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The Atonement

Ludwig von Gerdtell

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  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thank you for reading this parable. In what ways does it mirror biblical themes?

There was once a king, a true father of his country, just and gentle toward all his subjects, who had to contend with a powerful revolutionary party that wanted to raise its leader to the throne.

One day this king noticed that important state and family papers had been stolen from his desk. Beside himself because of the possibility of a political scandal which could arise through the misuse of these stolen papers, he immediately had his heralds proclaim the following decree: “I swear by God and my honor as king that I shall without fail execute the one who misuses the stolen papers against my throne and the welfare of the state, and that anyone who dares again to steal my secret papers shall be punished publicly by the executioner with a hundred strokes of the lash, no matter who it is.”

To the king’s great pain, a few days after this decree was published a palace guard seized the king’s dearly loved mother and his two sisters, just as they were about to open the king’s secret cabinet with a master key. Investigations immediately set in operation proved beyond doubt that all three were participants in the conspiracy.

The news that the thieves, in the person of the queen mother and the two princesses, were caught in the act and that their guilt was proven, was immediately published in every newspaper in the kingdom. Some spite-filled articles emphasized that His Majesty now had an unusual opportunity to show his much-vaunted justice and to prove to the opposition that he placed the laws of the kingdom above his selfish family interests.

The queen mother and the king’s two sisters fell on their knees before the king and promised to give up all connection with the rebels and to be all the more faithful to him in the future. The king did not doubt the sincerity of their remorse. In his double position as son and as ruler he was thrown into terrible agitation of heart and conscience. He locked himself into his study for a whole day and did not eat or drink. The king in him became a tyrant toward the mother’s son he was and demanded equal rights for all. The son and brother in him, on the other hand, became a rebel against the king and demanded pardon.

What was he to do? If he carried out his decree, he must allow his dearly loved mother, as well as his own sisters, to be publicly disgraced by the executioner. He knew that they would not survive the shame and suffering of this dreadful punishment. If, on the other hand, he did not carry out his proclamation, the king would stand perjured, unjust, and dishonored before his whole people and his enemies. And yet he knew that only the personal trust of his people in his justice, honesty, and generosity could still save his throne and the state. Thus the conspiracy had penetrated into the heart of the king himself. What was he to do? The one was just as impossible for him as the other.

On the following morning, after a terrible night, the king ordered the executioner and the people to assemble before the palace. Many thousands crowded around the throne which had been hastily erected in the palace square.

Finally the king came, leading his trembling old mother reverently by the arm, while his sisters, burning with shame, followed them. Then the king, pale and deeply earnest, but manly and composed, stepped beneath the canopy of his throne and said to the crowd, which immediately became deathly still: “So that my people and my enemies may see that in my kingdom there is equal justice for all, I now hand over to you, executioner, my old mother, for the immediate execution before all your eyes of the punishment merited according to my decree.”

A dreadful moment followed. Broken, the king sank down to the seat of his throne, burying his pale face in his hands to hide his tears. The princesses, their backs to the people, had broken down sobbing before the throne. For one second the humming of the whip was heard.

Then, just as the executioner was about to strike the old lady unmercifully, the king sprang up, grabbed the executioner by the arm, and called out with a lion’s voice which awakened an echo from the palace walls, “Give me the hundred strokes! But let these three go!” And without a sound the king broke down under the hundred whiplashes, and half an hour later was carried, half-dead and streaming with blood, into his palace. Even his enemies wept.

The king recovered but slowly from this terrible chastisement, but he had won even his opponents and was from then on beloved by all his people. In this way, through his justice, love, and a wisdom greater than Solomon’s, the king saved his kingdom and his family from ruin.


From Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season.

Woodcut illustration of The Atonement
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