Judith started violently. She rushed into the house, and slammed the door behind her so that the walls echoed. The tax-gatherer gave the speaker an approving glance, and sighed.
Then Jesus asked him: “Are you fond of her?”
“She is his neighbour!” observed a cheerful-looking little man who formed one of the band of travellers. The jesting word referred to the Master’s speech of the day before on love of one’s neighbour.
Levi nodded thoughtfully and said: “Yes, gentlemen, she is my nearest—enemy.”
“Isn’t she your wife?” asked Simon.
Without answering him, the tax-gatherer said: “I am a publican, and blessed with mistrust as far as my eye can reach. Yet all those without do not cause me as much annoyance as she who is nearest me in my house.”
One of the men laid his hand on his shoulder: “Then, friend, see that she is no longer your nearest. Come with us. We have left our wives and all the rest of our belongings to go with Him. Don’t you know Him? He is the man from Nazareth.”
The publican started. The man of whom the whole land spoke, the prophet, the miracle-worker? This young, kindly man was He? He who preached so severely against the Jews? Didn’t I say almost the same, that time at the Feast of Tabernacles? And yet the people were angry. They listen reverently to this man and follow Him. Shall I do so too? What hinders me? I, the much-hated man, may be dismissed the service at any moment. I may be driven from my house to-day, as soon as to-morrow? And my wife, she’ll probably be seen on the road from behind? There’s only one thing I can’t part with, but I can take that with me.
Then, he turned to the Nazarene, held the tray with the remains of the fruit towards Him: “Take some, dear Master!”
The Master said gently, in a low voice: “Do you love Me, publican?”
The tax-gatherer began to tremble so that the tray nearly fell from his hands. Those words! and that look! He could not reply.
“If you love Me, go with Me, and share our hardships.”
“Our joys, Lord, our joys,” exclaimed Simon.
At that moment a train of pack-mules came along the road. The drivers whipped the creatures with knotted cords, and cursed that there was another turnpike. The tax-gatherer took the prescribed coins from them, and pointed out their ill-treatment of the animals. For answer he received a blow in his face from the whip. Levi angrily raised his arm against the driver. Then Jesus stepped forward, gently pulled his arm down, and asked: “Was his act wrong?”
“Then do not imitate it.”
And the little witty man again interposed: “If you go with us, publican, you’ll have two cheeks, a right and a left. But no arm, do you understand?”
The remark had reference to a favourite saying of the Master when He was defenceless and of good-cheer in the presence of a bitter enemy. Several received the allusion with an angry expression of countenance.