This short story is based on a real event. But the mystery remains unanswered.
Ed went to Oliver’s house shortly after lunch. Both of them were dairy farmers, and Oliver asked for some help in cutting and splitting some locustwood for new posts to repair fencing in his cow pasture. They often helped each other as most people in their community did.
Ed called out, “Hey Ollie. You there?” Ollie responded by walking out of his barn slowly. His hands and clothes were covered with mud and manure. Hardly surprising — one can’t dairy farm without getting dirty.
Oliver responded. “I was just going in to have a bitta lunch. You are welcome to come in and join me if ya want.” Ed had already had lunch, so he declined. Ed thought it best if he just got to work on the locust while Oliver had his lunch. Oliver shrugged and said he would be out soon to join him.
Ed got to work on the posts. It wasn’t long before Ollie was done and joined him. Ed stifled a bit of surprise. His friend came out of his house with two fingers and one thumb on his right hand perfectly clean while the rest of him was as filthy as ever.
There was no way Ed would consider asking his friend about this. They did not talk much while working. Their favorite talk was about weather and farming, not things that are particularly personal.
Still, as they worked Ed got thinking. Why would Ollie have three digits clean while the rest unchanged. He tried to imagine how this could be.
He pictured Ollie going into the house. He doesn’t clean up but immediately goes to the icebox to perhaps grab a sandwich put together by his wife before going off to a church function, and maybe an apple. As he ate, using his right hand, holding his food with his dirty thumb and two fingers, perhaps they became clean as he ate.
The thought made Ed sick.
But then Ed had a different thought. He pictured Ollie going into the house and walking over the kitchen sink and carefully washed his right hand so that only the thumb and two fingers were clean. At first that was a more comfortable thought. But then he reconsidered. In the first scenario, Ollie is way too comfortable with mud and manure getting into his mouth. But in the second scenario, it would be so strange to clean his right hand in such a way to make sure that most of his right hand, and all of his left hand remained unclean. It would actually take more effort to do it that way than to simply wash both hands.
Upon further reflection, Ed realized it would have bothered him less if Ollie came out of his house with fully dirty hands. At least then he could imagine that Ollie wore gloves while he ate, or maybe was especially skilled with using spoon and fork without defiling his food. Or maybe Ollie decided not to eat.
Ed could not figure out which story was correct, but he would never ask. It must remain a mystery.
I don’t know the answer, but the story does remind me of the passage in Matthew 23:23-25.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…”
There are differences, but it occurs to me that there are similarities to the story. The pharisees and scribes were described as people who clean the trivial and missed what was more important.
It sounds a bit like the first scenario…. swallowing a camel as they drank, like Ollie being defiled by his dirty hands. In this sense, their “piety” actually defiles themselves.
It also sounds a bit like the second scenario. Picture the hyperbole– carefully cleaning the outside of a cup while a camel is overflowing the inside of the cup. The behavior is then obeying the details of the law while ignoring the spirit (true substance) of the law, One could argue that it may actually be hard to pick and choose one’s piety to address trivial matters while ignoring issues of true love and justice.
One might imagine Jesus being more comfortable with a person who lives without a fastidious hypocrisy much like Ed preferring that Ollie had come out with dirty hands.
So the mystery remains, but maybe the story is not as strange as it first seems.