There was once an innkeeper in Galilee, and he was the meanest innkeeper you are ever likely to meet. There were no free little pots of peanuts on the bar in his inn. Anything you wanted you had to pay for – even a glass of cold water.
The innkeeper had started to hear stories about a travelling preacher and teacher from the neighbouring town of Nazareth. This man – Jesus – spoke about the generosity of God, how he gave life in all its fullness to anyone who wanted it, free of charge, overflowing. At first the innkeeper was very sceptical. He heard how Jesus had given 5000 people a free meal of loaves and fishes. What was all that about? Jesus had missed a trick there – he could have made a fortune. But for all his disapproval, this preacher’s message stirred something deep in the innkeeper’s heart. In the small hours of the night he would find himself wondering what the world would be like if everyone lived with this sort of generosity, and thinking that it might just be rather good. It was as if a little doorway had opened up in his heart, just a chink, but enough to let the light in.
One morning the innkeeper heard that Jesus and his disciples were on their way into his village, and he thought to himself, “perhaps, just perhaps, today I might try out this generosity the preacher talks about – just for the one day, mind!” So he put a board outside his inn saying “Free food and drink for all!” Everyone in the village was astonished, and none more so than Thomas when he arrived with Jesus and the rest of the disciples. Thomas knew this innkeeper from of old, and he knew how mean he was. What could he possibly be up to? “I won’t believe in this free food and drink” said Thomas, “until I see the plate full in front of me and drink the wine with my own mouth!”
But Jesus said nothing. He just went inside with the others. They sat down at the table and, sure enough, the innkeeper brought them food and drink, the best he had, and plenty of it. Jesus and the rest of the disiples tucked in and enjoyed it, but Thomas ate suspiciously, still convinced that there must be a catch somewhere. At the end of the meal he sidled up to the innkeeper. “I don’t know what you’re up to,” he said, “ but I don’t believe for one moment that you intend us all to eat for free – it’s not in your nature. You must want something from Jesus in return. It just wouldn’t be like you not to.”
The innkeeper was hurt – just for once he had wanted to be generous, to try out this way of life Jesus talked about. He had enjoyed seeing Jesus and his friends eat their meals. He had enjoyed the feeling that he was helping them. But it seemed that even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t really believe in this generosity Jesus talked about, if Thomas couldn’t believe that he could change and be different.
So that little doorway in the innkeepers heart slammed shut.
“Well, if that’s what you think, then I suppose it must be so!” he said to Thomas, and he went over to Jesus and said to him “your friend over there thinks I should ask you for something in return for your meals, so, Jesus, I’d like to ask you a favour.”
“I would have given it to you anyway,” said Jesus, “but ask away!”
“I have a fine fig tree outside the inn, but I never get any figs on it, because as soon as they ripen the village children come and climb the tree and steal them. I want you to curse the fig tree so that anyone who touches it sticks fast to it until I tell them they can go!”
So Jesus did what he asked, and went on his way with Thomas and the rest of the disciples.
The next day when the village children came to raid the fig tree, they found that as soon as they put their hands on it, they were stuck fast, just as the innkeeper had asked. They couldn’t get free, no matter how they twisted and turned, until he gave the word. The message soon got round and after that no one dared try to steal his figs, which was just as well, because the innkeeper, having tried that generosity business once, wasn’t going to try it again. He went right back to his old ways. No one was getting anything free from him again.
Years passed. Jesus was crucified and his friends scattered, but the innkeeper just went on as before. In time, the fig tree grew old and died a natural death, but so that he wouldn’t lose it completely, the innkeeper had its wood made into a little wooden bottle, which he kept his best wine in.
Eventually the innkeeper grew old too, and one day Death came knocking on his door. “Come along with me, old man,” said Death. “You’ve had your time…”
The innkeeper thought fast. He had no intention of giving up his life so easily – he didn’t give anything else away so why should he give this most important thing?
“Of course I will come along with you” he said to Death, “but before I do, I’d like to have just one last drink of my finest wine. Come along in for a minute, while I fetch a glass – perhaps you’d like some too.” Death came in and sat down at the table, while the innkeeper fetched down the little bottle made out of the wood of the fig tree. “The only thing is, “said the innkeeper” that I know a little wasp flew into the bottle and drowned there, and I haven’t been able to get it out. I wonder whether you, being very clever, and I am sure able to get bigger or smaller as you wish, would mind just shrinking yourself down for a minute and hopping into the bottle to fish it out for me?”
Death thought this was a very odd request, but he couldn’t see what the problem might be with it, so he did as the innkeeper asked. But of course, having got into the bottle, he couldn’t get out again, because the wood of that fig tree still had the power to make anyone who touched it stuck fast, even Death. The innkeeper put the stopper back in the bottle, quick as you like, and there was Death. Stuck! And if Death was stuck, no one could die!
Now this might sound like a good thing – the innkeeper thought it was anyway – but actually it wasn’t so simple. Without death, people starting living on and on, even if they were very ill, even if they really didn’t want to and had been looking forward to being with God in heaven. After a while the world was full of people who were really ready to die, but couldn’t.
Up in heaven, St Peter was starting to get worried. No one was coming to the pearly gates at all. He went and spoke to God about it, and God decided he had better get this sorted out. So he sent the Archangel Michael down to see the innkeeper to ask him to let Death go.
The innkeeper by this stage could see that there was, indeed, a bit of a problem, but he wasn’t going to let go without a struggle. “If I let Death out of the bottle I know that I will be one of those he wants to take along with him, and I’m a little worried about that. What if God doesn’t let me into paradise? What if he decides that I have been too mean to deserve a place?” “ I’m sure that won’t be so, “ said Michael, “God is far more generous than we can ask or imagine, but if you want a promise, then God has given me authority to give it to you.”
So the innkeeper let Death out of the bottle and promptly died.
Up went the innkeeper to the gates of heaven, in a great crowd of people all of whom had been waiting to die. It was so busy at the pearly gates that St Peter couldn’t keep up with the rush, so he asked St Thomas to come and give him a hand.
That is how it came to be that the innkeeper found himself once again face to face with Thomas. Thomas looked him up and down and exclaimed “You! – surely you can’t think you could come in here to heaven, not after the life you’ve led and all the trouble you’ve caused”. The innkeeper said that he’d been promised entry by an archangel. But Thomas wouldn’t believe it, so he went himself to speak to God. “Can it really be true that you would let a mean man like that innkeeper into paradise, a man who has never given anything away in his life.” “Now Thomas, actually that isn’t quite true is it,” said God. “There was that day that he fed my Son and all of you for nothing”. “Yes, but he wasn’t really being generous. He was up to something. I knew it. I just couldn’t work out what it was. And look – he went straight back to being mean afterwards. Anyway, look at all the trouble he’s caused!”
But God looked Thomas in the eye. “No Thomas, it is you who has caused the trouble. Because you couldn’t believe that the innkeeper could change, because you couldn’t be generous in spirit to him and give him the chance he needed, the door in his heart slammed shut, and the little bit of light he’d seen and might have shared was snuffed out. Perhaps before you accuse someone else of being ungenerous you might look at yourself in the mirror first? Believing in the resurrection doesn’t just mean believing that I raised my Son from death; it also means believing that I can raise anyone to new life and change them. ”
And God went to the gates of heaven and welcomed the innkeeper himself into paradise, where there is life and love freely given in abundance to all who want it.
*This story is my own version of this story, drawn from sources including Italo Calvino and Robert Bela Wilhelm, among others.