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? Continue reading