Leo Tolstoy tells a story about a king who believed that he would never fail at any enterprise if he had the answer to three questions: (1) What is the right time for any action? (2) Who are the people that matter? And, (3) in each situation, what is the most important thing to do?
None of the wise men of his kingdom could answer the king’s questions, so he disguised himself as a peasant and went out among his people to find the answers.
In his quest, he came across an old hermit who was digging in his garden. The King approached him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: “What is the right time for any action? Who are the people that matter? And, in each situation, what is the most important thing to do?”
The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.
"You must be tired," said the King, "let me take the spade and work awhile for you."
While he was at work a man appeared who had been grievously wounded. The king bandaged his wounds only to discover that the man was an assassin sent to kill him, but, while the king was helping the hermit, the king’s men had discovered the plot and had wounded him. The would-be assassination asked the king for forgiveness which he freely granted.
Later, the king asked the hermit once again the answer to his questions
The hermit answered, “When that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business.
There you have it: What is the right time for any action? Now! This minute! Neither the past nor the future have any real existence; the present is the only time we have the power to act. Who is the person that matters? The one in front of us, for every person we meet in this world, if we only knew it, is fraught with deep and desperate need. And what is the most important action? To love that person by being good to him, “because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!” (Tolstoy).
What a marvelous simplification! — reminiscent of the conversation Jesus had with the lawyer about loving one’s neighbor and the young man’s self–justifying question, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply, our Lord told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which is: The very next person you meet (Luke 10:27-29).