He arrived at the edge of town in the evening, his horses wearily pulling their burden of a lurching, clanging wagon full of goods. It was another small frontier town, slowly prospering, but still isolated enough to welcome peddlars who would sometimes come to sell needed (and not-so-necessary!) items out of their well-worn carts.
The main street, if you could call it that, was dusty and rutted, so the peddlar’s progress through town was marked by a steady symphony of groaning wheels, complaining horses, and intriguing timpani of household items that would delight any who had an eye for practical quality and even, in some cases, a taste for unexpected luxuries. His was the best wagon in the region – but, as was so common in these parts, the least welcome.
Jealous competitors, whose merchandise was of much lesser quality, continually sowed seeds of suspicion about this peddlar and his wares. He’s a ripoff artist, they’d say. He tells a great story, then sticks it to you, they claimed. Don’t trust him; don’t even talk to him! And the settlers, who were used to inferior goods from unscrupulous providers, regularly withdrew behind closed doors when the unwelcome peddlar came to town.
With good reason, the others viewed him as their chief threat. You see, he gave his stuff away.
Shuffling through town, knocking on doors, the unwelcome peddlar could see lights turned down and hear door locks click. Once again, he had everything that was needed, offered freely to any who wished to ask – and once again, his wagon remained full while the townspeople cowered behind closed doors in their emptiness.
Reaching the edge of town late that night, he saw a small cottage with a single candle in the window. Responding to his gentle knocking, a tired widow opened the door, glanced at his humble clothes and his well-stocked wagon, sighed, and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I have nothing to give you. I cannot buy anything from you; my husband died this spring, and I am living on the last of our savings. I don’t even have a spare candle to replace this one.”
“Ma’am,” the kind peddlar replied, “I don’t wish to sell you anything. I only wonder if I might have a place to put my horses for the night.”
“Well, you’re welcome to put them in the barn – it’s empty now. There may be a few scraps of hay left in there for the horses. And come join me for a bowl of soup. It’s not much – only vegetables – but I’d enjoy the company.”
So the oft-rejected man and the now-neglected widow enjoyed an hour of conversation and warmth, and she could not help but notice that he did not once seek to sell her anything. In fact, as he went out to the barn to sleep in his wagon, he turned and gave her a lovely white candle, to replace the one that was quickly burning away. “Just a token of my gratitude, ma’am, for your welcome.”
“But sir,” she protested, “I cannot pay for this!”
“It is a gift – you never pay for gifts, isn’t that right?”
“I’ve heard what everyone says about you,” she blurted out, revealing a secret thought that had remained below the surface during their time together sipping soup. “They say that you’re an awful person, to be avoided at all costs.”
“Do you believe that?” he asked patiently, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, no – at least, not anymore.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Because what we believe about others either opens, or closes, a door. And I do thank you for giving me an open door this evening. Good night to you.”
As the sun rose, and the town wearily aroused itself from its slumber, doors opened and people greeted their neighbors and friends. But in one small cottage on the fringe of town, a widow awoke to the sounds of nails pounding and horses neighing. Tossing on a nightgown, she strode out to the barn to find the peddlar hard at work, fixing the many broken-down parts of the structure that had been neglected over the months.
“Sir, I cannot pay you for this work!” she cried. “I know that,” he smiled. “That’s why I never said I would charge you. Oh – and if you look on this shelf here, you’ll see a whole set of kitchen utensils, plus some special goodies for our breakfast this morning.”
“But, how are you going to stay in business if you keep giving everything away for free? Nobody makes a living like that!”
A warm smile creased his lips. “Ma’am – your living is my living.”
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
- From O Little Town of Bethlehem (Philips Brooks)
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