A QUESTION FROM THE PRISON CELL
John, the prophet of the desert, continued to be a prisoner in Machaerus. King Herod dared not kill him for fear of a people’s revolution. Neither did he set him free for fear of Herodias, his wife. Thus, John remained imprisoned for months without seeing the light of the sun, where he rotted in a dark and humid dungeon near the mountains of Moab....
Matthew: Pssst!... Jailer!
Jailer: It’s you again?
Matthew: We wanna see the prophet.
Jailer: Who do you think you are, huh? You can go to hell and leave me in peace!
Thomas: Wwe-wwe... we wanna bring some food to the pro-prophet, John.
Jailer: It’s not allowed. The law is the law.
Matthew: What about five?
Jailer: Five! Puah! Risking my life for five filthy dinars!
Thomas: Ufff... We’ll mmm... mmm... make it seven. Is that okay?
Jailer: Damn you! Okay, gimme the money. Hey, you, watch out! Anytime they’ll cut off half the tongue you have left! And you better hurry, huh? I don’t want any hassle!
Matthew: John, John, what a joy to see you!
The Baptist: Thomas... Matthew... what a surprise! How did you get in?
Matthew: Don’t worry. Somehow, we always find a kind soul...
Thomas: Hh...hhow do you feel, John?
Baptist: Not so good, Thomas. This sickness is consuming me inside. I spit a lot of blood.
Matthew: We brought you something to eat. Look... It’s not much, but... and this syrup from fig leaves, according to a friend of mine, is very good to loosen up the lungs.
Baptist: Thanks. What would happen to me without you?... I think even the Lord forgets us prisoners....
Thomas: Don’t talk that way, John. Tt...tt...tell us what you need and w..w..we’re gonna do whatever possible to get it.
Baptist: Yeah, I want to ask you a favor... something very important to me. I need... I need to know if I’ll die peacefully.
Matthew: What’re you talking about, John? Have faith. Herod will set you free soon. He’s gotta do it. The people are protesting a lot and...
Baptist: People forget what they don’t see. They haven’t seen me for a long time.
Matthew: You’ll be outta here soon, I’m sure. You’ll go back to the river and the people will come to listen to you and you’ll continue to baptize in Israel.
Baptist: No Matthew, no... This sickness is killing me. I feel terrible. My days are coming to an end...
Thomas: Don’t say that, John.
Baptist: I’m not afraid to die, Thomas. When I began to preach justice, I already knew it would end... this way. No prophet perishes in bed. But it doesn’t matter... I did what I had to do.
Matthew: Speak up, John. What do you wanna ask from us?
Baptist: Down there at the Jordan, I met a Galilean who came to be baptized. I wanna know what’s happened to him. His name is Jesus, and he’s from Nazareth... Have you heard anything about him?
Matthew: Yes, news about him has spread as far as Judea and even Jerusalem.
Thomas: Ss...ss... some say he’s a healer.
Matthew: Others claim he’s a sorcerer. Or even an agitator...
Thomas: Still others ss...ssay he’s another prophet.
Baptist: It doesn’t matter what people say, but what he says. I need to know what he’s doing, what he thinks...
Matthew: Do you want us to see him and bring you news about him?
Baptist: Yes, that’s what I want. Please go to Galilee, but let no one know. It would be dangerous for him and for you.
Thomas: I think hh...hh... he lives in Capernaum.
Baptist: So go to Capernaum. And tell this on my behalf: John, the son of Zechariah, is asking you: My days are numbered. Will I die peacefully? I have sown the seed: Will somebody water it? I had an axe in my hands. Will someone give the necessary blow? I have set the light... Will someone blow the flame and kindle the fire?... Please tell him I’m sick, that I hardly have the strength to speak. I shouted and bellowed, announcing the coming of the Liberator... has my voice been lost in the wilderness?
Matthew: Anything else, John?
Baptist: Yes... Ask him if we gotta keep on waiting or... if the one who was to come has already come. I hope my dreams haven’t been in vain!...
Thomas: Ww...ww... we’ll journey to Galilee right now.
John: Be off soon. I promise not to die before you return.
Thomas and Matthew were part of John’s group of disciples when the prophet was preaching by the riverbank. Now they were staying in Jericho and they went to Machaerus whenever they could to visit him. That same morning they started their journey to the north, to the Galilee of the gentiles, to comply with the wish of the imprisoned prophet...
Thomas: Ww...ww... we have to be very cautious, Matthew. Things are getting worse.
Matthew: You bet. The truth is, I wouldn’t want to end up like John and rot in a prison like that...
Thomas: Nn..nn... neither would I. We mustn’t be seen talking often with this Jesus. Let’s keep a distance from him.
They passed the night in Perea and then in the Decapolis. On the third day, they reached Tiberias. They passed through the lake and went up to Capernaum...
Matthew: Pssst... Friend, would you know where this man Jesus, the one from Nazareth, lives?
A Man: What, what do they say?
Matthew: Don’t be afraid. We can be trusted.
Thomas: We wanna know ww..ww..where..the Nazarene lives!
Man: You, you... yo, yo............ you.
Matthew: Let’s go Thomas. This fellow is worse than you.
By asking here and there, they finally found our house. My mother Salome told them that Jesus was on the wharf, and would be every afternoon, waiting for our return from fishing... Thomas and Matthew approached Jesus from behind...
Matthew: Pssst.... Hey, you...
Jesus: Who... me?
Thomas: Yes, yy..yy..you...
Thomas: Who’re you?
Jesus: That’s what I wanna know: Who’re you?
Matthew: We’re looking for a certain Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus: Well, you already found him. I’m Jesus.
Thomas: Aa...aa... are you sure?
Jesus: As of this moment I’m sure. I dunno if tomorrow I’ll change my mind.
Matthew: At last we’ve found you. We came from the South...
Thomas: Yes, ff...ff..from Jericho....
Matthew: To be exact, from Machaerus.
Jesus: From Machaerus?
Matthew: Ssh! Don’t shout. They might hear us. Things are very bad, and since the Passover is near, there’s more vigilance than ever.
Jesus: But, are you sure you came from Machaerus?
Matthew: Yes we’re sure!
Jesus: Are you John’s friends?
Thomas: Yes, we saw John in his prison cell.
Jesus: How is he?
Matthew: He’s fine, no, he’s sick. He’s very pale, like a worm who hasn’t seen light for several months. He used to be tall and sturdy like a cedar, but now, he’s as limp as a rag. They’ve finished with him.
Jesus: Is he very ill?
Matthew: Yeah, he is. He spits blood. He won’t last long...
Jesus: I’ve got to see him before he dies. Is there a way?
Matthew: You won’t be able to get through. They will easily recognize you as Galilean. The Galileans are blacklisted.
Thomas: We bribed the jailer so we could go near him and talk to him briefly.
Jesus: I have to go there. I need to talk to John and ask him a few things.
Matthew: John also wishes to ask you something.
Jesus: Did you bring any message from him?
Thomas: Yes. John ww...ww... wants us to tell you: “My days are numbered. Ww..ww..will I die in peace?”
Matthew: He also told us to tell you: “I shouted out the coming of the Liberator. Has my voice been lost in the wilderness? Shall we keep on waiting or has he come, the one who was to come?”
Jesus became pensive and stared blankly at the black stones of the wharf...
Thomas: Ww..ww... what do you want us to tell John?
Jesus: Tell him that... things are going fine... slowly, but fine. We have started here in Capernaum. We’re still a small number, but... we proclaim the Kingdom of God, we fight against injustice, and we try to do something so that things will change.
Thomas: And hh...hh..how do the people take it?
Jesus: They’re beginning to open their eyes. Those who were deaf are beginning to hear. Those who were oppressed are becoming hopeful, and they’re beginning to rise and move on. Even the poorest, those who are starving to death, share whatever little they have, and they help one another. The people are getting on their feet, yes, they’re waking up.
Matthew: Who have joined you?
Jesus: A lot of people, especially those who were left behind, of course. Tell John that in the Kingdom of God, the last shall be the first to enter; those who have no place anywhere: the sick, the prostitutes, the publicans, the lepers, the most trampled upon... these are the people who’ll have a place with us...
Thomas: Don’t you have pp..pp..problems with the bigwigs?
Jesus: Yes, of course. That’s obvious..
Matthew: So... what now?
Jesus: Nothing... We’ll move on and continue to announce the good news of liberation to the poor, that God is on our side; That it breaks His heart to see this world twisted and He wants to straighten it...
Matthew: John will be very happy to hear this... I assure you he will.
Jesus: Yes, and tell him, for my part, that the axe has not lost its sharp edge, the fire has not been extinguished, that the seed he has sown shall bear fruit in time. John will understand. He is one of those who understands the way of the Lord. He’s got a keen sense of smell for this. I’m sure he won’t be disappointed with what we’ve been doing up until now, and what we shall still do.
Peter: Hey, Moreno, we’re back.
Matthew: Who’re they?
Jesus: They belong to my group.
Peter: Dammit! Who’re these guys, Jesus?
Jesus: The truth is, I haven’t asked them who they are...
Matthew: My name’s Matthew.
Thomas: My name’s Th...th... Thomas.
Jesus: You know what, Peter? They’re able to talk with the prophet, John, in his prison cell.
Peter: Oh, really! Hey guys! Hurry up! We’ve news from the prophet John!
Matthew: For God’s sake, don’t shout! The guards might...
Peter: To hell with them! Let’s have some hot soup first, then tell us what you know about the prophet. Long live the movement!
Andrew came and then James. The rest of us on the other boat followed with the old man, Zebedee. All of us went with Thomas and Matthew who told us of the happenings in the south and in the prison cell of Machaerus....
Very little is spoken of Thomas in the gospels. It is John who occasionally mentions his name, and who calls him “the twin.” He is known as the “incredulous.” Matthew is known throughout the book of Acts of the Apostles, and he was chosen to take the place of Judas to fill up the group of the twelve apostles after Jesus’ resurrection. In this episode, Thomas and Matthew appear as John the Baptist’s disciples, who later on join Jesus’ group. Thomas stammers, but he is ingenuous, a little stubborn and a coward. The character of his friend, Matthew, is less defined.
John the Baptist, the prophet who influenced Jesus and inspired him decisively in his initial activities in Galilee, wants to know from his confinement in the dungeons of Herod’s palace in Machaerus, what the Galilean whom he had met in the Jordan is doing. Jesus’ reply to his messengers shows his awareness of being the heir of the prophetic tradition of his people and, with the help of his friends, of setting up the Messianic Kingdom which John himself and the rest of the prophets had announced.
It was in the synagogue of Nazareth where Jesus proclaimed the message of liberation to his countrymen for the first time. On that occasion, Jesus described the signs that accompanied such liberation. Now, after a period of activity in Galilee, he sends the message to John that what has been proclaimed is beginning to be fulfilled. Up to that moment, Jesus’ activity would have been what we would refer to nowadays as a task of “conscientization.” Through words and signs, Jesus inspired among the poor of Capernaum and the neighboring villages, hope for freedom and an awareness of their dignity. The Kingdom of God starts precisely when a person is assured in his or her heart that all people are equal and that inequality among people is contrary to the will of God. With this as a starting point, people find strength to fight for a just and free world. Before engaging in any act of liberation, the Christian must carry this message at heart since this is essential to the gospel. There cannot be a liberating act without a prior liberating conscience.
The prophetic text of Isaiah on which Jesus based his mission (Is 61:1-2) spoke of the blind, the deaf, and the dead... An interpretation reducing the signs of the Messianic Kingdom to simple and isolated healings with which Jesus manifested the power he had, would distort the gospel. The blind were those who could not see and whose sight, Jesus – in his capacity to make people overcome – recovered for them. But a blind person is also one who, wallowing in injustice and becoming its victim, cannot rise from this situation and becomes blind to any opportunity to get out of it. A deaf person is one who refuses to hear in spite of having ears. Worse is the poor creature who hears not the voice that speaks of liberation, as pain has numbed sensitivity to hope for things to change. He or she is deaf who is passive and fatalistic. Dead are those who have never lived like human beings, those who have wept and sweated, and been oppressed by others who have treated them like animals. When the blind begin to see, the deaf begin to hear, and the dead rise from their tombs of misery, then the Kingdom of God is near. The gospel is the good news of liberation, a complete liberation which will come from beyond this world to free us from the same death. It has already begun on this earth.
(Mt 11:2-6; Lk 7:18-23)