Anna and Jacob slipped stealthily from behind a large arched gate. They had come up from the catacombs a different way today, into the garden of one of Zacarias’ rich friends. In the damp morning mist they met the man in the corner of his estate, behind a huge olive tree. Even his servants wouldn’t notice them there.
“There is news,” he told them. “James was killed.”
The children looked at each other sorrowfully. They had never met the disciple James, but they had once heard him preach.
“But Peter! What a miracle! God sent an angel to lead him out of prison! Past a whole squad of soldiers! Tell Zacarias he’s left the city for now until the danger passes. How are you people doing down there? I can’t imagine, in those tunnels….”
“We’re all right.”
“If you need a place quickly, you’re all welcome here. I have plenty of room.”
“Zacarias doesn’t want to put you in danger,” said Jacob. “You’re under suspicion as it is. But he thanks you.”
“It’s true that I can’t trust all my servants, but if it were necessary, we could manage for overnight, at least. They’ll keep quiet if I give them extra privileges and favors. I’m good to them, and they wouldn’t want me in jail and this place taken over by the Romans. But if so, then it’s the Lord’s will.
The man pressed a small pouch filled with gold coins into Jacob’s hands. “Take this, and promise you’ll come to me if you need anything.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
The children left the secluded garden, and walked from the wealthy section of the city toward the marketplace.
“There’s a fortune here,” said Jacob, handing some of the gold to Anna, and tucking the rest safely into the belt of his tunic.
Today he was dressed as a Roman. He looked as if he were straight from the home of a wealthy politician. He didn’t cower humbly like a beggar boy. He stood erect, looking sternly and proudly at the Jews around him, as if they were nothing but slaves. Anyone looking at him was sure he would be one of the hated Romans, in authority over them one day.
Anna drifted away as if she didn’t know him, her silk and satin robes rustling. She, too, haughtily addressed shopkeepers in her role of a wealthy daughter of a Pharisee or scribe out doing some shopping.
They filled their bags and baskets quickly, buying grain and corn. They planned to meet outside the market place, and enter the catacombs a different way than they had come. Suddenly, however, Jacob saw a familiar face. He ducked behind a booth.
It was Sarah, the daughter of the cheese merchant. What was she doing way out at this end of the marketplace. When Jacob and Anna used these disguises, they didn’t visit the same booths as when they were pretending to be beggar children. It was safer that way.
Jacob was surprised when she followed him around the booth and faced him. “So, it’s the little beggar boy that’s so brave,” she said sarcastically.
Jacob almost panicked. Lord, help me, he breathed, and felt a calmness from God. Aloud he said in the scornful tone of a Roman, “how dare you speak to me in such a manner?”
“Still playing games?” asked Sarah, undaunted, her hands on her hips. “Something’s not right about you — and your sister. Oh, you think I don’t know she’s your sister? I heard the other shopkeepers talking about your mother who used to sell dyes and cloth right near our booth. She was put in prison, and never heard from again. I know who you are! You’re one of those Jesus followers!”
Jacob really did panic now. She could betray both him and Anna. And he knew she’d do it. She’d hated him ever since the day he’d rescued her little brother. While the parents were still grateful, pressing food and treats upon him every time he passed their shop in his beggar disguise, Sarah always glared at him with hatred. He thought perhaps she’d been scolded or punished for not watching her baby brother that day. Whatever the reason, it was clear that she despised him.
“You’re looking much better today,“ she continued, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Meat? Chicken? And a Roman tunic?”
He glanced down at the chicken he held by the feet. He had splurged and bought beef and fowl since their wealthy friend had given him so much gold. The band of believers hadn’t had meat in such a long time. Would she call a soldier or try to follow him? How could he let Anna know?
“But why are you doing the shopping? Don’t you have Jewish slaves for that?” she taunted.
“I….” Jacob stammered, not knowing what to say.
“Oh, I know your secret!” she hissed, furiously. “And you’re going to be sorry!”
Suddenly there came a voice from somewhere above. “You! Boy!”
Jacob looked up and to his surprise and horror, a Roman soldier on horseback stared back at him!
“Boy, come with me!”
There was no place to run.
Jacob knew it was all over now. He’d better go quietly. Was this Sarah’s doing? Apparently not, for he noticed her quickly slipping away through the crowd. He caught the look on her face. For all her bravado, the sight of the tall, muscular Roman in full uniform on his mighty war-horse, terrified her.
“Please,” the man hissed, more softly now, “follow me. I must talk with you.”
Please? How long since a Roman soldier said please to anyone!
Suddenly Jacob recognized him. It couldn’t be! But it was. The Roman soldier who had helped them escape from the dungeon!
Jacob quickly signaled Anna who was looking on in terror. He could tell by her expression that she was wondering how he always managed to get into these things. But she trusted him, and caught up quickly. They followed as the man turned his horse, and headed out of the marketplace.
“Who…what….” She was speechless at this predicament.
“It’s the soldier that got us out of prison!”
Her eyes turned to the back of the soldier in amazement. “Are you sure? What does he want?”
“I don’t know. I would think he would have been gone out of the city long ago. But it looks like he’s been reinstated.”
“Maybe he got a pardon.”
If that was true, they could be in big trouble after all. What did he want with them?
But there was nowhere to go. They were out of the crowded marketplace now, and if they tried to escape, the man could run them down in no time.
The soldier looked back. “It’s all right. Don’t be afraid. I thought I recognized you the other day. Come with me, please. I need to ask you something.”
He led them to the gardens outside the city, and dismounted.
“How is your mother?”
“She’s doing better. She’s not sick, anymore.”
“Good, good. And you’re well?”
“Yes.” Jacob couldn’t conceal his curiosity, “But sir, what about you?” he gestured at the man’s uniform and horse.”
The soldier grinned. “They think I saved the guard’s life instead of starting the whole thing. I was pardoned by Herod himself for my — indiscretion — that got me in prison in the first place. Really, you needn’t be afraid. I won’t haul you back to jail for being of The Way.”
He smiled reassuringly at Anna, who was still very much frightened. “I was so glad to find you. I thought you might tell me about Jesus. I’ve been thinking a lot about Him.”
The children were astonished. Yet he seemed sincere.
“I could get someone to help you….” suggested Jacob. Zacarias hardly ever ventured from the catacombs, but he would for this. He would risk his very life to tell someone about Jesus. “We could set a place to meet.”
The Roman looked disappointed. “I was hoping to find out today. I don’t want to wait. Can’t you tell me? You both were willing to die for Him. Surely you can tell me what’s so special about Him.”
So they sat on the grass under a tree, the stallion grazing peacefully nearby.
They sipped cold water from the soldier’s flagon, and ate honey cakes and fruit from his saddle bags. He told them his name was Marcus, and they talked for a long time. Jacob and Anna told him all they knew about Jesus and the ancient prophecies from the Old Testament. He’d heard of Jesus’ crucifixion of course. He’d heard the rumors of the resurrection, as well, but didn’t believe them. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“You’ve given me many things to think about,” he said, as he rose and mounted his horse. He grinned. “I’m sure you two aren’t as wealthy as your clothes suggest. Here.” He tossed them each a gold coin. “For your time.”
“You don’t have to pay us, sir. Not for such a thing as telling you about our Master.”
“I have a feeling this was the most important discussion I’ve ever had. Take it.”
And he whirled his horse around, and was gone. Jacob added the coins to his pouch, and they hurried back into the city. They wound their way through the streets, going a long roundabout way to one of the hidden entrances to the Catacombs. As kind and trustworthy as the solider had seemed, they had been taught to be very careful. They didn’t think he would pretend to be so interested in Jesus just to betray them, but they couldn’t know for sure.
They wondered what would happen when they arrived back. They had good news and bad news. They had plenty of money to last a long time, but two people knew their identity. Would Zacarias let them leave the Catacombs again, or would he think it unsafe?
Whatever the outcome, they were glad that God had used them to tell Marcus the good news of the gospel.
To be continued….
By Carol Bennett