382. At the Ford between Jericho and Bethabara.
14th February 1946.
The banks of the Jordan near the ford are exactly like a camp of nomads during these days, when caravans are returning to their home towns. Tents or just blankets, tied to two tree-trunks, or resting on branches planted in the ground, or tied to the high saddle of a camel, fixed, in short, somehow, to enable people to get under them, and be sheltered from the dew which must be just like rain in these places below sea level, are spread everywhere along the woods, which form a green frame round the river.
When Jesus arrives with His disciples near the river banks, to the north of the ford, the camps are slowly awaking. Jesus must have left Nike's house at dawn, because the sun has not yet risen and the place is beautiful, cool and serene. The more earnest people, awakened by the neighing, braying, the strange cries of horses, donkeys and camels, by the quarrels or songs of hundreds of sparrows and other birds among the branches of willows, of reed-thickets, of the tall trees forming green tunnels above the flowery banks, begin to steal out of the gaily coloured tents and go down to the river to wash. One can hear some children weeping and the sweet voices of mothers speaking to their children.
All the signs of life revive minute by minute. All kinds of vendors arrive from the nearby town of Jericho, with new pilgrims, guards and soldiers responsible for watching over and keeping order during these days, when tribes of every region meet and do not spare themselves insults and reproaches, and when there are frequent thefts by highwaymen, who mix with the crowds disguised as pilgrims in order to steal; and there is no shortage of prostitutes, who have come on “their” Passover pilgrimage, that is, to squeeze money and gifts out of the more wealthy and lustful passengers in payment for an hour's pleasure, which miserably neutralises all Passover purifications... The honest women, who among the pilgrims have husbands and grown up sons, shout like upset magpies calling their men, who stand enraptured, or at least mothers and wives think so, watching the prostitutes. And the shameless women laugh and give sharp answers to the titles addressed to them by the honest women. The men, and the soldiers in particular, laugh and willingly joke with the prostitutes. Some Israelites, morally rigid, or only hypocritically rigid, go away indignantly, whilst others... make use of the deaf-and-dumb alphabet in advance, because they make themselves clearly understood with the prostitutes by gestures.
Jesus does not follow the straight road that would take Him to the middle of the camp. He goes down to the gravel bed of the river, takes His sandals off and walks where the water washes against the grass. The apostles follow Him.
The elder ones, who are more uncompromising, grumble: "And to think that the Baptist preached penance here!"
"Yes! And this place is now worse than a porch in the Roman thermae!"
"And those who call themselves saints do not disdain to amuse themselves there!"
"Did you see them, too?"
"Of course I did! I have eyes as well!..."
The younger or less rigid apostles − such as Judas of Kerioth who laughs and watches very carefully what is happening in the camps and does not disdain contemplating the beautiful impudent women who have come looking for customers; and Thomas, who laughs watching the angry wives and the indignant Pharisees; and Matthew, who cannot speak severely against vices and corrupt people, as once he was a sinner himself, and is content with sighing and shaking his head; and James of Zebedee, who watches without interest and without criticising, indifferently − follow their little group, ahead of which there is Jesus with Andrew, John and James of Alphaeus.
Jesus' face is uncommunicative, as if it were carved in marble. And it becomes more and more uncommunicative, as from the top of the embankment He hears words of admiration or shameless conversations between a not very honest man and a prostitute. He looks straight ahead all the time, fixedly. He does not want to see. And His attitude makes His intention very clear.
But a young man, magnificently dressed, who is speaking to two prostitutes with other fellows like him, says in a loud voice to one of the women: "Go! We want to have a good laugh. Go and offer yourself! Comfort Him! He is sad because, poor as He is, he cannot buy women."
Jesus' ivory face blushes and then becomes pale once again. But He does not look round. His blushing is the only sign that He has heard.
The impudent woman, with her necklaces tinkling loudly and her dress flapping lightly, utters an affected cry and jumps from the low embankment on to the gravel bed, and in doing so, she succeeds in showing much of her secret beauty. She falls just at Jesus' feet and with trilling laughter on her beautiful lips, inviting eyes and figure, she shouts: "Oh! handsome one among those born of woman! For a kiss of Your lips, I give all myself without payment!"
John, Andrew and James of Alphaeus are paralysed with scandalised astonishment and cannot make a gesture. But Peter! He springs like a panther and from his group he falls heavily on the unfortunate woman, now on her knees and leaning backwards, he shakes her, lifts her, hurls her, with an awful epithet, against the embankment, then charges her to give her the rest.
Jesus says: "Simon!" A cry which is more than a sermon.
And Simon goes back to his Lord, red with anger. "Why do You not let me punish her?"
"Simon, you do not punish a garment which has become dirty. You wash it. Her garment is her filthy body and her soul is polluted. Let us pray to cleanse her soul and her body." He says so kindly, in a low voice, but loud enough to be heard by the woman, and setting out again, He now does cast a glance with His mild eyes at the wretched woman for one moment. One glance only! For one moment only! But all the power of His merciful love is in it! And the woman lowers her head, picks up her veil and covers herself with it... Jesus continues on His way.
He is now at the ford. The shallow water allows adults to cross to the other side on foot. It is enough to lift one's clothes above one's knees and look for the large white stones submerged in the crystal-clear water forming a kind of pavement for the people wading across. Those on horseback cross over downstream.
The apostles wallow happily in the water half way up their thighs and Peter cannot believe that it is true. And he promises the others and himself a refreshing bath when they stop in Solomon's house, as compensation for yesterday's roasting.
They are now on the other side. Here also the crowds are becoming active after the night's rest, or people are drying themselves after wading.
Jesus orders: "Spread around and inform people that the Rabbi is here. I am going near that fallen tree-trunk and I will wait for you there."
Many people are soon informed and they flock to hear Him.
Jesus begins to speak. A sad procession passes by following a litter, on which there is a young man who has been taken ill in Jerusalem, and as the doctors have condemned him, he is now being rushed home to die there. Everybody is speaking about him because he is rich and still young. And many say: "It must be very sad to die when one is so wealthy and so young!" And some say perhaps they are people who already believe in Jesus: "It serves him right! He will not believe. The disciples went to his relatives and said to them: “The Saviour is here. If you have faith and you ask Him, He will cure him.” But he was the first to refuse to come to the Rabbi." Criticism follows pity. And Jesus refers to that to begin His speech.
"Peace to everybody!
Rich and young people certainly do not like to die, when they are rich only in money and young in age. But those, who are rich in virtue and young because of their pure habits, are not sorry to die. A truly wise person, from the age of discretion onwards, acts in such a way as to die peacefully. Life is preparation for death, just as death is preparation for a greater Life. The true wise man, when he understands the truth of living and dying, the truth of dying to rise again, strives in every possible way to divest himself of what is useless, and to become enriched with what is useful, that is, with virtues and good deeds, in order to have a supply of goods before Him Who summons him to judge him, to reward or punish him with perfect justice. The true wise man leads a life that makes him more adult in wisdom than an old man, and younger than a teenager, because by living virtuously and justly, he keeps such pure feelings in his heart that even youths at time do not possess. How sweet then it is to die! The wise man reclines his tired head on the bosom of the Father, he relaxes in His embrace, and in the midst of the mist of fleeing life he says: “I love You, I hope in You, I believe in You”, saying so for the last time on the Earth, to repeat then the jubilant “I love You!”, forever and ever in the brightness of Paradise. Is death a harsh thought? No. A just decree for all mortals, it is a grievous worry for those who do not believe and are full of sins. In vain man says, to explain the troubled anxiety of a man who is dying and who was not good during his lifetime: “It's because he would not like to die as yet, because he has not done any good, or only very little, and he would like to live to make amends.” In vain he says: “If he had lived longer, he could have had a greater reward, because he would have done more good.” A soul knows, at least vaguely, how much time it has been given. No time, as compared to eternity. And the soul spurs the whole ego to act. But, poor soul! How often it is overwhelmed, trodden upon, gagged, in order not to hear its words! That happens to those who lack good will. Whilst just men, from their very childhood, listen to their souls, obey their advice, and are continuously active; and saints die young in age but rich in merits, at times at the dawn of life; and not even by the addition of one hundred or one thousand years, would they become holier than they are, because the love for God and their neighbour, practised in every form and with utter generosity, makes them perfect. What matters in Heaven is not how long, but how one has lived.
People mourn for corpses and weep over them. But corpses do not weep. People tremble at the thought that they must die. But they do not worry about living in such a way as not to tremble at the hour of their death. Why do people not mourn for and weep over living corpses, the real corpses, those who have in their bodies, as in graves, dead souls? And those who weep thinking that their bodies must die, why do they not weep over the corpses they have within themselves? How many corpses I see, and they laugh and joke, but they do not weep over themselves! How many fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sons, friends, priests, teachers, I see who foolishly weep for a son, a wife, a husband, a brother, a parent, a friend, a believer, a disciple who died in clear friendship with God, after a life that was a crown of perfection and who do not weep over the corpses of the souls of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, a father, a friend, a believer, a disciple, who is dead through vices and sins, and is dead and lost forever, unless he repents! Why not try to revive them? That is love, you know? It is the greatest love. Oh! foolish tears for dust, which has become dust! Idolatry of affections! Hypocrisy of affection! Weep, but over the dead souls of your dearest relatives. Try to bring them to Life. And I speak in particular to you, women, who can influence so much those whom you love. Let us now consider together what Wisdom indicates as the cause of death and shame.
Do not insult God by misusing the life He gave you, soiling it with evil deeds which dishonour man.
Do not insult your parents through behaviour that flings mud at their white hair and causes violent sorrow to their last days.
Do not abuse those who assist you, so that you will not be cursed for the love you tread upon.
Do not abuse those who govern you, because it is not by rebelling against rulers that countries become great and free, but it is through the holy life of citizens that you obtain the assistance of the Lord, Who can touch the hearts of rulers or remove them from their places or even from life, as our history of Israel has shown several times, when they pass all bounds and especially when the people, sanctifying themselves, deserve the forgiveness of God, Who thus removes the oppressive yoke from the necks of the punished citizens.
Do not abuse your wives by putting an affront of adulterous love upon them, and do not abuse the innocence of your children with the knowledge of unlawful love.
Live holily in the eyes of those who, both because of their love and of their duty, consider you the person who is to be the example of their lives. You cannot sever your holiness in respect of your closest neighbour from your holiness towards God, because one germinates the other, as the two loves: of God and neighbour germinate each other.
Be just with your friends. Friendship is a kinship of the soul. It is written: “How delightful it is for friends to proceed all together.” But it is delightful if they proceed on the path of virtue. Woe to those who pollute and betray friendship by turning it into selfishness, treason, vice or injustice. Too many are those who say: “I love you” to find out their friends' business and exploit the information to their own benefit'! Too many are those who usurp the rights of their friends!
Be honest with judges. With all judges. From the most high judge, Who is God and cannot be defrauded or deceived through hypocritical practices, to the intimate judge, that is, your conscience, to the loving, suffering judges, watchful of their love, which are the eyes of your relatives, to the severe judges of the people. Do not lie invoking God to corroborate your lies.
Be honest in selling and buying. When you are selling, and your greed says to you: “Steal to have a bigger profit”, whilst your conscience says to you: “Be honest because you would be sorry if you were robbed”, listen to the latter voice, remembering that we must not do to others what we would not like done to ourselves. The money given to you in exchange for goods is often wet with the perspiration and tears of the poor. It costs hard work. You do not know how much grief it costs, how much sorrow and pain there is behind that money, which you vendors think that it is always too little for what you give. Sick people, fatherless children, old people short of money... Oh! holy grief and holy dignity of the poor, which the rich do not understand, why are you not taken into consideration? Why are people honest when selling to the powerful and mighty ones, for fear of retaliation, whereas they take advantage of defenceless unknown brothers? That is rather a crime against love than against honesty itself. And God curses it, because the tears squeezed out of poor people, who have but tears as a reaction against abuse of power, cry to the Lord with the same voice as the blood drained from the veins of a man by a murderer, by a Cain of his fellow creature.
Be honest in your looks, as you are in your words and deeds. A look, given to those who do not deserve it, or denied to those who do deserve it, is like a noose and a dagger. The look that meets the impudent eyes of a prostitute, and says to her: “You are beautiful!”, and replies to her inviting look with assent, is worse than the slip knot for a hanged man. The look denied to a poor relative or to a friend fallen into poverty, is like a dagger that pierces the hearts of those unhappy people. And likewise the glance of hatred or of contempt cast at one's enemy or at a beggar. Enemies are to be forgiven and loved at least with your souls, if your bodies refuse to love them. Forgiveness is love of the spirit. Not to take revenge is love of the spirit. A beggar is to be loved because nobody comforts him. It is not sufficient to throw a mite and pass by scornfully. The offering serves for the starving, naked, homeless body. But the pity that smiles in offering, that takes an interest in the tears of the unhappy fellow, is bread for his heart. Love, love, love.
Be honest in tithes and customary practices, be honest in your homes, without exploiting servants beyond measure and without tempting the maidservant sleeping under your roof. Even if the world is unaware of the theft committed in the secrecy of your house against your unaware wife and against the maidservant you debauch, God is aware of your sin.
Be honest in speaking. Be honest in bringing up your sons and daughters. It is written: “Keep a sharp look-out, that your daughter does not make you the laughing stock of the town.” I say: “Keep a sharp look-out that the soul of your daughter may not die.”
And now go. I also will go away, after giving you provisions of wisdom. May the Lord be with those who strive to love Him."
He blesses them with a gesture, He descends quickly from the fallen tree and takes a lane among the trees going upstream and soon disappears among the green vegetation.
The crowds make comments animatedly with opposing opinions. The unfavourable comments, of course, are made by the few scribes and Pharisees who are among the crowds of humble people.