The prince and the thief
There was once a king who had a son. The prince was just and good, like his father. However, he knew nothing whatsoever of the condition of his people — how they lived and what they needed — because he lived in the palace and rarely saw any of the common people. So one day, he decided to live among them for a time and study their life so that he could help them when he became king.
With his father’s permission, he left the royal palace and lived among the people as an ordinary merchant. No one, except some of his courtiers, knew that he was the prince in disguise. Thus he lived and grew to know the lives of his people. He came to understand the ins and outs of their private and social lives and made plans and arrangements to serve them better.
As a merchant, he had to deal with all kinds of people, and he encountered all sorts and shades of characters. He was especially distressed to see how many people resorted to lies and frauds, selfishness and cruelty, theft and wickedness in order to make money for themselves. With his father’s help, he often secretly aided the innocent victims of such unscrupulous characters. Nevertheless, he loved even those who had fallen into evil ways, and never injured those who deceived and maltreated him. He always forgave them and tried to help them change their ways. Many were reformed and became law-abiding citizens of his father’s kingdom, although some did not.
Now, there was a thief who had so often injured innocent people and robbed them of their earnings, that the prince saw no option but to have him imprisoned. When the thief got out of jail, he wanted revenge against the prince whom he supposed to be an ordinary merchant. He entered the prince’s hut to steal everything of value, but the prince overpowered him and admonished him for his shameful behavior: “You should work hard and earn your living in a respectable way,” he told the thief. “If you needed anything, you should have spoken to me and I would not have refused your request. You disgrace yourself when you injure innocent people and steal their things. This is not right at all. You think that you are hurting others, but you are actually harming yourself. If you do not change your ways, you will surely come to grief on the judgment day. In hopes that you will see the folly of your ways, I forgive you this one last time. Do not mention this matter to anyone else, but use this chance that is given to you. You will not escape punishment the next time.”
For some time, the thief kept himself in line. But after a few months, his old nature reared its ugly head again. One day, he set out to rob people in a distant village. Now in that village, there was a poor widow whose husband had died a year after their marriage. After his death she gave birth to a son. The sudden death of her dear husband was really a great shock to her and, sadly, she had no relatives or friends to aid her. But as she was a devout and God-fearing woman, she found peace and happiness in the worship and presence of her God, even in the midst of all her hardships.
Her son cheered her and helped her to forget the woes of the past. She raised him in the faith, fear, and love of God. She patiently endured all hardships and troubles, working very hard to make a living and to educate her son properly. In her need, she faced many trials and temptations and bravely overcame them all. At one point, when she was so poor that she could not provide milk for her son, some wicked young men tried to take advantage of her situation and lure her into immorality. But she watched and prayed, and through God’s help, she remained faithful to what she knew was right.
In time, the widow’s son grew to manhood and secured a good post in the city. He had to leave his dear mother behind in the village, but he faithfully sent her money every month. At the time of this story, the son had just returned to visit his mother after two years’ absence. Embracing each other, their hearts overflowed with joy, and tears flowed from their eyes. It was a wonderful and moving scene. The son bowed in respect and honor at his mother’s feet and put before her all the money he had saved for her to live out her days in comfort and security. The mother had also put aside some money every month from her small earnings for the day when her son would marry. Rejoicing in their long-awaited reunion, they placed these tokens of their mutual love in a purse, then ate and talked together for a long time.
Afterwards, they went to bed expecting to rise and see the next morning with joy and gratitude. But alas! No one knew that before the sun flashed in the eastern skies their tears of joy would turn into tears of sorrow and grief. For while the widow and her son were fast asleep the same thief, whom the prince had forgiven, broke into the hut searching for valuables. Just as he discovered the money in the purse, the widow and son awoke and discovered him. Thinking only of escaping with the purse, the thief attacked them with a sharp knife. What a tragic scene! The son lay dead on the floor in a pool of blood. The poor widow hardly noticed her own wounds. She screamed helplessly, fainted, and fell down on her son’s dead body. Neighbors rushed to help, but they were bewildered and stunned to find the son dead and the mother lying senseless on top of him.
In the morning, the widow recovered a little from her swoon and three or four women helped her in the funeral procession, while the neighbors carried her son’s coffin to the village cemetery. But as the coffin was laid in the grave, the mother fainted again. As the people tried to rouse her, they discovered that she had breathed her last. Killed by grief, she was buried with her son in the same grave. The entire kingdom was enraged at the news of this tragedy. A large reward was offered for the capture of the culprit. Some people suspected the thief, but no one had any evidence. Months passed without any progress in the case.
About this same time, the king became very ill and the prince returned to the palace to nurse his father. After some days, the old king died, and when news of his death reached the people, they lamented greatly. After the days of public mourning, the prince succeeded his father and was crowned king. On his coronation day, crowds of people had gathered from the four corners of his kingdom. Many of them were astonished to recognize the prince as the man who had lived among them as a merchant. During the reign of this new king, all the people prospered and the country progressed, because he knew his people well. He knew from his own experience how to deal with them and how to improve their condition.
Finally, the time came when wickedness should reap its evil harvest. One day, the thief was drinking and enjoying himself in a wine merchant’s shop. That day he drank so much that he became senselessly drunk. He began to talk stupidly, and without realizing what he was saying, he confessed his guilt: “I killed the widow’s son. With his money I enjoyed life. Now I defy any man who dares to catch me.” He had hardly finished speaking when he was arrested and put in jail. After he came to his senses, he regretted his stupidity and unsuccessfully tried many tricks to escape his fate.
The next day he appeared in the court of a magistrate, but because of the seriousness of the offence, the magistrate sent his case to the king. As soon as the thief saw the king he turned white as a ghost. He knew it would be useless for him to try and talk his way out of anything, for he at once recognized the king as the merchant who had taken pity on him. The king asked him, “Do you recognize me?” “Yes, Your Majesty,” the thief replied. Then the king asked further, “Do you wish to defend yourself?” “No, Your Majesty,” he said. The king added: “Look here. I admonished you repeatedly, years ago, and had forgiven you. I gave you ample time to reform and become a good and law-abiding citizen. But you did not listen. You wasted all your precious opportunities and now your sin has found you out. Not only has your sin revealed you, but it also cries out against you and convicts you. Through your crime, you have determined your own fate.” The thief was taken from the king’s presence and executed.
In the same way, we will all be judged on the last day when God judges the living and the dead. The Master lived on earth as the son of man. He knows every one of us well. He cries out to us: “Now is the hour of pardon! Now is the day of salvation.” If we are indifferent to a salvation as great as that now offered to us, our sins will surely convict us and lead us to death.
Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.