Pay your taxes, they said. Come to the land of your fathers and be counted, they said. Make Judea great again, they said—Herod the Great’s, that is. But did they tell me about the stress it would cause? No. Me, a hardworking innkeeper in a respectable three-camel town in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun by every half-wit peasant whose mother gave birth within a ten-mile radius of Bethlehem.
Nobody thinks of the little guy anymore, that’s the trouble. As I always say, “All roads lead to Rome, all dirt paths with potholes lead to Bethlehem.” And they were jammed with travelers this week for the census. Every room in my inn was full to bursting, every scrap of food eaten, every dish in my house dirtied three times over. Good for business, bad for my back. I’m not young anymore, you know.
My wife and I, we raised the prices a bit, of course. Not nearly as much as those traitorous gouging tax collectors. But as I always say, “When in the Roman empire, do as Romans do.”
I was full up like every other inn when the knock came. Too late for new customers, but I opened the door anyway. There was a man and his pregnant wife—near ready to burst, I’d say—on my doorstep. “Do you have a room for us?” the man asked, almost pleaded. “We’ve been turned away all over the city.”
Now, I’m an innkeeper. We know well the warnings about refusing strangers. We’ve had our ears tanned with vivid stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Rahab in Jericho. I grew up thinking any traveler I met might be an angel, or, even better, a spy.
Life disappointed me there. I’ve never had any person of note stay in my inn. Probably never will.
But seeing that woman and her child, well, it reminded me of what my dear mother always told me—there is always room. You can stretch the soup a little farther, wear the blankets a little thinner, pack the common rooms a little fuller.
You can decide if she was hospitable or just profitable. As for me, it was my duty, yes, my sacred honor not to turn away that young couple. She looked so tired, and he looked so…all right, if I’m honest, he looked about ready to punch someone. If I’d shut the door in his face, I think he’d have beaten it down.
But I don’t hold it against him. Taxes and a long road trip will do that to anyone.
I let them stay out in the stable, the cave out back where the guests tether their animals for the night. Oh, it was clean enough…mostly. Manure has to go somewhere. But there was a roof of sorts and what you might call a bed—I threw down some new straw before getting back to the guests.
It couldn’t have been more than an hour later, myself all ready to get some well-earned rest, when the man pounds on my door again, saying the baby’s time has come.
There were dishes to do any money to count and sweet dreams to have. But there he was in front of me, looking terrified as any new father I’d ever seen. And I remembered what my dear mother always told me—there is always time. You make time for what matters, even in the middle of a busy season.
And so I said, “Wife, fetch them a midwife.”
What? There is always time for women to do these things. I’m sure that’s what Mother meant. We men have business to attend to. Besides, women are the ones who can keep three tasks going at once and still remember to nag you about whatever you forgot, aren’t they?
So my wife brought a midwife, and before you know, she gave me a report: a healthy boy squalling in the Bethlehem night. A “census baby,” my wife called him. And I said, “Ah, so it’s true.” And she said, “What?” And I said, “I heard a man hollering that the Romans would start demanding our firstborn sons next. Are they bringing the baby to the tax collector or should I call him here?
She didn’t find this funny, no matter how much I protested that I didn’t mean it. Said I’d be sleeping in the stable tomorrow night if I didn’t watch.
As if it could have been anything but a joke. What man would give up his firstborn son to his enemies? No tax would be set that high. A father would never willingly give up his son, though he might be taken by force—sold into slavery to pay a debt, maybe.
Or like Jonathan. David’s all the rage around these parts, you know. Born here and all. Half of the mothers here name their boys David, and the other half name them Jonathan. I always liked Jonathan, myself. His father was powerful, a king…and he risked it all for his friendship with a shepherd boy.
I never understood why Jonathan had to die before David became king. Saul had it coming, sure, but why punish someone innocent? Why couldn’t God have let him live?
It was the consequence of Saul’s sin, they’d tell me, the priests and such with all the answers. He could have obeyed God, given the throne to David. But he would not. He chose rebellion, and the son had to die. It doesn’t make sense, not to me.
Bah, what am I saying? I know better than to meddle in religion. I’m a simple man, myself. Stick to what I know, like my parents taught me, and theirs before them.
That census baby, though. I wish him the best. His father will laugh, someday, telling his son the story of his birth. Anyway, it’s no small thing to take your first breath in the city of David, even if you were born in a barn.
The census travelers will soon be gone, and it’ll be business as usual. But they’ll come around again soon, for more taxings and bookeepings. “Rome wasn’t built in a drachma,” you know, like I always say. They’ll take our money, drain us dry, and make us pretend to be glad for it.
Well, back to business. Mother ought to have said there is always work, not room or time. It never seems to end.
Someday. Someday. I always imagine heaven as an inn with rooms too numerous to count, tables filled with food, days filled with joy.
They won’t have a census there. No taxes either. Nothing to pay, nothing to be counted or conquered or earned. “Charge it to God,” I’ll say if anyone asks. Who knows how he paid for it.
And then, I’ll finally be able to rest.