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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Remember Me in the World to Come

Outside the walls of Castle Machaerus, perched high on a hill in the Judean desert and surrounded by steep ravines, the wind moaned and rattled like the final, gasping breath of a wounded man. Sand and grit picked up by the wind flicked against the stone walls of the fortress – and, given enough time and a steady wind, would eventually etch away the stone stronghold.

Within those walls there was the noise of drunken revelry. King Herod and his guests had drunk their way through cask after cask of wine during his birthday celebration. Their inhibitions were drowned in the flow of wine. They snorted and laughed with dissipated carousing; their boorish shouts echoed through the halls and corridors of the fortress palace.

Shimon bar Alpheus heard them from his post. A soldier in Herod’s army, he was now stationed as a guard outside the dungeon cell of the dangerous radical, Yochanon, know everywhere simply as “the Baptizer.”

The Baptizer had threatened Herod’s rule – which is easy to say since Herod felt threatened by most everyone. He had a suspicious temperament.  The king had feared that Yochanon would lead the crowds that gathered to hear him preach (and they were large crowds) to raise up a rebellion, or other mischief, and had him imprisoned here within his strongest fortress, “The Sword,” Machaerus.

Shimon regarded the imprisoned prophet, a wizened man whose body had been coarsened by long exposure to the sun, and heat, and wind of the Judean wilderness, now gaunt and skeletal from malnourishment during his long imprisonment. His sink, once firm and brown, now appeared sickly green, death pale and sagging.  Who would fear this pathetic figure? To whom could he be a danger? Yet Herod would not release him.

He heard footsteps now, another soldier descended the stairs to the basement dungeon with orders from the king: “Send up the head of Yochanon,” he said, then added, “on a platter,” before turning smartly and climbing the stairs back up to the palace.

Shimon trembled. He knew this man had done nothing wrong, had broken neither the laws of man nor the Law of the Lord.  Now the king demanded his death.  And it would be death for Shimon and for his family as well, if he refused to obey.

“Rabbi,” he said to the imprisoned man, “you are an honest man, a man of God, and speak only truth. Tell me, if I do what I can to make your death painless and swift, will you bring me with you into the World to Come?”

From the shadowed corner of his cell, the prophet spoke only one word: “Yes.”

“Do you swear?”

And again the gravel throated voice said that one word, “Yes.”

“Bless you, rabbi, and forgive me. I will sharpen my heaviest sword, and will make my aim precise. The stroke will be sure; you will not suffer.”

Shimon applied a thin layer of oil to his whetstone and passed the blade of his heavy, two-handed sword carefully, slowly, repeatedly over its surface until it was as sharp as a thin, new razor.  Then he unlocked the iron door to the cell, and the manacles that bound his prisoner.  He lead the condemned prophet to the block. Yochanon knelt down and stretched his neck obligingly for the headsman.

“Remember me in the World to Come, Rabbi,” Shimon said as he lifted the heavy sword above his head. “Yes,” said the prophet as the blade came down.

The sword was sharp, and his aim was sure. Yochanon’s neck was sliced clean through. The head fell away from the bleeding trunk.  Shimon dropped his sword and lunged to snatch the prophet’s head out of the crimson spray. He wiped away the blood that had besmirched the noble face.

Shimon watched with revulsion as the Baptist’s eyelids and blue lips twitched spasmodically. “Rabbi, I’m sorry,” he sobbed.

Just then Yochanon’s twitching eyelids snapped open and his eyes locked in place – eye to eye with Shimon. Time froze. The dungeon walls receded. The sounds of drunken revelry and moaning wind were silenced. Then the Baptist’s eyes turned reverently toward heaven and his lips parted. From that maw spoke a voice that was not the parched and gravel throated voice of the decrepit prophet, but a clear and resonant voice that said:

“There are those who acquire their place in heaven through years of practice and suffering, but there are also some who enter the World to Come in a single moment. The Lord is gracious; blessed be the Lord.”


This story is based on / inspired by the "good wrongdoer" crucified with Jesus, the story of John the Baptizer's death, and a story told in the Talmud ('Arobda Zara).

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