The Most Pitiful Thief

by Robert Hooe

There is a story that comes from a time many millenniums ago. It is a story of a teacher and an unanswered question.

It was said that Theus was the most brilliant philosopher and teacher of his time, perhaps of all time. Each year the most brilliant students in the known world would attend his school. But only those of royal birth or families of great wealth were allowed except for one unknown person who would always arrive after class began and stand alone in the shadows at the back of the great hall. Theus would never acknowledge the young man, nor would any of the students — he was obviously a common person; his hands callused and scarred from labor, his clothes plain and worn. Still, many speculated as to who this person must be and, more importantly, why the great Theus allowed him to listen.

It was whispered that Theus once had a son; a brilliant child of great promise whose knowledge and understanding exceeded those many times his age. But as his knowledge and understanding grew, so did his arrogance and pride. And even though his father would admonish and instruct his otherwise, he would ridicule and mock those who found difficult what, to him, seemed simple. Then one day the boy demanded he be given a position of teacher — equal to Theus himself. But when Theus refused, saying he (the boy) was not yet ready - he became angry and challenged Theus to prove he was not his father's equal. Theus replied, "Then answer this question with understanding." Many believe it is the same unanswered question Theus would ask each year at school's end:

"Who is the most pitiful thief?"

To each answer the boy gave, Theus would reply "No" until finally, the boy shouted, "You are a liar and a stupid fool. I will not be deceived; I have answered correctly. There is nothing I can learn or want from you. You are no longer my teacher or my father."

Some speculated that it was this son who Theus allowed to listen, but Theus never spoke of having a son. Most simply thought the story was one of the legends told about the teacher. Others thought the person might be a servant or laborer who had found favor, but none knew for sure and when ask, neither Theus or the young man would answer.

The great hall was filled with students and parents who had come for the banquet at the school's end. As the final course was being served, Theus rose as he did each year to honor his guests and ask his unanswered question. "Can you answer with understanding — a question?" Theus ask. Each student smiled. Surely a great honor awaited the one who answered correctly. Then answer with understanding, "Who is the most pitiful thief?"

Each student wanted to answer first. "He who steals a rich man's purse and finds it empty" shouted one. Theus shook his head. "He who must steal to feed his children" shouted another. "He is to be pitied" replied Theus, "but he is not the most pitiful." Many answers were given, but to each Theus simply smiled and shook his head until finally, all attempts ended.

Slowly, at the back of the room, the young man stepped from the shadows. The room grew still, silent as if the moment were frozen in time. The young man stood quietly, head bowed, waiting. Theus stood motionless for what seemed an eternity then likewise bowed his head and clasped his hands as if praying. "Tell me," he said, "Have you learned the answer, have you learned with understanding?"

The sound of tears falling on marble tile could be heard as the young man painfully replied:

"The most pitiful thief — is the fool who steals from himself."

Then, as Theus tearfully nodded "Yes", the young man turned and quietly walked through the shadows out of the great hall.

We are offered a gift of redemption — but so few accept.
We accept the gift — but forget the commitment we made.
We possess a book of immeasurable wisdom — but rarely read.
Who is this thief that steals all this, and more, from us?

For Further Study

Verses to Consider:

  • Psalms 90:12
  • Proverbs 1:20-33
  • Proverbs 24:30-34
  • Isaiah 50:2
  • Matthew 6:19-21
  • Matthew 13:19
  • Matthew 22:1-14
  • Matthew 23:37-38
  • Luke 15:25-32
  • I Corinthians 8:1-3
  • II Timothy 3:13
  • Hebrews 5:12-14
  • James 4:4-10

Questions to Ponder:

  1. How did the young man steal from himself?
  2. Why did the teacher say "... with understanding" so often?
  3. What did it take for the young man to come to the right answer?
  4. In what ways do we steal from ourselves?
  5. How does pride cause us to steal from ourselves?
  6. Why is understanding so important to learning?
  7. When a person doesn't succeed, is it because of a lack of opportunity?
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