A little distance from Jerusalem, at the other side of the Mount of Olives, is Bethany, a small white town surrounded by date trees. The name means exactly that: the land of date trees. We Galileans always ended up looking for an inn in one of the pubs of Bethany, everytime we went to Jerusalem…
Lazarus: Martha, why don’t you take a look at the bread in the oven. I think it’s burning!… And you, Mary, you’d better stop talking and have six more sleeping mats ready…! La, la, ra, la, ri! This is the best time of the year, yes sir! Jerusalem is bursting with pilgrims!
Mary: And my kidneys are going to explode too, from too much bending and standing, preparing these sleeping mats… Listen, brother, the place is already full. You can’t even drop a needle here. If anyone comes around looking for a place, tell him there’s no more space.
Lazarus: You listen, young lady, don’t you know that refusing a Galilean brings bad luck? You become mute and worms start coming out of your ears. I know, we can still take in twenty. I know this inn better than the palm of my hand!… Hey, Martha, give me a hand with this soup, the customers are already waiting!
Martha: I’m coming, man! I only have two hands, you know that!…
Lazarus’ inn at Bethany was called “The Beautiful Palm Tree.” It was full of people, camels and mules during the great feasts of Jerusalem, celebrated thrice a year. The feast of the Passover was the most popular of all. At that time the inn was teeming with people and animals, and the air was thick with the smell of wine, sweat and cow dung. Lazarus was happiest during this time of the year…
Lazarus: What can you say about my soup, huh?… Go ahead, have another serving… we still have an extra pot of soup! I don’t want anyone to feel hunger in my house! Here one eats well and sleeps well… You can tell all about it when you go back north!
Lazarus was a big, fat man whose long beard ended on his big belly. He was born in Sepphoris in Galilee and left for Judea at a very young age. Since then, he managed his own business. He never married and when asked, would say that he was married to his inn, licking his black beard with gusto as he said it.
Lazarus: Martha, go and prepare four heads of lamb!… These countrymen of ours want to taste the specialty of the house!
Martha: You know it takes time to do it. I can’t be everywhere at the same time…
Lazarus: That’s alright, woman, there’s really no hurry…
Martha: Yeah, you’re not in a hurry, but these people are hungry. I don’t like people waiting for me…
Lazarus: C’mon, do as I say, and be quiet. If they don’t like it, then we ourselves will gobble it up!
Martha: You just had lunch, Lazarus! You seem to have bats in your belfry!
Martha, Lazarus’ elder sister, was a strong woman, with robust arms and agile legs. She had been working in the tavern ever since she was widowed. She was very hardworking and Lazarus was very fond of and trusted her. Since Martha started working at the inn, business became brisk… Mary, his other sister, was very different…
Mary: Oh, Lazarus, oh…!
Lazarus: What’s wrong, Mary?
Mary: Do you know what Salim, the camel driver, has been telling me?… He said he saw a dozen thieves in Samaria. They were carrying knives in their mouths and were sliding like scorpions, crawling underneath the stones…!
Lazarus: There you go again with your stories…
Mary: But Lazarus, what if one of those who came last night from the north is one of them!… like this one-armed person, for example… I don’t like him at all…
Lazarus: If he lacks an arm, how can he be a thief, Mary?
Mary: He’s got the other hand, Lazarus! I tell you, I find that man strange. I was searching in his bag and I saw a brilliant object… Couldn’t he be one of the group? This camel driver I’ve been telling you about told me that the thieves were in search of jewels…
Lazarus: Well, if that’s what they’re after, then they’ll leave empty-handed. Here they’ll find nothing but pots of soup and mice!
Lazarus: Yes, Mary… You won’t scare me with your stories of thieves.
Mary: No, I don’t mean that… Look, this camel driver I’m telling you about… I think he would make a good husband for Martha, don’t you think so?… He seems an honest man…And he’s got big strong hands. He would know how to protect her…
Lazarus: Protect her from whom? Martha can take care of herself!… Go… stop the small talk. Have you prepared the sleeping mats?
Mary: Oh, I forgot…! It skipped my mind while talking to that camel driver…
Lazarus: Hell, you always forget everything! Hurry and prepare them now! C’mon!
Mary was Lazarus’ other sister. She had big eyes but was a little cross-eyed and ugly but very cheerful. One would suddenly notice the smile on her lips. She was abandoned by her husband a few months before, and since then, also worked at the inn with Lazarus.
Martha: Mary, go and prepare the sleeping mats as I told you! There are more Galileans coming!
We arrived at the Beautiful Palm Tree at past noon because we had been told in Jerusalem that we could get some space at that inn. We were all tired dirty and hungry from the journey. As we neared the inn, Lazarus came to receive us at the door…
Lazarus: Say, how many are you?
John: Count… everyone you see here…
Lazarus: Six, eight, twelve… thirteen: they say this number brings bad luck.
Thomas: I told you so.
Lazarus: But for me, a Galilean has never brought me bad luck! On the contrary!… You’re all from there, aren’t you?
Peter: Almost all of us. Well, except this guy with a yellow scarf and the freckled one.
Thomas: I come from Judea t…t…too.
Jesus: Very well, my friend, is there a place for us or not?
Lazarus: But of course, Galileans! If there is room for seven sheep, then there is room for the entire herd, don’t you think? Besides, you just came in time to feast yourselves on some lamb heads that are being prepared. What? You don’t smell the aroma?… They were intended for our other customers but they simply didn’t have enough patience to wait… It was written in the book of heavens that these lambs heads would end up in your bellies. C’mon in!
When we entered Lazarus’ inn, Martha was cleaning up the extra food that was served earlier to four dozen countrymen. Some were still left at the corners of the spacious yard, drinking and playing dice. Goats were chewing crumbs of bread on the ground, while a camel was slowly passing before our eyes…
Lazarus: Hey Martha, you might as well cook a pot of chick peas! Then, have some wine ready!… We have more customers coming in who are hungry!… And you, Mary, come over here, quick!… Sit down, friends… the food will be served any minute now… Well, now tell me, what’s the news about Galilee? When will you cut off Herod’s head? Where have you come from?
John: From Capernaum. We met together there so we could come and celebrate the Passover.
Peter: And tell us what’s happening here in Jerusalem. We’ve seen a number of soldiers everywhere…
Lazarus: That has been so every year… But this year there’re more guards than mice… They put in more reinforcements every year… So you’ve got to be extra careful!
Mary: How many have come, Lazarus?
Lazarus: There are thirteen of them, so you’d better prepare thirteen sleeping mats.
Mary: But Lazarus, do you know what that means? They’ll be stepping on each other…
Lazarus: Go, when will God make you understand, Mary? You’d better attend to our countrymen while I go get something over there… Don’t mind this sister of mine. If you do, you might get involved in a hassle you can’t escape…
Mary: Where do you come from? You’re a Galilean, right?
John: Yeah. I live in Capernaum.
Mary: Oh, in Capernaum! I met a fellow there by the name of Pamphilus… He told me a lot of things!… He said that Capernaum is a very beautiful city, with more gardens than Babylon. It’s so huge one needs two pairs of sandals to be able to go around the city. He also told me about the big fish in the lake, which are of four colors – praise the Lord – as well as the tall palm trees, whose leaves can be used for protection again the sun… Goodness, how I’d love to travel through the north and see that place…! But being tied up to this tavern, how could it be possible? Ah, when I get old, I’d really go around the country, even on this camel. Then I’ll go to Capernaum, where Pamphilus is from…How about you… Are you also from that place?
Peter: No, I come from further north, from Bethsaida.
Mary: There was a man from that place who fell in love with me… But he was cross-eyed, like me. Well, he was worse. We couldn’t understand each other. When I looked at one side, he looked at the other… it was such a mess! Two cross-eyed people can never get married!… Hey you, where are you from?
Jesus: From Nazareth.
Mary: From Nazareth? Oh, I have never heard of that place in all my life!
Jesus: Neither have I, Mary, until I was born there.
Mary: And where’s that place, huh?
Jesus: Far, so far… that when the devil shouted three times, nobody heard it.
Mary: Oh, that’s funny!
Jesus: Nazareth is a very small town, unlike Capernaum. But small things are important too, and you’ve got to believe it. Consider this riddle for example: It’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!
Mary: Oh, that’s not counted… that’s funny!… Hey, what’s your name?
Thomas: They call him M…M…Moreno.
Mary: Do you have a bad throat? If you wait, I can give you a prescription: two measures of water and two herbs that have been soaked for three days. Gargle with this concoction and you’ll see how your tongue will loosen up.
John : You must have taken too much of the same solution, is that right?
At one end of the tavern, Martha was getting impatient…
Martha: Lazarus, Lazarus! Don’t you know that Mary does nothing but chat and leaves all the work in the kitchen to me?… Why, tell her to give me a hand!
Lazarus: Damn these women! Why don’t the two of you work it out together?
Then Martha went to where we were all seated. On top of her striped dress she was wearing an oil-stained large apron that smelled of garlic and onion.
Martha: If you’ll excuse me, but there’s much work to be done and this sister of mine does nothing but chat. Stop talking to her please, so that she can give me a hand. Otherwise, we’ll never get done…
Mary: Martha, listen to this: “as small as a rat but guards the house like a lion”…Huh?… It’s a key!
Martha: C’mon, Mary, for God’s sake, we’ll never finish anything…
Jesus: But Martha, why do you worry so much. We’re all hungry, and we can eat anything. There’s no hurry, really… Listen to this other riddle, Mary! It’s as small as cucumber but it keeps on shouting along the road…
Mary stayed a little while to chat with us. We had a good laugh together. Her cheerfulness was contagious and we needed it a lot more than our need for bread and salt. At any rate, when Martha brought us the heads of lamb that Lazarus had flaunted, we gobbled them all up in a jiffy. I remember we didn’t leave anything on the table, not even the bones were spared.
In Jerusalem, lodging was a big problem during feast days, because of the multitude of pilgrims present. The size was reflected in a saying of the period that one of the ten miracles performed by the Lord from his temple was the fact that all of the people could fit into the city. It was impossible, though, that everybody could be housed in inns situated within the walled city, and a number had to go to neighboring towns for their accommodation. On the other hand, it was also improbable that people camped out in the open air, as the nights in Jerusalem during these feasts were extremely cold. So that particular group stayed inside the capital, while other pilgrim groups had their specific lodgings somewhere else. It was presumed that the Galileans encamped toward the western part of the city, where Bethany was situated. Bethany is a small town situated about six kilometers east of Jerusalem, beyond the Mount of Olives, leading to the road to Jericho. To Lazarus’ mind, it was also called El-Azariye. In the basement of a church dedicated in honor of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, one can still see a big olive press which was well used during Jesus’ time.
In the relatively big Jewish city there were lodging places for transient pilgrims or trading caravans. These inns – the hotels during that period – had a big yard surrounded by a fence, with small rooms where people as well as animals sought shelter for the night. At present, there still exist inns of this type in other Oriental countries, called “kans” (caravansaries). In Israel, there is an ancient contruction in the port city of St. John of Arce (Akko), a historical place during the time of the Crusades. It is in one of these inns, very disorganized and messy due to the continuous flow of people, that we find this episode about Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Although the gospels give us few details about them, religious tradition introduces them as a middle class family, on the way up, who received Jesus into a comfortable and quiet house, who in turn would see them as spiritual advisers when he was tired and weary of having mingled with people. This picture has no basis whatsoever in the evangelical texts. On the other hand, historical data on the existence of inns located along Bethany puts them in another light: Townsfolk working for a living, with no refinements. Their friendship with Jesus was the result of frequent contact with him and his friends everytime Jesus travelled to the city with his friends. In the episode, Lazarus appears like a strong and generous man who is happy with his work. He drinks and eats a lot. Martha is a widow, a practical woman, serious and hardworking. Mary, the younger sister who was abandoned by her husband is cheerful, talkative, spontaneous and confused. The three work hard to maintain “The Beautiful Palm Tree,” which is their business and their home.
Luke’s text, which serves as basis for this episode, has been utilized on many occasions, to compare (and contrast) prayer and action, contemplative and active life, to the point of restricting the message of these words to the religious group: those living an active life vis-à-vis a cloistered life. In the episode, there is a deliberate attempt to elude a similar opposition that has nothing Christian in it. There is no double alternative for a believer. While one discourses on prayer and action as opposed or contradicting realities, the other develops faith from life. And this is not based whatsoever on Jesus’ actuation nor on his message.
The challenge to the Christian who fights for the liberation of his brothers and sisters consists of putting prayer into action. One does not pray on one side and act on another, rather a person prays within the same process of liberation, of seeing God where He is: in the faces of the poor. The courage necessary in order “to give life” for the sake of the people and the patience needed to lead the poor towards the path of freedom find maturity in prayer.