Benjamin: A short story

“Master, stop!”

The disciples turned and saw a man running after them, the sort of man who didn’t usually have to run. His clothes were luxurious and ornate. His shoes were a rich person’s shoes, made for walking on tile floors and woven rugs, not the hard stones and dirt he was running on now.

Jesus didn’t even turn around. He had heard the man, his disciples knew, but he wasn’t going to wait for him. The rich man was going to have to catch up with Jesus all by himself.

“Master! Master!” The man made a final effort and ran around to the front of the group. He stopped, panting, face to face with Jesus. “Master! What must I do to be saved?”

Jesus went around him and kept walking. “You know the commandments,” he said over his shoulder. “Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t kill. Honor God and your parents. Do all those things and you’ll be okay.”

The man ran around in front of Jesus again. “I’ve done all those things since I was a little boy. It’s not enough.”

For the first time, Jesus looked at him closely. He didn’t say anything for an impossibly long time. He seemed to be staring into the man’s soul.

“Do you want to be perfect?” he finally asked.

Benjamin continued the argument all the way home. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “It’s not like I can just go poof and be done with it. It would take me weeks to sell all that I have. Months. And then what? Where would you be? How could I find you again?”

He walked along, talking to himself – or his invisible companion – and gesturing, occasionally kicking a rock or a weed. He was an agitated man who was not used to being agitated, a frustrated man who was accustomed to getting his own way. “It’s not that easy,” he kept saying, punctuating the word “easy” by chopping the air with his hands.

“And what would they do with it?” he demanded. “They don’t understand money. They buy what they can and trade for the rest. They don’t save. They don’t invest. They would just fritter the money away. And then what?” He repeated his last phrase over and over. “Then what? What? Then what?”

As he approached his own house, the gatekeeper stepped out to meet him. “Good afternoon, Master,” he said, bowing. Benjamin scarcely noticed him. He was still arguing, still gesticulating, still frustrated. He kicked a brass vase into the garden pool, much to the consternation of the gatekeeper, and stormed into the house.

“And what about these people?” he asked the air. “Without me, who would take care of them? They depend on me. If I sell all that I have and give it to the poor, I’ll make them poor! Where’s the gain in that?” Servants who usually greeted him smiling now hid around corners or found pressing duties in other parts of the house. Only Rebecca the cat seemed pleased to see him.

He went into his room and sat down. The cat waited for the moment when he ceased crossing and uncrossing his legs, and jumped into his lap. But her judgment was off and she collided with his knee as he squirmed in his chair, trying to find some comfortable position. She mewed and ran under the bed.

“I’m sorry, Kitty,” he said. “Come on back.” He clucked and mewed, but the cat did not reappear. He sighed and pulled the bell rope to summon a servant.

It was Joshua who appeared — old and bent, a man totally unlike his namesake. He must have lost the coin toss, Benjamin thought sourly. Or got bullied into being the one to answer the bell.

“Joshua, I’m hungry,” he said. “Bring me something.”

“Dinner isn’t for another two hours, Master,” the old servant quavered. “It’s very good. Cook has been working all day.”

“I don’t want dinner,” Benjamin snapped. “Just bring me some bread and a glass of wine.”

“The bread isn’t out of the oven, Master,” Joshua replied. “It will be very good in half an hour. Hot and fresh!” 

“I want it now,” Benjamin snapped. “I don’t care if it’s fresh. Bring me yesterday’s bread.”

“But Master,” Joshua replied. “We give yesterday’s bread to the poor just as soon as the fresh is done. They’re lined up by the back gate already.”

“Fine. Bring me yesterday’s bread and give the fresh to the poor.”

“Master!” Joshua’s eyes widened in shock. “Cook will be furious! He will take it as an insult!”

“Oh, hell,” Benjamin muttered. He stood up and headed for the kitchen. Rebecca the cat, who had poked her nose out from under the bed, scurried back to her hiding place.

Benjamin stalked through the halls, Joshua pattering after him protesting feebly. “Master! Master! Cook will be upset.” They went through the back garden and entered the bake house. Joshua scooted around in front of Benjamin and quavered, “Cook! Master wants bread!”

The cook was looking into the oven and poking a large paddle around, moving the loaves back and forth. “Tell the jackass he’ll have it when it’s ready.”

“I want it now,” Benjamin said quietly. The cook looked around, paled, and fell to the floor. “I’m sorry, Master,” he babbled. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were here. Please forgive me, Master. Please!” He started beating his head against the stone floor.

“Oh, stand up, you fool,” Benjamin snapped. “Just get me some bread.” He had ceased to be hungry, but now was determined to get his way. “Give me yesterday’s bread.” 

The cook jumped up and ran into the next room. He came back almost instantly, holding half of a round of bread in his trembling hands. Benjamin took it from him and stared at it. This was not the bread he ate. This bread was heavy and coarse and hard. It did not have the pieces of dried fruit and nuts in it that he loved.

“What’s this?” he asked. “This isn’t my bread.”

“It’s the servants’ bread, Master,” the cook answered, his voice trembling. “It’s the bread we all eat. I was going to give this to the poor.”

“How much bread do you make every day?” Benjamin asked.

“Ten loaves, Master. Two for you. Six for the servants. Two extra for guests. If any is left over, we give it away.”

Benjamin nodded. “Well, you’d better get these out of the oven. They’re burning.”

The cook turned even paler, which Benjamin would not have thought possible, and grabbed the wooden paddle. “Move, you idiot!” he screamed at Joshua, who shrank back into a corner. Benjamin gestured to Joshua to follow him and went out into the garden, chewing on the bread. “I could break a tooth on this,” he said to himself.

“Joshua, what’s it like to be poor?” He turned and looked at the man, who was almost tiptoeing behind him.

“I don’t know, Master,” the servant replied.

“Surely you’re not rich,” Benjamin said, amused by the thought.

“I’m not anything, Master,” Joshua answered. “I’ve lived in this house all my life. I served your grandfather, and then your father, and then you. I have my bed here. I have food. I’ve never had any money. I don’t need it.”

Benjamin nodded absently. The old servant took a deep breath and continued. “I feel so sorry for the ones who come for bread every day,” he said. “That’s the only thing they have to eat sometimes, and there’s never enough. Sometimes they fight for it. Sometimes they just go away. I get to know their faces, but then, after a little while, I don’t see them again. Then I know they’ve died. Starved, maybe, or beaten to death.”

Benjamin stopped chewing. He gazed at what was left of his bread. Then he looked up at his servant. “Joshua, I’m going out for a while.”

The servant protested. “Master, the sun is almost down! It’ll be cold! You could be in danger!”

Benjamin ignored him. He stepped through a side gate in the wall. “Lock this gate behind me,” he told Joshua, and started walking away. “Make sure the poor get their bread!” he called over his shoulder.

The sun was touching the horizon. Joshua was right, Benjamin realized. It was going to get cold.

He was walking through a field — his field, he supposed, but he had never been in it before. He went into the city often enough, but he let his shepherds and herdsmen take care of whatever happened out in his fields. He did not see any of them now, so he kept walking.

“There’s so many of them!” He resumed his argument. “I can’t feed them all! I can’t feed a tenth of them!” He started to climb a hill. “What would happen to the people who come for the bread? They’d starve without me!” He crested the hill, still arguing. In the twilight he could see someone down below, surrounded by smaller shapes. Sheep. He started down the hill.

It was dark when he came to the shepherd. He did not recognize the man, but the shepherd obviously recognized him. “What are you doing out here?” he asked. He showed none of the obsequiousness of Benjamin’s house servants.

“I don’t know,” Benjamin said. “I couldn’t stay cooped up.” The shepherd grunted. “Would you like some bread?” Benjamin asked, shoving what remained of the loaf at him. The shepherd took the loaf.

“I have some stew ready,” the shepherd said. “There’s enough for two.”

Benjamin realized that he was now genuinely hungry. “Thank you,” he said. “I’d love some.”

The shepherd picked up a ladle and filled two bowls from a pot that was sitting next to his fire. He handed one to Benjamin. “Lentils,” he said. 

Benjamin looked at the bowl. He didn’t think he’d ever eaten lentils before. He waited until the shepherd tore off a piece of the bread and began using it as a spoon. Benjamin gingerly did the same. He now understood why the bread crust was so hard. The stew itself wasn’t good. Nor was it bad. It just was. But Benjamin was hungry, and soon it was gone.

The shepherd took more time with his meal. He sat on a stump and ate in silence, not caring that Benjamin was watching him so closely. Suddenly, a small boy ran up. “Father, one of the sheep is in trouble! The lamb isn’t coming out right!”

The shepherd cursed and jumped up. He ran after the boy, finishing his stew as he ran. Benjamin tried to keep up, but he fell further and further behind the other two.

They stopped and he caught up with them. A small ewe was standing in front of them, panting and groaning. The shepherd knelt down behind her and felt her abdomen. He took a small skin from his pouch and poured some of the contents on his hands. Olive oil, Benjamin realized, as he caught its scent. Then the shepherd pushed a finger up inside the ewe.

“Leg turned wrong,” the shepherd grunted. “I think I can get it.” He pushed his hand in further. The ewe groaned. Benjamin could see blood dripping down the shepherd’s arms.

He moved closer. “Can I help?” he asked.

The shepherd didn’t look up. “Ever done this before?”

“Never in my life,” Benjamin said.

“Then just stay out of the way. And move over a bit. You’re blocking the light.”

Benjamin looked up and saw a full moon. He moved away from the shepherd, feeling embarrassed and helpless.

The shepherd struggled and cursed. The ewe’s head sank lower and lower. “Keep her standing, boy,” the shepherd snapped. The boy grabbed the ewe’s head and held it, speaking soothingly to her. “It’s all right,” he said over and over. “Father will fix it. You’ll be all right.”

Finally, the shepherd grunted, “That’s it. I’ve straightened it.” He pulled gently, and drew a new lamb out onto the ground. The lamb just lay there. It wasn’t breathing. The shepherd picked it up, cleaned out its mouth with his finger, and blew down its throat. He did it again, and again. At the third breath, the lamb shuddered and started to breathe on its own. The shepherd took out his knife and cut the lamb’s cord. He laid it down on the ground. The lamb immediately started struggling to stand up.

“Watch the lamb, boy!” the shepherd said, and went back to the ewe. He reached inside her again, and pulled out a bloody mass of tissue. Then he picked the ewe up and started back toward the distant campfire. The boy followed, carrying the squirming lamb.

“Can I carry it?” Benjamin asked the boy. The boy looked at Benjamin and nodded. “Like this,” he said, showing Benjamin how to hold the lamb tight without squeezing it.

When they got to the fire, the shepherd had already made a bed of straw for the ewe. She was laying down in it, hardly breathing. “Give her the lamb,” the shepherd said to Benjamin. “Put it beside her. She knows what to do.”

Benjamin laid the lamb down next to the ewe. She started sniffing him, then stood up and began to lick him clean. The lamb shivered and wobbled on uncertain legs. Then he began to sniff toward the ewe’s udder.

“They’ll be fine,” the shepherd said. He sat down on the ground. Benjamin sat beside him, completely exhausted.

“Go back to the flock, boy,” the shepherd said. “You did a good job, but the rest will need watching.”

The boy ran back the way they had come. In the moonlight, they could see him going down the trail, skipping and hopping as he ran.

Benjamin and the shepherd sat in silence for a long time. They could hear the sound of the lamb as it finally found the ewe’s udder and started to nurse.

“When I was that boy’s age,” the shepherd finally said, “I saw a star brighter than that moon. And I heard voices that said a savior had been born. In Bethlehem, they said. We went to see if it was true.”

“And was it?” Benjamin asked.

“All we found was a new baby in a stable,” the shepherd replied. “Maybe he was a savior. I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything since. But ever since then, I have loved being alive a little more.”

Benjamin looked over at the lamb who had finished nursing and was now curled up next to the ewe, fast asleep. He didn’t say anything for a while.

“Listen,” he finally asked, “would you mind if I stayed with you for a few days?”

“Master,” Peter said as he watched their evening fire die down, “That man today. The rich one.”

“Yes?” Jesus asked.

“You asked him to come with us and he went away.”

“Yes,” Jesus said. “He had things he wasn’t ready to give up.”

“We’ve given up everything to follow you,” Peter said.

“Well, almost everything,” Jesus replied, smiling faintly. “Enough.”

“Does that mean we’re perfect?”

“No,” Jesus said.

They sat in silence. Then Jesus continued. “Peter, you have to understand this. That man was a good man. He wasn’t a miser. He wasn’t greedy. He was just afraid.”

“I’m afraid sometimes,” Peter said.

“I know.” Jesus got up and unrolled his blanket. He lay down on the ground and wrapped himself up in it. He turned his face away from the fire. Peter thought he had gone to sleep. Then he heard Jesus’ voice: “And yet, here you are.”

DAVID W. JOHNSON is associate professor of church history and Christian spirituality at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained teaching elder and author of “Trust in God: The Christian Life and the Book of Confessions.