Sophron bar Zakkai, the former assistant pastor at the Synagogue of Mashiach Yeshua, the former owner of a flourishing business in the Jerusalem market, the former suitor of the Widow Hannah, has come to see Elder Yakob and seek his counsel. He’s in very low spirits.
‘Brother Yakob, I am sick—exhausted, weak, feverish. My whole world has collapsed. The bar Yehuda brothers have ruined me! They are cheats, thieves, persecutors! They have stolen my whole business—premises, stock, and all. The men to whom I owed money are servants of theirs—I didn’t know!—and they got them all to force me to pay my debts at the same time. The court upheld their case. I couldn’t afford to hire a clever advocate. And now they are suing me for my house as well—unless I agree to renounce the Way of Mashiach Yeshua. On top of all that—this is really terrible! That treacherous Yohanan bar Yehuda is the very same man to whom our sister, Widow Hannah, has betrothed herself. She needs to know the danger she’s in!’
Yakob takes Sophron’s hand. ‘The first thing I have to say to you will sound hard and strange, Brother Sophron. Consider it pure joy, my brother, when you face trials of so many kinds.’
‘Joy! How on earth can you say that, Brother Yakob?’
‘Because you need to know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’
‘But I lack everything! I am going to lose my home or my faith—and probably my health. I do not know what to do or where to turn. I once thought I was wise, but now I find that I have been made a fool of. I feel like Job, humiliated, diseased, and mocked.’
‘Brother Sophron, Job is a good precedent! You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. If you lack wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt.’
‘But I do doubt! I am like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.’
‘Try not to think like that, my brother. A person like that should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. You need a single mind.’
‘Single mind! I’m torn in three directions at once! I’m utterly humiliated. I have even had to resign my eldership. And you know who has been appointed in my place, don’t you?’
‘Yes, brother. Elazar bar Adam. He is a happy man.’
‘It’s all very well for Brother Elazar. Things have turned out well for him, at my expense!’
‘Don’t grumble against another brother; you will be judged for it, you know. The Judge is standing at the door! Elazar is a believer in humble circumstances who rightly takes pride in the high position he has attained through grace. And so you, who were once rich—compared with him—should take pride in your humiliation. You have learnt the truth: the rich will pass away like a wild flower. Just as the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant and its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed, so the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. That has happened to you, brother.’
‘Why is God putting me through such a trial? Everything tells me to take the easy way out.’
‘Be careful, my brother. When you are tempted, you should not say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.’
‘So where does such evil come from, Brother Yakob?’
‘You are a pastor: you know that! Each person—you, Sister Hannah, Yohanan bar Yehuda, each one of us—is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.’
‘So it’s not from heaven?’
‘Don’t be deceived, my dear brother. God sends only good things. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. And the greatest gift he gave us is that he chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.’
‘Brother, I have lost touch with all these blessings. I’m not sure that I can stand the trial!’
‘You know, Sophron, the one who perseveres under trial is blessed! Because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered.’
‘But where is it all leading to? All this—perseverence!’
‘You know the one thing we are waiting for, my brother: the Lord’s coming. Be patient until then. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.’
‘But what am I to do now?’
‘Brother, I often ask three questions. Is anyone happy? Answer: let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone in trouble? Answer: let them pray. And, is anyone sick? Well, you are not happy, so you are not expected to sing praise songs. Are you in trouble, are you sick? Both. You must pray and you must call the elders of the church to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord.’
Elder Yakob has gone in search of the pastors Elazar bar Adam and Shimon the lamp dealer, two men with whom Sophron’s relations have not been the most cordial. Sophron is still praying rather desperately in his heart when the three others arrive back at Yakob’s house.
‘Are you very unwell, brother Sophron?’ Pastor Elazar respectfully enquires.
‘Dreadfully unwell, Brother Elazar; I swear by heaven I have never—’
‘Above all, my brother,’ breaks in Yakob gruffly, ‘do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.’
Oh, for heaven’s sake, is this necessary, thinks Sophron, but of course not out loud.
Pastor Shimon clears his throat, and says, in a deferential tone that Sophron has not heard him use before, ‘Brother Sophron, we are concerned that you are in trouble and sick. We have heard your call for the elders of the church, and we have come to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord.’
Elder Yakob adds, in a gentler voice: ‘And the prayer offered in faith will make you, the sick person, well; the Lord will raise you up. If you have sinned, you will be forgiven. Therefore, brothers, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.’
There is a troubled silence. Sophron is running with sweat, and not just from his fever. He knows what he must do, but a burning sense of shame is holding him back. Finally he manages to whisper: ‘Brother Elazar, I...sinned against you when I discriminated in favour of the rich man and made you sit on the floor of the synagogue. And again, when I treated you as a sort of trophy of faith, and did nothing for your physical needs… And Brother Shimon, I sinned against you in accusing you of being an unrepentant Pharisee, and in fighting with you over Widow Hannah… And brothers, I sinned against Widow Hannah, when I treated her as a chattel which I hoped to acquire, in order to satisfy my ambitions and desires, and when I gave her advice in order to make her think well of me—and as a result she is lost to us! You know, brothers, I feel so bad about her. I long for her to be restored—for her salvation, not for any purposes of my own, I hasten to say! And Brother Yakob, I have constantly resented you for interfering and lecturing me, when all along you were seeking my good. I humble myself before the Lord, my brothers, in trust that in time he will lift me up.’
All three men assure Sophron of their forgiveness. Then, to his surprise, they confess their own bad feelings about him. He manages to murmur a few words of forgiveness. It gives him a most peculiar sensation—as if he’s floating above the ground. He feels much cooler now.
‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,’ says Yakob. ‘Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.’
He lets that sink in. Then he continues: ‘And now we have some good news for you. Brother Shimon, you first.’
‘Brother,’ says Shimon, ‘I hope you will forgive this, but I have certain well-disposed contacts in the Sanhedrin—certain, ahem, Pharisees, you understand—and I have managed to redeem your house from the hands of those false men, the bar Yehuda brothers.’
Sophron is dumb with astonishment. Before he can say anything, Elder Yakob nods to Elazar, who gets up, goes to the door, opens it, and calls softly. Two women enter, their faces discreetly veiled. ‘Brothers, this is my wife, Shelomit, who has been to seek the lost. She brings with her our sister Hannah the widow of Talmai, who—thanks again to the hidden labours of Pastor Shimon—has been rescued from the clutches of the false Yohanan bar Yehuda! So we now welcome her back to the family of the Lord.’
Sophron can hardly breathe for joy. Yakob takes him by the hand and makes him stand beside Hannah. ‘My brothers and sisters,’ he says, ‘if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.’
Then they all exchange a holy kiss. And Yakob brings out bread and wine.