A wise Teacher was walking with a Ruler of men through the land he ruled one day. The Ruler was showing all the great and fabulous things he had built in the land, huge monuments to himself, and ingenious ways of making money, and power structures that ensured the good life for those who deserved it, and great weapons that could kill a hundred men in a single shot. All the glories of the greatest and most powerful kingdom of all!
The Ruler was getting frustrated, because he noticed that the Teacher wasn’t impressed by all these great things. What was there not to be impressed by? All this amazing stuff, buildings and statues and shiny things and bright lights; it was enough to dazzle even the most cynical! But yet the Teacher wasn’t ooo-ing and aaa-ing; instead, he seemed to be looking around for something.
The Ruler, being so caught up in these thoughts, was no longer paying any attention to where they were walking. Before he knew it, they had rounded a corner to one of the last places he wanted to take the Teacher. But here they were, and the Ruler decided to do his best to make even this place seem just great, to make it another symbol of his own power and might.
Before them was a prison. In it was housed children, of all ages and races and backgrounds. The Teacher walked up to the nearest holding cell, and gently asked the children inside, “Who are you?”
The Ruler stepped in. “These are lawbreakers! Their names hardly matter; they all sound alike anyways. All you need to know is that they broke my law, and so they are where they belong.” The Teacher was a smart guy, thought the Ruler. He knows and understands what happens to lawbreakers. Law and order must be preserved.
The Teacher knelt close to the bars. “Why are you in jail?” he asked them.
The Ruler answered again. “These criminals had the gall to live in my land without asking me! They didn’t even try to get the right paperwork. They thought they could just waltz on in and take from those who make. They wanted a free ride!” The Ruler’s anger was rising; he glared at a little girl in the cell. What a thug, he thought.
The Teacher gripped the hand of a small child through the bars. “Where are you from?”
The Ruler shoved his way in between the Teacher and the cell. “The only thing that matters about where they are from is that it isn’t here! And everyone knows this is the biggest and best and most remarkable kingdom in all the world, and anyone from anywhere else wishes they were us. But they can’t be! Not unless they pass my test and prove they can contribute to the glory of my kingdom! Not unless they earn the papers I give them that allows them to stay, out of the goodness of my heart.” Surely, the Teacher would see the logic and worldly wisdom in this. You can’t let just anyone in a kingdom, after all!
The Teacher looked kindly at an older child. “What did you do, before you were brought here?”
What a ridiculous question to ask, thought the Ruler, his patience waning. “These illegals claim to be students and workers and friends and sons and daughters. But it’s a lie! A criminal is a criminal. Nothing else matters in this case.” Case closed. This Teacher couldn’t get around such a black-and-white case as that.
The Teacher looked with great compassion at the smallest child, a girl of no more than two. “Where are you parents?” he asked her quietly.
That was it. The Ruler had had it. “Their parents? As if these hooligans aren’t bad enough! Their parents are even worse criminals than they are! They actually thought they could escape the mess they made in their own kingdoms by bringing their kids here to grow up. What a stupid plan! I’ve already shipped them back to their forsaken lands. And the only thing stopping me from doing that with these monsters is the pointy-headed intellectuals and journalists and judges who won’t let me do what I want in MY kingdom!”
At this point, the Ruler was stamping his feet and shaking so badly with anger that his hair looked like it was going to fall off his head. The little girl, watching the Ruler rage, felt compassion for him. She had once thrown a fit like this too, when she didn’t get what she wanted. She understood. She reached her little hand out between the bars and touched the Ruler’s little balled-up fists.
The Ruler jumped straight up in the air and screamed like he had been bitten by a snake. In that moment, his fear of all that was different, and his intense self-doubt that fed that fear, was laid bare for all to see. He wasn’t as angry at these kids, as he was terrified of them, and their language, and their culture, and their skin, and their humanity.
But quickly, he covered that up again with great anger and hatred, rekindled now as never before.
“Out!” He screamed at the Teacher. “You get out of my kingdom too! I thought you came here to confirm my rule, to show the people of the world how great I am! I thought your purpose was to make sure the people knew I was the best and greatest leader ever! But no, I see now, you only care about trash like these stupid kids. So you get out too! I don’t need them and I don’t need you to help me rule my kingdom. I have my towers and my statues and my money!”
The Teacher seemed sad at this. But he understood. So he shook the dust off his feet, and turned his face towards the world. Before he began walking, however, he looked at the Ruler one last time. “I can solve a problem for you. Let the little children come to me. I will take them when I go. For the kingdom I come from belongs to them.”
The Ruler was flabbergasted. A kingdom run by little criminals? What a bunch of horse manure! That could only be the most unsuccessful and poorest kingdom ever! “Fine!” he shouted. “Take them with you. And good riddance to the lot of you! And don’t expect to get back in to my kingdom once you leave! I am going to build a huge wall on the border between us, the most fabulous wall anyone has ever seen!” That’ll show them, he thought. After all, walls make the best neighbors, the kind you don’t have to see or hear or care about. No one in, and no one out. He’d be safe from those kids, with such a big wall.
The children filed out of the jail and gathered around the Teacher. “What about our parents?” the little girl asked him. “Oh, don’t worry. We will find them. They are probably already in my kingdom.” So the Teacher and the children set off on the road, leaving the Ruler standing in their wake. He watched them go, still flabbergasted and angry and scared, all at once.
But he was also curious about one more thing. This was a strange feeling to him, because he had never been curious about something before. So he ran and caught up to the Teacher. “One more thing, before you go back to your trash heap. What in the world would make you want these children and their outlaw families? And why would you turn over your kingdom to them? It doesn’t make any sense! You can’t win with them. Don’t you want to win? What gives you these crazy, backward ideas?”
The Teacher looked at the Ruler for a moment, again in pity. Finally, he said, “The tradition of our people does. I thought you came from that tradition too, but it seems you have forgotten it. Our tradition tells us to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free. It says to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. Our tradition says to feed the hungry, sate the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked. It says that the poor and the meek and the merciful and the peacemakers are blessed. And it says the first,” and here he put his finger on the Ruler’s chest, “will be last.”
And off again he and the children walked, leaving the stunned and confused and angry and scared and impotent and sad little Ruler of men standing on his great road, surrounded by his great monuments and statues and money and towers and weapons, completely and utterly alone.