Once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a great king. He was simultaneously the most powerful man in the Kingdom as well as the kindest and gentlest man in the whole realm. The kingdom was known for its peace, harmony and goodwill. Neighbors cherished one another and years would pass without a single crime being committed.
One day, however, the chief servant of the Merciful King came into the throne room with ill tidings. “There is a thief in the realm of your kingdom, Sire,” said the servant. The king was astonished! “Find that thief! And when you do, bring him to me. He will be punished with 10 lashes!” Those in the room were astonished as well. It had been so long since a crime had been committed, they could hardly imagine who would have done such a thing.
A week went by and the servant again made his way into the throne room. “I have bad news for you, Sire,” quietly reported the servant. “The thief has not been found and he continues to rob from your people.” In anger, the king raised his voice and said, “Find the thief and when you do he will receive 25 lashes!” The people began to murmur among themselves, “Who could withstand such a punishment? Who could possibly be committing such a crime?”
As time went on, the servant once again came back into the throne room with yet another bad report. “Your Majesty, the thief has not been found. We have searched in vain for him. Your people are still being robbed.” The king was enraged. “Find that wretched thief! And when you do his punishment will be fifty lashes!” Now the people were filled with dread. They were not even sure the king himself could withstand such a punishment! And if he could not, then certainly no one else could. Who could be doing such a thing?
Soon afterward the servant again approached the king in his throne room. His face was pale and his voice timid and hollow.
“Your Highness,” spoke the servant, “the thief has been found.”
“Bring him to me this instant,” cried the king. The crowd that had poured into the throne room slowly parted, revealing the thief who now stood trembling in the middle of the room. To the utter shock and dismay of all, it was the king’s aged mother. There she stood, trembling and crying. Her small and frail body was shaking with fear and shame. She was, perhaps, the very last soul that any one would have suspected of such a crime. And there stood the king, in shock and deeply wounded.
The crowd began to wonder and murmur among themselves: “What will the Merciful King do? Will he set aside the law and display his love and mercy by forgiving his mother for her crimes? Or will he display His sovereignty and justice by giving her exactly what she deserved. Will he choose mercy or will he choose justice?”
The king raised his hand to quiet the crowd. “Bring the whipping post,” he said.
The crowd was dumbfounded. Would the king truly have his mother receive such a punishment? Even the king could scarcely survive such a flogging! This frail woman would not last even a few strokes!
The old woman was tied to the post. Her garment was rent, exposing her back to the whip-master. Her ribs could be counted for her frailty. “Administer the lashes,” said the king. And not a sound could be heard as the whip was raised.
But just as the whip-master was about to unleash his first stroke, the king cried, “Halt!”
The crowd sighed in utter relief, but the feeling did not last for long. The king stood from his throne. He slowly removed the crown from his head, laying it upon the regal seat. As he began to walk down the stairs toward his mother, he laid aside his royal robe and finely woven tunic. Coming to his mother, he wrapped his enormous body around her, completely enveloping her under his frame.
The king spoke: “Now, administer the lashes."
Thus in one act did the king display pure mercy and perfect justice.
“…so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26).
(The author gratefully acknowledges the late Fred Barshaw who inspired this story and the art of Gospel-centered storytelling).