Duty Bound

“I can’t see how this can be anything but bad, Micah,” Thomas told his younger brother. “We don’t have so much as two coins in the whole house. How are we going to be able to pay another tax? This will ruin us!”

“It’s not as bad as you think. There…”

“Not bad! Have you taken leave of your senses? Our parents died this year, the horse was stolen, and the inn our folks left us is so worn down that no one wants to stay here. On top of that, now we have to pay a tax on each person in the family. And you think it’s not bad.” Thomas shook his head, rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in the rickety chair. “I can’t depend on you for anything.”

“That’s not true! I do a lot around here. I take out the trash, feed the animals…”

“Only in the evenings, Thomas interrupted. “I’m the one who gets up early in the morning.”

“As I was about to say,” his younger brother continued, “I’m also the one who handles the money. We owe nothing on the inn, have no debts in town and we have enough food for a few days. There’s even a well in the back, so we can get a drink, water the animals and keep the garden growing. Things are going to work out.” Micah laid a hand on his brother’s arm. “Don’t worry. Remember what Mother used to say.”

“What? Something trite, no doubt. She had a saying for everything.”

Micah stood, went to the worn counter and poured some water into a cup. He set the pitcher on the table and put the cup in front of his brother. “She’d say,” he began, leaning his hands on the table, “you can’t fill a cup until it’s empty.”

“And that applies how? What does an empty cup have to do with paying taxes?” Thomas pressed his fingertips against his forehead briefly, his hands springing outward. “Make sense!”

“We owe a tax, right?”

“Right.”

Micah sat, pulling his chair up closer to the table. “We have no money at all.”

“Right.”

“The inn is run down.”

“Micah…” he said, a warning in his voice.

“I’m getting to the point, Thomas.” He held up his hands. “Just bear with me.”

He sighed, eyes lifting heavenward. “Go on.”

“We have to pay a tax on each family member.”

Thomas tightened his mouth into a thin line, saying nothing. His eyes narrowed.

Micah gestured with both hands, asking patience. “We have to travel to our home city to pay the tax.”

“If you don’t get to the…”

“Thomas, listen! So does everyone else.”

The elder brother stared at him. “So? We live right here, Micah! We were born here, just like our parents. We don’t have to go anywhere.”

“But everyone else does.”

“And your point is?”

“Thomas,” Micah said softly, “Do you imagine that nobody is going to have to come here?”

“There will be a lot of people here,” Thomas exploded. “The city will be crammed full of people! The streets will be overflowing, there will be lines everywhere, and…”

“And they will all need a place to stay,” Micah said. He folded his hands, chuckling at his brother’s open-mouthed expression. “Even if all the other inns fill up, there will still be people who need a place to stay. We have six rooms! Sure, they need work, but they’re usable. When you have to choose between a night on the streets and a night indoors… well,” he leaned back, grinning. “You get the idea.”

“So we can pay our tax because everybody else will be paying theirs.”

“Right.” Micah downed the contents of the cup of water and refilled it. “This is a chance of a lifetime. We will actually turn a profit if we handle this right. Our folks never even charged enough to break even, and they died poor. That’s not going to happen to us. We have a chance to make some real money. If people are desperate enough, they’ll pay anything.” He gestured around him. “Even for a place like this.”

“True,” Thomas said, rubbing his jaw. “But I’m thinking of something Father used to say.” He tapped the table with one finger. “The Lord God commands us to shelter the stranger, because we were once strangers ourselves. He’d say that we have to keep prices affordable. That’s only fair.”

“Fair! Starving isn’t fair. And that’s what will happen to us if we don’t make some money on this situation.”

“I understand, Micah,” he answered. “But I don’t feel right about charging high prices when people are in need. It doesn’t seem moral.”

Now it was Micah’s turn to gaze heavenward and sigh. He considered something briefly, then nodded. “All right, Thomas. All right.” He scooted his chair back. “How about this? Since the horse is gone, there’s plenty of room in the stable. What do you say we let the poorest people who come to the door stay there? It’s clean, close to water, and it’s safe. And we’ll make it free of charge.”

Thomas’s face transformed as tears welled in his eyes. He swallowed, nodding his head. “Micah, I think Mother and Father would be very proud of that.”

“If there’s no room in the inn, whoever needs a place to stay can sleep back there.” Micah stood, pushed in the chair and leaned his hands on the back of it. “It won’t be long before we’ll be able to fix the place up and make money again on a regular basis. Who knows, Thomas, maybe some day we’ll be famous.”

“Sometimes I worry about you.” With a smile, he stood also. “Famous as what? An overcrowded little inn in Bethlehem that let desperate strangers sleep in the manger?” He shook his head. “Come on. Let’s go clean up those rooms.”

Together, they turned their attention to the work ahead.