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The kingdom of heaven is like an elderly gardener who worked as the grounds-keeper for Mr. Richman’s estate. Under his care, the large lawn became a lush green carpet. In the flowerbeds, the earth was always freshly turned up; deadheads never had an opportunity to fall to the ground, and the grubs and Japanese beetles found themselves decidedly unwelcome.

It was hard work for an old man, especially the pruning and the trimming, which he did with a pair of sharp shears. At the end of most days, two Advil capsules would not have soothed the ache in his gnarled hands, even if he had consented to take them.

“You stubborn old man!” his daughter often said. “You ought to retire. You don’t need the money. Why do you stay on up there?”

Always her father answered, “For the pictures, Honey. For the pictures.”

Mr. Richman had built a climate-controlled museum to accommodate his growing collection of rare masterpieces. They were the concrete symbol of his wealth and a calculated pretension at high culture.

The collection appeared to have no unifying principle of organization. A huge medieval tapestry, depicting mounted knights, was flanked on one side by a pen and ink sketch from Van Gogh’s early period and on the other by a realistic depiction of a Campbell’s soup can. The only common theme was that all of the pieces were very expensive.

Mr. Richman loved to show off his masterpieces. Although he had memorized the artist, the date, and most importantly, the cost of each work, he neither knew nor cared about their style, technique, or significance. His art-dealing associates privately referred to him as “that ignorant Philistine,” which was terribly unjust to the Philistines.

It was far otherwise with the gardener. In the evenings, he studied the background of each piece. During his lunch break, he absorbed the works themselves, sometimes staring for the whole hour at a single element of a complex scene. His memory was so exact that he could close his eyes and recreate each picture in his mind, down to the minutest detail.

One afternoon a fire broke out in the museum. An alarm sounded automatically at the local fire station, but when the first truck arrived, the firemen were amazed to see the gardener staggering out of the burning building with an armload of paintings. He placed them gently down on the grass beside several similar piles and hobbled quickly back inside.

When he emerged a few seconds later, the firemen tried to prevent him from returning, but the old man shook his head. “There’s one more,” he said. “My favorite,” and with a sudden surge of unexpected strength, he broke away from their grasp. This time it took him longer to come out. The painting was large and heavy, but he laid it down as gently as if it were a newborn babe.

Slowly he lowered himself down to lie beside his beloved collection. He coughed, rolled over onto his back, and said, “I think I’ll be going now, but it doesn’t matter about me because the pictures are safe.” The old gardener closed his eyes, and then he died.

When the blaze had been extinguished, one of the firemen pointed at the silent figure on the lawn and asked, “Who was he?”

“Just the gardener,” answered Mr. Richman. “I don’t remember his name. The old fool. I told him the pictures were insured. I can always buy more.”

So it is in this world. There are some who love Jesus Christ more than they love life. Their motto is, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). And there are some who consider them fools.


Published in the Allentown Morning Call November 22, 2008

© 2008, John K. LaShell