The scene is the Egyptian border, and the time approximately 2,000 years ago. Two immigration officers, Pentu and Tuta, shelter from the sun under a canopy. A small group comes towards them.
‘Visas?’ Pentu demands.
‘We don’t have any. We’re refugees,’ says the man.
‘Refugees!’ says Pentu, ‘Israelites trying to avoid Roman taxes, more like.
‘You’re the tenth family today, so you can turn your scruffy donkey around and get back where you belong.’
The man feels towards Pentu the way he’s often felt towards Roman soldiers: that he’d prefer their faces with the features rearranged a little. In this case he favours removal of the front teeth, and he notices that his right hand had curled itself into a fist.
He might just get away with it with these two soft-fleshed sorts, but Mary wouldn’t like it, and there was no arguing with her over some things. He could tell them the truth, of course, but they wouldn’t believe it: that God had told him to take their son to Egypt for safety.
He’d try another tack.
‘Sir,’ he says, ‘I’m a carpenter: I can support my family while we’re here, and we don’t intend to settle permanently.’
‘On your way. We can’t have the likes of you taking work from Egyptians and driving down wages,’ replies Pentu.
‘Then I won’t work,’ says the man, ‘We have a little gold and can live on that.’
‘Pull the other one,’ says Pentu. ‘You’ll be here for years, until any bit of money you’ve got has run out and you’re old. Then you’ll expect good Egyptian people to look after you. And that brat of yours will go to one of our schools. You’ve no right to expect it!’
But Tuta whispers in Pentu’s ear ‘They’re desperate: genuinely frightened and exhausted. Don’t you see?
‘They wouldn’t come all this way without good reason, especially with a child.
‘We have a bit of discretion, so let’s use it.’
They let the group in: Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
Of course, I’ve no reason to believe Mary and Joseph really met any immigration officers when they fled to Egypt. However, I can’t help wondering whether, if they arrived on our border in 2016, they would encounter a kindly and perceptive Tuta. And if they did, would he have the courage to use his discretion?