IV. Serpent Lifted Up

The wind whipped through the courtyard. Nicodemus shook his head as he looked around at the house that was his. In the last months he had continued to keep the law and the traditions, but with a different view. He tried to also incorporate what he had heard Jesus had said. Love your neighbor as yourself. It was strange how he got to know his servants better. His wife Abigail also noticed how he became more carefree, and though he still kept the law in the most minute detail, he did so not to show off like before, but because he cared. He also showed more care towards his family. He took time to instruct his sons personally when it was needed. He now spent time with his grandchildren, telling them stories. One evening Abigail decided to look him up. He was on the roof again, studying a scroll of Isaiah, as he had been doing so lately. She just stood there for a few minutes. Suddenly he noticed her presence and looked up.

“Hello, Abigail.” She was shocked. For the first time in a long time he had uttered her name. Before it was always “woman” or “wife,” but never “Abaigail.”

“Did you want to speak with me?” She nodded. “Come and sit here and talk to me, then.” His voice was gentle, inviting, not at all unpleasant like it had often been. She sat uncomfortably, almost mechanically.

“What’s happened to you, my lord?” she asked.

“What’s happened to me?” Nicodemus smiled. “I have begun following the teachings of the teacher of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth.”

“I thought that was you, or Gamaliel.”

“I see, but he has wisdom that I don’t and I still don’t understand a lot of what he has said, but I try to live according to it. But there is one question: Is he the Messiah? What do you think?” Abigail was shocked. Nicodemus had never discussed anything even remotely associated with religion with her.

“I — I don’t know,” she finally stammered.

“Neither do I,” he agreed soberly, tugging at his beard. “I wonder ... the serpent lifted up...”

“What?”

“It was something he said to me, about the Son of Man being lifted up, like the bronze snake that Moses lifted up. What did he mean by that.”

“I don’t know, my lord. I don’t understand these things very well, even though I try.”

“You have learned to read, haven’t you?”

“I have, my lord. My father was a priest, as you know.” Nicodemus nodded.

“Then perhaps we should read together, from Isaiah.” He turned towards her and held the scroll so that she could see it. “We all, like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all...”29

• • •

The next weeks flew by. Jesus was in Jerusalem again. Nicodemus nearly spent all his time in the temple, listening to him. He watched as Elikam and Gamaliel’s students, along with some of the Herodian party asked whether or not to pay tax. Jesus’ answer impressed him.

“Show me some tribute money. Let me see a denarius.”30 They brought one to him. He took it and turned to the listening crowd.

“Whose image and inscription is this?”31 The answer was instantaneous.

“Caesar’s!”32 Nicodemus saw many of the people spit at the ground as soon as they said the word. Jesus calmly turned to the Pharisees and Herodians.

“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”33 The Sadducees plied him with questions and the Pharisees again and he amazed them with his answers. Nicodemus listened self-consciously as Jesus condemned him and his pharisaic friends. He knew that this man was right. Lord God Almighty, the rabbi often prayed. Change me!

“I don’t want to be called ‘rabbi’ any more,” he told Joseph one day. “I am not the Messiah, and if he is the only Rabbi, then I am not worthy of that title.”

“Whatever you say, Nicodemus,” his friend answered. The days fled by and Nicodemus witnessed again and again Jesus’ wisdom. He thought back to the second time that the man from Nazareth had cleared out the temple. This time had been more thorough than the last, but less violent. He thought back to the days before that, when he had heard the shouts from the streets below and watched the Son of David ride up to the temple mount on the back of a donkey foal. He automatically thought of Zechariah’s prophecy. Strange, he thought, how these places from the scriptures come to mind. He was also shocked at the plans of the Sanhedrin to annihilate Jesus, but he held his tongue. If they be hypocrites, they be hypocrites, he decided. If it comes to a head, I’ll defend him again, but no one could kill Jesus. The mob would go crazy. How wrong he was to be.

• • •

“Nicodemus, Nicodemus, wake up!” Joseph’s frantic voice called up to the roof. It was the day before Sabbath and they had just enjoyed the Passover, for the first time in the warm company of a real family, where love ruled. Nicodemus was already on the roof. He ran around and looked down to where Joseph was standing.

“What’s wrong?”

“The Sanhedrin just condemned Jesus of blasphemy. They’ve taken him to Pilate.”

“What?! Why weren’t we called in?”

“They had twenty-three people there already.”

“Oh, Lord God Almighty, this can’t be happening!” Nicodemus cried. He hurried down the stairs into the courtyard. A servant was already there with a cloak. He motioned the servant.

“Come along, Judah, we will need some help.” Then he hurried out of the gate, Judah in tow and the three of them quickly went to Antonia’s citadel. Hannas, Caiaphas, Elikam and many of the other radical Jesus opponents were there. Suddenly Nicodemus noticed what Caiaphas was wearing. He was in the full regalia of the high priest, wearing the ephod and the breastplate.

“What is going on here?” he demanded of one of the bystanders.

“He wants to release the ‘King of the Jews,’” the man sneered. Suddenly Pilate stepped out of the gate.

“Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus, who is called ‘Messiah’?”34

“Barabbas!” the crowd suddenly cried.

“Are you mad?” Nicodemus, asked grabbing at the arm of one of the Pharisees, but he ignored the old rabbi, caught up in the frenzy. What is going on? Nicodemus wondered, pulling on his beard.

“What shall I do with Jesus who is called ‘Messiah,’ whom you call ‘King of the Jews?’”35 Pilate mocked.

“Let him be crucified! Crucify! Crucify him!”36 the crowd screamed. Nicodemus could see that the Roman was perplexed. He ran a hand over his sweating brow and didn’t even notice as one of his gold rings pinged off the pavement.

“Why, what evil has he done? I don’t find that he’s done anything deserving death. So after punishing him, I’ll release him.”37 Pilate turned and went back into the castle a short time later he came out.

“Look, I am bringing him out to you so you’ll know that I find him not guilty.”38 Then two soldiers shoved Jesus out of the door. Nicodemus suddenly felt as if someone was choking him. The Son of Man was dressed in a purple robe, his now long hair matted with blood and spit. A crown of long thorns was on his brow and blood ran down his forehead and face. His hands were tied behind him, so he couldn’t reach up to wipe it away. His head was bowed as if under a heavy load.

“Crucify!” screamed the priests and Pharisees. “Crucify!”39

“Then take him and crucify him yourself. I find him not guilty.”40 Pilate’s face showed anger now.

“We have a law and by our law he ought to die,” Caiaphas thundered over the din, “because he claimed to be the Son of God.”41 So he called himself equal with God, Nicodemus thought. Pilate turned around and took Jesus inside. A few minutes later he came back out and sat down on the judgment seat.

“Look at your king!”42 he cried and Jesus was brought out again. The people screamed in anger again. Nicodemus could feel his guts churn as he made out the words.

“Away with him, away with him! Crucify him!”43

“Should I crucify your king?”44 Nicodemus could detect a spark of mockery in Pilate’s voice.

“We have no king except Caesar,”45 Nicodemus heard Hannas say. That broke the thread. He tried to push forward to strike the man.

“Blasphemy, blasphemy!” But his cry was lost in the crowd’s affirmation of Hannas’ words.

“I am innocent of the blood of this man,” Pilate snapped in resignation. “You will be witnesses to that fact!”46

“His blood be on us and our children!”47 the people screamed. Nicodemus sadly turned to Joseph.

“The judgment of God has come upon us,” he said to his friend.

“They will probably be taking him to Golgotha,” Judah suggested quietly.

“Then let’s go!” Nicodemus prompted and the servant led the two men through the thronging crowds and out a different gate. They made it there only after they had crucified Jesus of Nazareth. He hung on the cross, clothed only with a loincloth, nails through his wrists, his lower body twisted sideways and knees bent, a single nail through his heels. Above his head hung the sign: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”48 Jesus raised his head slightly and it seemed to Nicodemus that Jesus was looking straight towards him.

“Oh, the Serpent!” he cried as for an instant the cross and the man on it transformed into a long pole with a bronze serpent wrapped around it. He is the serpent now! Nicodemus said to himself. He is the King of the Jews and the Messiah! He turned and repeated his words to Joseph.

“That is true, my friend,” he answered. Then Nicodemus took hold of his expensive robes and tore them. Joseph and Judah looked at him shocked, but understood what he meant and tore their own robes.