“A man’s pursuit for wealth and fame is his greatest downfall”
What a statement! I hear you exclaim. Please know, dear reader, I’m not intentionally trying to rustle feathers. I’m not trying to make a name for myself and become known for my thinking like the great Aristotle. No, I’m a simple man making a, quite frankly, obvious observation.
Although I am now old and suffering from “disease in my legs” (the physician insists it is gout), spending my latter years prostrated on my bed, I have lived a comfortable and fulfilling life. Now that I am almost a cripple, I spend my hours living in the memories of my past. The gout attacks are getting progressively worse. Although my present life has come to a halt, I am not enraged about my condition – as I said before, I have lived comfortably, and I would have it no other way.
I thought I might start a chronicle as I wait for the inevitable. I wondered what impressive line I might use to entice you, dear reader, to persuade you that a simpleton’s life like mine is worth your time and interest. After a sleepless night of recurrent leg spasms, which turned into hand pains (a new symptom) I was so overjoyed to have use of my hands again, as sunrise broke, that I penned with haste the first truth that came to mind.
Because wealth and prominence only ever seem to end in disaster or untimely death.
You see, I have encountered several great men who have been in their graves for decades, the result of over-ambition and greed. They were raised from good stock, taught the modest teachings of the Law, and were blessed by the Almighty with healthy offspring, fertile land, and honest occupations. But all of this was not enough. For they became dazzled by the Roman brutes; their ill-gotten gains and immoral Gentile living. I am ashamed to say that I knew personally a handful of my own countrymen, who abandoned honor to collaborate with our oppressors. They succumbed to the pressure of the ruling class and made the error of taking up the despised profession of tax collecting.
How can a man cheat his people to support the very empire that crushed us so deeply? How can a man give up his morals for self-gain and approval? What good is it to be celebrated by the pagans and spend eternity in Sheol? To gain the world and lose yourself?
(Now, I am not perfect, far from it. But I would be damned if I gave myself over to such a scandalous regime)
So I am resolute, I am certain.
Man’s desires for wealth and fame will only get him into trouble. Better to live quietly and keep your head down. My advice to you, dear reader, as an experienced old man, is that you imitate me. Live a simple life without notoriety. Do not keep the company of foolish sinners. Or try to become famous or push against the gouds. It will only end badly for you.
I am living proof of that, am I not? I have outlasted all those men who I grew up shoulder to shoulder with. Those men were once the dutiful boys I went to the synagogue to study the Torah with and played jacks on the dusty roads with until our fathers called us to learn their trade... (Ah, those were the days!)
I may be slumped here now, propped up like a broken-down doorway. But I still remember the smells of sawdust when I cut down wood with budding preadolescent strength, my father beaming from the sidelines. I was an eager young man, eager to please the man I respected, to take his tools into my own hands and craft something of substance and necessity. How my sweaty face and chest swelled when my father inspected my handiwork and declared it good. Dear reader, there is truly no greater thing than that of a son doing the work of his father. Oh, how I grew to forget the inconveniences of fatigued muscles and the long laborious days of wood handling. The ailment that has invaded my body now tells a story of an accomplished man.
If I have to suffer, shouldn’t I suffer for doing what is good...?
(I digress slightly but it is relevant, you’ll see…) Now that I have you committed, I want to expand on my conclusion about man. I want to tell you a little story to illustrate my perspective...)
I grew up in a little village in Galilee. A place of collective good and beauty with gentle slopes, majestic mountains, and rich pastures. Idyllic in every way. I can never forget it; I can still hear the bargaining of crowds as I would accompany my father to the marketplace, hauling our prized woodwork to sell for a healthy wage. This was our duty and our livelihood, our “bread and oil”, you might say.
My greatest desire was to see our work exchange hands and return home with the provisions to support our family.
Life was mostly peaceful. We existed in a sprawled settlement of harmonious households and our days of routine and rituals passed without angst – that is, until the Roman minions slithered into our marketplaces demanding their outlandish tax on our hard-earned labor.
My household was fortunate. My father’s trade of carpentry was lucrative enough to provide us with steady work and sustain us in and out of dry seasons. And so, although he loathed the Romans’ law, my father never withheld his portion from their greedy grasps. For he believed in retribution. Yes indeed, he was a man of the true Law and believed with all his heart, that the God of our forefathers would one day raise up a Champion to do away with our persecution once and for all.
“Which is why you should live an honest life above all, my boy;” my father would remind me as we watched the tax collectors scuttle in and out of our courtyards like rats looking for scraps. It was always sweet relief when they rode away on their mules by evening; their presence always left an uneasy tension in the air. Because as long as the Romans ruled, my people could never truly be at ease.
As we recited the Torah at the synagogue and recalled the stories of our past – the heroic exploits of the prophet Moses and our ancestors in the face of the Egyptian tyranny – we mused over our uncanny shared experiences of an oppressed life and found the holy texts to be of great comfort and guidance.
Who is “we”, you ask?. “We” being my Brotherhood.
You see, I belonged to a band of boys, five in total and as thick as thieves. My closest ally was called Joshua (Oddly the others ‘names have grown fuzzy in my memory. There were certainly two Joshuas and was it James and Mark? Or John and Matthew?) Anyway, as you might imagine, we were always together. Our families were close - we were all of the building trade par one, who was an innkeeper’s son. Our years as ruddy boys flew by quickly and we matured, under the Mediterranean sun, in stature, understanding, and ideas.
We built our identities on the word of our community and the Torah and the ever-present bubbling of socio-political discontent threatening to dilute everything we held dear. We were boys and so, naturally, were full of adventure, (small mischief) and inquisitiveness but grounded by the lessons installed in us from birth.
After a day of teaching and trading, our Brotherhood would take an hour religiously, often in the shade of a tree’s branches or seclusion of a rooftop, for leisurely fellowship. Our bodies pulsed with heat and exhaustion but our impressionable minds gorged with things to discuss. (I can tell you reader, how often we’d get a scolding from our mothers for staying out too late and missing the evening meal!)
Significantly, we spoke of the changing world; of the technologies and theologies that challenged our traditions and our place within it. Who would we become? Would we be the ones to witness the end of Roman rule? Questions only the Almighty knew but we were hungry for answers. And so in those years towards manhood, we became studious and devoted ourselves to our learning, encouraged by our elders.
And then, on one very extraordinary night, as we reclined in the presence of a starry sky, a shared fervency rose up amongst us, our bond so strong we needed no words to confirm this tug. We all leapt to our feet, stared solemnly but excitedly at each other, and fashioned a pact. A pact to pursue our trades passionately and find not only admiration in our fathers but also in the mighty men of the Law. We pledged allegiance to be as loyal as David and as determined as Gideon and to use our skilled hands and enlightened minds to preserve our community for all of our days. We were proud, Jews by blood and want, and we would live always and only for the cause of our people. (It was a wondrous occasion, dear reader! It was as though a strange but wonderful fire had been ignited within my heart! My hands tremble now at the memory – oh no, not another attack. Not at the moment of a climax…)
After such a glorious agreement sworn with such zealousness between five like-minded men, you’d be forgiven to expect this memoir to report an equally glorious and lasting covenant, spanning many years of trials and triumphs, outlasting even the most grueling empire in recent history.
But no. Here is where my observation of man’s downfall - of man’s longing for error despite his wholesome teachings – first became apparent.
Let me set the scene. (Patience! We are almost there…)
Steadily established in my father’s trade, I continued to labor within my childhood home for several years until out of the blue I was given the opportunity to partner with a traveling craftsman in his hometown of Capernaum.
At the turn of a new decade, I was still unmarried (even until this day) and with no binding obligations to remain in my village par that of my Brotherhood promise, I accepted the offer with gratitude. My departure was met with heartfelt goodbyes; my brothers and I wept with joyful hope that we would be reunited one day. Alas, I did not know it but that farewell was the last – I have dwelled in Capernaum now for almost forty-two years.
I heard of my father’s death three years later amidst news of many young men migrating their families into neighboring towns and cities upon hearing the supposed lower tax in the fishing trade (Ha, misguided nonsense, of course! There is no escaping the tax!). As for my brothers, I regrettably lost contact with all four. I imagined, particularly Joshua, they all would have made devout husbands and became stellar citizens choosing the right paths. I, of course, have and did take our pact seriously. It was never a childish whim.
A man’s word is his word and is more worthy than his very name. I should like to leave this earth having fulfilled all I promised I would do.
I worked for years under the direction of my partner, traveling around Capernaum between construction sites. I enjoyed a busy life, supplying the townsmen with quality fixtures and furnishings. I never overcharged and I never cheated my partner. I stood in the markets, from dawn to dusk (the catalyst of my ailment) observing and selling. I did not entertain revelers and I kept my eyes open for both thieves and of course those no-good Romans.
And now here, here is what you’ve been waiting for. The incident to justify my abrupt statement.
One afternoon, my partner’s establishment received official notice that we were owing tax. I gave my word that I would take care of the bill and set out to pass by the booth on the way to a construction site. I’d wandered past the shack many times not caring to make eye contact or conversation unnecessarily with the collector – you’ll understand, the relationship, the interaction was simply transactional.
Upon this day, the collector was napping on his shift and so I took great pleasure, dear reader, in slamming my fist on his table to stir him from his lazy slumber.
(The corrupted wealthy can afford to nap, but the humble stealthy cannot!)
He awoke with such a start that he seemed confused by my approach. I unlatched the required sum from my belt and emptied it onto the bench for his calculation. It was then, that I caught sight of him as he leaned forward to inspect the coins.
I was certain. I knew him. There was no doubt about it.
His face, though now bearded and taut, was one that had been etched in my mind, in my fondest memories. How can a man forget the face of his own childhood friend, his own countryman?
At such a reunion tears of joy should have been apt. But, sadly, the tears that came burned hot like sulfur on my skin.
My glare brought his head upwards, and we blinked at one another, in the silence of both awe and alarm. I knew him, and he knew me by his raised brows and the blush of crimson budding even against his tanned cheeks.
Dear reader, his first word to me was not one of shame or apology, or remorse. No, it was an address of audacity –
“Brother,” he started but I would not permit him to finish.
I absorbed, with such disdain, his table laden with measuring tools, the sacks of change at his feet, the signet rings on his fingers, and the crest of our oppressor on his papyrus and I could not find any other response than one of outrage. “Traitor” was the only word fit for a man I once held in my closest circle and had a deep love and respect for, who had evidentially lost his way, disregarded his word, and forfeited a good moral life for one of greed and corruption. No tax collector is a good man, it is impossible! And no good or moral man should have anything to do with one.
My shock was so severe I misplaced his name as I backed away. But as he rose, as though coming after me, his gaze suddenly re-focused, off-centered.
My rebuke had attracted the attention of another man. Not Roman reinforcement as I’d feared but some nosey passer-by, trawling a huddle of peculiar-looking men. He stopped beside me, but his intention was purely for the tax collector. He carried no money bag or document, his approach was bizarrely…friendly? What could this plain man want with this disappointment of a sinner?
I’ll never forget his words and the look of warmth on his face as he spoke:
Yes? The traitor replied with a tremble in his voice. I turned my face away from him, from them, bile rising in my throat.
“Matthew, come follow me.”
I fled the scene, pained with the weight of betrayal, ignoring the Jew's call for me to stay and join them.
And so you see, dear reader, Matthew, my former Brother, erred in his ways and in his word. He took on the very occupation we loathed and in doing so brought downfall and shame on himself and his family’s name.
But what became of him, I hear you ask? Well you see, I was right – it did end badly. The nosey passer-by, believe it or not, was supposedly a carpenter’s son, just like me. However, unlike me, he was clearly as tainted as Matthew and also chose to pursue a life of notoriety, became a famous revolutionary, and turned Galilee on its head. And tragic Matthew, along with eleven other misguided outcasts, followed him blindly for three years until eventually the Romans did away with the revolutionary and scattered his devotees.
(Ah, I have penned a great deal and my hands are tiring now. But I will leave you, for now, dear reader, with this – my reminder as you depart from this short account.)
Live simply, quietly, and honestly. Do not fraternize with foolish sinners. Or try to become wealthy, famous, or push against the goads. It will only end badly for you. Be like me and live well.
And wait patiently as I do, for retribution. For I still hope for the God of my faithful father to send the true Champion in due season and bring me His reward of real and everlasting wealth and rest.
Woe to Matthew and that misled revolutionary, they called “Jesus” who missed out on this wonderful truth.