The Return of Uriah
Uriah, an old, true friend, arrived in Nazareth with his wife to take up residence with Joachim, his father, who had once been the rabbi of our town. They would have slipped into Nazareth almost unnoticed if Noah, Joachim’s neighbor, hadn’t noticed them enter the rabbi’s house. Joachim, a recluse, was rarely seen, except the fleeting times he strolled in the garden in his backyard. He still had a few friends and made peace with some of the elders of the town, including Aaron, the new rabbi, but kept to himself, tending his garden. When Noah told Esau, a town busybody, about Joachim’s visitors, Esau paid a visit to the rabbi’s house, himself. Shocked by his discovery, he ran down the street to alert the town. Fortunately for Joachim and his guests, the first person spotted in the distance was Jesus, who happened to be strolling arm-in-arm with Mama in the front yard. Drawn by the commotion, James, Joseph, Simon, and I left the shop as Esau arrived panting and out of breath.
“Uriah’s home,” he shouted through cupped hands. “He has a wife now. You won’t believe what I found!”
Jesus waved his hands irritably as he arrived panting and out of breath. “Esau,” he cried, “shut up, and come into the house!”
As he followed us through the door, I was excited about the news, wondering why Uriah had not visited us first. “What,” I muttered to Simon, “could Esau have discovered at Joachim’s house?” After Papa thrashed Joachim for besmirching Jesus’ good name, members of Joseph’s family were not welcome in the rabbi’s home. Though Papa expressed his regrets, he hadn’t once apologized for his behavior, and yet, according to rumors, Joachim was contrite with everyone else.
“Well?” Mama forced a smile. “Speak up, Esau. Why’s Uriah avoiding us?”
“Begging your pardon Mary.” Esau dropped his eyes. “Uriah wishes to come, but he’s ill. He doesn’t want Jude and his onetime family to see him this way. Between him and his father Joachim, Uriah’s poor wife Veronica has her hands full.”
“Sick? Are you certain?” I sputtered. “Joachim, not Uriah, was the one who is sick?”
Esau shrugged. He was, it was obvious, holding back the truth. “Years ago,” he seemed to ramble, “Joachim had a stroke. He regained his bodily health but remained addled, until he made his peace with God, “now this,” he sighed deeply. “…The poor man!”
“Yes, yes,” Mama waved dismissively, “we all know how poor Joachim is. We heard he made his peace with Joseph, too, but he never told us. What is wrong with Uriah, Esau? What did he look like? Was he on his feet?”
Esau came right out with it. Tears gathered in his small, furtive eyes. “Uriah thinks he has leprosy,” he exclaimed. “After the townsfolk hear about this, they’ll burn down Joachim’s house!”
“Dear Lord,” James shook his head, “Uriah’s a leper!”
“Leprosy?” Papa yelled from the other room. “Did someone say leprosy?”
“It’s all right, my dear,” Mama called, “I’m looking into this. I’ll be there in a moment.”
“Abraham’s Ghost!” Joseph groaned. “Why did he come back? Why didn’t he stay in Jerusalem? We’re all doomed! Uriah has brought death to our town!”
“I-I can’t believe this,” I clasped my forehead. “Uriah with leprosy. Please say it’s not true!”
“Yes, it’s true.” Esau looked at me miserably. “Your friend returned like a curse! Uriah belongs in the Valley of Lepers, not here in Nazareth. That moron, that selfish fool—he’ll taint us all!”
Abigail and Martha were weeping softly to themselves. Simon stood in the background wide-eyed with terror. Esau mumbled something under his breath, probably a prayer. He then whispered hoarsely, “I’ve got to warn the town. I must spread the word!” In near hysteria because of our dilemma, he turned and headed for the door, until Mama grabbed his sleeve.
“Stop him, Jesus!” she screamed.
“Lemme go,” he implored, “I have to tell them.”
“Wait, you fool.” Jesus gripped his wrist. “You’re not going anywhere! You mustn’t go spreading that rumor. It’ll be the end of Joachim and his son.” “Please sit down, Esau. Martha, get him some punch.”
“No-no, I need to see Aaron, the rabbi,” he muttered fearfully. The counsel must convene.”
“Stay—sit down!” Jesus led him to a stool.
Mama was suddenly calm and had that look on her face.
“Humph,” she pursed her lips. “What did he look like when you saw him? Are they certain it’s leprosy? There are many maladies that resemble this disease.”
“He had purple splotches all over his face and hands.” Nathan shuddered. “He was an absolute horror when I looked in!”
“Did he actually say ‘I have leprosy’?” I felt a surge of hope.
Esau shook his head. “No, his father said it.”
“But Joachim’s not right in the head.” I frowned. “You took the word of a lunatic?”
Jesus placed a restraining hand on Esau’s shoulder to prevent him from bolting toward the door. Mama sat at the table in deep thought a moment, gazed out the window a moment in meditation, then sprang up suddenly and slapped her knee.
“Ah hah,” she cried, “it’s not leprosy. Lepers don’t have purple spots, but there are maladies that do. I shall come at once.” “You shall come with me Esau.” She snapped her fingers.”
“You shall do no such thing!” Papa appeared, painting and apoplectic at his door. “Boys—stop her. Uriah should know if he has leprosy or not. You mustn’t go into that house!”
“Jesus, watch Esau. James and Simon,” she directed, “take your father’s arms. Joseph, your heart is weak. You must lie down.”
“Mama’s right,” Jesus said thoughtfully to Esau. “Uriah has been staying with relatives in Jerusalem. Where could he have caught such a thing? He probably has a common skin disease. Many poor men and women with rashes and spots have been cast out only to die of hunger and despair. Uriah’s very sick. Let us pray that it’s not serious.”
“How can they so sure?” Esau asked as we walked out the door.
“Because,” I piped, “Mama’s a healer, and Jesus knows everything!”
Papa had been so agitated Mama gave him a potion so he might sleep. Martha and Abigail would watch over him while we were gone, but we left the house with great misgivings. According to Samuel’s physician, Papa needed absolute bed rest. His heart couldn’t take much more strain. Despite our concern, Mama had no choice. Uriah needed her help. More importantly, Esau must understand that he didn’t have leprosy. If the townsfolk found about this, they might set fire to Joachim’s house. They would certainly drive Uriah and his wife out of town. Her mission was therefore not merely to care for our friend; it was to prevent frightened townsfolk from doing a terrible thing.
On the way to the rabbi’s home, Esau was under guard, virtually our prisoner. Old Ethan, in crotchety movements, ambled toward us, glancing suspiciously at each one of us. As we approached our destination, Noah looked out from his front yard and hailed his friend. Soon gossip would spread that something wasn’t right at the old rabbi’s house. The question was, I thought, my heart hammering in my chest, what was wrong with Uriah? Was Mama and Jesus correct: Was it just a skin disease or other malady? What if they were wrong? What if it was leprosy?”
When we arrived in front of Joachim’s house, Jesus knocked gently on the rabbi’s door. For several moments we waited for a response. We felt self-conscious standing out in the open in plain sight of Joachim’s neighbors. Someone whispered hoarsely and unintelligibly inside the house through a crack in the door, the sort of sound a leper might make when trying to talk. Of course, I dare not share this information which I learned from my Gentile friends. The thought made want to flee from the scene. James, Joseph, and Simon were already looking fondly in the direction of our home. Esau, under the guard of my brothers, was frozen in terror. Meanwhile, as a crowd gathered near Joachim’s house, Jesus impatiently hammered on the door. Our fears mounted that moment. Noah remained in front of his house, his arms folded, nodding politely as he chatted with Gideon, the chief gossipmonger and three other men. Soon more townsmen, who got wind of our visit to Nazareth’s hermit, gathered by the roadside gawking at our family, Ethan, standing amongst them, raising his gnarled cane to punctuate his remarks,
Giving us some comfort, as they stood among these idlers, with looks of concern more than suspicion, were representatives of our family’s friends: Habakkuk, Ebenezer, and Nathaniel.
Esau looked as if he might call out to them, until I doubled up my fist in front of his face.
“Not one word Esau,” I whispered threateningly. “You heard what they said!”
“Stop looking so frightened,” Mama scolded, pointing at the onlookers. “They’re picking up on that!”
When the door finally opened, she insisted that only Jesus and she enter the house. This was quite all right with James, Joseph, Simon, and Esau, but I felt duty bound to greet my old friend.
“No, Jude.” Jesus placed his hand on my head. “We shall go in first. The neighbors are watching. They’re suspicious of our visit. All of you go into Joachim’s back yard. You can see Uriah and meet his wife later after we find out what’s wrong.”
“What if you and Mama catch something?” Joseph asked in trembling voice.
“Don’t worry,” Jesus reassured him, as they entered the house. “Uriah doesn’t have leprosy. It’s important that Mama help Uriah and, for Joachim and his sake, squelch rumors in our town.”
“How can you be so sure? James called after him.
“Because he’s Jesus,” I said, looking over my shoulder. “Right Simon?”
“Right!” Simon nodded bravely.
As we waited in the backyard, we could hear townsfolk, even a few women now, talking excitedly in front of Joachim’s house. Because of the many fruit trees and tall bushes in the rabbi’s backyard, we were safely hidden from view. What struck us all as significant was how well tended Joachim’s garden was. For someone we thought was deranged, it contained many different kinds of vegetables and herbs growing neatly in rows—nothing one would expect in a crazy man’s yard.
When the back door finally opened, we ran up to Jesus as his head popped out.
“What is it? What is it?” James cried frantically.
“Calm down.” Jesus sighed wearily. “It’s not leprosy. It’s something else.”
“Thank the Most High,” I held my hands prayerfully.
“Little brother,” Jesus cautioned. “It’s not natural to have purples spots. Mama thinks it might be something he ate. I have a feeling that it’s more than that.”
“How serious?” Joseph seemed concerned.
“It’s serious.” Jesus emerged from the house and looked around the group. “It’s Uriah’s blood. While you men hid in the garden, Veronica ran to fetch Samuel’s physician. When he has examined Uriah, he will be able to tell us more.” “For now,” he said, looking squarely Esau, “you must go tell those people that Uriah doesn’t have leprosy. Ira, the physician, will have more information, but for now please make this plain to them.”
Noticeably relieved, Esau bobbed his head obediently, opened the backyard gate and went out to the crowd.
“Can I see my friend?” I looked at him hopefully.
Jesus spoke to all four of us then. “Uriah’s very sick. He’s lying on his pallet. Wait until the physician leaves. Uriah feels self-consciousness about his appearance and isn’t thinking clearly. We need to have Ira’s judgment before you walk home.”
“Phew-w-w,” James exclaimed, wiping his brow, “he doesn’t have leprosy. That’s a relief.”
“Yes, nothing’s worse than being a leper.” Joseph nodded in agreement.
“Well, I have to make water,” piped Simon. “I can’t wait very long.”
Picking a likely plum from a low-hanging limb, I munched on it abstractedly, wondering what was wrong with Uriah’s blood. It sounded serious, but it was much better than being a leper. It seemed incredible that Uriah had a wife. He was much too young to be married. In a more relaxed mood now, James and Joseph irreverently discussed my portly friend. Joseph thought Veronica must very ugly, and James thought she must be with child. There had to reason why someone would wed someone like Uriah.
“What if they’re in love?” I came to his defense. “Uriah’s very smart. There’s more to a person than his appearance. I’m happy for Uriah. With a family like his, he deserves a chance!”
“Yes, indeed,” James said obligingly. “Let’s hope he’s all right.”
“Hah! What could it be?” Joseph tried making light of it. “It’s probably something he ate.”
James laughed nervously at his jest. I sighed deeply. “Jesus made it sound serious,” I reminded them. “Uriah’s really sick. Leprosy is the not the only thing the townsfolk are worried about. I just hope Esau can convince the it’s not the plague.”
“Whoever heard of such a thing?” James shook his head. “I remember him being stung by a scorpion and almost dying. Leave it to poor Uriah to have purple spots!”
“I can’t wait,” Simon declared, withdrawing into the garden, “I gotta make water!”
As we lingered in the garden, I mentally inventoried Joachim’s plants, impressed with the sheer variety of the vegetables and herbs. For several moments, I listened to James and Joseph whisper back and forth. At one point, after watching Simon relieve himself in the corner of Joachim’s backyard, I found a tall bush and made water myself. James and Joseph also took pleasure in sprinkling Joachim’s plants. I couldn’t blame them. Joachim had been our enemy. It was true that we had once suffered greatly because of his machinations, but it seemed to me that anyone who could create such a garden couldn’t be all bad.
Finally, the back door opened, and Ira, Samuel’s new physician, emerged with a grave expression on his face. My heart sank as he focused upon me.
“Uriah’s quite ill,” he announced solemnly.
“Well duh,” Joseph whispered to James, “we knew that.”
Ira frowned at him. “I saw this malady before. It may run its course after much rest, but for the time being Uriah’s spots mark him out in many folks mind as a leper. I spoke briefly to several of the elders. They trusted Samuel’s old physician, but Samuel’s favoritism toward your family make them suspicious. One of you should have brought me to Joachim’s house discreetly. I told Jesus and your mother this. Your family shouldn’t have made a spectacle of yourselves. The elders want to see Uriah for themselves.”
“Camel dung!” Joseph cried.
“This is nonsense!” James stuck out his jaw.
“So what do we do now?” I shook my head in dismay.
“I don’t know about you men,” Simon declared, “but I’m going home!”
Jesus and Mama emerged on the porch at that point, greatly troubled. Ira bowed graciously when Jesus held out a handful of coins but refused his fee.
He placed his hand on Jesus’ shoulder. “I’ve done nothing but give you bad news,” he uttered glumly. “The potion will calm him down and make him sleep. Without any more symptoms than purple spots, all we can do is wait.”
Mumbling his thanks, Jesus motioned silently for us to follow him out the garden gate. Ira joined our procession as we left Joachim’s backyard, calling out irritably to the elders, “Shows over folks. I told you ‘Uriah doesn’t have leprosy.’ It’s a simple blood disease, hopefully not serious, so you can all go home.”
“Why can’t we see him?” Gideon shouted from Noah’s front yard.
“Yes Ira,” Ethan cried, shaking his cane. “What’re you hiding? Is it catching? Did Joachim’s son bring our town the plague?”
“How many times does he have to tell you?” Jesus raised his arms. “He said it’s a simple blood disease. It’s not contagious. Now go home!”
“If it’s not catching,” Jesse grumbled, “why don’t they bring him out?”
As we walked toward the road with our backs to Joachim’s house, the crowd gasped. Esau made the sign to ward off the evil eye. A few of the wives in the crowd screamed, and one hysterical woman turned and ran. There, emerging from Joachim’s home, braced on each side by his father and wife, was someone we didn’t recognize.
“Unclean! Leper! Leper!” shouts rang out.
“Uriah,” I called in a quivering voice, “…is that you?”
“It’s me,” he croaked.
The normally, bouncy, corpulent little youth, could barely walk. He was covered with so many purple spots, he did, in fact, look as if he had the plague or something unspeakably worse.
“It’s not catching,” Joachim said in a rasping voice. “Veronica, his wife, hasn’t caught it. It came upon my father, and he didn’t have the plague. Instead of condemning my poor son, pray for him. The spots will go away. Please leave us alone!”
“Listen, my friends,” Habakkuk called out to the crowd, “if Jesus and the good doctor say it’s not leprosy or the plague, then I believe him.”
“I believe him too!” Ebenezer nodded vigorously
“And I!” Nathaniel said, walking away from his friends.
When the three elders parted company with the crowd, the others began to disperse. Ira had already crossed the road to begin the short trek back to Samuel’s estate. I tried to say something more to Uriah. Joachim smiled and mumbled his appreciation but shook his head as he and Veronica, Uriah’s wife, led him back to the house. One day Veronica would play a role in Jesus’ ministry. That day, as it had happened before, a strange look came over my brother’s face.
“What’s wrong Jesus?” I asked him as we walked home.
“I’m not sure.” He glanced back. “…It’s like when I saw Longinus and Cornelius. Like them, I know I’ll see her again.”
“Of course,” Mama said wearily, “you’ll see her tomorrow when I visit my patient.”
“No,” Jesus shook his head, stroking his beard, “I mean later…in the future.”
“How far in the future,” Mama gave Jesus a worried look, as we approached our house. “Next month, next year—what exactly do you mean?”
“This time, Mama,” he confessed, taking her hand, “I don’t know.”
“Uh oh,” Joseph whispered to James, “Jesus is talking strange again!”