CHAPTER XXXIII. THE COUNCIL
TOWARD dusk a new council was held in the palace of the High Priest, Caiphas. The princes of the Priests, the officers of the Temple, the Doctors of the Law, the ancients of the people—all those who had premeditated the death of Jesus, united now to find the means of destroying Him.
One just man, Joseph of Arimathea, in secret a disciple of the Saviour, was there also. He had not been present during the first council, although a Doctor of the Law.
"This Man whom you wish to condemn does not seem a criminal to me" he said. "What is His guilt? He is touched by the miseries of the people, and seeks to appease and console them—not by deceitful hopes of riches and happiness, which can only be realized by revolting against the laws and authorities, but by the innocent and peaceful hopes of death.
"What is Reprehensible in this? To us who are rich and great, who are fed, perhaps unjustly, on the fat of the land, He has said we are not to amass treasures that the moth and rust can consume. If we were to follow these precepts, as wise as they are humane, the poor would suffer less, and would hate us less. What evil do you find in such instructions as these? I find none."
"The real evil is that He flatters the people in order to make Himself head," rejoined Caiphas, hotly. "To overthrow the Law; to destroy the respect which ought to be entertained for us, casting anathema both on our acts and our conduct. He fascinates the crowd by seditious speeches. Works false miracles to gain their affections! An impostor! Whose fallacious doctrines are to be condemned, since He plots against our personal security and against the security of the state."
Joseph saw, with alarm, that the real evil was the fear which Jesus had inspired in the hearts of these men. He tried to defend Him, but he knew how useless it was. The great never pardon those who cause them to tremble.
"But He is peaceable," he continued. "He is poor and He could have riches. He prays when He could menace. He commands patience and pardon of injuries. He returns good for evil, love for hatred. He would not crush the smallest worm. He would not extinguish the tiniest spark. And can you not recall how, in His boyhood, He astonished our intelligence by the force and sublimity of His doctrines?
"And is He not right? Should we not examine everything? Should we not combat all that is contrary to the Law? I have followed Him, I have tested His doctrine. The wisest of men could not, in a single instance, object to it. I have witnessed His miracles. I affirm to you that they are acts of love and mercy."
Seeing that some were listening to him with close attention, hope arose in Joseph's heart.
"Call to remembrance also, my brethren, the fact that He is loved by all, and that His partisans are united at Jerusalem for the feasts of the Passover, from which, as you see, He does not lead them. How would you attack Him in the midst of this crowd, which follows Him, and believes Him to be the Messias promised to the people of Israel? You said in the first council, I believe, that a revolt would occur in His favor if you permitted Him to live. Pear, instead, that the revolt will break out at once if you seek to seize Him in order to kill Him. Be guided by reason. Do not court certain peril to avoid one that does not threaten you. Precipitate nothing. Continue to examine His speech—"
He spoke warmly. He began to hope that he might turn the tide in favor of the Nazarene.
But at that very moment Judas Iscariot arrived upon the scene. He half-opened the door of the council-room. His eyes were wild, his face haggard, he was breathless. And he stood still, saying nothing.
"Who has given thee authority to enter here?" demanded Caiphas, recognizing him as one of the Twelve. (So they were called who continually followed Jesus.) "Dost thou come to spy upon us, that thou mayest repeat our words to thy Master?"
"I do not come to spy upon you," said Judas, contemptuously. "What need has He of spies? Does He not know everything that passes in heaven or upon earth ? I have long believed it and it may be so, but," he added, with a terrible smile, "He knows not what passes in hearts."
"What do you mean?" demanded Joseph of Arimathea. Judas' manner inspired him with dread.
"If He had been able to read the heart He would never have allowed me to approach Him."
"Why not?" continued Joseph, anxious to distract the attention of his fellows. "Perhaps He believed that His goodness toward thee would enkindle repentance."
A cold sweat broke out on the forehead of the traitor. He cast savage glances about him, and his burning hands clutched convulsively at his mantle.
"What does it matter?" he asked huskily. "Whether He could or could not read the depth of the heart? He has wounded me and I have left Him."
"Thou hast left Him!" cried Caiphas. He and several others approached nearer to Judas.
"Thou hast left Him?" repeated Joseph with indignation. "Wretch, what comest thou here to do?"
"Friend, what comest thou here to do?" asked Caiphas, in a soft, insinuating tone.
"Let me breathe," said Judas."I am suffocated. I have walked so quickly."
It was not the walking that made his breathing difficult. Judas was a powerful and indefatigable man, who could Have marched from Jerusalem to Joppe without losing breath.
No. It was that sudden oppression of spirit which seizes upon the heart, overpowering it, when a crime of such dread import is about to be committed.
"Well, then, we shall listen," said one of the Doctors, and the whole council seated itself in order to hear him.
"I come," said Judas, in a steady tone, "to offer to betray unto you, secretly, Jesus, the Nazarene."
"Infamous ingrate!" exclaimed Joseph.
But the others, rising at once, surrounded the traitor.
"If you do this you will merit well of your country," said Caiphas. "Your name will be famous from age to age."
"As the name of Cain is famous," said a voice in the crowd. It was lost in the midst of the interested encouragement of Priests and Doctors.
"What is the price you would set upon your treachery?" asked Joseph in a tone of contempt.
Judas looked at him with resentment, but Caiphas had no intention of letting such an opportunity as this slip by. They made Judas seat himself, and presently Joseph heard the bargain being concluded. The traitor agreed to deliver Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—the price for which the death of a slave was bought among the Hebrews.
During this frightful bargaining, hell leaped with joy, and the devil in the soul of Judas saw the accomplishment of his dearest desire. All the chiefs of the damned accompanied him, and rejoiced around him—for the children of darkness live in an ever-present, blind hatred and the future is hidden from them.
They hate the just, and behold the~accomplishment of a crime with as much pleasure as the angels of light view with joy a noble and generous act. But had it been able to see the future, hell would have been shaken to its depths. For this crime was to limit its power and set bounds to its daring.
The Priests and Doctors applauded the deed of this wretched being. He swore to deliver Jesus into their hands on the following day, and they paid him the money agreed upon.
At that very moment the evil spirits came forth from the abyss. They spread themselves upon the earth. Bad passions were loosed. Trouble entered into every soul. At once a combat arose; for the celestial angels redoubled their solicitude, striving to make their voices heard by those with whose guardianship they were entrusted.
They spoke of the joys of heaven and the horrors of hell of the promises of God, and of His threats; of the joys of the elect, and of the wailings and gnashings of teeth of the reprobate. They wept and moaned, and strove to bring back those who went astray.
But the fallen angel laughed derisively at the works of God, at His menaces and His promises.
"What matters the future? Is not life its own goal? To pass through it happily is all that need be sought after."
So they promised to some the favor of Caesar if the impostor were destroyed. To others the favor of the tetrarch if this object of his fears should be taken from before his eyes. To superiors the favor of the prince's favorites; to the lowest some object of ambition or cupidity—that ever powerful bait which the rebellious angel has successfully employed to lure souls to destruction.
At a distance the world continued to be plunged in the same distractions, giving itself up to works of foolishness, to ephemeral joys, to brute pleasures, to agitations ending in death. And the destiny of the human race was here decided, in this small corner of Judea—between a God, a voluntary victim—and His blind creatures.
And Mary, with the gift which her Son had bestowed upon her intensified in this atmosphere of hate and anger and bitterness, cast a look of sorrow upon the Magdalen.
"It has come," she murmured. "The Son of God has been betrayed."