“Don’t touch me!”
Mara pulled back as if she had been burned. Her eyes filled with tears when they met Ruben’s gaze. “I forgot.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
Ruben wrapped a loaf of bread in a cloth and filled a skin with fresh water. Flinging it over his shoulder, he crouched near Mara. “Dearest, I must leave because I love you. You know that.”
Fresh tears ran down her cheeks, and she nodded in acknowledgment. “Oh, Ruben! I’d rather go with you.”
“Mara, I will never stop loving you. I will be watching for you…” His gaze dropped to her rounded belly. “…and the little one, when you come to the sheep gate.”
Mara nodded. It would be the closest she would ever get to him again.
Ruben held his hand over her head—only he did not touch her. His arms and heart ached with the restraint. “Mara!” he whispered, then disappeared into the night.
The air was warm and heavy. He hoisted his sack higher on his shoulder and clutched his walking stick with determination. As he neared the campfires, he saw the shadows of a dozen people—some squatting, some lying down, and one leaning against a tree. His foot knocked a pebble loose, and they all turned in his direction.
“Who is it? We are unclean!”
Unclean…the word stabbed Ruben’s heart. “I am Ruben ben Jacob. I am unclean, also.”
“Come! Show yourself.”
When Ruben stepped into the light, the others melted away from him. Some crawled on festering limbs; others tugged rags around their faces. Their eyes shone in the firelight like wild animals around their prey. Ruben pulled down on his tunic to show the white spots on his chest. A sympathetic moan surrounded him.
“Come,” said the leader. “Sit down. I am Jedediah.” He put a hand on each of Ruben’s shoulder. One by one, the others approached, each touching him on the back or shoulder or head. Ruben sat on a stone and took a bowl of stew offered to him.
Jedediah leaned close. “Tell us of the city. What is new?” The others listened expectantly. “Have you seen this man called Jesus?”
Ruben looked up quickly. “Yes, I was there when he made bread for hundreds of people. He heals the lame and blind. I heard he walked on the sea. Some say he is a prophet, and others say he is the Messiah.”
“What do you think?”
Ruben shrugged. “I don’t know. He is not a man like others.”
Each evening, Ruben waited for Mara. The first day was the hardest. He could not approach closer than fifty steps from the wall. Mara sobbed. She could not even speak. Leaving her basket, she stumbled away.
As the months passed, Ruben saw that the time of her birthing was getting closer. He longed to touch her.
“Are you well?” he hollered.
“I am praying to Jehovah for you!”
“Oh Ruben!” The tears began again. “I need you!”
Mara did not come the next evening. Ruben waited until the stars appeared. Still she did not come. He could not sleep. I must see Mara. I must go home! But Ruben knew the law. “The unclean must live outside the city.” If only I could be cured…if only…He sobbed, “Jehovah, be merciful to me!”
Jedediah roused him the next morning. “Ruben! Ruben! The man called Jesus is coming this way. Perhaps we will see him as he enters the city.”
Ruben jumped up. The Lord has heard my cry!
“Where are you going, Ruben? He’s not here, yet.”
Ruben ran. The stones cut his feet, but he didn’t feel them. People shied away from him when they saw his bandages. Crowds filled the road— people who were busy, people who didn’t care.
Then he saw Jesus.
It had to be Jesus! Others turned away from his ugliness and rotten flesh—but not Jesus. Ruben fell down before Him, “Lord, if you will, I know you can heal me.”
Jesus lifted him to his feet. He wrapped his arms around Ruben and held him close. “I will. Be clean!”
Ruben felt his body fill with strength and healing. He pulled up his shirt and felt his chest and face. His skin was clean! He jumped and danced and shouted.
Jesus smiled. “Go, Ruben. Go show the priests that you are healed. Go home to your wife, for she has born a son.”
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