Once upon a time, the emperor of Rome was touring the land of Israel. He was walking among the orchards of Tiberius when he came upon a sight that took his breath away. There was an orchard thick with fig trees, but at the very edge stood an old man with a long white beard who was hard at work under the hot sun. He was digging hole after hole, planting young saplings.
The emperor ordered his men to ride close. When they were near, he called out to the man. "You, graybeard! What are you doing? Surely you did not spend the days of your youth working hard only so that you might work this hard in old age."
The old man smiled and stopped his work to walk toward the emperor. He bowed to show his respect, but he shook his head.
"You do not understand, sir," he said. "I do not mind working in old age. As long as I am strong enough to work, I consider it an honor."
The emperor was surprised to hear this, as so many men complained. But surely this man did not expect to reap any rewards. "You won't eat the fruits of your labor," the emperor said. "By the time these trees bear fruit, surely you will be long gone from this earth."
Again the old man smiled. "That may be true, for we all are in God's hands, young and old. If it be God's will, I might enjoy the figs I am planting. We cannot know."
The emperor was impressed by the man, and he asked how old he was. When the old man told him, he was once again shocked. "Today is my birthday," the old man said. "I am 100 years old this very day."
The emperor could not help himself. He burst out laughing. "One hundred years old? Why would you work so hard for such a slim chance at being able to taste these fruits?"
But the old man patiently explained that he was not working in vain. "Didn't my ancestors work for me?" he asked. "All the trees of these orchards were planted by my ancestors, and now I work for future generations."
The emperor was so impressed by the old man's goodness that he hoped he would see him again one day. So he said, "Dear old man, if you live long enough to eat these fruits, make sure to let me know."
And with those words, he and his entourage rode on.
Many years passed. The saplings grew and blossomed and thousands of ripe, juicy figs grew from their branches. The old man lived and enjoyed the taste of those very fruits. And so one day he decided he must keep his promise to the emperor. He filled a basket with some of the finest figs and set off for the Roman capital.
When he reached the palace, the guards turned him away. After all, he was just a dusty old man; he couldn't possibly have business with their emperor. But the old man would not move. He stayed until one of the emperor's wise men saw him standing there. He recognized the old man, and he sent him on to the emperor.
At first, when the old man appeared before the emperor, he had no idea who he was. But the old man bowed and said, "You don't remember me? Many years ago, you asked me why I worked so hard. So I have traveled all these miles to share the fruits of my labor with you. I believe if you do, you'll understand."
Suddenly the emperor remembered that day in the orchards of Tiberius. He could not believe his eyes and ears. He counted backward, 101, 102 and so on. The emperor realized that the man must be 112, and here he was offering a basket of figs.
The emperor quickly called his servants to bring a chair to the old man, and he invited his guest to sit. Then he told his guards to empty the basket of figs and fill it with gold.
The ministers were furious. Why would their emperor bestow such an honor on an old, dusty man?
The emperor explained, "If the Creator has granted this man so many years of life, he is deserving of much more. He deserves our honor and our praise. Let his hard work be a lesson to us all. Hard work does reap its own rewards."
The emperor passed the figs around. Everyone agreed that they had never tasted figs so sweet, figs planted with love and kindness.