I first heard this story many years ago, probably around the campfire at church camp. I don’t know the source or author, but I have always remembered it as a great parable about the joys and frustrations of exploring the mysterious depths of faith questions. (If anyone knows the author or source, please let me know.)
Three brothers lived in a rustic cabin deep in the woods. They had no neighbors and rarely any visitors; so they were surprised by a knocking at their door one night during a nasty thunder storm. When Jacob went to the door he found a very wet old man who had lost his way in the storm. The old gent said he didn’t want to impose, but if he could get some shelter for the night in a shed or barn he would be most grateful.
Jacob scoffed and said they would never think of putting a needy traveler in the barn. He invited the old man into the cabin where the brothers fed him, loaned him dry clothes and provided a comfortable bed for the night. The next morning they fed him a hearty breakfast and gave him food and water to take with him as he prepared to continue his journey. The old man was so grateful for their hospitality he pulled a tattered piece of paper from his knapsack and said he wanted them to have it. When Walter, the youngest of the three tried to decline the offer their guest insisted. He said it was a treasure map. “I’m too old to continue the search,” he told them, “but I want you to have this as a token of my appreciation.”
Thomas, the middle brother, saw it would be ungracious to refuse the gesture; so he took the map and put it in a desk drawer after the man was gone. He had never said where he was going, and the brothers thought it was a little odd; but they were soon preoccupied with their daily chores and forgot about the map.
They speculated a bit that evening at dinner about their mysterious visitor, and Walter wondered out loud where the treasure map might lead them. Jacob and Thomas were both skeptical but decided to humor their younger brother. So they carefully unfolded the map after the dinner dishes were cleared from the table. There were some recognizable landmarks in the mountains to the west of their cabin and not that far away was the traditional “x” marking a spot where they assumed the alleged treasure should be.
Since it appeared to be only a half day’s hike and their chores were mostly done, they agreed to satisfy their curiosity. As Walter argued, “What have we got to lose? If it’s a hoax we’re only out a day’s journey. But if there really is a treasure there, we don’t want to miss it!”
So they set out the next morning at sunrise and followed the map through the woods, forded a stream and climbed into the foothills. By late morning they arrived at what seemed to be the location marked on the map. Nothing immediately appeared to be of any value, but upon a more careful search of the area Thomas found an entrance to an abandoned mine that had been hidden by the underbrush. They cleared some debris from the entrance and carefully crept into the mine shaft using the flashlights they had brought along just in case.
They had not gone 20 feet into the mine when the beam of Walter’s flashlight reflected off of something bright and shiny. They carefully moved some timbers that were in the way and could not believe their eyes. They were staring at a chest with brass hinges, and when they opened it they found it full of jewels and gold and silver.
When they recovered from their amazement they began to make a plan of what to do. The chest was much too heavy for them to carry back home; so they decided to take as much of the treasure as they could carry in their back packs and come back later for the rest when they could bring a cart. They hid the chest a little deeper in the mine under more timbers and dirt, camouflaged the mine entrance as best they could with tree branches, and hurried back home, so excited they forgot to eat the lunches they had packed.
Back in their cabin they spread their loot out on the table and began dreaming about what they could do with their new-found wealth. They were all too worked up to sleep much that night, but decided they would hike into town the following morning and have their treasure assayed so they would know just how filthy rich they really were.
There was a jeweler in the county seat, and he was the one who broke the bad news to the brothers. He examined most of their “treasure” very carefully shaking his head and muttering before he finally said, “Boys, I’m sorry, but what you’ve got here is just cheap costume jewelry. It’s not worth more than a few dollars.”
The brothers were devastated. Why would that nice old man play such a cruel joke on them? They made the long journey back home in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. They didn’t talk about what happened much, but in the days and years that followed the three brothers each reacted to this disappointment in very different ways.
Walter coped by simply refusing to accept the fact that his “treasure” was worthless. He wore different rings and watches and chains proudly everywhere he went. People laughed at him and some pitied him, but he refused to give up his belief that he was a rich man.
Thomas was simply angry. He felt cheated by the cruel hoax that had been perpetrated on them. He could not get past his hostility toward the old man who had given them the map, and he withdrew into his own world and died a lonely and bitter man.
Jacob shared his brothers’ frustration and confusion. He did not understand what had happened either, but he could not believe that the kindly old traveler had intentionally duped them. He pondered the situation for some time and kept wondering if there was something they had missed on the first trip. For some reason he didn’t fully understand he had kept the treasure map; so he packed camping gear and tools and returned to the site.
It was a hard dirty job on his own, but he worked his way carefully further into the mine, passing the place where they had found the chest. He had to shore up the shaft in several places where the timbers were rotten, and he made multiple trips to town for more supplies. Some days he was exhausted and wondered if he was the real fool; but he didn’t give up, he kept digging deeper.
One day his labor paid off. The light from his miner’s cap glinted off something. He dug a bit deeper in that spot and uncovered one of the richest veins of gold ore ever found in that area. He was truly a wealthy man.