Francesco, the gambler
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 27.05.2009:
During the time of our Lord Jesus, there was among the soldiers of Herod the Great an Italian named Francesco, a brave young man. Children liked to be with him. He had just one vice: he was an addicted gambler. Not only he gambled himself, but he had a special delight in persuading others to follow his example. He would lie in wait to catch youth on their way to school or work, and seduce them to try their luck at a game. He even tried to convince some respectable Pharizees on their way to and from the Temple.
Finally, Herod chased him away. Francesco became a leader of a band of armed men whose business it was to catch travellers to and from the Holy City, Jerusalem. They operated from a large cave in the desert near the main road. Their method was simple. They used to stop and surround travellers who seemed wealthy. Then they invited them to play a game with Francesco. The travellers could of course not refuse. They were politely welcomed by the band leader, who treated them with wine. If they won, they were allowed to leave while keeping their money. If they lost, they were begged to come again with more money.
This went on until Francesco one day noticed a group of 13 pedestrians coming. They were our Lord and His Apostles. The bandits knew that they had to stop their normal routine and rushed to make the visitors a warm meal. They did all they could to comfort the Savior and his disciples before the night came and a threatening storm. The bandits left their beds for the guests and themselves slept on the bare ground. Next morning, before parting, the Saviour thanked Francesco for his hospitality and asked if he could fulfil a wish he might have.
“I have two wishes,” said the gambler. “What are they?” asked Jesus. “First,” said Francesco, “I am fond of playing cards, and I beg Thee to grant that whoever I play with, I may always win. Next, that in case I invite anyone to sit upon a certain stone at the door of our cave, he may not be able to get up without my permission.” On hearing these strange wishes, the Saviour smiled sadly and answered, “My son, you have spoken childishly. Still, what you have asked in your simplicity shall be granted. And I will add the promise that when you see your error and want to make a fresh request, it shall be granted too. Farewell.”
Years passed by. One day the Angel of Death, disguised as a bandit, was seen approaching. Francesco recognized it was his last hour. When the Angel of Death approached the cave, the gambler invited him to sit on the stone. Francesco said: “I know thee, you have come to take my soul, but I challenge thee!” The angel at once struggled to stand up but found himself paralyzed. As rage did not help him, he humbly asked to be released. Francesco let him swear that in a period of thirty years he would not take the bandit’s soul.
The thirty years passed. Francesco now dwelled alone in his cave as a Godly hermit. The Angel of Death approached him once more. “Grant me one more favour,” said Francesco, “allow me to take my pack of cards into the other world.” The Angel of Death snatched Francesco’s soul and his pack of cards and went with them to St Peter. St Peter, upon recognzing who Francesco was and that he had brought his pack of cards with him, slammed the door in his face. So Azrael lifted the poor soul up again and went with him to the Gate of Hell. The devil said, “Here you are at last my dear. I have waited long for your arrival. As you did not allow travellers to reach the holy city until they had played with you, so shall I not allow you to burn on the red-hot coals until you have played a game with me. “ So Francesco and the devil began to play and to the surprise of the devil Francesco won the game. Satan insisted on having more trials and each time Francesco won. Finally the devil lost temper and drove out Francesco.
Then Francesco remembered that the Lord had granted him a last wish. Back to heaven, St Peter called his Master what to do with Francesco.When Francesaco confessed that his life was one great mistake and offered to throw away his pack of cards, Jesus instructed St Peter to let him in, and so the lifelong gambler entered Paradise.
A story told by Henri Baldensperger, who used to live in Artas (19th century). Adapted from: J.E. Hanauer, Folklore of the Holy Land. The Sheldon Press, 1907