Matthew was late. He had to get over the mountain and across the plain before sunset, and it was scary, because his saddlebags were full of money and he didn’t have a guard. The Romans had fired his guard. They were always firing people, and Matthew was well aware that he could be next. He was a good tax-collector, but that didn’t matter. His guard had been a good guard. The Romans didn’t care. They wanted you to live in fear. But what was the result? Chaos. Disorder. Revolution. Half the men in Palestine were out of work, Jews were being driven from their farms, homeless men were sleeping in the street, there were bandits everywhere, and the hill country was teeming with Zealots. But life was full of contradictions, and as much as the Jews hated Rome, if Matthew was fired, there would be a long line Jews, eager to take his place. So he had to hurry.
The problem was, his donkey wasn’t cooperating. It poked along at its own pace, and no amount of prodding could speed it up. It was the bane of his life, that donkey. It cost a fortune to feed and board, it was always moving its bowels at the least opportune moment, and Matthew wondered if buying it had been a mistake. Still, coins were heavy, and Matthew was tired of carrying them on his back. But he wished the damn beast was more biddable. If a gang of thieves set upon him, the creature wouldn’t run. He could barely get it to walk. Matthew looked at the sun. It was past noon. Would he make Caesarea by sunset?
He was at the peak of the mountain, getting ready to start his descent, when he saw two feet sticking out from the bushes: two big, bare, dirty feet with hairy ankles. There was a man under those bushes. Or maybe it wasn’t a man. Maybe it was a corpse.
“Mister.” Matthew said.
There was no response.
Time was limited, and he really shouldn’t stop, but this was a person, after all, a fellow human being, who would surely die if Matthew didn’t help.
“Mister,” Matthew repeated, nudging the feet. “Mister, can you hear me?”
Matthew thought he heard a groan, and he got his wine pouch and knelt beside the man, who had the robes, trimmed beard, and matted hair of a hill-country Jew. What was he doing on the road to Caesarea? Jews from the eastern slope rarely crossed over. They didn’t dare. The western slope was riddled with Roman sympathizers. Matthew poured some wine, held the man’s head in one hand, and put the gourd to his lips.
The man was in bad shape, but he was conscious, and he took a sip. “Fire,” he said, “Nazareth.”
“There was a fire in Nazareth,” Matthew said. “A woman and three children died. But that was 40 days and 40 nights ago.”
“You’re shivering,” Matthew said. “Don’t try to talk. I’ll get you a blanket.”
And so Matthew, the tax collector, despite having business in Caesarea, stayed on the mountain for three days, nursing a complete stranger back to health. But, no, it wasn’t health. The stranger was still very weak, but after three days he had reco vered enough to ride down the mountain on Matthew’s donkey.