Let me start by saying Happy Eid al-Fitri to all Muslims across the world. On this occasion, I want to tell you a story. It is the story of a certain thief. Please be patient and read through to the end.
Long ago, there was a thief, not just any thief, but the greatest thief that ever lived. The police knew he was a thief, but could not catch him. The judges knew he was a thief, but could not try him. Even the king himself knew of this thief, but nothing could be done, for he was never caught in the act and never left any evidence behind. But, thieves are like any other person – they grow old.
One day, when the thief was an old man, he was shopping for spices in a local shop. When he reached for his wallet, he realized he had left it at home.
He smiled to himself and thought, “What do I need money for? I’m a thief.”
He slipped the jar of spice into his sleeve and, waving good bye to the owner of the shop, walked out the door.
As he walked down the street, a hand caught him by the shoulder and spun him around. It was a young police officer.
“I watched you through the shop window and saw you steal that jar of spice,” said the young officer.
“Wait,” he exclaimed as he recognized the thief, “You are the thief my father always talked about, the greatest thief of all times. My father always wanted to catch you. He will be so proud of me.”
And so, the thief was taken to court. “You!” the magistrate roared when he recognized him. “I’ve always wanted to try you in my court. What did he steal?”
“A jar of spice worth about five copper pennies,” said the officer.
“Well, for your sentence, you will pay me five thousand gold pieces.”
The old thief was shocked. “I don’t have five thousand gold pieces.”
The judge smiled. “Then you will spend five thousand days in prison.”
“I am an old man,” he cried. “Five thousand days could be the rest of my life.”
“I hope so,” said the magistrate.
The thief was taken to the king’s own prison, the strongest in the land. It sat high up on a mountain with walls that rose so high they seemed to meet the sky.
They led him to a cell that was cold and damp, with bars so thick as to almost blot out the sun and an oaken door that creaked as it opened, as if to invite him to a lengthy stay.
“I am going to escape,” said the old thief to his guard.
The guard laughed. “No one has ever escaped from the king’s prison. If anyone did escape, whichever guard was on duty at the time would have to take the prisoner’s place and serve out their sentence. No one ever escapes.”
“Watch me,” whispered the old man.
When his food was brought to him the next morning, the thief asked if he could be taken to see the king. The thief told his guard that he had a wonderful gift for the king and would like to give it to him personally.
The guard laughed and teased the old man. The old man seemed to speak to himself, muttering, “I wonder what the king will say to this guard when he finds out he kept me from giving him a wondrous gift?” The guard knew the king.
The next morning the thief found himself in the king’s throne room. There the king sat, his prime minister next to him, the general of the army next, and finally the bishop of the church. The king looked impatient.
“I haven’t much time. Let me have this wonderful gift.”
The thief bowed and held out a small golden box, covered with intricate carvings.
The king smiled as he held it but upon opening the box his mood darkened.
“This is a peach pit! A dried, shrunken peach pit.”
“Yes, my king, but it is also more, it is a magic peach pit. When you put the pit into the ground in only one day it will grow into a tree. The second day, it will be covered in fruit. By the third day, each piece of fruit will turn to solid gold.”
“If that is so, then why haven’t you planted it?” asked the king.
“Well, I would if I could, but part of the magic is that you must have a pure heart. You must have never lied, or stolen, or cheated, or hurt someone. I am a thief so the magic won’t work for me. But you, you are the king. I’m sure it will work for you.”
The king looked down at that peach pit lying in the palm of his hand and thinking of all the times he had lied to his people; all the times he had needlessly hurt them. “No, I’m not the one,” he whispered. He handed it back.
“No?” said the thief. “Well, maybe the prime minister, the man who runs the government, can make it grow.” He handed it to the prime minister.
The prime minister held that pit and thought of all the bribes he’d taken through the years and all the people who had suffered because of his corruption. “No it’s not me,” he said sadly.
“Not you?” said the thief. “Well, I’m sure the general, the leader of our armies, can make it grow.” He gave the general the peach pit.
The general looked down at that shrunken pit and he thought of all the weeping mothers and widows who had lost their loved ones over a scrap of land or a forgotten idea or misplaced word. “No, I can’t do it,” he said.
“Really?” said the thief. “I’m sure the bishop, a man of holiness and piety, can make it grow.” He handed the pit to the bishop.
The bishop looked down at that peach pit lying in the palm of his hand and remembered all the money that should have gone to the poor and hungry that instead went into his pockets. “No, I’m not the one,” he said ruefully and handed it back.
The four men bowed their heads and couldn’t even look at the thief.
“Isn’t this curious,” said the thief accusingly. “The four most powerful men in the kingdom cannot make the magic happen and yet you live lives of wealth and luxury. While I, an old thief, am condemned to spend the rest of my days in prison, for stealing a jar of spice. Does this seem fair?”
There was a moment of silence. Finally, the king spoke, “No, thief, it isn’t fair. The lesson you taught us today has bought your freedom. Go home.”
The thief bowed. As he left the room, he looked at his guard and winked. “I told you I’d escape,” he whispered.
This story teaches many lessons. But as we enjoy the Muslim holidays, let us do some soul searching individually. Let us appreciate the fact that it is very easy to point accusing fingers at our fellow brothers and sisters. Yet, we are all guilty! When you point one finger at someone else, take time to observe the direction of your remaining four fingers. They point at you! Nobody is 100% clean, except he/she is not a human being. This post is for the wise to understand. I can only hope that you do.
Note: The story in this post is culled from the book, “Elders Tales,” by Dan Keding.