“Martin the Cobbler”
by Leo Tolstoy
[This is a full version of Tolstoy’s story. What I used for my Sunday sermon is an adapted and shortened version of this story.]
There was once a shoemaker named Martin who lived in a tiny cellar apartment in a large city in Russia. The only light in his room came from a small window, just high enough to see people walking by from the knee down. Martin was a busy shoemaker, for he was an honest man and a fine craftsman.
Martin lived alone. His wife had died while he was still an apprentice, leaving him with one son. The boy also died 10 years later, at age 13, leaving his father lonely and depressed.
In his trouble the shoemaker had sought the counsel of a priest. “All I ask is that God bring my life quickly to an end,” Martin told him. “I have lost all my hope.”
The old man spoke words of encouragement and directed Martin to study God’s word and that there he would find a reason to live again.
Deeply moved, Martin went immediately to a store where he bought a New Testament. Each night, after his work was finished, Martin lit his lamp and read from the precious book. The more he read, the more he understood. The more he understood, the clearer and more joyful his heart became.
As the depression left him, Martin faced each day with great anticipation. He worked long hours, caring tenderly for the boots and shoes that entered his tiny shop. His night reading empowered him to do his finest work.
One night Martin was reading the seventh chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. The story was about a rich Pharisee who invited the Lord to his house as a guest. While Jesus sat at the table, a sinful woman anointed his feet and bathed him with her tears. In the end Jesus absolved the woman of all her sin.
Martin put the book down and closed his eyes. He could imagine what controversy that incident had caused.
Opening his eyes he looked again at the story. “Then turning toward the woman [Jesus] said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in, she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment”
Again Martin closed his eyes “Would I have been like the Pharisee,” he wondered. “He took care of himself but ignored his guest. And the guest was the Lord himself! If he came to me, would I have done the same?”
In a moment Martin fell asleep, still sitting in his chair.
“Martin! A voice seemed to breathe in his ear.
Martin roused himself, half-awake. “Who is there?” he mumbled.
“Martin, look out in the street tomorrow. I will come to visit you!”
Suddenly Martin was fully awake. Was this the voice of Jesus? Or had he only imagined the words? Uncertain, he sat and paced for nearly an hour before he blew out the lamp and went to bed again.
The next morning Martin rose before dawn, prayed, heated the stove, put on his cabbage soup, and sat down at his bench by the window to work. This morning, however, his mind was not on shoes. He wondered about the voice that he heard, or thought he heard, the night before. Though one part of him suggested that the whole incident was just a dream, another part desperately wanted the Lord to visit.
So throughout the morning, Martin’s eyes wandered out the window. He saw familiar boots pass by in the new snow. As he stared he could see old Stephen, the retired soldier who served as an assistant janitor in the building, come out to clear away the snow. From the beginning the old man struggled.
“He is worn out already,” Martin thought when he saw Stephen lean on his shovel against the wall. “A man that old and frail has no business shoveling the heavy snow.” Tapping on the window, he cried out to the old man, “Come in and get warm. I have some tea ready.”
Moments later old Stephen shuffled into the small room. “Christ keep you, my bones are aching.”
“Don’t bother wiping your feet,” Martin advised. “I have to mop soon anyway.” He poured two cups of tea and offered one to his visitor. Without speaking the old man drank down the glass, turned it bottom up and nodded his thanks to his host.
“Have another,” Martin said, reaching for the teapot.
Stephen drank this also, though not quite so quickly. As the old soldier drank, Martin glanced out the window.
“Are you waiting for someone?” Stephen asked.
“Waiting? Well, yes I am, though I am rather embarrassed about it.” He then told the old man of his dream. “It all began when I was reading about Jesus at the house of the Pharisee. Have you heard of the story?”
“Heard of it, yes, but I can’t read.”
Martin told him the entire story, and when he showed interest, told him other stories as well. When he finished, both men were silent. Finally Martin asked, “More tea?”
“I have had enough,” Stephen said, rising. “Thank you for inviting me; you have fed both my body and my soul.”
Martin was pleased as the old man went outside, but he was also a bit disappointed. It was already late morning, and Jesus had not yet come. He moved back to the workbench. He watched as other shoes passed by his window. He paced the floor impatiently.
On one of his trips to the door he saw a woman, poorly dressed, standing against the wall with her back to the wind. She had a child in her arms. She was wearing summer clothes on this winter day, and the blanket around the baby was thin and ragged.
Opening the door, Martin cried out, “My good woman, it is easier to wrap the baby in here where it is warm.”
In a moment the woman was standing by the stove telling her story. Her husband had gone off to war eight months before and hadn’t been heard from since. She had worked as a cook until the baby was born four months ago. “They laid me off,” she said sadly.
“Don’t you have any warm clothes?”
“I sold my last shawl yesterday for 20 coins. We needed the food.”
“Come,” Martin said. He took her to his tiny closet where a woman’s winter coat was hanging. “It belonged to my wife. I don’t need it anymore.” Before she left he gave her a bowl of the cabbage soup and found a warm blanket for the baby.
When she was gone Martin felt pleased that he had been able to assist her in some small way. He also felt sad, for it was early afternoon, and Jesus had not yet made his visit.
As the afternoon wore on, he found it difficult to keep his mind on his work. He often peered into the street through his tiny window or opened his door to look. As he was standing in the door midway though the afternoon, he saw an old woman carrying a basket of apples on one arm and a sack of wood chips for her fire on the other. As she stopped outside Martin’s door to shift the basket, a small boy snatched an apple out of the basket and began to run away. The old woman quickly grabbed him by the sleeve and held on. The boy struggled to get loose, but the woman was determined and would not let go. Martin ran outside. When he reached the pair the woman was pulling the boy’s hair and he was screaming.
Martin separated the two, and taking the boy by the hand. He pleaded, “Let him go, grandmother. Forgive and forget, for the sake of Christ.”
“I’ll give him something he won’t forget,” she shouted. “I’ll take him to the police.”
“For the sake of Christ,” Martin pleaded, “have mercy.”
In the next few moments a beautiful drama was enacted. The old woman released the boy. He apologized. After Martin talked to her about the forgiveness of the Savior, she gave the lad another apple and smiled. As she took her basket and headed home the boy sprang forward and offered to carry the sack of wood chips. Martin moved to the door and watched the two walk down the street together.
As he went back inside he felt good that he had been able to help the two settle their differences. He also felt sad because it was now late afternoon, and Jesus had not come.
The shoemaker put his tools away, swept the floor, and set his table. When he finished the last of the cabbage soup, Martin picked up the New Testament and sat in his chair by the lamp. He felt rather foolish for believing that Jesus had spoken to him the night before.
He opened the sacred book to the 25th chapter of St. Matthew. There he read, “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger, and welcome you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Images of old Stephen and the soldier’s wife and the woman and the boy suddenly flashed across Martin’s mind. Then Martin realized that his dream had not deceived him; the Savior had truly come to him that day, and he had truly received him. Amen.