A torch light led two guards and I down ladders, past darkened rooms and into the bowels of the ship. Our route ended at a small door half as high as a full grown man. With a key the guard unlocked the door, opened it briefly, then shoved me roughly forward. Tumbling headlong into blackness, I landed on men who, appearing startled, cursed at my sudden appearance. Above me the door slammed shut, confining me to the ship’s brig.
All about men groaned or became ill due to the ship’s heaving, rolling motion,. Others cursed their unfortunate luck. Many spoke in tongues foreign to my ears. If the young woman had expected me to find a welcoming audience aboard the Asklepia she greatly misjudged the temperament of her crew and captain. Running always comes at a price. For me, my attempts to flee Saul and Barnabas in order to return home had placed me in great danger.
The Cost of Running
“My god will not stand for this travesty,” said a voice in front of me. “Honored, I am, in my village.”
“As am I in my town,” said another. “Why, I sit at the city gates deciding matters with other elders.”
A heavy dampness clung to my skin. The stench of unwashed men and their foul sickness from the rocking of the ship caused me to take short, quick breaths. Here and there one or another muttered curses or a groan.
“Perhaps our gods are asleep,” a younger voice replied.
“Or indisposed,” said a third.
I did not dare suggest to those around me that there was but one God, the Creator of the Heavens and Earth and all within and under.
Another voice, this one more calm and closer than the others, asked, “How did you come to be aboard?”
When I did not respond, a sharp and hard blow jarred the back of my shoulder.
“Onesimus asked you a question. Answer him!”
“I, ah, am . . . ” I considered explaining all that had happened that led me to the ship’s brig, but unable to see the faces of those around me, I concluded it best to do as the young woman had suggested. “I have, um, an important message for the owner of this vessel.”
“As do I,” growled the man seated next to me.
“Perhaps your message was meant for more than one, yes? Perhaps it might also be for us as well?”
While I considered the man’s comment, another swift and jarring blow struck the back of my shoulder, pitching me forward. “Do not ignore Onesimus when he speaks to you.”
Unable to make out the faces of those around me I was terrified and wished for some weapon in my hands. But all I could do was remain still and hope the rough crowd pressing in around me would not treat me as the mob outside the prison had wished.
“‘Follow me,'” I said. “That is the message of the Teacher. Our Lord desires that all follow him.”
“What an odd command.”
The touch of the man’s hand resting on my shoulder startled me. “I am Onesimus,” he said. “Slave to Philemon of Colossae. And you?”
“John Mark, a Hebrew from Jerusalem and a bond servant of my Lord.”
“Well I have known others who sought to gather a following. All proved to be frauds who wished to fill their purses with silver and gold. Who is this Teacher who seeks admirers? ”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” I replied. “The day he gave his invitation for others to follow, a Roman tax collector was sitting in his booth along a well-traveled road. At once this man Levi, left everything and followed the Teacher. Not long afterwards Levi hosted a dinner at his home. In attendance were many others like himself along with thieves, harlots, drunks, and all manner of individuals who were forbidden from entering the synagogue and worshipping our God.”
“I worship my god with good spirits,” a voice remarked.
His response elicited a mix of snickering and affirming, “Here, here!” from others.
“Ignore them,” said Onesimus. “Their laughter masks their fears of what is to come. Please tell me more of this Jesus.”
“While eating with these people of the street the teachers of the religious rules and others of high standing in the synagogue asked the Teacher’s disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, the Teacher replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
“Would you be so bold as to think that I need to repent?” asked Onesimus.
The sternness of his tone left me wondering if I had misjudged his character.
“We are all sinners in the eyes of my God, Yahweh, the Creator of Heaven and Earth and all that is above and below. None stands in a right relationship with Him, not one. His ways are greater than our ways. He alone is holy. We are but unclean men adorned in filthy rags.”
“If only I had rags to wear,” said a man.
“To believe we are worthy of looking upon the Teacher’s glory in our present state is to deceive ourselves. For this reason I was hauled aboard, this I now see. Though my message is for the captain and the owner of its cargo, I perceive that some here among you are also meant to hear the Teacher’s invitation to follow and serve him only.'”
“Let not another hear you speak in this way,” said Onesimus. “For if you suggest that we serve another master I fear you will be flogged and turned over to the Roman soldiers for execution. Others have attempted to free us and suffered as such and worse.”
In that moment the door above us opened and the call came, “Hoist the lad upwards!”
No sooner had some begun to lift me towards the faint light above when a man near me shouted, “He speaks of insurrection and seeks to provoke us to flee our master.”
“Here! here! Is true. The lad deserves the lash!” said another.
If your god is the creator of all, as you suggest,” said Onesimus, “perhaps he will save you. If not, we will know your words are untrue.” The strong hands of Onesimus cupped me under my arms and lifted me high. “Regardless, your appointment with the captain of this ship has arrived.”
A moment later two guards marched me towards the captain’s quarters.