My father was a wealthy merchant. Of course, the Roman government took a large portion of his profits in taxes, not to mention the extra in bribes, but still we had plenty. My father was always bringing home wonderful gifts for my mother from his travels. And this particular day, when I was ten years old, he brought her a robe. My little brother poked his chubby finger at it and pronounced it “Pretty.” It was exquisite, multi-colored, with gold threads that sparkled in the sun. My father told her: “Whenever you go to the market, people will know you are a woman of means. They will treat you with the respect you deserve.” My mother wore it all day, wouldn’t even take it off in the kitchen as she directed our servant girls in making dinner. I had never seen her more happy.
And then we heard a ruckus outside. Running, screaming, wailing. My father peered out the door, then came back. “It’s Roman soldiers,” he explained. “But don’t worry. I pay them well. We won’t be bothered.” He was wrong. A moment later three soldiers burst through the door. One of them grabbed my little brother and raised a bloody sword. My mother screamed. My father ran forward, demanding to know what they were doing. “Herod’s orders,” the man spat. “All boys two and under are to be killed. No exceptions.” “No, not my son. Take my . . .” he turned and looked at me. His meaning was clear. He was offering my life instead of my brother’s. I would have given it, but it didn’t matter, for as soon as my father’s attention was turned, the soldier raised his sword again and did what he came to do. Filled with rage, my father charged the soldier . . . and caught the point of the spear instead. My mother and I buried them both, along with all the other little boys in the village, and a few fathers and mothers, too.
My mother was a wreck. She couldn’t sleep. She refused to eat. Her grief went on and on, and I had no way of reaching her. After all, I was only ten years old and had plenty of grief of my own. It took her months to come to her senses. By that time we had lost our servant girls because I had no way to pay them. Mother and I began selling all of the wonderful gifts my father had given her in order to buy food. In the end we sold everything we owned—except that blasted robe. She still wore it. Every day. She covered up her tattered tunic with that robe, and she would walk proudly through the village. It was as if, when she wore that robe, she could pretend she was still the woman she used to be. She didn’t seem to notice the people who thought she was crazy. She didn’t seem to notice that her beautiful robe was getting frayed at the edges, or that the gold threads were coming loose and turning brown. She didn’t seem to notice the stains of blood across the chest, where she had held my brother and my father in her arms.
I was seventeen when my mother became ill. The doctors couldn’t tell us what was wrong. It was as if something was eating away at her from the inside out. I was eighteen when she died. I refused to honor her dying wish—to be buried in that stupid robe. Instead, after her burial, I took it to the market, fully intending to sell it. It wasn’t worth much anymore, but I hoped it would at least get me enough money to go to another village and find work. But then I saw again the blood stains. My father’s blood. My baby brother’s blood. And my own blood boiled. I would avenge their deaths. I would keep the robe as my daily reminder of what the Romans had done to my family, what they had done to me. The people now call that day “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” It was certainly the end of mine. My innocent belief that my father loved me as much as my brother. My belief that if a good Jew just stayed out of the way of the Roman authorities, all would be well. My belief that Yahweh would protect us. My anger fueled me, empowered me to go on.
I begged, borrowed, and stole my way to Bethany. I finally found work in the home of a man named Lazarus. His sisters, Mary and Martha, took me in. I worked for them for many years. I kept my head down, listening for news of a revolution, a cause to join. Surely someone would rise up against the Romans. At one point I even left to follow a revolutionary, but it ended in nothing but more bloodshed. Mary and Martha took me back. But still, I wore the robe. Not every day, like my mother did, but every time I needed to remember.
Years later, they began talking about a Messiah. This Jesus of Nazareth was quite the wonder-worker. I heard all the stories. He healed people, turned water to wine, fed thousands of people. I didn’t believe the stories, of course, but I’ll admit I was intrigued. If this was the Messiah, he would surely lead us Jews in a revolt against the Roman government. Surely he would set our people free. He visited Lazarus’s home several times, but I never got close enough to learn much. After all, I am a servant now; I can’t just walk in and sit at his feet to listen. But he seemed awfully soft-spoken to lead a revolt. I didn’t put much stock in their faith. Then Lazarus became ill. Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, to come and heal him, but Jesus was a long time in coming. By the time he arrived, Lazarus was dead. I went with Martha when she went to meet Jesus on the road. She said “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I wasn’t sure if that was a statement of faith or accusation. “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus said. I gritted my teeth in response. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that dead brothers don’t live again. Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” I had to bite my tongue to keep from responding. How dare he talk about death so lightly!? He had obviously never lost anyone he loved to the sword. Those who believe will never die. Right! And what did my baby brother fail to believe in that cost him his life?
“You do not believe,” he said softly. It took me a minute to realize he was speaking to me.
“That you’re the Messiah? No.”
“That is not what I meant. You don’t believe . . . in life,” he said.
“I believe in what I see.”
“And what do you see?” he asked me.
I looked him straight in the eye. “I see violence. Bloodshed. A government that represses us and has the power to storm into our homes and take our children.”
He grimaced. “Yes, I guess that is what you see. And yet you are still here. Is that not life?”
“Life? I wouldn’t call it that. It’s more like . . . the absence of death.”
“And you choose anger as your response.”
I wrapped my robe tighter around me. “It has kept me warm.”
He looked down at my robe, seemed to study it a while, and then he looked back into my eyes. “Haven’t you worn blood long enough?”
I couldn’t help it—I began to cry. Tears of rage, tears of grief—I don’t know what they were. But I had to get away from this man who looked at me too closely. I ran back to the house and into the kitchen. In the hustle and bustle of the other servants, surely no one would notice my tears, my trembling hands.
So I wasn’t there when they say Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I don’t know if it happened or not. I mean, I thought I saw Lazarus dead. And I saw him later, not dead. Maybe he hadn’t really died. Maybe Jesus . . . oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what to believe. But his words stayed with me. “Haven’t you worn blood long enough?” At one time my anger had fueled me. It served me well. But now I wondered if it was beginning to eat me away from the inside out, as my mother’s illness did her. But I had carried it so long, I was afraid that if I gave it up, I would fall apart at the seams. I was afraid that if I let go of my anger, I would disappear—because it’s all I had left.
Then today I went to Jerusalem to buy some supplies Martha needed for Passover. After my shopping, as I was heading out of town, I heard everybody in the crowd talking excitedly. And one name was on everyone’s lips. Jesus. I didn’t know if I wanted to see him again or not. My only other encounter with him had caused me such turmoil. But curiosity won out. Within a few minutes, the voices of those ahead of us reached our ears. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
Hosanna! That means “Save us!” Was this it, then? Was this the moment he would begin his revolution? Surely he would come riding on a powerful stallion, an army of supporters behind him. He would teach the Romans a few things about life . . . and death. I pushed to the front of the crowd, eager to get my first glimpse. He rounded the corner, and my heart fell. He wasn’t riding a stallion. Not even an old broken down mare. He was riding a donkey, and a young one at that. This wasn’t the animal of war. I hadn’t even realized I had begun to hope until it was dashed. I looked down . . . and I saw the stains. And I heard his words once again, “Haven’t you worn blood long enough?” Haven’t we all! Maybe it was time to see if there was life after death. Maybe these bones could still live.
I began to get caught up in the excitement of the crowd. I picked up a palm branch and began to wave it. With every wave I felt a fluttering in my heart. “I’ve worn it too long. . . . I’ve worn it too long!” Suddenly the people around me were taking off their cloaks and throwing them on the ground, softening the steps of the donkey carrying Jesus. And my heart began to soften, too. Before I lost my courage, I dropped my palm, jerked off my robe, and threw it on the ground. I was just in time. The young donkey carrying Jesus stepped with dusty hooves onto my robe. My precious robe. The robe that brought my mother dignity in her despair. The robe that carried my family’s blood. The robe that held my pain and my rage. And Jesus saw. And he looked me in the eyes and said, “You believe!” I nodded. I believe in life.
I watched him until he was out of sight. All around me people were picking up their cloaks, dusting them off, and putting them back on. Some people followed, while others walked away nonchalantly, as if they’d just watched an ordinary procession. I just stared at my robe, the gold threads—now brown—somehow still sparkling in the sun. And I couldn’t seem to make myself pick it back up. It seemed too heavy of a burden to carry. I had worn it long enough.
I think we all have such robes. They just look different. Some are made of cloth, others of silver. Some are woven in shame, others in fear or greed. We cloth ourselves in anger, judgment, bigotry, pride—anything that promises to keep us warm. And we don’t realize that if we don’t take it off, we will never be warmed. I may never know what really happened to Lazarus. But I know what it’s like to be locked away in a tomb, surrounded by the stench of death. And I know what it’s like to step out into the sunshine, for I was dead, but now I live. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”