I still don't think I did anything wrong. I had paid my dues, climbing those ladders for 17 years and laboring all day in the hot desert sun. Then I was injured on the job. I felt I deserved a little charity. It was only fair.
Had I asked to be born with a deformed right leg? What had I done to deserve that? Nothing. But I never complained. I learned to walk with a limp. And when I learned to haul myself up a ladder, using my one good leg and my arms, my father put me to work in his roofing business.
When you think of the roof of your house, you probably imagine it at night, when it's a pleasant place to sleep under the stars. But let me tell you, it's not very pleasant during the day at least not in Beersheba, where I grew up. Wrestling those tiles and those pots of plaster in the noontime heat takes a lot out of a man. So it was almost a relief when, on the afternoon of my 30th birthday, I slipped and fell off the ladder and broke my good leg.
My family carried me back home on a stretcher. Of course I was in pain for a few weeks, but I found that I actually enjoyed being bedridden and having people wait on me.
My sister Euodia and her husband Alexander came down from Ramah to visit. One evening I was in my usual place on the cot, relaxing, when my brother-in-law asked me when I thought I might be able to go back to work.
I was honest with him. I told him I hoped I would never be able. Disability is much more pleasant. But I knew I couldn't retire at the age of 30, because that would mean no more money coming in.
"Well," Alexander remarked, "back home I've seen some folks who make a good living from their disabilities." He seemed to be joking, but I was curious and asked what he meant. "Beggars," he explained. "Blind men, men with only one arm, that sort of thing. They ask for money in the streets."
"We have one or two of those here in Beersheba," I noted. "But I don't think they 'make a good living' at it. They're always dressed in filthy rags."
"Of course they are," he answered. "Suppose they were richly clothed. Suppose their begging cups were overflowing with coins. Then you'd tell them that they clearly didn't need your money. No, a beggar must always appear hopeless. He must make you feel that if you don't give him something, he'll starve tomorrow and it will be your fault!"
"So you're saying beggars actually may not be as desperate as they appear?"
"Some of those panhandlers in Jerusalem have a pretty decent income," he ventured. "Especially if they work the Temple Mount. Think about it. You have all these solemn pilgrims on their way to pray in the Temple. They're meditating about their obligations to their God and their obligations to their neighbor. If one of those neighbors stops them and asks for a handout, they're going to be in a charitable mood. And they can be very generous. Rich Pharisees like to make a big show of their philanthropy."
"I wonder if I could get into that line of work," I mused.
"You want to be a beggar?" Alexander asked, astounded. "But you've got a good job here as a roofer! As soon as your broken leg is healed, you can"
"I can go back to heaving tiles around all day in the hot sun. Or I can go up to Jerusalem, where according to you, there are cupfuls of coins to be had just for the asking. I'd never have to get up off this cot."
And that's exactly the course that I took. Alexander and Euodia were appalled, of course. They were reluctant to be my "accomplices," calling me a lazy fraud (and worse), but they did help me find a Jerusalem rooming house where the other tenants would be willing to help a poor cripple like me. I moved in 12 years ago.
Each afternoon after lunch I'd hobble over to my cot and lie down, and two of my roommates would carry me about eight blocks to the east side of the Temple Mount. There stands the Beautiful Gate. It leads to a broad plaza, "Solomon's Portico," and the rest of the Temple complex. Next to the Gate, I had found a good spot where there was shade in the afternoon. My roommates would leave me there on my cot for several hours so that I could beg from people as they went in.
Because I was lying down, with a sad expression on my face and my deformed right leg clearly visible, the people assumed that I couldn't walk. What a pitiful sight, just outside the Gate which is called Beautiful! Most who entered the Gate did indeed pity me, and they were indeed generous.
Then, in the evening, my friends would return to carry me back to the rooming house. Once inside, I'd stand up and stretch and give the others their share of my take, and we'd all sit down to a good dinner.
It was easy, boring work. I began to recognize the same pious believers as they entered the Temple for the various annual festivals, and I developed a good clientele.
A few donors talked to me and suggested that I didn't have to remain a beggar all my life. They were prosperous, and they offered to find me a real job that didn't require standing or walking. I thanked them profusely for their compassion, of course. But, I sighed, I feared that it was my lot to lie here by the Beautiful Gate, trusting in the mercy of God for whatever few coins he might send my way.
It wasn't as though I was taking money and giving nothing in return. I was providing a service. I was both reassuring my donors and making them feel virtuous. They could thank God that they were not in my miserable situation, and they could congratulate themselves on their benevolence to poor pitiful me.
The Jesus People
Solomon's Portico was a busy place. In addition to the people on their way to the Temple itself, groups gathered there to discuss religion and other issues of the day.
About a month ago, I began to notice that one of the more outspoken groups was made up of followers of one Jesus, a Galilean preacher who was executed last spring for advocating an insurrection against the Romans. His followers had not given up the cause. They even denied that Jesus was really dead. Now they were preaching every day in the Portico, and they were beginning to draw crowds. Even Jude, one of the men at my boarding house, was starting to hang around these Jesus followers.
On Wednesday a couple of them walked toward me, heading into the Temple for the three o'clock prayers. I learned later that their names were Peter and John. When I saw them, I followed my usual routine of asking for money and pathetically lowering my eyes. They stopped beside my cot, but they said nothing.
"Why are they just standing there?" I wondered. "Do they know I'm faking it? Did Jude tip them off?"
Finally Peter spoke. "Look at us," he said. So I looked up. Maybe this was a good sign; maybe he was going to be especially generous with me. I was disappointed when Peter said, "I have no silver or gold. But what I have, I give you."
Okay, I thought, go ahead and give me your best wishes or your worthless advice. But he gazed at me even more intently and said something completely unexpected.
"In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth," he intoned, "get up and walk!"
Why would anyone say that to an obvious cripple? Was he ordering me to drop my pretense?
Whatever Peter was trying to do, I had no intention of cooperating. I had always been careful not to be seen standing up in public. I had never taken one step outside the rooming house. I certainly wasn't going to abandon that rule here, in the very place where I made my living.
But Peter gave me no choice. He grabbed me by my right hand and pulled, forcibly yanking me to my feet. Trying to gain my balance, I staggered forward a couple of steps.
The crowd gasped. They knew me as the poor beggar who could not walk, and there I was standing before them.
"Praise God!" they shouted. "It's a miracle!"
What could I do? I couldn't very well fall back onto my cot as though those steps had never happened. It was obvious to everybody that I was able to walk now.
Of course, I had always been able to walk. But if I told them that, they'd know I had been taking their money under false pretenses. So I had to go along with the idea that I had gained the ability at that very moment.
"Praise God!" I shouted. "It's a miracle!"
John clapped his arm around my shoulder. "Yes, it is!" he agreed. "Praise God, and praise Jesus whom he raised from the dead! Let us go to prayers." He continued on through the Gate, his arm still around me, and I had to go with him.
The miracle worker, Peter, walked with us, and the crowd was going crazy. They realized that I, who had lain begging by the Gate for so many years, was now limping along on my own two feet. As the center of attention, I felt I had to continue shouting "Praise God." I even played to the crowd, doing a little jumping and leaping on my one good leg. I began to enjoy my sudden celebrity.
Peter turned the subject back to his beloved Jesus. "Men of Israel," he cried, "why be surprised at this? Why stare at us as if we had made this man walk by some power or godliness of our own?" (You're telling the truth there, I thought; your godliness had nothing to do with it.)
"The name of Jesus, by awakening faith, has given strength to this man whom you see and know." (Well, it was true that Peter had spoken that allegedly magic name of Jesus. But exactly what "faith" was it supposed to have awakened within me?)
"This faith has made him completely well, as you can all see." (Actually I still have a limp, but we'll let that pass.)
He continued to preach about how all the prophets had predicted a Messiah. He claimed that Jesus was that Messiah. But just then the officers of the Temple came to break up the mob scene. They arrested Peter and John and hauled them off to jail.
However, they couldn't arrest the whole crowd, and they didn't arrest me. I was surrounded by a throng of five thousand believers marveling about my miraculous cure. I sent word back to my roommates not to expect me for dinner that evening, as I had a number of better offers.
The next day, Peter and John were tried before the priests, and my enthusiastic new friends insisted that I go with them as proof of the miracle. I had never been in such a room before the rich draperies, the furniture inlaid with gold, all the priests gathered in their formal robes. I was afraid that I might be called upon to testify. I might have to perjure myself. But that didn't happen.
Annas, the high priest, apparently believed that a person needs official permission to do a good deed. He asked by what authority Peter and John had cured me. He knew it wasn't by his authority. And he knew that Peter would answer in his usual way: "It was by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead. In all the world, no other name has been granted to mankind by which we can be saved. Through him this man stands here before you, fit and well."
The priests conferred and ordered Peter and John, these uneducated laymen, to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and John said they could not possibly stop. The priests warned that they had better stop. But Annas and Caiaphas and their colleagues knew that the people wouldn't let them punish Peter and John any further, because there I stood, undeniable proof of a miracle. So the priests released them.
We all went back to the meeting house that the Jesus group used. John prayed for the miracles to continue. "Herod and Pontius Pilate conspired with the Gentiles and with the people of Israel to do all the things which were foreordained. And now, O Lord, take note of their threats! Enable those who serve you to speak your word with all boldness! Stretch out your hand to heal, and cause signs and portents to be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus!" We all were inspired. Even I was carried along by the general enthusiasm that shook the building.
So now I guess I am a Jesus person myself. I wonder if there's a way to make a living from that? I can't lie down on the job anymore, but at least I won't need to do any heavy lifting in the heat of the day. All I'll have to do is talk to people.
I'll tell them the story of how faith in Jesus enabled me able to walk again. I'll promise them if they have enough faith, good things will happen to them too.
But, of course, I don't want to be held to that promise. I'll explain that the good things may not come to them in this life. The good things will come to them after they're dead. Perhaps. If they've had enough faith.
I've seen how people can be inspired and motivated by faith even by faith in a miracle that never happened. I'll find some way to turn this to my advantage.
(a retelling of Acts 3:1 - 4:31)
Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.