Once upon a time there was a Great King who ruled over a vast domain. His power and authority stretched from one of the earth to the other. He lived in a fabulous palace topped by towers and domes and dizzy parapets. His palace was safe in an impregnable fortress, at the summit of a hill which looked down upon the city by the river.
Any subject who wanted to approach the Great King with a request needed to pass a series of sentries and checkposts from the huge spiked gate of the fortress up the thousand stairs of the hill to the door of the royal darbaar (audience hall). Only if he succeeded in passing all these might he finally be shown into the presence of the Great King.
One day as the hours of public audience had drawn to a close and the last petitioner was still leaving the darbaar, the King said to his Wazeer (minister) with a sigh, “I am weary of all this formality.”
“Yes,” replied the Wazeer, “You must be exhausted after this long morning. May I say,
o King, you handled that last case very well!”
“No, Wazeer,” said the King. “I mean that I am irritated by the excessive protocol of this court. My people come before me scraping and bowing, reciting poems in my praise which they do not mean, only to ask me to grant their petitions.
“Take this orchard keeper for example,” the King continued. “He brought two slaves with baskets of fruit on their heads. He fluted my lofty titles for a full minute. Did he want anything other than to extend the land for his orchards?”
Just then a little girl came running into the darbaar. She ran right past the armed guards and through the middle of a group of courtiers, ignored the Wazeer and jumped up on the lap of the Great King.
“My daughter!” said the Great King, delighted. “What brings you into the audience hall today?”
“Daddy, watch what I can do!” She climbed down from the King’s lap and showed the King a small ball she held in her hand. She bounced the ball on the onyx floor, counting out the bounces until she reached ten.
Then she beamed at her father with joy and pride.
“Well done, well done!” said the King as his daughter climbed back onto his lap. “I will give you a bigger ball.” He clapped his hands once, and a servant came running immediately. The King sent him off with a curt command.
“Daddy,” said the daughter, laying her head against the King’s chest, “are you going to stay in this hall all day? When are you going to come and play with me?”
“It won’t be long till I come,” answered the King.
“Now run along so that I can finish my work here.” The servant returned just then with a large ball for the princess. She took it and ran happily out of the room.
After his daughter left the darbaar, the Great King turned to his Wazeer and said with a smile on his face, “Wazeer, this is how I would like to relate to my subjects. Like a father and…a friend! I love my people. I would like them to come freely to me, to come near and speak with me.”
The Wazeer laughed. “Oh Great King. You are not only superior to all in honour and majesty. You are the monarch of mirth as well! In order for your lowly subjects to approach you in this way, you would need to leave your blessed palace and go down to the city. And everyone knows this is impossible for the Great King. Ho ho ho,” he laughed again.
The King thought to himself for a moment and then said quietly, as if to himself, “Strange that others should say what is possible for the Great King. Who can decide what is possible for the Great King but the Great King himself?”
“Your wish, 0 King?” asked the Wazeer.
The King commanded that the darbaar be cleared, except for the Wazeer. Then he said, “Did you not say just now that I would need to leave my palace? I have decided that I will do exactly that. In fact, we will leave the palace this very night.”
The Wazeer began to protest.
“I will hear no objections,” said the King. “This is what I want you to do. First you need to find us some common clothes. Then you need to….”
That night, dressed in the local costume of baggy cotton pants, long loose shirts, white turbans and big shawls to wrap themselves in, the King and his Wazeer left the fortress by a passageway known only to the Great King. When the Wazeer removed his blindfold, they were beside the river, where they mixed with the other people waiting to cross into the city. They kept their shawls tightly wrapped around their mouths and noses to avoid recognition.
After crossing the river in a tightly packed ferry and walking through the gates of the city, they found themselves in a noisy bazaar of fruit and vegetable sellers.
For several hours, the King walked through the streets, speaking with shopkeepers and eavesdropping on conversations.
The Wazeer complained about the rough clothes and the smells of the bazaar. The King noticed that the Wazeer was beginning to speak less respectfully than he had in the palace, but he let it pass. The streets slowly cleared, the merchants closed their shops, and the Wazeer wondered aloud where they were going to stay for the night.
Suddenly two men stepped out from the shadows and came walking swiftly toward the King and his Wazeer. The strangers grabbed hold of them and demanded their money. The Wazeer managed to break free and hide among the boxes of the bazaar. But the other man-his head wrapped in a black shawl-pulled a knife and held it at the King’s throat. The King looked deeply into the eyes of the thief as he reached into his pocket and gave the money.
Afterwards, the Wazeer poked his head out from behind a box and asked, “Have they gone yet?” With the money stolen, there was no hope of a room in a hotel, so the King and his Wazeer had to sleep in the street for the night.
Early the next morning, the King awoke to see an old woman sweeping up the garbage of the bazaar. He called to her and asked her why an old woman needed to do such difficult, dirty work.
“I have no other way to earn a living,” she said simply. He made her sit down beside the road, shook his Wazeer awake and sent him to get some hot milk for the woman. Then he began to consider the broom lying in the road. He bent down, picked it up and then slowly began to sweep.
Meanwhile, the Wazeer returned with the milk.
When he saw what the King was doing, he shouted “No!” and began waving his hands in front of him, dropping the milk in the process. He ran to the King, snatched the broom out of his hand and flung it far away. “No!” shouted the Wazeer. “This dirty work is not for the ruler of the realm! Such work is for outcasts like this one,” he said, pointing disdainfully to the old woman.
“Wazeer, you have forgotten all respect for the elderly,” replied the King. Then he added with regal patience, “And you have forgotten which of us is the King and which his minister. Why do you pretend to know what is in the nature of the Great King? I alone know what work is proper to the Great King. I told you that I wanted to come close to my people and dwell among them. Is this not one of my dear ones?”
But by then the old woman had shuffled off to fetch her broom.
At that very moment, from a hiding place close by, someone else was listening to the conversation. It was the thief who had robbed the King the night before. Now he ran to the King, fell at his feet and began to sob, “Have mercy on me! I am a sinner!”
He held in his right hand the knife he had pulled on the King, but now it was stained red with blood.
The King lifted up the thief’s head and recognized him. “What has happened?”
“0 Great King, last night after we robbed you – forgive me! I did not know you – my partner and I celebrated our loot. We began to drink, then to argue over the money, and in the fight that followed I stabbed and killed my partner. Now the soldiers are chasing me, to arrest and execute me.”
“What do you want me to do? Do you not deserve this punishment?”
“Yes, I deserve it. Have mercy on me! You see,” explained the thief, sobbing loudly, “1 have a wife and three young children who are relying on me. They do not know that I have been robbing people. If I am taken, there is no one to look after them.”
The King stood still and thought for a long time, while the thief continued to sob at his feet. Then he slowly began to take off his red shawl.
“Give me your shaw!,” said the Great King to the thief.
The Wazeer broke in, “I can see what you are thinking.” He now began to rebuke the King. “You fool! What do you hope to accomplish by this? You are forgetting the justice of the Great King. By the law you yourself have made, this murderer deserves to die. Then let him die!”
“But, my dear Wazeer, in the heart of the Great King there is something stronger than justice.” The King handed his red shawl to the thief, took the thief’s black shawl and wrapped it around his own shoulders.
“In the heart of the Great King there is love.”
The Wazeer grasped his head with both hands, as if mad, shut his eyes and shouted, “No! I will not let you take me down with you! I am going back to the palace, to the safety of the fortress!” Then he deserted the King and fled.
The King heard the sound of a large crowd approaching. The soldiers were coming to catch the criminal. So he raised the thief to his feet. He took in his own hand the bloody knife, the proof of the thief’s crime. Then he said to the thief, “Return to your wife and children. Earn an honest living. Be free! Go and sin no more.”
The King covered the thief among the boxes of the bazaar. Soon the soldiers approached, seized the King and arrested him. Then they led him away to execute him.
When the mob had passed, the thief came out from the boxes and stood gazing after the King. Then he fell to his knees, bowed in the direction of the Great King, touching his forehead to the dusty floor of the bazaar, and confessed, “My Lord, and my God.”
Gordon and Gwen Nickel are international workers.
The story behind the story
This story grew out of an attempt by mission workers to communicate the incarnation of Jesus in a creative way in a Muslim city in south Asia.
We had presented Christmas programs twice before. Now we wanted to write a drama for the program. Our Urdu teacher Agha Ata Saahib and I worked together on the script. He was the one who made the connection to the famous story of Haroon al-Rasheed, which is among the folk tales in The Thousand and One Nights.
Haroon was the greatest of the caliphs of the successful and fantastically wealthy Abbasid dynasty. He made his capital in Baghdad. The oriental tale of Haroon leaving his palace in disguise takes him as far as the city, but ends there. For many listeners, this is remarkable enough for an autocratic caliph. but we wanted to take the story further, to imagine what the True King of the universe might do when exposed to the dangers of human vulnerability.
Agha Ata rendered the entire script in courtly Urdu, and we asked students at the seminary where I was teaching to perform the roles.
When we presented the drama in May 1993, our daughter acted — in Urdu — the part of the king’s daughter. Our colleagues made the final arrangements for the second performance, in December 1993. We presented the drama at an outdoor bandshell theatre in a garden. In the audience were many Muslims with whom we had been cultivating friendships in the previous years.
The incarnation is a concept which orthodox Muslim theology forbids. We knew that if we said it propositionally, we would not gain a hearing. the drama presented us with a means by which we could reach our friends through the imagination.
Our hope and prayer was that the parable would take root in the heart before the mind could object.
At the end of the garden performance, the lead actor came to the front of the stage and boldly read out John 1:1-14.