Chapter 1: The Angry Leper
Matthat still had his eyes closed. The sounds of the morning’s activities were beginning to intrude on his sleep, and he was just beginning to wake up. He was vaguely aware of two young girls passing by his window, talking to each other, water sloshing in their jars as they carried them home. The birds were up. He could hear wings flapping as they came and went from the roof, searching for food. As he became more awake, softer sounds, farther away, began to register. A dog barked. Doors opened. Cooking fires crackled. Next door, Jude groaned sleepily as his wife urged him to get up.
“Thank you, God, that I don’t have a wife to nag me,” Matthat said to himself. He always prayed this way. If you asked God to describe Matthat’s prayers, God would tell you, “Even when he thanks me, he manages to get in a good complaint.”
Matthat opened his eyes now, and looked at the dim, early light coming in through the window. It was too early to tell yet if this day would be sunny or overcast, but it wasn’t too early to get up. He would need to be in the barley field soon. He sat up on his mat and rubbed his eyes. Then, without even changing position in his small one-room home, he reached into his bag hanging on the wall and pulled out a barley loaf. He pulled off pieces and ate them, chewing slowly, and occasionally taking a sip from his waterskin.
It was time to go. Matthat tied the thongs on his sandals, grabbed his bag and waterskin, and ducked a little to get through the door. He turned left and walked down the dirt street. Now, most people who lived in the section of the village where Matthat lived, and who wanted to go to the barley fields west of town, would turn right at the next intersection. Doing so would take them straight to the main road by the shortest possible route. Matthat never went that way. If he did, he would have to walk right past his parents’ home, and he certainly didn’t want to do that. No, the less contact he had with them, the better, as far as he was concerned. So Matthat continued walking down the street until he came to the third intersection, and then he turned right. This route took him out of town on a smaller, less traveled road that wound around the back side of the barley fields. There was one stretch of this road from which he could see his parents’ home, situated on the edge of the barley field the family had owned for generations. But he was safely out of earshot, and far enough away to be difficult to recognize. He was just another person walking on the road.
Often, he didn’t even glance in their direction when he came to the place where he could see his old home. But today he looked. There was his parents’ house, where he had been born twenty-seven years ago. He had lived there until he was twenty-four, when his leprosy appeared. Closest to his parents’ house was the home of his older brother, Nathan, and Nathan’s wife and son and daughter. Set back a little farther, right by the edge of the field, was the house, currently empty, that would be Matthat’s if he ever married. If he ever decided to forgive his parents and brother. If he ever decided to go home again.
Matthat turned his eyes forward to the next field, and for the first time this particular morning he smiled. The plants were doing well. This field was owned by Lemuel, and this was where Matthat worked. Lemuel had known Matthat’s family since long before Matthat was born. When the priest had pronounced Matthat clean and cured of his leprosy, Lemuel gladly hired him, without asking too many questions or reminding him that he should be working on his father’s land. Lemuel was old now, and his joints were getting stiff. He needed someone who could walk easily and do all the bending and lifting required to water and weed the crops.
Lemuel was outside feeding his donkey when Matthat came up the path. “Good morning, Matthat! Did you sleep well?”
“Well enough, thanks. How about you?”
Lemuel grimaced and groaned. “Oh, I sleep well enough – twenty times a night! It seems like I’ve just fallen asleep, and then I wake up sore. I roll over to ease the pain a bit, fall back asleep – and the same thing happens again. Take my advice, Matthat. Stay young, and don’t grow old.”
Matthat laughed. “I’m sure it’s good advice. Now, can you tell me how to accomplish it?”
Lemuel put some more hay in front of the donkey as he said, “If I knew how, I wouldn’t be stiff and sore.”
Picking up the hoe, Matthat gave his cheerful retort: “Well, I’ll think about the problem while I’m weeding today. This evening I’ll come back with the answer, and we can both be boys again.”
He headed out across the field to where he had left off the day before. He enjoyed the smell of the growing barley grass as he walked. The sight of the healthy plants pleased him. He felt like he was accomplishing something useful, something worthwhile.
But as he walked, his mood began to darken. Today he would be weeding close to the boundary between Lemuel’s field and his father’s. Every step closer to the edge of the field made the past seem closer to the present.
He kept his eyes to the ground, then, and concentrated on the work at hand. With the skill that can only be obtained by experience, he worked the soil, removing as many weeds as possible, yet without disturbing the roots of the barley. Soon he wasn’t thinking much about anything at all. The whole universe was distilled down to the dirt, the plants, an occasional bug, and his own breathing. Stop, wipe away the sweat, and bend again.
At midday, though, the comfortable monotony was broken by the sound of his brother’s voice coming from the next field.
“Matthat! Hello! It’s good to see you!”
He barely looked up. “Hello, Nathan.” He went on with his weeding.
Nathan wouldn’t be put off so easily, though. Matthat could hear the brushing sound as he walked through the field, coming closer.
“Lemuel’s crops are doing well, Matthat. You’re taking good care of his field.”
Matthat kept on working. “Thanks.”
There was a long pause, and then Nathan tried again. “It’s been a lot of work without you, but Father’s barley is doing well, too. We hired a man to help out, since you haven’t been there. I’m sure you’ve seen him.” No response. “Do you think you’ll come back to help us next season? You know you’re welcome.”
It was too much for Matthat. Now he stood up, faced his brother fully, and the words boiled out of his mouth. “Oh, I’m welcome, am I? Sure, you and Father want me around when there’s work to be done! You want me around when you need me! But where were you when I needed you? For over two years, while I wasted away in the lepers’ camp – how much did you want me then?”
“Matthat, we did what we could. You had leprosy.”
“How many times did you and Father come see me, Nathan?”
Nathan was silent.
“Twice, Nathan. Once after each harvest, you and Father came and brought me blankets and clothes. At first, I woke up each day thinking, ‘Maybe today they’ll come and see me.’ But each day was the same. The servants of the priests came with their baskets of food, set them down outside the camp, and left as fast as they could. Even Mother couldn’t bear to come more than once a month. My own mother!”
Nathan responded quietly, gently. “Matthat, you had leprosy. Would you have liked it better if we had all caught your disease? If we had become leprous, too, and joined you in the camp? We’re just glad you’re well.”
Matthat had hoped that his words would produce a different reaction. He had hoped that his brother, with tear-filled eyes, would say, “Oh Matthat! I was so wrong! Truly, I neglected you, and I shouldn’t have! Please, I beg you, forgive me!” Since he didn’t get the response he wanted, he turned his back on his brother and began walking across the field away from him. As he walked he studied the ground with careful intensity, looking for any stray weed on which he might vent his wrath.
Frustrated and disappointed, Nathan turned and walked back to his father’s field. He, too, had hoped for a different reaction. He had hoped that Matthat would say, “Oh Nathan, I’m being too harsh on you! It was wise of you to avoid risking the possibility of becoming unclean yourself – you have a family to provide for. The priests took care of my needs – you needed to take care of your wife and children!”
Matthat found what he was looking for. Here was an area with plenty of weeds to be removed, and it was a long way from where he had left Nathan standing. Being careful to remain facing away from his father’s field, he began weeding again. As he worked, he justified his anger by remembering the painful past.
All he had done was bend over to pick up a bucket. That’s all. He picked up a bucket, and his life was ruined. As he bent over to pick it up, his hair parted and fell along his cheeks on both sides of his face. His neck was exposed. His father had been there. He noticed a white blotch on Matthat’s skin, right at the line of the collar of his robe. Matthat didn’t know it was there. It didn’t itch, or at least not that he had noticed. Perhaps he had been rubbing the back of his neck; he didn’t remember. It certainly itched later. But his father had noticed the spot, and it concerned him so much that he immediately took Matthat to the priest to be examined. Matthat still couldn’t remember exactly what the priest had said. He just remembered being numb with shock. He had been pronounced unclean.
(To be continued…)
The Healing of Ten Lepers
James Tissot, 1836-1902
In Luke 17, Jesus healed ten lepers. Only one of them ever came back to thank him. Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed [healed]? Where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17) The excerpt above is from my book, Nine Lepers. In this work of fiction, I explore some possible worlds of people who have been healed, or in other ways received God’s blessing, and yet continue to live their lives apart from God. Are you interested in reading more? Would you please share this excerpt with others? I hope you’ll comment below, too. May God bless you richly – and may you live your life as an appropriate response to his grace.
July 2, 2016
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