writing on suffering and awakening

I was a stranger and you took me in

Tolstoy wrote a short story about an old cobbler named Martin who lived in a small Russian village. In brief:

One night in a dream, Christ comes to Martin and says, “tomorrow, I will visit you.” Martin wakes up the next morning, excited. He prepares tea and food, and sits at his workbench by the window, waiting for Christ to come.

As he works, Martin watches the people walking by in the street. He sees a frail old man, struggling to shovel snow. He invites the old man in, and shares his tea. The old man asks Martin why he keeps looking out the window.

Martin tells the old man that he’s waiting for Christ. He’s happy to visit with the old man in the meantime, though, because Christ teaches that “he who would be first should be a servant to all.” The old man cries, deeply moved, and thanks him. “You have fed me in both body and soul,” he says.

Later that day, Martin sees a new mother with a baby pass by his window. The mother is dressed in worn summer clothes, although the snow is thick on the ground, and the baby is crying. Martin opens his door. “Come in, please,” he tells the mother. “Come in and get warm.”

Martin feeds her bread and soup he had prepared for his own meal, and gives her a warm cloak to wrap around herself and the baby. “Bless you,” the woman says. “The child would have frozen if you hadn’t invited us in. Surely Christ made you look out that window and see us.” She explains that she lost her job when her baby was born, and that she has pawned all of her warm clothes to buy him food.

Before she leaves, Martin gives her some money he had saved, “to buy your clothes back from the pawnshop.”

Martin keeps on working, and watching the people in the street. Late in the day, he sees an old woman struggling with a basket of apples too heavy for her to bear. As she sets the basket down for a moment, a young boy in ragged clothing grabs one, and tries to run away. The old woman catches his sleeve before he can flee, and starts to beat him.

Martin rushes outside. “Stop, stop,” he says to the old woman. “Why?” she answers. “This boy is a thief, and must be taught a lesson.”

“For Christ’s sake, he won’t do it again,” Martin says. The woman releases the boy. “Ask the woman’s forgiveness,” Martin tells him, “and don’t do it again.” The boy begins to beg for forgiveness. Martin takes an apple from the basket and gives it to the boy. “I’ll pay for it,” he tells the old woman.

“He ought to be whipped,” the old woman says. “That may be our way,” Martin says, “but it is not God’s way. If he should be whipped for stealing an apple, what should be done to us for our sins?” The old woman is silent.

“God wants us to forgive,” Martin says, “so that we can be forgiven.”

The old woman remembers her own grandchildren and her heart softens. “He’s only a child, God bless him” she says. She picks up her basket and turns to go.

“Let me help you with that,” the boy says. The old woman smiles, and they walk off down the street together, talking and nodding. She doesn’t even think to ask Martin to pay for the apple.

Every night, before bed, Martin reads a passage from his Bible. As he opens the book, he hears a voice in his ear that says, “don’t you know me?”

“Who is it?” Martin asks. “It is I,” the voice answers.

Martin looks up and sees the old man standing before him. The old man smiles, and vanishes. “It is I,” the voice says again. The mother and the baby appear, laughing and smiling before they too vanish. “It is I,” the voice says a final time, and the old woman and the boy both smile at Martin before disappearing.

Martin feels a great rush of love in his heart. He looks down at the open Bible before him and reads, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. When you helped my brothers and sisters in need, you helped me.”

Versions of this story appear in every culture. It can be Christ or Mohammed or Krishna or Lao Tzu who speaks to the cobbler, who himself goes by many names. It doesn’t really matter who it is, the message is the same.

All over the world, people who need help are being turned away. My own country is trying to shut its borders to refugees and immigrants. Many people who have lived and worked here for years are being arrested and deported back to their old countries.

These policies keep people who need safe-haven trapped in war zones. They break up families and strike fear into the hearts of whole communities. No one should have to live that way, especially not when we have space for them here.

It’s tempting to give in to fear and say, “no, send those people away. We don’t have enough to share with them. Besides, many of them broke the law coming here in the first place. They deserve this.”

But if Martin, the humble cobbler in 19th-century Russia, can share what little he has with those in need, so too can we Americans share with those who want to join us. If the old woman can forgive the boy who tried to rob her and take him into her heart, so too can we forgive those who came here against the law, or who come from cultures very different from ours. We can take them into our hearts, and live and work together as brothers and sisters. We won’t be punished for doing so.

Indeed, the rewards of our generosity will be such that we won’t even remember the costs.

Ian Cooper