Milton, Matt and MJ were classmates at the New Horizons School for Boys, in Nottingham, NJ. To say that they were friends would be somewhat of a stretch, for they didn’t really spend much time together outside of class. But they knew each other, and knew each other’s overall background.
Milton was from a very wealthy family that owned several wineries in California. Milton always wore very nice clothes, an expensive watch, and never lacked for anything. While most of the boys at New Horizons made do with cafeteria food, Milton’s meals were provided by a private chef, who was shared by Milton’s family and a few others that could afford it. Milton always had a brand new smart phone, and his convertible tablet / laptop computer was cutting edge. Milton didn’t work very hard at school. It was common knowledge among the other students that he frequently paid others to do his homework.
Matt was from a typical middle class family in Ohio. His father worked a blue collar job and his mother made and sold custom jewelry, but there wasn’t much of a market for custom jewelry in that part of the country. Matt’s clothes were neat, but he only had a few sets of clothing, and so was seen wearing the same thing fairly often. Matt ate breakfast in the cafeteria, but usually sold his lunch and dinner tickets to some other boy so that he could eat fast food off campus. He tried to hide it, but his cell phone was 2 generations old, and his laptop was on its last leg. Matt was fair at math and science, and got good grades in those classes, but didn’t fare so well in language and social studies, and was barely passing those classes. Like Milton, he didn’t really work very hard at school. Matt excelled at sports, and put most of his energy into those.
MJ was from Nottingham, and didn’t really have a family – he never knew his father. MJ’s mother was a drug addict, and paid for their little one-room apartment with the occasional odd job and by late night visits to that apartment from a never ending stream of anonymous men. MJ couldn’t afford New Horizons – he was only able to attend because of a work program the school had. MJ worked in the school cafeteria. He would help prepare the food – peeling potatoes, and the like, and then clean the entire kitchen. On days when one of the paid employees was gone, MJ would have to help serve also. He dreaded these days, because the other students would look down on him, making him feel really bad. MJ had only two sets of clothes, both given to him by the Salvation Army a number of years ago, so he had to stay up late every other night doing laundry.
MJ was not exceptionally smart, but he was a very hard worker. He stayed up late most nights reading and studying his class material, usually only getting a few hours of sleep. He didn’t own a cell phone or a computer, so any computer work had to be done at the library. He was on many of the sports teams, but was not particularly gifted, so only played in the games where victory was already certain. As he did in academics, MJ worked really hard at sports too, sometimes staying after a game to clean the locker room without being asked.
Milton, Matt and MJ had very little in common. They didn’t run in the same social circles and had very different class schedules. They might glimpse each other occasionally around campus, but that was the extent of their interaction.
In spite of their differences, there was one thing that all three boys had in common: they each had exactly the same birthday. Each December 23rd, Milton would receive a huge bundle of gifts from his family, Matt would get a card with a few dollars from his mother and nothing from his father, and MJ would just get depressed. This particular December 23rd was a special one – all three boys would be turning 16. Milton was fully expecting to get a brand new car, Matt was hoping for some new shoes and a call from his father, MJ was just glad that it was Saturday and that he could hide in his room and not have to talk to anyone.
The headmaster of New Horizons was Professor Joshua Davidson. Professor Davidson was a capable administrator and was completely devoted to his students. He was always dressed neatly, but not fancily. When he drove, which was rarely, it was always one of the school’s vehicles, as he did not own a car himself. Although he didn’t talk about it, it was common knowledge that the Professor did not earn a salary, but was only paid for living expenses, which were very low, since he lived and ate on campus.
Promptly at 7:47 AM on Saturday, December 23, 2015, the phone in each of the three boys’ room rang, and each was requested to present himself at Professor Davidson’s office promptly at 8:30 AM.
MJ arrived at 8:25 AM. He was showered and clean, but his clothes were dirty as he usually saved laundry for Sunday evening. There was no receptionist or secretary working on Saturday, so he sat in the reception area to wait. Matt stumbled through the doors at precisely 8:30. His hair was disheveled and he smelled strongly of mouthwash and cologne. It wasn’t hard to guess that he hadn’t yet been to bed. True to form, Milton didn’t arrive until 8:37, strolling through the door as if he hadn’t a care in the world – and in truth he did not.
No sooner had Milton seated himself than the inner door to Professor Davidson’s office opened and the professor stepped into the outer office. “Thank you for coming in on a Saturday, gentlemen. Would you all please come in?”
Milton, Matt and MJ were understandably a bit worried. Milton and MJ had both only been in Professor D’s office once – toward the end of their admissions process for a final interview with the headmaster. Matt had been a few times since, for the occasional disciplinary chat with the headmaster. In this instance, none of them had committed any serious offense and wondered exactly what might be going on. They walked tentatively into the room, expecting to sit in front of the headmaster’s desk facing him behind it. Instead, the Professor veered off to the left and sat in one of 4 rather comfortable looking chairs surrounding the fireplace, gesturing the young men to occupy the others, which they did with no small amount of trepidation.
The headmaster spoke again. “Relax gentlemen, nothing is amiss. None of you are here today for any type of discipline. I understand that today is your birthday – each of you turns 16 today. What a happy occasion! Happy Birthday to you all! I have gifts for each of you.”
The Professor withdrew 2 small boxes, one black and very shiny, and the other wrapped in rather plain red paper, from a larger container at the side of his chair.
“Milton, these two are for you. Now before I give them to you, let me explain something very important. Both of these gifts are for you, but you must choose between them and may only keep and open one of them. The other gift must be returned immediately to me, unopened. Inside the black box is a gift that you deserve. Inside the red box is a gift that I got for you myself. It is something I think you’ll find useful.” He handed both boxes to Milton, who took the black box in his right hand and the red in his left. “Consider carefully, young man. Return to me one of the boxes and then open then one you wish to keep.”
Milton pondered, but not for very long. “My family is rich, so I deserve something very nice. The black box is small, but it probably has some money in it, or a new watch, or maybe even the keys to a car. The headmaster is quite poor. He couldn’t afford to buy me anything worthy. The red box is not for me.” Having made his decision, he handed the red box back to Professor Davidson and began to open the black box.
As he always did when opening gifts, Milton was very methodical. He carefully peeled back each piece of tape and each flap of the black paper. There was no rushed ripping, but a carefully planned dissection of the package. The whole process lasted a few minutes. Finally the wrapping paper was gone, revealing inside a thin cardboard box, the kind that you might get at a department store to contain some gift purchased there.
Milton carefully opened the top of the box and peered inside. A look of puzzlement came on his face, and he tilted the box toward the light to get a better look. He reached inside and twisted his hand back and forth, looking more bewildered by the moment. Finally he looked up at the headmaster and stated the obvious, “It’s empty. There’s nothing in here.”
Professor Davidson nodded in acknowledgement, then turned to his desk and picked up two identical black and red boxes and approached Matt. He said essentially the same thing to Matt as he had to Milton. “These two gifts are both for you, but you may choose and open only one of them, returning the other to me. The black box contains a gift that you deserve. The red box contains a gift from me. Choose carefully.”
As was typical, Matt had not really been paying attention to Milton and his gift. He had the vague impression that something was amiss there, but couldn’t tell you the details if questioned. Still, he took a few seconds to consider his choice. “The professor is an old man, so the red box probably has some kind of practical or useful gift, like a pair of socks or a bar of soap. I did really well during the football season this year, so I deserve something nice. I’ll take the black box.” With his usual carelessness, he tossed the red box in the general direction of the headmaster, who caught it without expression.
Matt’s approach to opening his black box was as much different from Milton’s as their clothing and bank balance. Matt tore into the wrapping and box with the same ferocity he showed as a linebacker on the football field. The box was open in 7.2 seconds and he flipped it over on his palm to shake out whatever was inside. When nothing immediately dropped, he shook harder, not caring whether what was inside might be fragile or not. Finally he turned over the box and peered inside, looking up at the professor when he, too, discovered that the box contained nothing but air. “Professor D, there is nothing in here. I don’t get it, is this a joke?”
As he had before, the headmaster simply nodded in acknowledgement and moved around behind his desk for two more boxes. The black and red boxes that he presented to MJ were easily 5 times larger than those he had handed to Milton and Matt. He repeated to MJ the rules and left him to consider his choice.
To his credit, MJ took quite a while making his decision. He had been paying close attention to both Milton and Matt, their gifts and the result of their choices. Milton, he decided, had not deserved anything because he already had everything he needed. Matt on the other hand, didn’t have everything, but didn’t deserve anything because, although he worked hard at sports, was not very good at academics and was not, in general very nice to others. “I, on the other hand,” MJ thought, “really do deserve something nice. I work hard at everything I do, my job and my studies. I’m polite and considerate to everyone. I mind my own business and don’t cause trouble. Besides, I have very little. Matt has a comfortable life and Milton is rich. They both have families and I don’t. Yep – I do deserve something nice.”
Having decided, he spoke out loud. “I’ll take the black box sir.”
Without expression, Professor Davidson handed him the black box and set the red one on his desk next to the two other of the same hue. MJ opened the black box as quickly as possible without making a complete mess, but certainly without the frenzy Matt had displayed or the overly methodical process Milton used. Once it was open, he had to rise from his chair to look inside and he stayed in that position for several seconds. He straightened slowly and looked at the professor with glistening eyes. “It’s empty. Just like the others.”
He sat heavily, struggling to keep back tears. He had thought that just once in his life he would finally get a break. For a few moments there had been a break in the monotony of life, a glimmer of faint hope, like the first lightening of the sky at dawn, that there might be more to life than work and study and tests and more work. But, just like his parents and the rest of his dumb luck life, fate had treated him cruelly – again.
There was a long silence, while each of the young men, to varying degrees, thought over what had just happened. Finally Matt became impatient and blurted out, “Is that it? Can we go now?”
Professor Davidson nodded his assent and the boys filed out of the room, from richest to poorest, and also, interestingly enough, from those least concerned about the empty box to the most. The headmaster trailed them to the door of his office, watching as the trio passed through the reception area to exit the building. MJ stopped with his hand on the handle and stayed in that position for several long moments. Finally he turned, to see that the professor was watching intently. What was that look on the professor’s face? Was it sadness, pity, hopefulness?
“Professor, I’ve got to know. What was in the red box? What did I miss by choosing the black box?”
“I was hoping you would ask,” Professor Davidson replied. “Inside the red box was a piece of paper with my cell phone number on it, with permission to call me anytime day or night. And – a key to my office door, allowing you to come see me anytime you like.”
There was a long, awkward silence. MJ waited for the the professor to continue, but he seemed to be done speaking. The professor appeared to be waiting, or hoping, for MJ to speak, but he didn’t know what to say. Finally he turned to the door to leave, speaking over his shoulder as he departed. “Merry Christmas Professor.”
“Merry Christmas MJ,” the headmaster answered to the already closed door. He stood for many minutes, watching and hoping for one of the three to return. Finally he turned and walked slowly back to his desk, leaving the door open.
Many of us approach Christmas and God the same way, hoping that we will get as a gift the good things that we “know” that we deserve. As did Milton, Matt and MJ, we quickly discover that what we receive and what we think we deserve are frequently quite different.
Milton thought that his status made him deserving of a nice gift. Matt decided that his hard work had earned him something good. MJ thought that he deserved nice things because he didn’t have any. The truth is that each had broken the school rules in some way, whether it was cheating, or failing classes or breaking curfew. What each really deserved was to be expelled from school. Professor D’s secretary had actually typed up the forms and put them in the black boxes as a kind of cruel Christmas joke. The professor had removed the dismissal forms and repapered the boxes.
Forgive the mixed metaphors, but the black boxes represent both the boys’ inaccuracy at what they deserved, but also the headmaster’s mercy. Each deserved punishment that they didn’t receive.
The red boxes represent the best gift any teacher can ever give – unrestrained access to the teacher. Imagine the benefit to a student to be able to call or visit at any time. Any student who worked diligently would be almost assured of good grades.
Sadly, many people approach their relationship with God the same way that these three boys did. We feel deserving of good things, and when we don’t receive what we think we deserve, we turn away in frustration, or even anger.
The truth is that we, like the boys, deserve punishment. We have all broken God’s rules and deserve eternity in hell because of it. Yet God offers mercy. He will gladly expunge our record, deleting any record of our wrongdoings.
But God’s love doesn’t stop there. He also offers grace (the red box) to anyone who will take it. He offers not religion, but a relationship with Himself. We can have direct access to the Headmaster of Life at any time, day or night, and can enter His office anytime we like – no invitation required.
The real tragedy of this story is that any or all of the boys could have gone back and asked, and the professor would have gladly given them the red box too, with all the blessings that came with it. Each boy was so disappointed by not receiving what they “deserved,” or by apathy, that they missed out on the available gifts.
If you were an actor in this story, what would you choose? What WILL you choose? Will you turn away, or will you accept His gifts of Mercy, Grace, Love and Eternal Life?