There is a Chinese Wisdom Story that goes something like this…
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbours exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbours shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”*
It is a thought provoking little story… it certainly reveals the dangers in the natural human tendency to constantly interpret events in life as good and bad, for how quickly events and fortunes can change. And that is perhaps one of the difficulties of living in a world of constant flux: We all strive for an ideal life where all the conditions of life are just right for our happiness, but in a world of change ideal conditions can never be maintained for very long. It is of the nature of this world for things to change and decay.
The parable may also suggest that like the farmer who seems to be rooted in a deeper reality so that he is not as easily swayed by the swinging pendulum of fortune and misfortune, we too are invited to seek a deeper reality in life that remains unaffected by the changes and chances of this fleeting life that enables us to face the challenges of life with courage and constancy.
Getting back to the theme of interpreting the meaning of life’s events, the people of Israel also had a tendency to be interpreting the goodness and badness of events, but in their understanding of the world, it was done through the lense of their religion. Events that they interpreted as good they attributed to the blessing of God. Events that they interpreted as bad and unfavourable were interpreted as the punishment of God. This would have been a natural thing to do for a people who understood God as ‘Almighty’. If God is Almighty, then God must be responsible for pulling the levers of history and thus for the unfolding of events. God in this understanding becomes the great puppet master, the real mover behind all the events of life.
The prophets of Israel combined this view of the world with a deep sense of morality and justice. And so when the great Assyrian Super-power invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel in between 732 and 722 BC, leaving Israel decimated, the prophets of Israel interpreted these tragic events as the hand of God’s punishment upon Israel for their failure to Worship the One True God of Israel and their running after the gods of their neighbours, as well as their failure to follow the laws of God.
Likewise, in 598 BC when the Babylonian Empire besieged Jerusalem and it fell three months later to the Babylonians, the prophets again interpreted these events as the hand of punishment of God for Judah’s failure to remain faithful to Yehovah and their failure to live in accordance with God’s laws.
In both instances the invasion of a super-power was interpreted as the action of God. God was the great puppet master, using the super-powers of the day to meet out punishment and discipline on his people for their unfaithfulness.
Still today, most Christians accept these interpretations of Israel’s history as true, because they are contained in the Bible. But very few Christians seem willing to consider the true implications of these Old Testament interpretations of historical events. And the true implications are these: that if God was using the Assyrian and Babylonian Empire’s as puppets to meet out God’s divine punishment on the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, then God also needs to be held responsible for the terror and devastation of these invasions, the destruction of cities and homes, the terrorising and murder of woman and children. We might well ask the question: What kind of God is this who uses war to punish and correct his unfaithful people? Is this really who God is and how God works in the world?
A further question is worth asking: If the people of Israel and Judah had really been faithful in worshipping God and following all God’s laws, would they really have been protected them from being invaded by the great super-powers of Assyria and Babylon? It is also worth recognizing that a key reason that the people of Israel were subject to repeated invasion by various super-powers of their day was because of the strategic position that the little strip of land called Palestine held. It was a key trading route between Egypt and the Middle East. Conquering and controlling Palestine was of great strategic and economic benefit for the great Empires of the ancient world. When also we recognize that in the course of history, the truth that good people do indeed suffer, I believe it is highly unlikely that the faithfulness and moral behaviour of Israel and Judah would have saved them from these invasions.
But this view of the Almighty God using the events of history to discipline and punish his people is a very enduring view. It was a view held by most Jews of Jesus day, and so in our Gospel passage today, people come to test Jesus’ perspective on these things: They raise two contemporary incidents:
The first was the brutal slaughter of a group of Jewish worshippers by Pontius Pilate who then mixed the blood of his victims with the blood of the animal sacrifices they were making. The second incident was when 18 Jews died when the tower of Siloam collapsed on top of them. Jesus answer to the Jews who were questioning him about these stories clearly indicates that like the prophets of old, they were interpreting these events as God’s punishment on those who had died because of their sin. Jesus’ answer indicates that he didn’t buy into these kinds of interpretations of historical events. Jesus did not agree with them that these events were the hand of God at work, punishing people for their sins. This was clearly not Jesus understanding either of the events of history or his understanding of God?
And so he throws the question back at them: Do you really think that these men were worse sinners than the rest of you? Do you really think that they were more guilty than the many others living in Jerusalem? In questioning the logic of their interpretation of these events, Jesus is rejecting the view that God uses ruthless tyrants like Pontius Pilate to do his dirty work for him. He is also rejecting the view that God uses accidents as a way of punishing people for their sins. In doing so, I believe that Jesus is rejecting a whole history of Old Testament interpretation of many of the key events in their history, and thus rejecting the view that God is the great puppet master pulling the strings and levers behind the scenes, blessing some people with certain favourable events, and punishing other people with certain bad or unfavourable events.
And yet at the same time as Jesus does this, he does not reject the need for people to repent to have a change of heart and mind. He still affirms the need for people to live just and moral lives as he adds these words: But unless you repent, you too will all perish. All of our actions produce effects in life. In all of our actions, we are creating conditions that when they mature will potentially reap good or bad results. The question remains, are our actions and attitudes laying seeds in the world that will give rise to beneficial effects, or are our actions and attitudes laying seeds that will give rise to bad or harmful effects. And so, while Jesus rejects the view that God uses the events of life to bless or punish his people, he does not reject the wisdom of cause and effect. What are the seeds that we are planting in our individual lives and in our collective lives, and what will those seeds grow into in the future? Just one example: If we continue to burn fossil fuels without limit or concern, what seeds of harm are we laying for the future?
I would like to close by asking the question: If God is not the one pulling all the levers behind the scenes of life, then if we are to still affirm a belief in the existence of God, how is God active within the world today? What are the signs of God’s activity amongst us? If God is not directing the course of history, then what is God doing? Where is God active? How is God active?
I believe the Apostle Paul gives us a helpful clue when in his letter to the Galatians he speaks about the fruit of the Spirit. I think they could be referred to also as ‘The signs of God’s activity’…Wherever there are signs of love and genuine and deep care, God is present and active. Wherever there is joy, real and deep joy, God is active. Wherever patience is being displayed it is a sign that God is active. Where ever there are acts of genuine kindness God is at work. Wherever there are acts of goodness, God is at work and active. Wherever people act in ways that are faithful and trustworthy, God is active and at work. Wherever gentleness is shown, God’s presence is being revealed. And wherever self-control is displayed for a greater good, God is at work in the world. These are the signs of God’s activity and God’s presence at work in the world.
There is something quite subtle about all of this. And perhaps this is why Jesus describes God’s Kingdom with the metaphor of tiny mustard seeds. Seeds that grow into sprawling bushes that create cover and protection for little birds. He also describes the work of God like yeast that is worked into dough. The yeast is tiny and when it is worked into the dough becomes invisible. You can’t see it, but it is active behind the scenes making the whole loaf rise. So it is with the activity of God. It is subtle, not always easily seen, but it makes a world of difference.
May we become partners in this subtle activity of God in the world. When super-powers are invading other countries and causing devastation, may we continue in ways small and large, to sow seeds of deep and genuine love and care in the world producing a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That is the way God will be seen to be active and at work in the world, not in using great super-powers to inflict punishment and mayhem upon the sinners of the world. May the love of Jesus save us from such unhelpful and harmful views.
*Chinese Wisdom Story found on: http://www.drmarlo.com/dr-marlo-speaks/maybe-so-maybe-not-well-see/