Jared Witt l June 7, 2018
You’ll forgive the beggar if he’s turned a bit cynical about people. A lifetime of paralysis will do that to a person (Acts 3:1-10).
Or maybe cynical isn’t even the right word. He’s been at this so long, it would be more accurate to say that he’s a realist. He doesn’t hold the resentment of a true cynic, not at this stage. He’s grown very realistic about the economy of guilt. He knows his place, and it is what it is. He knows that few motivators are as reliable as guilt. And by the same token, few are as limited. Guilt is almost always worth a shekel or two, never much more than that. You can’t get from guilt to respect or to honor. There is no progression from guilt to love, certainly not to friendship.
But one uses the tools one has. That’s why every day for most of his life, he has set up shop just outside the Beautiful Gate, the east entrance to the Court of Gentiles in Herod’s temple. His good guilty brethren are never more self-conscious and wary of appearing hypocritical than when there are a bunch of gentiles milling about, watching to see how they’ll respond.
A lot of people think, if you’re a beggar, you must be either constantly plotting to change your situation or lazy. One or the other. The truth is neither. A beggar understands, perhaps better than anyone, that there is an economy to these things. And the real drivers of this economy are not tangible concepts like currency and trade. Those are only the aqueducts through which the economy passes. The real drivers are things like social-standing, self-image, fear, anxiety, pride, and so on.
A merchant of expensive textiles builds his fortune on the vanity of other merchants and their wives. A soldier’s pay slip is signed by the jittery xenophobia of the citizenry in Rome. The beggar occupies a place within this economy like anyone else and just so happens trade in guilt—the one niche where a congenital paralytic has a true competitive advantage. Strangely the temple priests on the other side of the gate profit on the same. Perhaps he and they are not so different.
Today was just going to be a typical workday. Clock-in just before ninth hour prayer and take advantage of the high volume of petitioners at their most pious hour of day. Put in the time. Collect enough coin for a biscuit or two and some stitches to repair the runs in his robe.
And that’s when the beggar saw what he took to be a couple of typical marks making their way along the east wall. There was nothing much to denote them. Though they were a hint more jovial than your usual ninth hour supplicants, more than the beggar would’ve preferred. Sometimes happiness can inspire generosity. But just as often, it causes people to avert their eyes from any unpleasant sights, which might bring them down.
He assumed his much-practiced slump. Palms up, head down, eyes on the dirt. Eye-contact can be a deal-breaker in this business. Alms-givers need reassurance that the interaction begins and ends with the transaction. They don’t need a bunch of hangers-on still clinging to them when they come back from prayer and look to get on with the rest of their day.
“A mite for an empty belly, Lord?”
The two men stopped and fixed their gaze on him.
The beggar froze, only furtively shifting his eyes to their feet a couple times, almost willing them to just keep shuffling along.
What are they about? Toss some copper. Don’t toss some copper. That’s the end of it. Why are they stopping? People don’t stop. If anything, they hold their breath and speed up, as if poverty were an airborne disease. Only a few times before had anyone stopped and addressed him directly and the results were never good.
“Look at us,” said the one whom he took to be the leader. The words seemed a bit imperious but the tone was not.
Hesitating at first, the beggar slowly lifted his gaze. The two expressions confirmed his read on their mood. These weren’t your usual temple goers. Occasionally, the Sadducees and priests would make merciful sounds in passing. “How are you feeling today, my child?” they would ask just loudly enough for their solicitations to register with their fellows. But these two made no such spectacle, nor did they slow their words as if his paralysis had also made him dull. They spoke plainly and then waited as if they truly anticipated a response from another adult.
Unsure what sort of test this was or how to pass it, the beggar said nothing, his hands still cupped, one palm over the other, out of habit. Three sets of eyes stood gridlocked in momentary silence.
Then the one who did the talking introduced himself as Peter and the other as John. Yep, surely this was a test. The beggar said nothing.
“I have no silver and gold,” he continued, “but what I do have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” Then he stuck out his hand.
The beggar flinched. Only a few times before had anyone ever stuck out their hand. The results were never good.
He looked around to see if anyone else was noticing this exchange, so lacking in decency or decorum. They were.
Was this Peter guy simple? Or just not from around here? No. A bit of northern flavor to his accent but surely not so foreign as to be heedlessly touching a lame man before making an temple offering. Mostly just yearning to be done with this awkward demonstration, whatever its purpose, the beggar quickly reached out to touch the extended hand.
What now? What was this then? In his legs? Pain? No, not unpleasant. But how different are pain and feeling when one has never felt? A warm tingle shooting from his lower back down through his toes. No, this was more like the opposite of pain. No, the opposite of nothing. It was the opposite of the dead, blank, nothingness he had always felt down there his whole life long.
Then, as routinely as though he were waking someone from an afternoon nap, Peter lifted him. But how? How was he lifting a grown man with only one hand?
Realization set in. The legs. They were lifting him. His own legs. The ascent may have lasted a fortnight. He just kept going higher. Just as foreign as the feeling in his legs was that in his chest. Levity? Brightness? More than that. Like sunlight radiating from his chest. Joy? A giggle leapt from his mouth as if from some other time—some childlike sound of which his actual childhood had been so deprived.
Yes, joy. And that’s what was behind the eyes of these odd men from the north, so different from the self-involved seriousness of the other pilgrims. On a whim the man gave a little leap just to see if he could do it, clutching Peter’s shoulder to steady his landing.
The Galileans started to chuckle. Some onlookers from the crowd started to chuckle too. Others, made scoffing noises, in exaggerated disgust.
The man spun in a circle and gave an uncoordinated little jig, just showing off at this point. At that, all three men erupted uncontrollably. Hanging onto each other as if standing upright were a novel challenge to all of them equally, stumbling into each other like drunkards, in convulsions and fits of mirth, mindless of the grave severity of the golden gate overhead, the three continued forward like old friends.
For the first time ever, the man entered the temple.
Cheers and Peace,
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