This is the first reflection I’ll post on my recent time in Douglas, AZ, and Agua Prieta, Sonora State, Mexico, as part of a Borderlands Tour sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee. I used it as a children’s story this past Sunday, April 30, and began the story by asking the children to listen and figure out who the three people–father, mother, and baby– were. They got it.
Two thousand years ago, on a hot, dry, dusty day, at a checkpoint along the border of Egypt and Israel, some obviously bored, irritated and edgy soldiers sat around a table under the shade of a large tree. Any excitement they had once felt about protecting their country had long given way to the weariness and disillusion of suspecting everyone, being lied to so often, and having to crush the hopes of so many frightened, desperate people. To the checkpoint came a man and a woman, husband and wife. The man had a large, heavy knapsack on his back, while the woman was carrying a baby in her arms. They looked haggard, worn, dusty and frightened, while the baby was crying.
“Your purpose in coming here?” a soldier asked.
“We simply want to enter Egypt and live there a while,” the man said.
After writing down their names on a piece of papyrus, the soldier then asked, “Your places of birth?”
“Nazareth, for my wife and I. Bethlehem, for our baby.”
“Bethlehem? Never heard of it.”
“It’s just a wide spot in the road near Jerusalem.”
“Your most recent address?” the soldier asked.
“An animal stall in Bethlehem,” the man replied.
“Say, you three wouldn’t happen to be Hebrews, would you?” the soldier asked.
“Yes. How could you tell?”
“Just by the looks of you. And your funny accent.”
“That’s not a problem, is it?”
“I’m afraid so,” said the soldier. “We don’t let more’n a few Hebrews into our country any given year anymore. The last time we did, we had so many problems, what with plagues of flies and frogs and locusts, and lightning and hailstorms killing all our livestock; we finally had to round all you guys up and deport you all.”
“That’s not exactly how we remember it,” the husband said. “You guys worked us so hard in the fields and the maquiladores making bricks, it was slavery by another name. But God liberated us and brought us out of Egypt en masse; you didn’t deport us.”
“And I suppose you just swam the Red Sea to get out of Egypt?”
“No. God split it apart so we could cross on foot.”
“Riiiiight!” said the soldier. “Suit yourself. So if you wanna get into Egypt, write your names on this papyrus. There’s quite a waiting list, as you can see. You’ll be number 14, 378, which means you’ll get to appear before an immigration court in about, say, seventeen years.”
“Seventeen years?” the woman exclaimed. “I don’t know that we have seventeen minutes!”
“Well, if you have a verifiable cause to fear anyone, you can apply for asylum.”
“Good!” said the husband. “How do we apply for that?”
“You fill out this form, telling us who’s persecuting or threatening you. Who are you afraid of, by the way?”
“King Herod. He sent his soldiers to kill our baby.”
“Now just why would King Herod even know about your baby, let alone want to kill him?” the soldier asked.
“Because,” the mother said, “this is a very special baby, sent by God, to be king in Herod’s place, some day. He’ll even be king of the world!”
“Riiiiiight,” the soldier said. “I think I liked better the one about your God splitting the Red Sea to let you walk through. But even the crazies have enemies, so write your names on this list, and we can get you an asylum hearing in about six to fifteen months.”
“So now we can come into Egypt and await our hearing?” the father asked.
“Yes, but you should know this: unless anyone else can post bail for you—and that’s some pretty big bucks–you’ll have to spend those months awaiting your asylum hearing in a detention center.”
“By ‘detention center,’ you mean ‘prison,’ don’t you?”
“Well, technically, okay, if you want to call it that, yes.”
“I’m not taking my wife and our child into no prison!”
“But we can’t wait out here on this side of the border, with the chance that Herod’s soldiers might still be looking for us,” the baby’s mother added. By then the baby had stopped crying.
“Look,” the father said to the Egyptian soldier, “is there any other way we might enter Egypt, and safety, now, and legally?”
“There is another way,” the soldier answered. “But I don’t think it applies to the likes of you three, as poor and hard off as you look. You could get a visitor’s visa on the spot, but it will set you back a thousand denarii. And you’ll need to prove that you’re worth at least another ten thousand, so you won’t be begging in the streets or taking jobs away from us Egyptians. Like I said, I don’t think that’ll work for you, but—“
“But wait,” the man interrupted him. “Look at what I have here in this knapsack,” he said as he slid it off his back and opened its top for the soldier to see.
“Whoah!” said the soldier as he looked inside the knapsack. “Where’d you get all that gold, frankincense and myrrh?”
“From some wise men who came from the east to worship our newborn baby,” the baby’s mother said.
“Riiiight,” the soldier replied. “I still think I liked better what you said about God splitting the Red Sea. Still, where that money really comes from is none of my business. You’ve got enough wealth in that sack to bring our whole platoon in with visitors’ visas. Pay your money, sign this papyrus, and welcome to Egypt, my friends!”
The man and woman signed the visa documents, paid the money, and walked past the checkpoint into Egypt, looking and feeling quite relieved. But just a few more paces down the road, they stopped, talked together, and walked back to the checkpoint.
The surprised soldier asked them, “What’re ya doin’ slummin’ round here for, when just up the road you can rent a chariot with two big horses, hire a driver, and go see the pyramids of Giza, play the blackjack tables at Caesar’s Palace in Alexandria, or rent a palace in the most exclusive neighborhood of Thebes? That’s what I’d be doin’ if I had your kind of wealth.”
“We’re going to stay right here,” the woman said, “and pay for more people’s entry in Egypt, until all that’s left is just what we need to live on.”
“Which won’t be much,” her husband added, “cuz we can go live with my cousins in Alexandria’s Hebrew community.”
“Riiiiiight,” the soldier said. “This I’ll have to see to believe. Suit yourself. Here come some more refugees right now. They look as ragged and scared as you did when you first come up to this joint. Are you gonna help them?”
“If they need it, yes,” the man replied.
“But they don’t look like your people, Hebrews,” the soldier said. “They’re from Syria, the Gaza or Yemen, I’d guess. That make any difference to you?”
And the woman said, “No.”