They were filthy, both of them. The donkey, too. They stank, and the woman was drenched in sweat. So, there was that, for a start.
Plus, they couldn’t have chosen a worse time to turn up – the house was already teeming with Roman soldiers, and I was out of ideas to keep the kids entertained quietly. Trust me: you do not want to annoy an armed Roman soldier.
I knew they’d be trouble, even before he’d opened his mouth.
They were distant relatives on the Eleazar side of the Bethlehem clan.
Allegedly. To me, he was just a stranger.
As I opened the door, I heard the soldiers behind me, taking yet another bottle of wine out of the cellar. It would be a raucous night, I knew. I didn’t have time for supposed relatives, begging for help.
But I would have taken them in, despite their stench. That’s not why I turned them away.
And I’ll admit, the fact that his wife was possibly in labor gave me pause. I’m a mother, too.
But I shut the door, and I kept it shut, holding my body against the door, even when he pounded on it from the other side. It wasn’t easy to hear, ‘Please, please,’ and the woman’s moans. That was a little hard for me. But it was the right thing to do. The frantic knocks slowed, then eventually stopped.
Before you judge me – I’m the most hospitable woman on the East Side of Bethlehem. Ask anyone. We all gather at my table for Passover because I have the best food. I feed people, I help the poor – I’m as devout as they come. It would have been impossible to fit them in.
Yet I would have done the impossible because I’m a woman of valor, proud of my heritage as one of God’s chosen people. I’m not a bad person. I shut the door precisely because of my faithfulness to God.
At the moment he mentioned Galilee, a memory stirred: the rushed wedding, the jobbing carpenter: Joseph – that was his name. While the Jerusalem cousins had been gushing about miracles and messiahs, Aunt Naomi had filled me in on the whole scandal.
Some people are so gullible! Well, I’m not, and neither is Aunt Naomi.
“Rachel,” she’d said to me, taking another of my delicious homemade fig-cakes, “some people will tell themselves anything to cover up their sin.”
Some people will tell themselves anything to cover up their sin. I’d nodded.
These people weren’t like us, I realized. They were lustful, deceitful, immoral, God-forsaking people. And here they were, standing at my door, asking for favors! This moaning woman should have been grateful to have been alive at all, and not stoned to death, as the good law says. I would not stain myself by inviting sin under my roof.
What about my children, after all? What message would that send? Sometimes tough love is the only way.
If only they had found a place of shelter a little farther away.
I don’t know for sure where they ended up, but I could hear her moans through the window while I tried to sleep. They were not in a house, I knew that much. I had flashbacks to my six labors, only three of which ended in a live baby. Once, I had nearly died.’
No, I told myself. Disgrace is contagious. What would my friends say if they knew I’d been associating with these sinners? Reputations can be changed in an instant – and I had my family to think of.
I snuggled closer to my husband, who was snoring and tried to warm my feet. Maybe that would bring sleep.
A slow doubt crept across my heart: what if their story was true? What if the suspicious-looking, bedraggled, flea-bitten pair were really chosen by God? It seemed unlikely, but I ought to give it thought.
I knew, in theory, that the heroes of the Torah were a mixed bunch, but these people didn’t have any halo of blessing about them. They were just poor. Their desperation reeked.
Desperate people lie. You don’t want to be deceived by their sob story. You don’t want to be manipulated.
I turned over in bed, trying to get comfortable. Again, a cry of anguish javelined through my window. Her pain seemed to be increasing. I wondered if the birth was going wrong. The thought came to me: I could help them. They would be easy to find. I could offer them some hot water or towels, or my midwifery skills – I dare say cousin Joseph hadn’t witnessed many births.
I almost left my bed then. But my feet were warming up. It was a rare moment of quiet in the house; the soldiers had finally gone to bed. I had no desire to wake them – did I mention you don’t want to annoy a Roman soldier?
I imagined them, out there. I pictured the baby: cold, naked.
But I was snug and warm, and I didn’t want to move.
‘Someone else should help them. A Gentile, perhaps,’ I thought, as I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I awoke with an inexplicable ache. I went about my usual business. The Romans were especially appreciative of my breakfast that day. But I felt empty in a way I hadn’t before.
Eventually, I listened to the whisper in my soul: What if God comes into our midst in disguise? What if God was in the stench of desperate people?
This would mean I’d turned my back on God because I didn’t want to make myself uncomfortable.
It was a horrible thought.
I pulled myself together. This was not rational.
I had done the right thing. I always did the right thing.
Over to you:
- “What if God comes into our midst in disguise?” – how does this speak to you today?
- “Some people will tell themselves anything to cover up their sin.” In what ways are we guilty of this?
- “Someone else should help them” – when do we respond like this to need? To what extent is this wrong?