Once upon a time, in a poor Chinese village, there lived a farmer and his son. The farmer’s only material possession, apart from the land and a small hut, was a horse that he had inherited from his father. One day, the horse ran away, leaving the farmer with no animal with which to work the land. His neighbours, who respected him for his honesty and diligence, went to the farmer’s house to say how much they regretted his loss. The farmer thanked his neighbours for their visit, but asked them: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a misfortune in my life?’
Someone muttered to a friend: ‘He obviously doesn’t want to face facts, but let him think what he likes, after all, this is better than him being sad about it.’ So, his neighbours went away, pretending to agree with what the farmer had said.
A week later, the horse returned to its stable, but it was not alone; the horse brought along a beautiful mare for company. The inhabitants of the village were thrilled when they heard the news, for only then did they understand the reply that the farmer had given them, and they went back to the farmer’s house to congratulate him on his good fortune, ‘Instead of one horse, you’ve got two. Congratulations!’ they said.
‘Many thanks for your visit and for your solidarity,’ replied the farmer. ‘But how do you know that what happened was a blessing in my life?’
The neighbours were rather put out and decided that the farmer must be going mad, and, as they left, one of his neighbours spoke for them all when he said: ‘Doesn’t the farmer realize that the horse is a gift from God?’
A month later, the farmer’s son decided to break the mare in. Unfortunately, the animal bucked wildly and threw the boy off; the boy fell so violently that he broke his leg. The neighbours returned to the farmer’s house, bringing presents for the injured boy. The mayor of the village solemnly presented his condolences to the farmer, saying how sad they all were about what had occurred.
The farmer thanked them for their visit and for their kindness, but he asked: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a misfortune in my life?’
These words left everyone dumbstruck, because they were all quite sure that the boy’s accident was a real tragedy. As they left the farmer’s house, they said to each other: ‘Now he really has gone mad; his only son could be left permanently crippled, and he’s not sure whether the accident was a misfortune or not!’
A few months went by, and Japan declared war on China. The emperor’s emissaries scoured the country for healthy young men to be sent to the front. When they reached the village, they recruited all the young men, except the farmer’s son, whose leg had not yet healed. None of the young men came back alive. The son recovered, and the two horses produced foals that were all sold for a good price. The farmer went to visit his neighbours to console and to help them, since they had always shown him such solidarity. Whenever any of them complained, the farmer would say: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a misfortune?’ If someone was overjoyed about something, he would ask: ‘How do you know that what just happened is a blessing?’ And the people of the village came to understand that life has other meanings that go beyond mere appearance.[i]
Jesus’ comments about blessings and woes are sometimes interpreted as a forecast of what is to come. The poor shall be rewarded, the hungry will be filled, those who weep will laugh, being hated scorned, insulted, and spurned won’t be so bad because this will gain you a great reward. But woe to those who are rich because you’ve had yours now and there won’t be more of that. Woe to you who are full because you are going to be hungry. As for those of you who are laughing now, woe is me you are going to weep in your grief. As for you whom folks speak well of, well we all know what horrors are in store for you because we’ve seen it all before. It’s as if these blessings and woes are a kind of prediction of a reversal of fortunes.
Well if that’s true, I have only one thing to ask of Jesus: Where’s the good news? What’s the point of predicting that things are going to be turned upside down? Is Jesus really pointing toward a Creator who is nothing more than a judge who’s going to punish those who appear to have one life’s lottery, so that the apparent losers can become apparent winners? Well as someone who is blessed beyond measure, I don’t really want to know let alone worship such a Deity. And I can tell you this, I hope that even if I was poor, I wouldn’t wish poverty on my worst enemy, even if that enemy was a greedy, filthy, stinking, rich so-and-so. After all is said and done, isn’t Jesus the rabbi who lived and died teaching the way of LOVE? Cleary, we need to look beyond interpretations that set up the apparent winners and losers as players in a perverse game of reversal of fortunes. It’s long past time for us to move beyond a quid pro quo philosophy that pits winners and loser against one another as if the only way we can have winners is if someone loses.
So, where is the good news here? Good news for the rich and the poor? Good news for the hungry and the fed? Good news for those who weep and for those who laugh? Good news for the winners and for the losers?
Barbara Brown Taylor, a celebrated preacher, one whom so many speak well of, someone who is definitely a winner, warns us that there is a danger of interpreting the blessings and woes, as rewards and punishments and cautions us against seeing Jesus’ sermon on the plain as prescriptive rather than descriptive. Barbara Brown Taylor points to the image of a Ferris wheel to remind us that what goes up must come down.[ii]Thinking about a Ferris wheel, I can’t help but hear that old Blood, Sweat, and Tears song from the late sixties:
“What goes up must come down
Spinnin’ wheel got to go ‘round
Talkin’ bout your troubles it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony
let the spinnin’ wheel spin.
The anonymous gospel story teller that we call Luke painted us a picture that supplies more than enough clues for us to figure out what is being said here. Jesus comes down from the mountain. Luke’s Jewish audience would have pricked up their ears at this, “eye, eye, wait just a minute, a rabbi comes down from the mountain, just like the prophet MOSES!!! Only Jesus isn’t carrying tablets containing the Law, Jesus comes down the mountain and tells us who we are. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been poor, and I’ve been hungry, hungry for all sorts of things, I’ve also wept buckets, buckets and buckets of tears. I’ve also been scorned, insulted, spurned and even cast out. And yes, I’m rich, rich beyond the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. And I am so full, so very full that in this perverse world of ours, while millions of people are starving, I’m on a diet. That’s right, I’m so wealthy that I can not only afford to go on a diet, I have to go on a diet to save my life. I may be laughing now, but I’m damn sure there will be untold grief as my life goes on. And yeah people speak well of me, but you should read what those internet trolls write about me. I’ll have you know that in some circles, I’m known as the whore of Babylon, a false-teacher, a wolf leading Christ’s flock astray. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you the worst of it.
“You got no money and you got no home
Spinnin’ wheel all alone
Talkin’ bout your toubles and you,
You never learn
Ride a painted pony
let the spinnin’ wheel turn
I suspect that the anonymous gospel storyteller painted a picture of the level place the way that he painted it so that everyone could see themselves in that picture. In this picture of Jesus, we see a rabbi who is not prescribing the way things will be in the future, but rather the way things are now. Life is full of ups and downs, blessings and woes. And lest we be tempted to condemn some as losers and celebrate others as winners, we ought to remember that at one time or another in all of our lives, we embody all the blessings and woes that come our way. Remember, this is a description of how life is. The prescription comes after the description.
Listen to what the anonymous gospel story teller that we call Luke writes immediately after our Gospel reading: Jesus says: “To you who hear me, I say: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. When they slap you on one cheek, turn and give them the other; when they take your coat, let them have your shirt as well. Give to all who beg from you. When someone takes what is yours, don’t demand it back. Do to others what you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ do as much. If you lend to those you expect to repay you, what credit does that do you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to other ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. Love your enemies and do good to them. Lend without expecting repayment, and your reward will be great. You’ll rightly be called the child of the Most HOLY, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, as your loving God is compassionate.” (Luke 6: 27-36)
Now there’s a prescription! Jesus reminds us who we are by describing how life is, ups and downs, winning and losing, celebrated and condemned, spinning wheel spinning round. What’s a body to do, when life so very full of ups and downs? Remember who you are, see who your neighbours, and yes even your enemies are doing and realize that if you are blessed, the best response you can have is be a blessing. Cause that wheel has a tendency to spin. “Be compassionate as your loving God is compassionate.” Now there’s a deity that I want to know!
I remember a story that I learned when I went to a Buddhist retreat center to learn how to meditate. Apparently, there was this student who went to the monk who was teaching meditation said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, my legs ache, and I’m constantly falling asleep!” The monk rather matter-of-factly said: “It will pass.”
Well, a week later, wouldn’t you know it the student went back to the monk and said: “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!” And just as matter-of-factly as before the monk replied: “It will pass.”
Beloved, the blessings and woes of life come thick and fast, but LOVE, well LOVE is constant. As those who follow the Rabbi Jesus, let us respond to all the blessings and woes that we encounter with LOVE. Let us remember who we are, the blessed and the cursed, and let us respond to the winners and the losers, the rich and the poor, the hungry and the full, the celebrated and the cursed, the good and the bad, our neighbour and our enemies with compassion. Just as “our loving God is compassionate.”
[i]A traditional Sufi story interpreted by Paulo Coelho (2008)
[ii]Barbara Brown Taylor, “Home By Another Way” – “God’s Ferris Wheel” 1999