(The Nationalist, 29 December 2000)
Once upon a time, a long time ago, four wise men set out from the East on a journey. They had seen an unusual star in the sky, one that moved slowly, night after night, across the vast expanse of space. They had studied the stars for many years and believed they could learn from them hidden secrets and the answers to the riddles of life.
The men’s names were Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar – and Artaban. Along they went on their camels, following the bright shining star by night, and resting during the day. It was a long journey towards the West, but they did not worry about that. On the way they met many different people, such as merchants trading gold, frankincense and myrrh. One night they met people who had lost their way, and they stopped to help them. Another time they met people who had run out of food and they gave them some of theirs. And then, of course, they had to rest from time to time because they were tired.
That took time, but always the star kept moving. It did not stop for anyone and did not need to rest. It was moving further and further ahead and they were afraid of losing sight of it altogether. They decided to hurry up and not stop for anyone in future.
The very next day, who did they meet but some people whose water had run out in the desert. They could not refuse to share their water with them, but then they had to detour to an oasis to draw a fresh supply from the well. That cost them still more time. And Artaban always lingered a little longer with people in need, irritating the three who wanted to move on. And they were getting really worried.
The next night they started off quickly and hurried after the star. But before long they caught up with people whose camel was lame and who asked for help to carry some of their baggage. The three refused, knowing that this would only slow them down more. But Artaban could not find it in his heart to turn away from them, so he stopped and loaded up his camel with their bags. But now he could move only more slowly than before because of the extra weight.
The three decided to go on ahead, and they left Artaban behind to follow them as best he could. Night after night, he went on slowly with his new companions, their lame camel slowly dragging its leg in the soft sand. Now the fourth wise man was losing not just hours, but days – and all the time the star kept moving on until finally it disappeared over the horizon.
Still he continued, following the direction the three had told him they would take. Then, one day, he came to the village where his new companions lived. They thanked him very gratefully for having helped them and invited him to spend some time with them. He could not risk offending them by refusing their hospitality, so he rested himself and his camel. They were so good to him that when he saw how poor they were, having no camel apart from the one that was lame, he offered them his own and said he would continue on foot.
But now his progress was really slow as he plodded his way each day, up the sand dunes and then down again, always up and down – hot, tiring and slow. He could travel by day now because the star had long since vanished from sight. He still remembered its direction even though he reflected that, by now, the three wise men had probably reached their destination.
It seemed there was no end to the suffering he met on his way. Those who needed help most of all were lepers driven from their villages by people who were afraid of catching the disease from them. They had no one to care for them, to help them grow food, to wash their wounds and the cloths that covered them, or to protect them from cruel people who stole from them or exploited their helplessness.
Artaban had to think very hard before deciding what to do. If he were to help them, it could not be for a day, a week, or even a few months. It might take years. He would lose all hope of finding whatever great secret the star was to reveal to him. He wanted to go on, he really wanted to learn that secret hidden in the star. It was what he had waited for and hoped for all his life. A new star came so rarely into the sky – how could he not want to know its meaning? But how he could leave the lepers alone without food or help? He was torn between the two, and the pain of it seemed to pull him apart. Yet something in his heart urged him to stay. Something whispered to him that the meaning of the star would not always remain hidden. He made his decision; he would stay.
Never had he thought how long it would take. His task was to help the lepers to care for themselves, to learn how to grow food despite fingerless hands, and to walk despite toeless feet, to learn how to dress when they could not even catch a button, much less tie a knot. They needed water from the well, clothes to wear and houses to live in. And his task was to do this with them, not for them, so that they could learn to do it for themselves and then do it for others. Most of all they needed respect and love, recognition of their humanity, and he gave it to them.
The day came when he had completed his task among the lepers and could resume his journey. By now he was a much older man and could no longer even remember just how many years he had spent among the lepers. But he thought it was over thirty. He said goodbye to them and turned away. It was time to move on.
After months of weary travel he arrived at the city of Jerusalem, a place famous for its wise men. Surely there he would find the answer to his quest. He asked people he met on the street about the star. Some looked at him oddly, then turned away and sniggered. Others just rolled their eyes upwards and shook their heads sadly. What was he talking about? Who could remember a star from so long ago? Who cared?
One day the city streets were crowded with people, and there was tension in the air. Roman soldiers lined the pavements to clear the way for a strange procession that made its way up the hill of execution. Three men were being led along by ropes, each carrying on his shoulder the cross on which he would be nailed. Artaban asked what was happening. People told him that two of the men were thieves, and one was a good man who had been a source of great hope to the people and whom some had even called the Anointed One of God. Artaban asked the obvious question, ‘If he is good, why is he being executed?’ They told him a complicated story of intrigue between the high priests, King Herod and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. For different reasons these had each found the man awkward and uncooperative. He would not be tamed or allow himself to become part of their plans. And so they had agreed that it would be expedient to be rid of him.
Artaban was sad at hearing this story of a good man suffering unjustly. He watched the condemned man closely, feeling drawn to help him as he had so many others. As Artaban reached him, the man looked at him and asked, ‘Have you found what you were looking for?’ Artaban could only reply in amazement, ‘No. I lost sight of the star years ago’. And the condemned man – whose name we all know – said, ‘You found who you were looking for in the needy and the suffering. As often as you gave even a cup of cold water to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’
(Adapted from the book The Other Wise Man, by Henry van Dyke, Harper Brothers, New York, 1899.)