The Second Woman: Sarah’s story


My name is Sarah. I’m here in Jerusalem for the Passover. I came with my husband Jacob though I won’t see much of him while he’s here. He’s a priest and can trace his heritage all the way back to Aaron. If you ever meet him, don’t ask him about it, really don’t, when I say he can trace his heritage back, he really can. Given half a chance he will tell you about it ancestor by ancestor until you wish you’d never asked.

We live in Sepphoris in Galilee for most of the year. Two weeks each year Jacob comes up to Jerusalem to do his priestly service. At those times he comes on his own, but for the three big festivals – Passover, and Pentecost and Tabernacles – I come too. Who wouldn’t? There’s no time like it. It’s a bit of a squeeze. Human beings crammed into every conceivable space but who wouldn’t want to be here at this most holy time of year? That moment when we remember our freedom who we really are as God’s people. Even those Romans lurking everywhere can do nothing to dampen our memory of freedom. God freed us once and will do it again, and again, as often as we need have need of it. No wonder they don’t like us all cramming into the city – what oppressing army would feel happy with millions of people getting together to celebrate freedom?

The weirdest thing happened today. I was coming back from the market when I bumped into Miriam. I get my fish from her in Sepphoris. When I say I bumped into her, I bumped right into her, the streets were crammed as they always are once the pilgrims arrive and she was walking along like she was in a dream. The crowd swept us along as we tried to talk. I couldn’t hear everything she said. Something about a man, she’d seen him in the pilgrim procession yesterday riding a donkey of all ridiculous things. And he wasn’t the Messiah, except she’d hoped he was, but he can’t have been. Jesus she thought his name was. But now she couldn’t stop thinking about him. I’d just asked her why, when the crowd surged around us and she got carried away in one direction and me in another. On the air, I just heard ‘steadfast love’ ‘forever’. And then she was gone.

Miriam is one of those down to earth types. Doesn’t get carried away with anything other than a nice big Galilean Tilapia fish. So I was thinking about her and wondering what had happened to her,when I returned to our rented guest room to find Jacob there. He’d just met a Rabbi. He’d heard about him, apparently, he’d been making quite a stir in Galilee, especially Capernaum. But he’d never been to Sepphoris and so Jacob had never met him. Jesus his name was. I started. I know it’s a common name but it was the second time I’d heard in an hour. Could it really be the same person?

‘Where was he, I asked?’ As soon as the question left my mouth I knew what the answer would be. Where else would Jacob have met him but in the temple? Around the festivals Jacob barely left the temple. He needed to be there for his duties – the thousands upon thousands of lambs that needed sacrificing (how he stomached the stench I will never know, half an hour was enough for me), the daily worship, the prayers and the singing. But even when he didn’t need to be there, he was there. Pouring over the scriptures and the teaching of the Rabbis, debating and arguing often late into the night. Jacob loved the law as much as he loved life itself – more probably. Jacob would have said the law was life itself. He loved that Psalm – the very first one – about studying the law being like a tree standing by a river. He was like a tree, my Jacob, strong and secure but able to bend in the wind when he needed to.

This Jesus had been in the temple. After his dutires were over, Jacob had gone, as he loved to do, to the stoa, where people loved to gather and talk. As Jacob had arrived that day, a group of high ranking priests had stormed past him. Muttering something about needing to get rid of him, and as soon as possible, before he poisoned too many minds. A large crowd was gathered in the stoa and Jacob had headed to join it. Where there was a crowd there was debate, where there was debate there was study of the law and Jacob was not planning on missing that. In the middle of the crowd sat a man. A simple looking man, dressed like a peasant. The crowd seemed to be hanging on his every word. On the outskirts of the crowd people were chuckling. Apparently this man – Jesus – had just told a bold and outrageous story about a vineyard with corrupt tenants who would do anything to hold on to what they didn’t own. As the story went on, the whole crowd had known he was talking about the Sanhedrin and the chief priest, the last person to realize it was Caiaphas himself. By the time he did realise it, the whole crowd was shaking with laughter. ‘I thought he was going to throttle him then and there’, wheezed Jacob’s neighbor gasping for breath he had laughed so much.

Jacob had watched the man, he told me. Jesus was now in deep in debate with a group of Sadducees and Jacob had watched fascinated. The Sadducees had set up a perfect problem – one of their favorites – Jacob had heard them do it before and it had defeated absolutely everyone. If you believe in resurrection – and Jacob hadn’t decided yet if he did, he wasn’t a Pharisee after all – but if you did believe in it the question was what would happen to a woman after the resurrection if she had had more than one husband? It was an impossible question – no one could answer it. But this Jesus did. Jacob thought that the Saduccees couldn’t decide whether to be impressed or annoyed. In the end they’d settled on annoyed and stalked off.

‘I’m not quite sure what came over me’, said Jacob, who was normally excruciatingly shy. ‘I pushed through the crowd and I asked him my question.’
‘The first commandment?’ I smiled. It was Jacob’s favourite conundrum. What’s the first commandment? The first one given?

Or the most important one? And if you had to choose –which one would you pick? However, you answer it you risk losing something really important from the law. Jacob and his friends could talk about it for hours.

‘What did he say’ ‘First you love God; second you love your neighbour.

Together they are the most important commandment all rolled into one.

‘You knew that already‘ I said ‘Rabbi Hillel taught it to you’.

‘He did but not quite like this. For Rabbi Hillel it was a clever question that needed a clever answer; but this man, Jesus, said it like it was a truth to be lived. Love God, love your neighbor. It’s the answer to everything. And looking at him, I knew he lived it with all his heart, and soul and mind and strength. And then he looked at me and ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’.

‘What did he mean?’ I asked. ‘I’ve no idea’ Jacob replied ‘it could mean lots of different things. As I watched the gleam in his eye I knew that now he had a new favourite question’.