In which we close out the holiday with a story about virtue
This is the final story-gift for this season. May your year be bright and prosperous!
The Thief (Korea)
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, thieves are like any other person—they grow old. One day, when the thief was an old man, he was shopping for tea in a local shop. When he reached for his pocket, he realized he had no money.
He smiled to himself and thought, “Why do I need money? I’m a thief.”
He slipped the jar of tea into his sleeve and 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 tea,” said the young officer. “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.”
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 tea worth about five copper pennies,” said the officer.
“Well, for your sentence, you will pay five thousand gold pieces,” said the judge.
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, but the old man said, “I wonder what the king will say to this guard when he finds out he kept me from giving him a wondrous gift?”
So, the guard took the thief to see the king.
The king sat in his throne room, his prime minister next to him, the general of the army next, and finally the bishop of the church. The king looked impatient.
“I’m very busy. Give me 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.
“The seed must be planted by someone with a pure heart, someone who has never lied or stolen or cheated or hurt someone. I am a thief, so the magic won’t work for me. But 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.
“No, I’m not the one,” he whispered. He handed it back.
“No?” said the thief. “Well, maybe the prime minister 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 though the years. “No, 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.
“No, I can’t do it,” he said.
“Imagine my surprise,” said the thief. “But, 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. Yet I, an old thief, am condemned to spend the rest of my days in prison, for stealing a jar of tea. 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.