The Mumbling Messiah

Sermon on the Mount

A crowd of villagers occupied the slopes of a hillock, straining to hear the one they called “the Kid,” who stood on the hillock’s summit giving an impromptu sermon in a listless drone. Those near the summit could just make out what the Kid was saying. Those further downhill were only able to capture a word here and there: “hypocrite,” “kingdom,” “father.” The rest of what the Kid said was lost in the aether.

Watching from the base of the hillock were Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter. Judas, arms folded, had a dour expression on his face. Simon held a cupped hand above his eyes to block out the late afternoon sun. Both men were several decades older than the Kid.

Neither man seemed interested in what the Kid was saying. Not today anyway. They had heard him countless times. They were familiar with his message. Judas and Simon were among the Kid’s first followers. However, on this day, the two men were more interested in determining the Kid’s range, which is why they stood so far away. The crowds the Kid was drawing, they noticed, were starting to plateau. Both men appeared disappointed, especially Judas.

“This is just awful,” Judas said to Simon, his eyes squinting up at the Kid.

“I know,” Simon replied.

“Why did we not notice this before?”

Simon shrugged. “We were always in close proximity.”

“Can you hear anything he’s saying?” Judas asked.

“Only a murmur,” Simon said. He moved his cupped hand behind one ear. “You can tell someone is speaking, but you can’t make out the words.”

“It’s terrible,” Judas said.

Judas felt a headache coming on. Unfolding his arms, he pressed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger. “You have to be standing five feet away to even hear him.”

“He might as well be speaking Latin,” Simon joked.

“Why can’t he project?” Judas asked, raising his arms to the sky.

“He’s probably had no one to teach him,” Simon replied. He glanced up at the taller man. “You’re having doubts.”

“How can he be the Messiah when three-quarters of the people come away from his sermons having no idea what he said?”

“Yet all his followers talk about him. About his gentleness. About his wisdom.”

“Of course they do. A few people up front manage to figure out what he’s saying, with no little effort on their part. They walk away excited, exclaiming what a great sermon it was. ‘Can you believe what the young rabbi said? Wasn’t it amazing?’ And the rest of the people, not wanting to look like schmucks, say, ‘Yes, it was terrific, wasn’t it?’ But they have no idea what he said.”

“Those who hear him will hear him,” Simon said.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Simon again shrugged.

“Sure, he’s got a good message,” Judas continued. “But his presentation stinks! That’s not what you want in a Messiah. You want strength. You want power. You want him to kick us in the butts. This kid is far too meek.”

“The parables don’t help either,” Simon said.

“I would be fine with the parables if you could actually hear them. Does he have to mumble like that?”

Simon looked down at the ground, thinking.

“Perhaps what he needs is a coach,” he said. “What about John?”

“The Baptist?” Judas asked. “Well, there’s an idea. He’s a pretty decent speaker.”

“He’s a terrific speaker. Do you think he would be willing?”

“I think he would be willing for the right price.”

And so Judas and Simon set off into the wilderness to ask John the Baptist for help with the Kid’s presentation. They came upon him sitting cross-legged on a rock beside the river. The Baptist was eating a handful of locusts. Simon cringed a little when he saw him.

Judas and Simon greeted John and explained why they had come. John sat there on his rock, listening attentively, munching away. He could see how important this was to the two men. So he held out for a higher price. There was haggling and gnashing of teeth. When they finally agreed to a price, Judas told John he was all heart for a prophet. John said that money doesn’t fall from the sky, not even for prophets.

“I guess you have to keep up your locust supply,” Judas said sarcastically.

Meanwhile, word about the Kid had gotten around the village. One of the high priests, Caiaphas, was unhappy because the Kid was violating the Sabbath. That’s what he said anyway. In truth, he hated the fact that the Kid was drawing crowds outdoors while the temple where the high priests preached was being used as a storeroom for fishing nets. The Romans too were unhappy because they believed the Kid to be an agitator. Caiaphas bolstered this belief by feeding the Romans false information. Eventually, he sent a soldier out to find the Kid and bring him in for questioning. The villagers knew what this meant. They took turns hiding the Kid in their homes.

One morning, as Judas and Simon were conferring outside the temple, the soldier walked up to them.

“Where’s the Kid?” the soldier asked.

“Beat it, monkey face!” Judas told him.

“I’ll beat you,” the soldier snarled as he reached for his sword.

“Hang on, gentlemen,” Simon said, stepping between the two men. “Let’s not have any trouble. Look, the Kid went up to Galilee to visit his parents. He’ll be up there at least a fortnight.”

“You better watch it,” the soldier said to Judas. “And you,” he said turning to Simon, “better not be lying.”

As the soldier walked away, Judas said to Simon, “If your face had been pressed any further up his ass, you could have kissed his helmet.”

“You shouldn’t toy with Caiaphas’s soldiers, Judas.”

“I can’t help it. They burn me up. Siding with the occupiers.”

Simon didn’t say anything. He watched a shrike alight on a nearby tree branch.

“What are these Roman barbarians doing down here anyway?” Judas asked. “They can’t grow olives on the boot?”

A few days later, Judas and Simon paid a visit to John the Baptist to see what kind of progress he was making with the Kid. The Baptist surprised them.

“I quit,” he said.

“What?” Judas replied. “You just started. You can’t quit.”

“I just did,” John said. “Here’s your money back.”

He placed several coins in Judas’s palm before immediately snatching two back.

“Minus the lessons given,” he explained.

“What exactly is the problem?” Simon wanted to know.

“Look. He’s a good kid,” John said. “Very smart. Has some terrific things to say. But he doesn’t know how to sell it. I tried and tried with him, but all I get is mumbling. He has no personality. No charisma. He’s hopeless.”

“He’s from a poor family,” Simon told him. “His father never taught him how to speak in public. He was a shepherd.”

“Shepherds don’t speak to their sheep?” John asked.

Simon and Judas exchanged a puzzled glance.

“Just give the Kid another try,” Judas pleaded.

“Out of the question,” the Baptist said. “Listen, I was with you guys in the beginning. I thought he was the one. But you can’t lure a bunch of fishermen with dead bait. They’re not big thinkers, these fishermen. They need a little pizzazz. They work for, what, sixteen hours a day, then come home exhausted. They shouldn’t have to work for the message too. We need someone who can grab them by the beards and shake them. A leader. This kid’s not a leader. I’m sorry, but this is my final answer.”

And that was that. Judas and Simon knew the Baptist was right. The Kid was no leader. Where would this leave them with the Romans?

On their way back to the village, Judas and Simon ran into the same soldier who had confronted them earlier. He had a peculiar smile on his face.

“Watch it,” Judas warned Simon. “That’s the look they give right before they gut you.”

“He knows I lied about Galilee,” Simon said, worried.

The soldier overheard him.

“Gentlemen. I’m not here to make trouble. I’m here to offer you an opportunity.”

“Does Caiaphas need his toilet cleaned?” Judas asked.

“No,” the soldier replied, making an effort to maintain his smile. “He’s offering a reward for information about the Kid’s whereabouts.” He pulled out a small leather purse and held it before his face.

“It’s true what they say,” Judas said to Simon. “The bigger the empire, the smaller the purse.”

A frown flickered across the soldier’s face before the smile returned.

“Think about it, gentlemen,” the soldier said as he walked off still dangling the purse aloft.

Once Simon was certain the soldier was out of earshot, he said to Judas, “I think he wanted to kill us.”

“His breath nearly did,” Judas said.

“Listen, Judas. I’ve been thinking. Perhaps what we need is some sort of event. Something that will get the people’s attention. You know, get them talking.”

“About the Kid?” Judas asked. Simon nodded. “What do you have in mind?”

Simon explained his plan to Judas. Judas thought it was a good one, but he was unsure the Kid could pull it off. When they told the Kid the plan, the Kid was against it.

“It’snotme,” he mumbled.

At least that’s what Judas and Simon thought he said. He may have said, “Hesawme.” Or perhaps “It’sonme.” Whatever the case, the two men got the Kid to finally, albeit reluctantly, agree to Simon’s plan.

The three of them went to the temple, where the money changers conducted their business during the day. Judas and Simon stood at the entrance of the temple as the Kid walked up to one of the money changers and spoke to him.

“What?” the money changer asked, annoyed. “I can’t hear you. Speak up.”

The Kid repeated what he had said. The money changer looked at him scornfully.

“Get the hell out of here!” he yelled at the Kid. “I’m busy here.”

The Kid looked around the temple, confused, like he wasn’t sure what to do next. He started to leave, but at the exit, Judas and Simon stopped him.

“Be more assertive,” Judas told him. “Knock their tables over. Make a scene.”

The Kid walked up to another money changer. He looked uncertainly back at Judas and Simon, who both mimed the knocking over of a table. The Kid tentatively reached out and pushed the money changer’s table, but it failed to tip over.

“Get your filthy hands off my table!” the money changer shouted at him.

“Youneedtoleaveyouallneedtoleavethisisanabominationofthetemple,” the Kid mumbled in a quiet, steady stream. With a finger, he flicked over a pile of coins sitting on the table.

“I told you to keep your hands off!” the money changer screamed, grabbing the Kid by his tunic.

“That’s the same kid who was bothering me,” another money changer said. “He’s a thief. Grab him.”

A group of money changers grabbed the Kid and started beating him. Judas intervened.

“Let the Kid go or I’ll tear this place apart,” Judas said brandishing his sword.

They did so, but not without tossing a few obscenities at the Kid before returning to their business.

As Judas and Simon escorted the Kid out of the temple, they exchanged uneasy glances. Simon knew what Judas was thinking. Simon was thinking the same thing. The Kid wasn’t the one. Pretending he was only made matters worse. And the Kid wouldn’t stop preaching.

“What will we do?” Simon asked.

“I’ll take care of it,” Judas said grimly.

If you had been out in the village that night, just before midnight, and you happened to look over near the water well, you would have seen a couple of figures speaking to one another, one a villager, the other a soldier. You would have seen, if not heard, the villager say something to the soldier, and you would have seen the soldier hand the villager a purse, a tad reluctantly. You would have then seen the soldier shake his finger at the villager in warning as the villager walked away. You would have seen the villager suddenly stop about fifteen paces from the soldier, turn, and make an obscene gesture. You would then have seen the soldier make an impulsive move for his sword before thinking better of it.

Several days later, Judas and Simon stood near the crest of a hill. Simon was dressed as a woman. Judas was in his regular tunic. Both men stared solemnly at the rows of crosses in the distance.

“I feel just awful,” Judas said.

“Did you have a choice?” Simon replied. Judas looked down at Simon, whose face was partially obscured by a black veil.

“You make a hideous woman,” Judas said.

“It’s that servant girl’s fault.”

Judas turned back to the crosses.

“They’ve identified you as a follower too,” Simon said. “Why are you not disguised?”

“I’m tired of pretending,” Judas said. “Or maybe I’m just tired.”

Simon joined him in gazing at the crosses.

“He will come,” Simon tried to reassure Judas. “Someday.”

“I’m not sure I can wait much longer,” Judas replied, before turning and walking back down the hill.