The pirate’s blow narrowly missed my ear, its blade slamming into the wooden deck with a resounding thunk. For but a moment I wondered how he had missed but then it became clear — one the sentries had come to my aid. Crashing into the assailant, the guard drove the pirate back towards the railing. Then bringing his fists down on the assailant’s arm, he struck the raider just above the elbow. The sword clanked to the deck. Whirling, the pirate raised onto the balls of his bare feet as if to charge, but the sentry’s hard kick sent pirate sprawling back against the railing.
Had the sentry pressed his advantage he might have succeeded in keeping his life, but while bending over to pick up the sword, the pirate quickly drew a knife from his belt and plunged it deep into the sentry’s chest. For a moment a look of shock shown in the sentry’s eyes. Then he staggered backwards, hands clutching his chest, blood squirting from between fingers. With a gurgling moan, he slumped to his knees and fell face forward. Moving quickly the pirate withdraw his dagger from the dying man’s chest and turned to reach for his sword.
His actions came too late; the second sentry snatched up the sword and in a whooshing blur, brought the blade flush against the side of the burly assailant’s neck, nearly severing his head.
“Live by the sword, die by the sword,” the Teacher had warned. I saw now that my Lord’s words rang true, for with his own weapon the pirate had been slain.
Stunned, perhaps in shock, and confused by the wild brawling around me, my chance to escape over the side passed. Paying little attention to the pirates clambering over the railing, the sentry aimed the sword at my back and marched me towards a deck hatch. A kick to the back of one knee dropped me into a kneeling position. A second kick against my ribs sent me sprawling headfirst into the hatch hole. I plummeted into darkness, landing hard on rough planks. Above me the sentry slammed the hatch door shut, sealing me in darkness with others in the cargo hold.
If the young woman thought I would be welcomed aboard the Asklepia she greatly misjudged the temperament of its crew and ship’s owner. Running from trouble always comes at a price and for me my attempt to flee Saul and Barnabas had led me into a ship’s brig filled with slaves. While the ship rolled side-to-side with swells that passed beneath her hull, those around me groaned as if about to become sick. Others complained loudly.
“Honored I am in my village,” a voice shouted in Aramaic. “I demand to be let out!”
“Do you not hear the crew’s screams, man?” a voice countered.
In darkness a hand gripped my shoulder, startling me.
“You were on deck. What did you witness?” The man spoke with the calm, steady diction of someone in charge. “Is the crew in revolt?”
The shock of being found and accosted so quickly caused me to stutter, “Pi, pi, pirates intend to take the ship.”
“I pray they will,” my neighbor whispered to me. His hand released my shoulder. “Perhaps we will fare better at the hands of murdering thieves.”
Not willing to state my fears that the pirates would demand we join them as crew or be killed, I kept silent.
“In the darkness of night was I stolen from my tent,” a man shouted. “Bound and shipped onto another vessel, were my wife and children. And for where I know not. If offered the chance, I would cut the throat of the person who took me.”
“I sat at the city gates deciding matters with other elders.” said another man. “For me to be treated in this way will bring hostilities. If not from my countrymen then from my fists when I am presented the chance.”
There it was: two men who wished the ship’s owner dead. But if it was freedom the killer desired, why not simply dive over the side after taking the aid’s life? Had one of the two men been seen in a hallway after leaving the owner’s cabin and been tossed back in the hold?
The stench of unwashed men and the odor of their retching prompted me to take short, quick breaths. Above us the roar of flames intensified, suggesting that not only the sails but the masts and spars had also caught fire. From the clank of blades clashing there seemed to be no end to the fighting.
Boasting in Aramaic the man nearest to us shouted, “The god of Ceres will not stand for this travesty.”
“Perhaps your gods are asleep,” a younger voice mocked. “Or indisposed.”
“May my god strike you down for your impertinence. To disparage the god of Ceres is to invite calamity.”
“Knowledge is my god,” the young man countered. “And your gods are no gods at all, for they cannot speak or hear.”
“You speak blasphemy and shall reap the wrath of the gods!”
Despite the increasing heat of the stuffy space, my skin became clammy, as if I were chilled with a fever. Or perhaps it was because of the cramped, stinking room and the ship’s chaotic motion that I began to feel ill. Bending forward I hugged my mid-section, expelling stomach-gas as quietly as possible. In but a few moments the queasiness passed and I felt somewhat better. Only then, while inhaling deeply, did I notice the faint smell of burning wood and smoke. Lifting my gaze upwards, I tracked the faint, narrow glow of orange spreading between each ceiling plank. The Asklepia was on fire.
“Pray tell what good is your knowledge to you now?” asked the man loyal to to the god Ceres. “Can your knowledge free us from this vile place? Save us from being sold into servitude?”
“You shall know soon enough,” the young man answered, “for I sense we are about to be set free.”
Though in my spirit I felt convicted to declare that there was but one true God, I remained silent, for all my attention remained fixed on the orange glow that continued to increase in brightness overhead.
“How is it that you came to be captured?” my neighbor asked.
When I did not respond immediately, a different voice called, “Perhaps he is one of the pirates sent to spy on us.”
I considered the stranger’s comment, wondering best how to reply, then answered, “I took no part in the attack. I stole aboard, that is true, but only in desperation. I hoped this vessel would take me to the coast of Tyre and Sidon.”
“I know of Tyre and Sidon,” said my neighbor. “Have heard of its violent reputation.” His hand found mine. “I am Onesimus, slave to Philemon of Colossae.”
“John Mark, a Hebrew from Jerusalem.”
“Why this ship” my neighbor,” Onesimus, asked, “when there are other vessels that might be more suitable to such a passage?”
“I . . . someone said I should . . . um, deliver an important message for the owner of this vessel.”
“As do I have a message to deliver,” growled the man seated near us. “And deliver it I shall with my fist should the owner and I ever meet.”
“Should you have the occasion to speak to the owner of the ship,” Onesimus asked, “what would you say?”
Unable to make out the faces of those around me, I sat terrified, for I feared that should I tell them that I sought to deliver a message of liberty, the men and women in the cargo hold might riot. With the ceiling planks glowing with the brilliance of a setting sun, I found the courage to speak the words the Teacher had placed in my heart.
“‘I come to set the captives free,’” I answered. “That is the message of the Teacher. Such was the good news I spoke to the owner of the ship.”
“What an odd thing to say to someone who grows rich by stealing villagers from their tents,” said Onesimus. “And when he heard your words, did the owner of this ship agree to set us free?”
“You are not owned by any man,” I replied. “The Teacher wishes for you to know this — for all to know this. The Teacher did not come for the righteous, the religious, the rich. Rather, he came to save all who do evil, who are lost, and who are held captive by sin and sickness and darkness.”
Those around me began murmuring, though I knew not if my words brought hope or offense, for most spoke in tongues I could not comprehend.
“Would you dare to call me evil?” asked Onesimus
Sensing the attitude of my neighbor had changed, I quickly reassured him that I did not mean to impugn his character. “While it is true that all men are inherently evil, this is not how we were created or the future Yahweh intends for us. In the beginning of all things we were created in his image and what Yahweh creates is good always. But through the actions of one man sin came into the world. For this reason we now know right from wrong, good from evil, and we choose evil over good. Why, this very evening I myself acted with evil intent when I stole my way onto this ship.”
“Evil am I? For which offense do I deserve to be enslaved?” Onesimus asked. “Tell me if you can. Does your god judge so harshly that a man can be taken from his tent in the darkest of nights and forced to be a slave? Is this the god you serve?”
The harshness of his tone left me afraid I had said too much — or explained my Lord’s love in a manner that dishonored him.
“If there be any among us evil it is the Hebrew from Jerusalem,” a voice called out. “With his very words you have have heard him say as much. And did the sentry who brings us water and food not say this very evening that a wicked man walks among us? Perhaps if we purge this evil from among us the ship’s owner might look with fondness upon us and grant us a measure of comfort. Reveal that he is the one with with blood on his hands. What say the rest of you?”
Immediately a cry went up, “Death to the Hebrew! Death to the Hebrew!”
In but a flash of intense heat and falling timbers their shouts of accusation turned to panic. All around me men and women scurried away, screaming as the ship’s deck caved in, trapping us beneath burning timbers. A large ceiling beam gave way, pinning me against the floor where I lay. Flames from its splintered base shot across my legs, searing the soles of my feet.
The Asklepia was going down and if not first burned alive, with her sinking we too would go down to the depths of the sea.