This started as a short illustration, but grew into something else. It’s rougher around the edges than I like.
It was because of Lucius. Tullus was sure of it. Lucius wanted to buy a parcel of land next to his own, but Tullus refused. He had glowered and said nothing, but it was not two days later when the soldiers came.
Tullus gave thanks that he had glimpsed them in the distance as he and his sons went to the fields. A quick word, and they set off for home, taking oxen and plow, leaving him alone. There he sat on a rock beneath a tree and waited for the soldiers.
If it surprised them, they gave no sign. Nor did they say more than “Come with us,” just as they had said no more to the others they can come for in years past. No more was required; he was not a Roman. So Tullus marched to town, flanked by soldiers, who said nothing.
The governor would be there, Tullus knew, though not for non-Roman farmer. A blessing that he wouldn’t be held until his appearance, or sent to him instead. For that he silently prayed thanks as well as they walked along the dusty road.
Of course, he knew what the charge would be. The Romans held the list for some time, and others had been taken. That the governor stopped was said to be due to the emperor’s dislike of anonymous charges.
“Give no thought to what you will say,” was the command he was taught at the meetings, held in secret before dawn. Yet it was hard to do. His pulse quickened as they neared the market and he caught sight of Governor Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundous perched high on his podium, hearing a case between two merchants. The soldiers stopped, and one put his hand on his shoulder to see that he did so as well.
There they waited, Tullus finding his mouth suddenly dry. He had wondered about this moment ever since the first were taken. Courage is easy to find in safety, harder when those you know are taken away, never to return. Some no longer came to the meetings. Just the other day he had spied Aulus going into the temple of Jupiter, beneath the gloating eyes of the priest. At one time the temples were practically empty and the meetings full, but that was before the executions.
Some in the crowd saw him and whispered. He caught site of Nonus, who sprinted away, no doubt to tell the others.
Then it was his turn. The governor looked somewhat bored in the mid morning sun, and gave him a look of a man appraising a slave. The charge was what he expected: of being a Christian. Lucius stated he had seen him in the fields, praying to Jesus for rain, and refused to sacrifice in the temples. All of which was true. He had not been to the temples since hearing the words of truth those years ago, and he was not ashamed to admit he had prayed to Jesus for rain, though he doubted Lucius had been close enough to hear.
The governor ordered him brought, and Tullus readied his admission of guilt. But the governor motioned for him to remain silent.
“Our merciful emperor has granted that those who have been Christians in the past may be spared. The question is whether you are a Christian now. If you give evidence you are no longer a Christian by praying to the gods, offering incense and a drink sacrifice to the emperor, and curse Jesus Christ, you will be free to go.” With that he motioned and the idols were brought out.
Tullus stared at them. At one time he’d sacrificed to wood and stone, but no more. And what was Trajan but a man like himself? He’d always thought it foolishness, as, he suspected, the Romans themselves, but never voiced his doubts as he fulfilled his civic duties. What was a little drink and incense and lip service? That, though, was before.
The crowd was larger now. Even before the podium he could hear them. Most said he’d do it. Why wouldn’t they think that? The gods meant as little to them as they once had to him. Except now he knew of the true God.
Some had renounced Jesus, gone through the motions demanded by the governor, cursed Christ, and went free. Other didn’t, and were executed that very hour.
All I have to do is what the governor demands, Tullus thought. A prayer and incense, and I’m free. Jesus said to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. This Caesar’s command. Christians are supposed to obey civil authorities. Shouldn’t I obey Caesar?
Then he thought of what Jesus had also said: “Render to God the things that are God’s.”
“No,” Tullus said.
The governor’s face is as impassive as the idols. “Carefully consider your answer. Did you really mean what you said?”
The consequence of which was execution. His heart pounded as he prayed for courage. Yet what would the use of dying because he refused to pray to nothing? Perhaps, if he prayed to them, the governor would forget his order to curse Jesus. Didn’t that copy of the letter from Paul say that idols were nothing? It would just be empty words and gestures.
Then he thought that Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down, just as James and Stephen had died in Jerusalem, and all the others. They could have denied Jesus and lived. They didn’t.
Tullus looked the governor in the eye. “No.”
The governor scowled and glanced at the crowd. All were silent. He could feel them watching him.
The governor lowered his voice. “Know that if you are discovered to be a Christian, you will be executed.” He motioned to the soldiers, who stepped forward. “I’ve but to give the word, and it will be done. Are you not loyal to Rome? Will you not honor the gods of Rome, as is your civic duty? Think about your family. I do not know what this Lucius has against you, but whatever he intends will not stop with you.”
Tullus felt cold. The Roman was right. Lucius would not rest until he had the land, and perhaps more.
The governor spoke in a loud voice. “Perhaps you misunderstood. I ask you one last time: Will you pray to the gods, burn incense and make a drink sacrifice to the emperor, and curse Jesus?”
The last time. Tullus looked from the soldiers to the idols. Once he was dead, his family would likely be discovered as Christians, and share his fate. But he could be like Peter. Peter denied Jesus three times, and Jesus forgave him. Wasn’t Jesus faithful to forgive if we asked?
Then he remembered lashings and crucifixions he had seen, and how Jesus went through all of that for him. How could he consider that so cheap that he would even think of denying and cursing Him? He, the risen son of God who was God, who saved him from a fate far worse than any crucifixion.
He looked at the crowd, all watching, all straining to hear his answer. What would they think of Jesus if he renounced Him? What of those who would hear of this, who would not even know his name, only that a man had faced a Roman governor and gave an answer he knew would please neither him nor his emperor? What would they do when they stood before their own countrymen or judge, and were told to chose between their Caesar and God?
Then he thought of what Peter and John said to the court that day in Jerusalem: “Whether it is right to listen to you rather than God, you judge.”
The stare of the crowd was a physical thing as Tullus turned back to the governor.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Tullus moistened his lips, and gave his reply.