Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Case Of The Stolen Opals

The jangling sound of the phone rattled through my head, jarring my slumbering nerves. I opened my eyes reluctantly. It was dark. And cold. I stumbled out of bed to answer it.

‘Are you a minister?’ asked a young man’s voice.

‘Yes,’ I replied groggily.

‘I have a problem.’

I looked at the clock. It was not yet six o’clock in the morning. And it was a bleak, wet wintry South Australian morning, not the kind one enjoyed facing before time. I had received calls like this before and most of them could just as well have waited till a civilized hour.

‘You have a problem,’ I repeated sleepily, hoping it would be something minor that I could deal with later.

‘I stole half a million dollars worth of opals last night and now I don’t know what to do with them,’ he said.

‘You did what!’ I responded, suddenly awake.

‘I stole a case full of opals,’ he repeated.

‘You do have a problem,’ I agreed.

It was chilly standing in the passage in my pyjamas and I was already shivering, but now he had my full attention. ‘What happened?’ I asked.

He told me his name was Mitch. He began to tell me his story but I cut him off. ‘Look, why don’t you come and see me?’ I asked him. ‘Hide the opals somewhere, get a taxi and come to my place. We can have a coffee and work out what you should do.’

Half an hour later he arrived. By this time I was dressed and thinking more clearly. It was not a great time for me to be dealing with an issue like this. It was Sunday and in three hours time I was due to preach at a large church and I wasn’t yet fully prepared. But I would just have to trust the Lord to get me through. This was a serious situation.

I opened the door. Mitch was carrying a brief case. He walked in, set the case on the low occasional table, alongside the toast and coffee, and immediately opened it. To my shock and alarm, it was full of glowing opals. He had brought them with him! I had half a million dollars worth of stolen jewels sitting right there in front of me in my house. I closed the case.

‘You brought them with you!’ I exclaimed. ‘I asked you to stow them somewhere.’

‘I had nowhere to put them,’ he said. ‘I had to bring them. And now I have to get them back somehow. I’ve just got out of prison and if they catch me, I’ll be right back in again – for a very long time.’

Mitch was in his early twenties, reasonably well dressed, with a pleasant manner. He didn’t look like a criminal. It turned out, however, that he was. He had been in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. Then he had begun to attend a Pentecostal church. He had heard the gospel, believed it and been baptized. For a few months he made good progress. When his accommodation fell through, the pastor invited him to stay in the manse with him and his family. Things went along nicely for a time until Mitch found himself in bed with the pastor’s daughter and she fell pregnant.

‘So the minister kicked me out,’ he said simply.

‘Well, what did you expect?’

‘Oh, I’m not complaining,’ he replied. ‘I probably would have done the same thing. But at the time it made me mad and I decided that church wasn’t for me and went back to my old ways.’

And it was not long before he was back in prison. Two days before this Sunday morning, he had been released, gone to a pub on Saturday night to celebrate and had a few too many. It was then that he happened to see an opal dealer he had ‘dealt with’ on a previous occasion.

He watched the dealer’s movements as he went into another room with a client. Later the two men returned and while they were talking together, the briefcase of opal samples was placed on the floor near their feet. No one else would have realized its value, but Mitch did. It was a relatively simple matter to walk past, quietly snatch it, and keep going out the door.

He then hurried to the car park, stole a car as well, and drove off into the night. After a while it ran out of petrol. He was now a safe distance away, so he parked the car and fell asleep. When he awoke that morning, he came to his senses and realized what he had done. He knew that if he was caught he would be back in jail in no time and he was scared. So he found a phone box, tried to find a minister he could talk to, and somehow discovered me.

‘So, Mitch,’ I asked, looking at him across the opals, and trying to pretend they were not there, ‘what do you want to do now?’

‘Can you give them back to the police for me?’ he pleaded.


‘Yes,’ he replied casually, as if he had just asked me to post a letter.

‘What about you doing it?’ I wanted to know.

‘Well, I’ll be arrested if I do it,’ he said, with a puzzled look, wondering why I had even asked. ‘I’ll just clear out and no one will know the difference.’

‘But you have just committed two acts of stealing,’ I protested quietly.

‘Yeah, but the car’s OK – I didn’t damage it – and the opals are here.’

‘What about the inconvenience to the car owner? And how do I know you haven’t got some opals in your pocket?

He opened the case again. ‘Well, I’m sorry about the owner of the car. But he’s still got it, hasn’t he? That’s the main thing, isn’t it? And I haven’t taken any opals. See for yourself,’ he said. ‘Look, it’s a sample case. There’s a spot for every opal. Every place is full.’

There were two layers of opals, and as far as I could see, he was right. Of course, I couldn’t be sure. Maybe he had re-arranged them in some way. But what could I do?

‘Mitch,’ I said. ‘Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you were to face up to your mistakes and come clean? Don’t you think you are the one who should return the opals?”

A look of alarm flashed across his face. ‘I don’t want to go back to prison!’ he said. ‘It’s awful there. Please, I can’t face it again. I’ll die!’

I couldn’t make him do anything, of course. He had come of his own volition and he could leave in the same way. If he had jumped up right then and fled, how could I have prevented him? I went on, ‘What about going back to church instead?’

‘That wouldn’t be a bad idea, I guess,’ he said. ‘Things were different then. People did trust me and they were prepared to give me a go.’

‘When you were baptized,’ I asked, ‘did you understand what you were doing? Did you really mean it?’

‘Oh yes,’ he replied brightly. ‘It meant I was leaving the old way of life, burying it and starting a new life in Christ.’

‘And were you?’

‘Well, I thought I was. I was really sincere at the time. Until I fell in love.’

‘So you really loved the pastor’s daughter?’

‘Of course,’ he said softly. ‘Why do you think we finished up in bed?’

I looked at him carefully. The sun had risen now. The rain was easing and there were a couple of patches of blue sky visible through the large lounge room windows. Two birds were singing somewhere outside.  We had warmed the room. The coffee cups were empty and a few scattered crumbs on the plates showed where the toast had been. It was a homely environment for a winter’s morning, yet it was also bizarre.

‘And did you really come to love the Lord Jesus Christ, too?’

‘I thought I did,’ Mitch replied. ‘I certainly wanted to.’

‘Well, why don’t you give it another go?’ I suggested. ‘If you really were sincere when you were baptized then you know that you can live a new life. Not by trying to be different but by trusting in Jesus to make a difference. ‘When you come to Christ, He forgives your past sins and He enables you to overcome future sins. This is what baptism is all about.’

I reached for my Bible and we read Romans 6:3-4 together. He seemed to get the message.

‘Does this mean I have to stay here till the police come?’ he asked, with a tremble in his voice. ‘I really don’t think I can do that.’

‘That is entirely up to you,’ I answered. ‘Only you can make that decision.’

He stood to his feet. He wasn’t very tall, but he stood straight. ‘Pastor,’ he said, ‘I came here to return the stones. I’ve done that. But that’s all. Now I want to go. I’ll leave them with you and you handle it how you like.’

I stood and reached out my hand. ‘Let me pray with you,’ I said. And so we prayed together for him to find a way back to God and to the new life that he had briefly tasted once before.

He shook my hand and thanked me and went his way.

I phoned the police and they came quickly. The loss of the opals had been reported, of course, and they knew exactly who they belonged to. What they didn’t know was who had stolen them. They began to question me. I told them my story. They listened politely but didn’t seem to believe me.

With a shock, I realized that I was a suspect. They wondered if I had stolen them, had second thoughts and made up the story to cover my tracks!

‘This young man,’ they began, ‘was he tall with black hair?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Quite the opposite. Short with brown hair.’

‘How old was he? How did he know your phone number? How did he get here?’ The questions went on. And so did the time. If they didn’t leave soon, I would be late for church. I became restless, wondering if they would ever stop – and wondering how in the world I would explain my tardiness to the congregation. (‘Folks, I’m really sorry to be running late but I was a suspect in a crime scene and I was being interrogated by the police.’ What a great start to a sermon that would be!) And even if they did leave. How would I be able to focus my thoughts sufficiently to preach an intelligent sermon?

Looking back later, I could see they had been trying to catch me out. Fortunately, when you stick to the truth, it is hard to be tricked.

Finally, to my great relief, they took the opals and left and I never heard any more about them.

And Mitch? I have never heard from him either. Did he return to his new-found faith? Did he finish up in church? Was he spinning me a line all along with no intention of leaving his old ways? Is he now in prison? Or married with a family? Or lost on the streets? Or…

I will probably never know.

Did I do the right thing in letting him go? Well, I couldn’t have stopped him anyway. But even if could have, should I have? I will never know that either.

But when I sit in church next Sunday morning, and I join in the praying and the singing, I hope that in some way, somehow, in another church somewhere, a man named Mitch will be lifting his voice in praise to God, too.

Barry Chant

Written by

Barry Chant is a regular speaker at church services, seminars, conferences and conventions. Hundreds of thousands of his books have been sold around the world. He has degrees in arts, theology and ministry, a diploma in education and a PhD in history. He was the co-founder and former president of Tabor College, Australia.

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