Long ago I read a story of a man who owned vast lands. He had many workers who labored upon them. One day he sent his best worker, his overseer in fact, to the nearest town to get some supplies. As this town was some distance away, the man did not expect his overseer back until the next day. 

The overseer left early in the morning. The land owner was surprised to see him back that evening. The overseer was in a state of great emotion and anxiety, and was in fact trembling. The landowner was not pleased to see his overseer back so soon, and empty handed at that. He gruffly asked him what had happened. 

“Master,” he said, “forgive me! While I was in town at the market I saw Death! He looked me right in the eyes!” 

Now the master knew how superstitious were his workers. They believed that if a man saw Death, that the man would die that very day. The landowner himself had no patience for such things, as he was a sophisticated man of affairs. His mind went toward profit and loss and not toward visions of Death stalking men in market places. But he also knew that such tales about Death were woven into the very fabric of the culture in which he lived. As much as he disliked such beliefs, he had to go along with them for the sake of his workers. 

His overseer continued. “Oh master! I beg you to let me flee to Basra! Death will not find me there!” The landowner knew Basra was a long day’s ride away, in the opposite direction from the town where he had sent his overseer. The landowner pleaded with his overseer to ignore the vision of Death. After all, the master needed his overseer, as his vast lands needed constant supervision and care. But the overseer was too frightened to listen, and begged to be allowed to flee to Basra. Finally the landowner gave in and allowed his overseer to leave. The man immediately gathered his things and rode away. 

The landowner took some time that evening and pondered all that had happened. As he did, he became more and more angry—not at his overseer but at Death. The nerve Death had to frighten his overseer! Why, the overseer was still young—in his prime, in fact. Why should Death claim him? It was not his time to die. Clearly then, Death had made a mistake. The land owner resolved to do something about this. He would going into town the next day and confront Death himself and clear up the confusion about the overseer. 

And so he did. While wandering about the market the landowner saw Death. He appeared to be shopping and inspecting some of the merchandise there. The landowner was not at all afraid, and walked up to Death. Death saw him coming, and looked quite surprised. Death asked him, “What are you here for? Our appointment is not for many years yet.” The man replied, “I know that. I am not here for me but for my worker. He told me that he saw you yesterday and that you frightened him so much that he had to leave my lands and flee to Basra.” 

Death raised his eyebrows a little, but said nothing. The man went on. “Surely then there is some mistake. My worker was young and healthy. It could not have been his time to die.” 

Death answered. “I was as surprised to meet your worker here yesterday as he was surprised to meet me. You see, I have an appointment with him tomorrow—in Basra.” 

The ancients believed that the life of a man was as a thread woven by the gods. The thread was of a certain length that defined the number of years a man had. No man could add to it, but sometimes a man could bargain his way for a longer life. Some men were given a choice on what sort of thread his life would take. Achilles was one such man. When offered a long and happy life lived in obscurity, or a short life lived heroically and with glory remembered through the ages, he chose glory. Later in Hades he regretted his decision—as if such a change of heart mattered then. 

Stonewall Jackson was asked how he could be so brave in the face of Union fire. He was known as the finest cavalry commander of his day, and he would often charge into a storm of bullets and win the battle. Stonewall answered, “The Good Lord knows exactly how long I am to live. Until that day I am invincible.” And so he was—until Chancellorsville. 

Like the gods of old, sometimes a man might strike a bargain with the one true God and so add years to his life. 

In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.’”
Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. And I will add to your days fifteen years.—2 Kings 20 

Not a bad deal I think. But we should not count on such successful bargaining while we lay upon our death beds. 

Very few men know the time of their departure for Eternity. Sometimes Fate pulls a cruel joke

A woman who dodged death when she and her husband narrowly missed Air France Flight 447 before it plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 aboard, was killed in a car accident just over a week later.  

Imagine the great joy when that woman and her family learned that she had missed the flight that had plunged into the sea and killed all aboard. Imagine again the abyss of sorrow when she died a week later anyway. Death was not to be disappointed. The women had lucked out—or so the world thought—but then she headed right for Basra. 

Death also played this game with Malcolm Muggeridge, but lost. In the 1950s he was working in Africa. He was scheduled to board a plane to take him home, but missed his flight. Another man who had been waiting for an empty seat jumped at the chance, and got on the flight. It did not go very far. After takeoff it crashed into the jungle and all lives were lost. Decades later Muggeridge become a militant convert to Catholic Christianity. Perhaps God Himself had tricked Death, seeing  in His child Muggeridge a future apostle of the Faith. We naturally cannot know. 

But there is much we cannot know about our end. It might come as a thief in the night, not even allowing us the false hope of refuge in Basra. 

The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly. He reasoned within himself, saying, ‘What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?’ He said, ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” ‘ “But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you.—Luke 12:16-20 

To man it is not given to know when Death will come with boney fingers outstretched, beckoning him into that place from where none return. It is best therefore that a man sows well on earth, so that he might reap well in Eternity. 

Waste no time thinking of a desperate flight to Basra. Get your life in order in the here, in the now.