“We are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk; we can talk; we have needs just like everyone else. Don’t be afraid of us – we are all the same.”Nkosi Johnson
A little boy stood on a stage and powerfully gave this message in his young South African accent. Nkosi Johnson was a keynote speaker at the International Aids conference in 2000 when he was just 11 years old, but his campaigning for the rights of children with HIV began years before that. Born HIV positive, when he was refused admittance to his local school in South Africa, Nkosi was not only sad, he was angry. His message to the world can still be used in so many applications of discrimination.
It’s heartbreaking to think that any little boy should have to say the words, “Care for us and accept us.” When Nkosi died at the age of 12, he had done more for human rights than many of us will do in long, healthy lives.
Long ago, there was another little boy who had a big message too. In 58 A.D., a man’s life was at stake; his uncle’s, in fact. Unlike Nkosi’s message, however, it was imperative that this little boy keep his message a secret. I thought I’d share his story today on Val’s Stage. While the young boy’s name is never identified, I’m going to give him one for the sake of the retelling: Benjamin, his tribe’s name.
Benjamin peeked around the corner of a market stall. The council building was just a stone’s throw away. His Uncle Paul was in trouble again. His words made people angry, but he still boldly preached his sermons to anyone who would listen. He now stood in front of the High Council with many of those angry men shouting their accusations. Benjamin wished he could go inside and watch the proceedings, but as their loud voices echoed all around the market, he knew it was no place for a young boy. He couldn’t make out most of the words, but they were yelling to overtop each other – likely a mix of Sadducees and Pharisees. They were always fighting over something.
He heard the word “resurrection.” Yes, that was the latest argument. He had overheard Paul telling his parents that his belief in the resurrection of the dead was stirring up trouble. Benjamin couldn’t understand why it was so hard for people to accept the fact that Jesus had died, and then he rose again – alive! But adults always have more problem accepting things they can’t explain. Their unbelief just makes Paul shout his message louder. He doesn’t care what they might do to him. Benjamin hopes he will be as brave as his uncle someday.
The yelling spiked to an even higher volume, causing his young heart to pound wildly. He has seen men end a heated argument by drawing their swords. Uncle Paul might be in real danger in there. Should he run home and get his parents? But what could they do? This was the High Council. As he looked around the market to see if anyone else felt his fear, a movement at the door of the council building caught his eye.
Two soldiers each held one of Uncle Paul’s arms as they walked away from the building. His uncle walked with his back as straight as theirs. He did not look afraid. He actually looked pleased with himself, like he had won a battle. He didn’t struggle with the armed men as they left the shouts of the High Council behind them.
Benjamin followed them, while remaining hidden, to see where they were taking his uncle. He shielded his eyes against the bright morning sun with his hand. The Commander’s fortress loomed at the end of the steep path the three men traveled on. Would they chain his uncle and treat him like a common prisoner or was he being brought there for his own protection?
The boy heaved a sigh, even as his stomach growled noisily. The story he had for his parents would save him from the anger he was sure to face for missing breakfast. His mom would be upset about her brother’s capture, but she’d want to know.
The next morning, Benjamin was lured into the busy marketplace again. The colourful displays, singing, bartering voices, and scents of spices and fresh bread drew him like a moth to a bright light. The square was a hub of excitement for a young boy, and he often met his friends there before his daily chores began.
Benjamin noted a group of men huddled in a corner near the east end of the market. They had no wares to sell, but their voices were raised and animated. More men joined, stepping in close together. The volume dropped, but their faces twisted in anger, and their whispers sounded like hissing snakes.
The boy had no problem finding hiding places in the busy market as he stealthily crept closer to the meeting place. He might be terrible with a slingshot, but he was the Hide and Seek champion in his friend group.
“I will not eat a crumb or drink one drop of liquid until that man is dead!” The man spit on the ground near his feet to emphasize his vow.
A man near him threw his fist in the air. “Let’s all take an oath that none of us will eat or drink until Paul dies!”
A quiet cheer of agreement went up in the group, while Benjamin covered his mouth with his hand to smother his gasp. They were talking about Uncle Paul! They wanted to kill him!
The angry mob had grown. He counted heads and had to stop at 39 because he couldn’t remember what number came next.
The sound of his rapid heartbeat drowned out the noise of the market. He leaned in closer so he wouldn’t miss a word.
The leader raised his hand for silence. “We will go to the commander and tell him that we want to examine Paul’s case more fully. On their way to the council building, we will ambush them and kill that blasphemer before he does any more damage with his crazy talk!”
Benjamin’s chest was heaving as his breath came in short bursts. What should he do? He looked back toward home. He could run and tell his parents; but what if the plan was carried out before they were able to get there? The commander’s fortress was in the opposite direction, but he knew his way there from following the soldiers just the day before. He was torn. His mom would be worried if he didn’t come home soon, but his uncle needed him.
“What would a soldier do, Benjamin?” he asked himself. He picked up his sword (the stick he had been brandishing moments ago), and stuck it into his belt. A man’s life was at stake, and he was the only one who could go to his rescue!
His uncle stared at him in confusion. “Take a breath, boy! I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
He’d run like the wind, picturing himself riding atop his proud stallion. But now his words were flying out of his mouth in breathy gasps.
He saw the look of determination in Paul’s eyes when, after the third attempt, the message finally got through.
His uncle called out to a Roman officer, “You must take my nephew to see the Commander right away! He has something important to tell him.”
The officer looked at Benjamin, raised an eyebrow and looked back at Paul. The other man nodded. “You need to go now!”
Benjamin straightened his back like the soldier beside him and pushed his sword deeper into his belt to match his partner’s. While his heart raced with excitement, and fear too, he nodded at each soldier they passed on the way to the commander’s quarters. If only his friends could see him now.
The Commander put down his papers when he heard the officer’s message from Paul. He walked over to Benjamin and held out his hand.
He thinks I’m just a small boy, he thought as he took the man’s hand. He stood even taller, matching his steps to the Commander’s.
The Commander led him to a quieter space and turned to face him, dropping his hand. “I hear you have some big news for me. What do you wish to say?”
He made fists at his side to still his shaking fingers. It didn’t take three tellings for the Commander to receive his message. He spoke with confidence this time, rather than panic, sticking to the facts like a real soldier would.
Benjamin liked it that the man looked in his eye and nodded as told his story. His chest filled with pride at the respect he was given by this important man.
As his last words left his lips, the Commander bent his knees to come down to his eye level. He spoke quietly but with authority. “Do not speak to this about anyone, okay?”
Benjamin’s neck hurt from his fast, hard head-shakes. “No, Sir.”
The Commander patted his shoulder as he straightened to his full height. “Thank you, young man. This was a very important message indeed. Your bravery is commendable.”
As the officer led him away, Benjamin looked back and smiled at the Commander who gave him a small wave before calling more soldiers to his side. The boy felt his face redden when he realized how childish he must have looked with the two gaps where his new teeth had not yet grown in.
Still, he had been brave – the Commander said it, and one day he would go on missions like this all the time with a real sword at his side. He looked up at the soldier next to him, and grinned. He was responsible to keep a huge secret, and that made him pretty important right now. And when his uncle was safe, he would be able to tell his friends that he’d been a real super hero!
As with any secret mission, the young boy’s audience was small, but his time on the stage was of vital importance. He successfully thwarted a plot which saved his uncle’s life. Years later, his stage grew much bigger as Luke documented his story in the Book of Acts. He didn’t realize that his courage would be recorded for millions of people to read about. (Acts 23: 1-22)
Just a small boy with a big message.