The Lady or the Tiger
By Mike Powers
This sermon was presented at the Vespers service on May 3, 2015 at Edgewater Retirement Community.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for[f] those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)
In 1882, the author Frank R. Stockton published a short story which was entitled The Lady or the Tiger. You may be familiar with it but I will provide a synopsis.
In the days of old there was a land ruled by a semi-barbaric king. The king was described as only semi-barbaric by the author in that the king made an effort to enlighten the people under his rule by applying his style of justice in a very open and even-handed manner. Granted, it was the king’s own unique style of justice but he did treat everyone, if not fairly, at least equally.
Here is how it worked. Whenever a person was accused of a crime, they would be brought into a public arena with the king and the public in attendance. The accused would be presented with two identical doors from which he was to select one. Behind one of the doors would be a beautiful woman and the other door would hold a ferocious hungry tiger. The doors were randomly assigned and there was no way to tell which held the woman and which held the tiger.
If the accused chose the door with the woman, it was deemed to be a sign of his innocence and his reward for enduring the “false” accusation would be to immediately marry the woman behind the door. Of course this occurred without regard as to whether the prisoner was already married or otherwise in a relationship and despite the fact that he had not previously met the woman and may not have had a desire to marry her. It also sounds like there was very little consultation with the woman as to her thoughts on the entire matter. You probably have also noticed the lack of the use of evidence and witnesses in this style of justice. But, as you know, when you are the king you get to set the rules.
Conversely, if the prisoner chose the door with the tiger, it was taken as a sign of his guilt and he would be set upon and devoured by the tiger. This would be the barbaric side of the semi-barbaric king being exhibited here.
The crowds, not knowing whether they were to witness a joyous wedding or a violent and bloody encounter between man and beast, were quite taken by this style of “justice”. These public trials were quite popular and well attended. The cynics among us can almost imagine this being a popular television show today.
It so happened that the king had a daughter who had fallen in love with a young man. This man was quite handsome and charming but alas, the king did not think him worthy of the attentions of his daughter. Unlike most fathers who do not care for the boyfriends of their daughters, the king in this case could do something about it and he did. He had the young man arrested.
To the king’s credit, despite the involvement of his daughter in this affair, a public trial involving the two doors was scheduled for this young man. Perhaps the king’s willingness to do this was the thought that either way it turned out the young man would be kept away from his daughter. In preparation for this trial, the king selected the most dangerous and ferocious tiger in the kingdom--an animal that would ensure a bloody and painful death if the young man were to inadvertently choose it. The king also selected a young woman who was the most beautiful in the land to be the bride of the young man if he chose her door.
The princess, driven by her love for the young man, did not take this laying down and set out to find out which door was to hold the tiger and which door was to hold the lady. And, unbeknownst to the king, through an extensive effort using a combination of her position as a royal princess and other extraordinary measures, she succeeded in learning this secret shortly in advance of the trial.
However, that same passionate love for the young man that drove her to unlock the secret of the doors also had the effect of sending the princess into a downward spiral with alternating periods of sadness, rage and despair over the fact that the young man was lost to her forever. She was filled with jealousy over the prospect of her beloved marrying the beautiful woman selected by her father the king and the thought of the young woman enjoying the life with the young man that she had envisioned for herself was an unbearable outcome.
At the same time, while working her way through these emotions, she did not want her young man to suffer the horrors which would be required for her to keep him and her beautiful rival apart. She was hopelessly torn between a choice of pushing her loved one into the arms of a person she had grown quickly to despise or to keep them apart by way of a horrible death in the hopes that she could reunite with her loved one in the after-life.
The day of the trial arrived and the young man entered the arena. Knowing the princess as he did, he had a feeling that she would be able to learn the information about which door would save his life and would be able to give him a sign as to which door to pick. Sure enough, with the king demanding before all that the young man choose a door, the young man looked to his princess for a sign and she at first hesitated but then slowly lifted her arm and pointed to the right. The young man strode forward and selected the door on the right.
The question is, did the lady or the tiger emerge from that door?
Before I answer that I will ask if you were the princess, who or what would come out of that door—the lady or the tiger?
It is a fair question and one not without real life application. While many commentators have said that this story is an example of a conundrum—an unsolvable puzzle--our Christian beliefs would hopefully lead us to the decision that would spare the life of the young man. This in spite of the personal disappointment involved.
But we should examine ourselves and see if we are that magnanimous in real life. If we really want something badly but realize that it is for one reason or another out of our reach, do we take actions such that no one else can get it? Or do we step aside and make it possible for someone else?
We see “tigers” chosen all the time in the news with individuals adopting the attitude that if I can’t have it (or someone) than no one else can either. We see that in domestic violence situations where an estranged spouse will violently lash out at a former loved one. That is perhaps the most serious and vivid example but it can happen to us in other ways in our everyday lives.
When faced with a disappointment, do we let that cloud our judgment and lead us to a path where instead of embracing our neighbor we lash out at them? If someone triumphs over us in a competition, do we congratulate them or do we try to diminish their accomplishment by making excuses and questioning the validity of their victory. Do we use disappointment as a source of spreading misery to others or do we see it as a challenge to overcome and move on as stronger and wiser people. We all know what Jesus expects of us but it sure can be hard at times—right?
So let’s return to the story and although we don’t know, for the moment let’s hope and believe the princess has not chosen to unleash the tiger but instead has opted to save the life of her beloved. From the perspective of the young man, how should he act going forward if he has received the gift of a new lease on life from the princess. What should he do?
Let me suggest that he needs to apply the same basic lesson that would apply to the princess and that is if you have an opportunity to help someone, even if there is no return benefit to you, you should do it. The princess should allow the young man to live despite her own loss. The young man, not being in a position to return the favor to the princess, should look for ways to pay the gift that he has received forward. He should look for ways to help others regardless as to any benefit he might receive in so doing.
Certainly good manners tell us that if someone does us a favor we should look for ways to reciprocate. However, we need to be careful to avoid analyzing situations along the lines of giving something only if there is an expectation of getting something back in return. Such quid pro quo thinking is what happens in a bartering transaction and is not a true expression of love. Once the exchange has occurred both parties may often feel satisfied with no need to take further action. It is a closed loop.
Paying it forward, on the other hand, doing a kindness for someone with no expectation of receiving something in return, is an act of selfless love. Unlike the closed-loop nature of a “give and take exchange”, a “pay it forward” kindness can set off an unending string of wonderful acts of love. The impact can be exponentially magnified if each person receiving a kindness is inspired to perform an unsolicited service or provide a gift to more than one other person.
Of course, the best example of all time of igniting a “pay it forward” string of love and kindness is the sacrifice that Jesus made for all of us in dying on the cross. Jesus made His sacrifice not to help Himself but to benefit all of us. The impact of that gift that Jesus has given to us continues to be felt today some 2000 years later.
But let’s also be honest. We are human and like the princess in the story, we are going to be disappointed in life and we are going to be jealous when others obtain achievements that we want for ourselves. It is natural to have these feelings but we must be vigilant to identify them and to resist the temptation to act on them. We need to be “bigger people”.
In today’s reading, the writer in James cautions us that “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:16) The writer points out that acting out of envy and with selfishness is contrary to God’s expectation and goes on to explain what God does want of us saying, “17 … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for[f] those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18)
By the way, back to the cliffhanger in the story, the author never answers the question as to whether the lady or the tiger emerges. He leaves it up to us the readers to decide.
Let’s make that decision in our own lives shall we?
Let’s selflessly look for ways to make peace and extend kindness to others—not out of an expectation of a return favor but out of a pure sense of love. When receiving acts of kindness, let us magnify that impact by paying it forward to as many people as possible. As a matter of fact, even if we don’t receive a kindness, we should still look to help someone else. After all, Jesus gave us all quite a gift of love which He is depending upon us to continue to pay forward. In doing so, we will be showing our love for both God and neighbor and keeping our tigers safely behind closed doors.