Once upon a time there was a king who delighted in disguising himself as a poor man to test the hearts of his subjects. He would appear in the streets along with a handful of faithful friends, doing good deeds and teaching them love and wisdom.
One of those who liked to listen was a certain rich man. Whenever he was feeling down, or was facing some crisis, this rich man would seek out the poor man, listen intently to whatever he happened to be teaching his friends that day, and go on his way inspired and encouraged. Always he would thank the poor man profusely, and promise to send food and clothing for him and his little rag-tag band of followers. He swore that all that he had was at the poor man’s disposal, should he ever have need of it.
The rich man would return to his home, full of good feelings because of his generous heart toward the poor man. He resolved to put into practice the wise principles he had gleaned from the poor man’s teaching. But no sooner did he arrive home than his good intentions were swept away in a tide of conflicting pressures to maintain his reputation and his standard of living. Inevitably his promises to the poor man went forgotten until the next personal crisis brought him again into the poor man’s presence.
As the years went by, the rich man’s visits to the poor man’s haunts became a regular ritual, an appointment to have his mind stimulated, his emotions propped up, and his soul stirred. He continued to promise his unending benevolence toward the physical needs of the poor man and his friends, as if somehow the promises themselves had substance, apart from their fulfillment.
In like manner, the principles he gleaned from the poor man’s teaching formed a handsome and flexible facade that obscured (in his mind) the intricate web of reasoning and justification for the endless stream of compromises in his personal life and business affairs. He convinced himself that his prosperity was evidence of his faithfulness to these principles of love and wisdom, while in fact his every decision was guided, consciously or unconsciously, by its ultimate contribution to his wealth or reputation.
Finally, his deeds caught up with him. Disaster struck in one of his factories. Repeatedly, the foreman in the factory had warned the rich man of the danger as he installed more and more heavy equipment in the sagging old building. Always the rich man reasoned that the building was stronger than it seemed, and besides, he couldn’t afford to build a new factory — it would cut into his profits. The weight and vibrations of the machinery gradually worked the old timbers loose until one day the floor collapsed and crushed a man working on the floor below.
The worker’s widow, who was left destitute with four children to care for, went to court and pleaded with the judge for justice, and the judge summoned the rich man to the court. The factory foreman testified to the rich man’s repeated refusal to consider the danger in his factory. No attempt by his team of lawyers could absolve him of his obvious negligence. The judge prepared to deliver the verdict, and the rich man could see that soon his fortunes would be gone to provide for the widow and he would find himself in prison for the death of an innocent man. He begged the judge for mercy. He promised to provide for the widow for the rest of her life if only he could continue with his life and not go to prison. But the judge stared at him, showing no sign of sympathy.
Then the rich man remembered the poor man. He thought that surely the poor man would testify to his good character and his generous heart. He pleaded with the judge to summon the poor man to the court to speak in his defense.
The judge relented and sent a messenger to find the poor man. The messenger searched in vain. The poor man’s friends couldn’t or wouldn’t say where he might be. They said that he was often away, and that when they saw him, they would tell him of the rich man’s plight.
Meanwhile, in the courtroom, the rich man nervously awaited the poor man’s arrival. When the messenger returned alone, the rich man’s heart sank. The judge stood and opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment a trumpet blew and the doors to the courtroom were opened by the attendants of a man who walked solemnly to the center of the room and stood facing the rich man. Everyone present dropped to their knees to give honor to their king, for that is who he was.
Only the rich man remained standing; his mouth dropped open and his eyes were fixed on the king’s face, his own face pale with shock as he recognized the man in front of him. It was the poor man.
“Yes,” the king said, “I am the one you came to hear so many times. I am the one to whom you promised your undying benevolence. You filled your mind with my words; you deceived your heart into believing that you loved me and were living according to my teachings. You flattered yourself for your imagined generosity toward me and my friends. Yet your heart was far from me. You never followed through on your promises. You have always lived for yourself. You were thinking only of yourself when in your selfish concern for profits you destroyed this poor woman’s husband and left her an impoverished widow. Now you will have much time to yourself to consider your deeds.”
At the king’s command the court guards dragged the rich man off to prison. His cries of indignation echoed from the hall into the courtroom, “No! You don’t understand! You’re making a terrible mistake! I can explain everything! I really loved the poor man ... I mean, the king ... I mean ...”
The rich man languished the rest of his days in prison, convinced of his innocence. He never ceased reasoning away his selfish life and his failure to obey the king’s words.