Tuesday, September 20, 2016

THREE TRAVELERS - My Newest Short Story!

  What was it like afterward for those people that Jesus healed?
  One thing that all the ancient accounts of Jesus agree on is that He was a healer.  The Gospels, Josephus, even the veiled references in the Talmud attribute wondrous deeds to Him.  But what was it like for those who were healed?  Did they go back to their lives, or did they follow the One who gave them their lives back?  That is the scenario I explore in this short story, which I wrote last week.  Read on, enjoy, and don't forget to leave me some feedback below!


A Short Story by

Lewis Smith


          Three travelers walked the road up the foothills of Zion towards Jerusalem.  It was early summer in Judea, and the lush green of the hills had not yet been burned up by the heat of the month the Romans called Julii.  The sky overhead was clear and deep blue as the sun slowly lowered in the west, where the waters of the Great Sea lurked just over the horizon.  They walked along together in a companionable silence, these three men, moving towards a common goal, but as the breeze turned cooler and the skies began to darken, the silence became louder and louder, until finally, one of them, an older man named Ezra, spoke.

          “How did you come to follow the Master, Elias?” he asked the youngest man, whose brisk pace kept him at the head of the trio.

          Elias ben Yakob was a handsome man, his features finely chiseled, his dark eyes set on either side of a nose that was as straight as an arrow, but not too long.  He wore a short, neatly trimmed beard, and his robes, although not expensive, were clean and carefully mended.

          “My father was a Levite,” he said, “and my mother was of the house of Benjamin, a fine old family that claimed descent from King Saul himself.  As I grew up, they were forever praising my looks, telling me what a handsome boy I was, how all the girls would compete to see who would be my bride, and what a wonderful future I might have as a scribe, working for the priests.  When I was sixteen, a spot on my hand began to itch.  I paid it no mind when it turned red, but when it began to darken and ooze foul fluid I showed it to my father.  He paled and backed away from me, and my own mother shrieked at the sight.  ‘Leper!’ they cried out, and drove me from the only home I had ever known.”

          He sighed.  “It was a hard blow for a vain young man to take, and as the foulness began to spread from my hand throughout my body, I prayed for death.  I found a group of lepers, living in a cave near a graveyard outside of old Jericho, and there was a fellowship of sorts among them.  Some of them looked normal enough at a glance, some were missing fingers and toes, and some were monsters to look upon – although one of those, Amos by name, had the gentlest heart and the kindest smile, shining out from his ruined face.  They told me that my case was not as bad - that one could barely tell from my face that I was afflicted – but I knew better.  We had no glass or polished bronze among us, but I could see my reflection in the drinking bowl, and I knew that I was on my way to becoming as much a monster as any of them.”

          He paused and took a drink from his water flask. 

          “Then I heard of him.  Rumors flew like wildfire among the leper community, that there was a mighty prophet who could heal our kind with the power of his words.  I didn’t believe it, of course, but the rumors refused to die away.  Finally, when I heard that he was coming up the road not far from our cave, I went with my friend Bar-Timaeus and we sought him out.  We heard the crowd, as he approached, calling him ‘Son of David,’ so we took up the cry. ‘Son of David, have mercy on us!’ we called out to him, and he heard us.  He came through the mob that lined the sides of the road, and walked right up to us – closer than any clean person had approached me since the day I showed my sore hand to my parents.”

          Elias laughed out loud.  “I was disappointed when I saw him.  ‘This was the mighty prophet?’  I thought to myself. He looked so ordinary, until you got up close.  Only His eyes betrayed the power and the compassion and the majesty that were packed into His simple frame.  ‘What do you wish of me?’ He asked.  I found myself tongue-tied, but Bar-Timaeus spoke for us both.  ‘Lord, if you are willing, let us be cleansed,’ he said.”

          “The Master looked at us long and hard, and then spoke. ‘I am willing,’ He replied, and he laid His left hand gently across my brow, like a father caressing a small child.  With His right hand he touched my comrade in the same way.  Then He smiled, and it was like seeing a bright spring day dawn after a cloudy night. ‘Now go and show yourself to the priests,’ He said, and turned back to the road.”

          “I looked at Bar-Timaeus, and his face was no different.  His nose was still covered with welts and knots, and his lips were still raw and sore with lesions.  My hand was still half rotten, my fingers barely holding on by tatters of skin and sinew.  I doubted for a moment – but then I said, ‘Well, you heard him.  Let’s go.’  We lowered our heads and began to walk towards the nearest village – and as we did so, something happened.  I could feel some sort of energy flowing through my body.  After a few hundred yards, I raised my hand – and my palm was no longer black.  It was pink.  The flesh that had rotted off was growing back.  I looked at Bar-Timaeus and the knots and pustules on his nose were shrinking, drawing back into his flesh, and healthy skin was taking their place.  I began to laugh, and he looked at me and began to laugh, and soon we were running, not walking – and by the time we got to the village not a trace of leprosy remained in either of us.  Once we were declared clean by the priest and made our offerings, I went to find my father and mother.  But after I had been restored to them, I went to find the Master.  And I followed Him from then until . . . until that day.”

          He grew silent then, as if some private sorrow consumed him for a moment.  But then he smiled and looked at Ezra.

          “What about you?” he said.  “How did you come to follow our Master?”

          The older man had listened with rapt attention to his story, a smile playing across his lips.  He was nearing fifty years old, his beard salted with grey, his eyes dancing with a keen inner joy.

          “I was my parents’ firstborn,” he said. “My father told me that even as an infant, my legs were shrunken and tiny, and while they grew in stature, as the rest of me did, the muscles simply never filled in.  It was obvious by the time I was two that I would never walk.  By then my brother had been born, healthy and active and normal, and I found myself more and more shunted aside.  What is there for a cripple to do except beg?  So as soon as I was old enough, my father and my brother – later my other brothers, too – would take my pallet and place it at the city gate.  I would sit there with an old tin cup and beg alms from passers-by.  Most people walked by and ignored me altogether, a few were evil and mocking, but many were kind, and left me coins when they could, or simply took the time to talk to me.  I taught myself to sing so that I could feel as if, in some way, I was earning what they gave me.  But I always dreamed of being able to walk.”

          He looked down at his sturdy calves, whipping back and forth beneath his tunic as he managed the steep and rocky roadway with ease, and the smile that creased his face was filled with wonder.

          “When I was fifteen we moved to Jerusalem, where my father had purchased a small blacksmith’s shop.  He and my brothers worked harder than ever, and I was left at the city gate for many long hours to beg while they toiled at the anvil.  It was not like things had been Beer Sheba at all – there were dozens of beggars, some of them more ill than me, others obvious charlatans.  Sometimes I went an entire day without anyone dropping so much as a mite in my cup.  I wanted to walk more than I ever had before!”

          “Then someone told me about the Pool of Bethesda, over by the Sheep Gate.  They said that periodically, an angel of God troubled the waters, and whoever could get in first, after the waters were stirred, would be healed of whatever ailed them.  I begged my brothers to take me there, and since the shop was doing well and my income from begging had shrunk so much, they humored me.  At the age of twenty, I was carried to the pool for the first time.  So many people all around it – some crippled like me, some with consumptive coughs, some furtive souls who showed no outward symptoms, although rumor said they were in the early stages of leprosy and had not yet been noticed and outcast.  Every day it seemed there were a hundred or more souls crowded around the pool, waiting for the waters to stir.”

          “I had been there for nearly a month when it happened.  It wasn’t a huge thing – if you were not watching for it, you might not have noticed right away – but at the center of the pond, a whirlpool formed for a few minutes, and then some bubbles formed and burst.  I started to lever myself up on my arms, and one of the men – a tall thin fellow with a hacking cough – dove in headfirst.  There was a collective sigh of disappointment as all of us settled back on to our cots and cushions.  When he came up, he was smiling.  He waded out of the pool, and I will say that I did not hear him cough once as he gathered up his meager cushion and headed home.  I never saw him again, so I guess he was healed.”

          “But I wasn’t.  Every time the waters stirred – and it only happened once or twice a month, at most – once it went six weeks without so much as a ripple – someone else, someone whose legs worked better than mine, got into the water first.  Some of them said they felt no effect, others said that they were instantly healed, and some began to gradually get better.  But year after year, I waited.  I tried asking my brothers to come with me, so they could throw me in the second the waters were troubled, but they were busy, and the few times they came, nothing happened.  So twenty years passed, and I was still crippled, still useless, still bitter.

          “Then, one day, about a year ago, I saw an immense crowd coming down the street.  They were surrounding this man, clad in plain robes and rather plain looking himself, and calling him ‘Rabbi.’  I asked who He was, and someone said his name was Yeshua, and that He was a mighty teacher and healer.  As soon as that last word was spoken, all of us helpless derelicts by the pool began calling His name.  Why He singled me out I do not know, but before I could even struggle to sit up, He was standing over me.”

          Ezra smiled at the memory.  “He asked me the oddest question I had ever heard at that point.  He said ‘Friend, do you want to be made well?’  It made me angry.  Of course I wanted to be made well!  I started to say something angry and bitter, and then I looked into His eyes and saw no mockery there.  He was being sincere. Did I want to be well?  I was over forty years old, and I had never worked a day in my life, never taken care of myself, never thought of marriage or children or anything else.  But what I had thought about was walking – walking like a normal person, not being a burden to my family any more.  So I answered Him truthfully: ‘Lord, I long to be healed, but I have no man to put me in the pool when the waters are stirred.  Every time, as I try to move myself, someone else jumps in ahead of me.’

          “His eyes shone with kindness, and He reached down and placed one hand on my knee – that useless knob in the middle of the stick that was my leg. ‘Then let it be,’ He said simply.  ‘Take up your pallet and walk home!’

          “Once more my bitterness nearly ran away with my mouth.  Take up my pallet, indeed!  Did He think I was a fraud?  Could he not see how useless my legs were? But something in His face, his eyes, stopped me – and at that moment, something happened.  I felt a surge of energy in my body, and before my eyes my useless, withered legs began to fill out with muscle and sinew that had never been there before.   I tried to move them – something I had spent hours at a time doing to no avail – and they obeyed my mind’s commands!  My knees bent as they were supposed to, and when I slowly levered myself forward, taking my weight off of my hands, I found they bore me just fine.  I took a few tentative steps, and then I began running in circles, screaming at the top of my lungs that I had been healed!  I was jumping and walking and strutting and running all around the pool, and some looked at me as if I had a demon, while others’ eyes were filled with wonder.  After a moment or two, I remembered His words, and took up my pallet to carry it home.  Yeshua had already moved on, the crowds packed so tightly around Him that I could not even approach.  I ran to my house, and my mother and father could not even believe it was me at first.  My brothers were filled with wonder also.  I thanked them for all that they had done for me across the years, and embraced them.  That evening I sought out the One who had healed me, and I followed him from then . . . until Passover.”  His face fell at that memory, and he lapsed into silence.

          Elias turned to the third man, a lean and tall fellow who had joined them on the road a few hours earlier.

          “Simon, isn’t it?” he said.  “When did you start to follow the Master?”

          “Two years ago,” he replied.  “But my story is nothing like yours.”

          “Why don’t you tell us,” Ezra said, “and let us be the judge of that.”

          The tall man shrugged, and began to speak.

          “I was a vinedresser,” he said, “chief tender of the vineyards of Herod Philip.  It was my job to make sure that his grapes grew big and sweet and full of juice, and I did it well.  I had a dozen gardeners working under me, and I was well paid for my labors.  I was married to the loveliest of women, Rachel by name, and we had two beautiful daughters, born a year apart.  In short, my life was blessed, and I was thankful to Adonai for all that I had been given.  I had no idea how quickly it could all be taken away.”

          He bowed his head for a moment, remembering some private grief.

          “It was Passover season, two years ago, and we were on our way to Jerusalem for the festival.  As we arrived in the edge of the city, we got caught up in a vast crowd.  Everyone was angry, stirred up, and there was one man who seemingly wanted to keep them that way.  He would start shouting to the people every few minutes, his voice full of hate, telling them that the Romans must pay for what they had done.  I was curious, to be sure, but even if I had wanted to, I don’t think we could have found our way out of that crowd.  It was like being swept into the current of a raging river as they made their way towards Herod’s palace.”

          “As we followed along, I overheard bits and pieces of the story from some of the people.  The aqueduct that had been begun the previous year by Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea, was being paid for with money stolen from the Temple – corban offerings given by the faithful.  Some said his soldiers had actually violated the Sacred Precinct and removed the money at the point of the sword; others said the priests had been threatened into surrendering it.  I found myself getting angry at the thought of the Romans stealing the offerings of my people, and soon I, too, was shouting along with the rest.  My wife tried to stay near me, but holding two little girls by the hand made it difficult.  I was leading our Passover lamb on a rope, but the crush of people was so great I picked it up and was carrying it.”

          “We made our way to Herod’s Palace and gathered in the courtyard, filling it full and spilling into the streets around, with that big, loud fellow standing on top of the well curb and shouting at the top of his lungs about the defiling of the Temple and the theft of corban money.  After a while, Pilate himself appeared on the balcony.  He was wearing his military uniform – breastplate, scarlet cloak, and sword at his side, and he looked angry.”

          “He tried to reason with us – he said that the money had been willingly donated by Caiaphas, and that since the aqueduct would benefit the poor of Jerusalem more than anyone else, spending corban money to build it was not only appropriate but also completely in accordance with our own traditions.  He even quoted one of our own prophets in an attempt to justify his actions.”

          “Had it not been for that big fellow, I think the crowd might have dispersed. Pilate was very persuasive – they said he was once a member of the Roman senate, you know – but this Simon bin Yosef would have none of it.  He kept screaming that Pilate was lying, that the Temple had been robbed, and that corban had been defiled at the hands of Gentiles.  The standoff lasted for nearly two hours, and I was actually trying to find my way to the edge of the crowd and locate my wife and daughter, when the Romans struck.”

          “Pilate had sent his legionaries out in plain clothes, bearing cudgels beneath their cloaks, and they hit us from all directions at once.  I was caught in the crush as everyone tried to flee, and then I was struck on the head and remembered no more.  When I came to, the square was full of bodies.  My Passover lamb was a few feet away, its skull crushed and its blood mingled with the blood of an old woman who had been trampled.  As I looked across the square at the victims, I saw a familiar dress – the bright green and red one my wife had been so proud of.  I could barely recognize her – one side of her head had been caved in with a club – and my girls lay on either side of her, their bodies broken and lifeless.”

          “I fled in a blind rage, grief and anger tearing my heart to shreds.  I joined the Zealots of Bar Abbas for a while, but then I saw that they were just common thieves who used politics as an excuse for rape, theft, and murder.  I was wandering in the wilderness of the Jordan, not far from Caesarea Philippi, when I saw this group approaching.  There were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, all clustered around one man, who was teaching them as he walked along.  I sat on a boulder some distance from the road, not desiring their fellowship.  But as they passed by, I heard something he said.  ‘Unless we forgive men their trespasses against us,’ he told them, ‘then our Heavenly Father cannot forgive our trespasses against Him.’

          “Forgiveness!  The very thought filled me with rage.  I spat on the ground to show my contempt for such a sentiment.  Whether he heard me snort in derision, or simply felt the hostility that was radiating from me, I do not know.  But suddenly this itinerant rabbi was standing in front of me.  I refused to lift my head and meet His eyes.”

          Simon swallowed hard before continuing.  “I guess I thought if I ignored Him, He would go away.  But He kept standing there, and finally He said; ‘My friend, I perceive that you are in the bitterness of iniquity.’  I looked up at that, meeting His gaze for the first time.  His eyes were full of compassion, but I didn’t want His pity.  ‘Foolish man,’ I snapped.  ‘You do not know what I have suffered, so do not presume to lecture me about bitterness.’

          ‘I know you, Simon,’ He said. ‘Your wife was a beautiful woman, and she loved you dearly.  Your daughters gladden my Father’s heart as they sing and dance in His kingdom.  All three of them await you, but you cannot join them unless you cast aside the burden of hate that you carry.  Give your burden to me, Simon.  You have borne it too long.”

          “When He spoke those words, something broke in me.  For the first time since that dreadful day, I wept.  I cried like a child, and He put His arms around me and held me until I could sob no more.  When I finally looked up, I found that His followers were regarding me with the same compassion that shone from His eyes.  And my hatred, my desire for vengeance, my anger at God for taking my family from me – all those things were gone.”

          “The Master may have healed your bodies, my friends, and those were true miracles from heaven.  A leper cleansed, a lame man walking – all signs of the Messiah’s coming.  But the Master healed my soul, and that is why I follow Him,” Simon concluded.

          “Do you really think He is alive again?” asked Elias finally.

          “Too many people have seen Him for it to be otherwise,” Ezra said.  “I have spoken to several of them.”

          “All I know is that the vision I beheld in my dreams said to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost,” Simon told them.  “And that is tomorrow.”

          And the three travelers resumed their journey.

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