside from lambs? Since the prophet is here with us, I’d like to know what he thinks of the things that are happening around the city….. This is Babylon, Jesus, I tell you. You don’t have to go far…. take the case of the family of Ptolemy…What do you think of what they have done to the daughter of Benisabe?
Jesus: I dunno… I don’t know this family, Madam Melita…
Melita: Oh, if you only knew…… Poor girl….. well, poor, no, but she’s a lost girl, to tell you frankly. She’s like a rolling stone. She can’t stay put. This is between you and me, as I don’t wish to poke my nose in somebody else’s life… but a reliable source told me she is pregnant, by no less than her first cousin….! The father, naturally, is distraught!
Sarah: Distraught? Is he really?….. What a creep! Why, it runs in the family! Like father, like daughter!
Melita: So, that’s what’s going around here, Jesus, but….
Sarah: But that’s not even half of the story. There’s more to it…. Well, I don’t really want to talk about anybody else’s life, but there are some things that have gone too far already….
Melita: Did you know that his wife tried to leave him by passing through the window…That was a great scandal in the whole Jerusalem! It turned out that….
After a while, two servants appeared with a jug of water for the purification rite, a custom observed by the Pharisees during meal time… The servants were at one end of the table where Philip was seated….
Nathanael: C’mon, Philip, pour it, man……
Philip: What?….. Hik….! More wine? Oh man, this is cool!… Okay, here goes!
Philip grabbed the jug with his greasy hands and gulped the water for the cleansing rites down his throat….
Persius: What obscenity is this?!
Sarah: He’s drunk….. Just look at that hooker beside him. She thinks it’s funny!
Nehemiah: This is the last straw!
When Philip put down the jug and wiped his drenched face with the sleeve of his tunic, Nehemiah, the magistrate, stood from the table and left the dining room with an air of dignity…
Magdalene: Say, what’s bugging that man now?
Philip: How should I know?!… The hot sauce must have upset his tummy…
Nathanael: No, Philip, I think it’s you…
Philip: Why me? No, Nat. He went to relieve himself in the latrine… I’m sure of that….
Then Persius, the other Pharisee, stood up…
Persius: I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I can’t stand it anymore… I tried to keep silent during the meal, but this is too much already. My friend Nehemiah did the same….. No, he did not go to the washroom as one of you has hinted. The doctor left because he could no longer tolerate what’s going on here. And he is right. Not one of you has observed the rite of washing the hands before you came inside. Neither have you washed yourselves while we were eating. And now, this guy did the most vulgar thing we have seen in our life!
Philip: Don’t you point at me with that finger of yours…! Okay, okay, I’m a swine…. well, I’m sorry, damn it!
Magdalene: Hey man, forgive him now so we can continue eating! Okay, so you’re forgiven… Or if you wish, I can sing to you a song to cheer you all up!
Nathanael: Shut up, Mary….. you’ll just make matters worse…
Melita: What a disgrace! I’m leaving too…… So these are “The prophet and his friends.” Ha!
As Madam Melita arrogantly left the dining room, Manasseh, the master of the house, look at Jesus despisingly….
Manasseh: A while ago, I would have wanted to ask you, Nazarene, whom they call God’s prophet, I would have wanted to ask you, I said, why your friends did not wash their hands before sitting at the table. I see that you have not done it, either. I see that you, their master, who is supposed to teach them the way of the Law, also don’t comply with the Law.
Jesus: And you, my friend, overdid it.
Jesus stood up, resting his two hands on the table…
Jesus: Please excuse us, Manasseh. It’s the lack of practice in us. We farmers don’t know much about good manners. Our hands are always dirty….
Manasseh: I’m glad you’re aware of it, Jesus…
Jesus: …..but, maybe, our tongue is purer than your wife’s, who while eating, did nothing but gossip about the entire neighborhood.
Manasseh: Pardon me, did I hear you right, or…?
Jesus: Yeah, you heard me right. If you wanted to, you would even hear better. Listen, Pharisee: What makes the person unclean is not what enters through his mouth, but what comes out of it. What goes inside passes through the stomach and then out of the body. But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and from the heart, like gossip, lies, the thought that one is better than the rest…. This is what makes the person unclean.
Jesus: So this friend of yours has an open mind, huh, Nicodemus?
Nicodemus: Fine, Jesus, but….. next time, be a little more careful.
Jesus: And tell your friends to hold their tongue a little….! because if it became longer than hair, then the ladies could make a good toupee out of it!
Nicodemus went with us as far as Bethany, at the other side of the Mount of Olives, where our friend Lazarus was waiting for us with the warmth of his smile. There, in his inn, we could sit around the table with dirty hands…..
In Jerusalem, the moneyed class and the most influential was the group of the priests. Alongside this powerful circle of priestly families was the lay aristocracy composed of land owners and big-time businessmen – especially those who engaged in the trade of wheat, wine, oil and timber. They were represented in the Sanhedrin (the judicial and administrative tribunal of Israel). Nicodemus, being a counsel to the Sanhedrin, belonged to this social class and his friends would naturally come from this group.
Jerusalem – as other capital cities – dictated the ways of the wealthy class all over the country. The rich men of Jerusalem loved anything luxurious in their homes, in their manner of dressing, in their food. Their banquets – and how these were organized – to the point of having them catered to impress their guests – were one of those occasions to flaunt the wealth of this privileged social class. They were very particular with the manner by which their guests were invited and their customs in this respect were rigorously followed: the sending of invitations through their messengers. In this episode, it was curiosity which motivated the wealthy friends of Nicodemus to invite Jesus, whom they were cautious of but from whom they anticipated something original, interesting and novel that would have compensated for the “sacrifice” they had made by going to his house.
The arrogant people in this episode, aside from being wealthy, were Pharisees. Not all Pharisees were rich people, but the leaders of this religious group belong to the upper class of society. They were accustomed to washing their hands before and after meals. Washing is not only a hygienic measure. The priests were originally obliged to observe it as a ritual symbol of their “sanctity.” Later, the Pharisees had used it to show that they were God’s chosen people, since they believed in their “holiness.” Jesus and his group never had this scrupulous habit.
Basically, the conflict as seen in this episode is more of a clash of different religious perceptions in the face of ritual purity, which is common among the social classes. Many times, it has been desired that good manners be identified or associated with Christian virtue, though it has nothing to do with the one or the other. A person may be “foul-mouthed,” but this is not considered a virtue nor a defect from the Christian point of view. It is simply a consequence of the environment where one has been brought up. Besides, we must bear in mind that the gospel emerged from among the simple folks. Jesus, who was part of this group, was certainly not particular about these social manners.
Jesus counteracts the false purity of the rich Pharisees, manifested only in the washing of the hands, with the purity of the mouth, which helps avoid making judgments about other people. Behind those whispers and gossip among the “elite” women of Jerusalem there is pride, spite for others, and false moralism. Above all, their purpose was to stress their difference from the rest, as the superior people. This is what Jesus tells them to their face. There is an interesting text in the Letter of James (James 3:1-18) regarding the offenses of the mouth – which, obviously, are not a patrimony of only the upper crust of society.
(Mt 15:1-20; Mk 7:1-23)