There is a story or parable, variously ascribed to the wisdom traditions of Arab, Chinese, or rabbinic literature, which illustrates well âthe changes and chances of this mortal life,â as the Book of Common Prayer describes the vicissitudes, the ups and downs, of this world.
According to most versions, the story â no doubt apocryphal â goes like this: A farmer had a fine stallion that one day escaped and ran off. The farmerâs neighbors commiserated with him. âWhat bad luck you have,â they said sadly. But the farmer responded, âWho really knows? It could be bad. But it could also be good.â
Sure enough, the very next day, the stallion returned followed by twelve wild and healthy young steeds. âHow fortunate you are!â exclaimed the neighbors. âWho knows,â countered the farmer to his neighborsâ surprise, âif it is good fortune or not?â
Not long after, the farmerâs strapping son attempted to break one of the wild horses when he tumbled and shattered his leg. âHow unlucky you are!â exclaimed the neighbors. The farmer shrugged his shoulders and asked again, âWho knows if it is bad luck or good?â
Later, the kingâs soldiers arrived, recruiting young men for battle and war in far-off lands, but they quickly passed over the farmerâs son with the bad leg. âHow very lucky you are,â said the amazed neighbors as the old man muttered once again, âWho knows? Maybe it is good, maybe it is bad.â
Good or bad? Who can say? Sometimes it depends on your perspective and your faith. Consider our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles.
Coming across a slave girl with âa spirit of divination,â Paul frees her from her bondage âin the name of Jesus Christ.â But what is no doubt good fortune for the young girl is a financial disaster for her wily and rapacious owners, who have suddenly lost âtheir hope of making moneyâ from her soothsaying. They see to it that Paul, along with his companion Silas, is thrown forthwith into prison â an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events for these intrepid disciples of the Lord, who now find themselves sequestered in âthe innermost cellâ of the prison with âtheir feet in stocks.â
An earthquake â then as now a terrible and unpredictable calamity â becomes the disciplesâ unlikely means of escape and the return of their good fortune. But their impending flight from captivity, and that of the others imprisoned with them, brings their duteous jailor to the point of despair and suicide, until Paul swiftly intervenes and introduces him and his household to faith in âthe Lord Jesus.â The warden âand his entire householdâ are then âbaptized without delay,â and all rejoice in their newfound faith and the blessings it represents.
All in a dayâs work, we might say, for Paul and Silas â disciples of profound faith and determination. What seems misfortune and adversity one minute is the very next minute revealed by the grace of God to be the means of deliverance and salvation not only for Paul and Silas but for those whom they encounter as well.
In some ways things have probably not changed that much in two thousand years for people of faith. Just as in the time of the Apostles, the vicissitudes of everyday life today are such that none of us can count on lasting good fortune â or thankfully, bad. Sometimes in the middle of things, we cannot even tell which is which. Our heads spin at the pace of change in our world, in our lives, and in our church. Who can say from one moment to the next what is good and what is bad? What is the Lordâs doing, and what is not?
Many folks, for instance, who just two or three short years ago were productively employed and enjoying the fruits of their labors, now find themselves unemployed and looking for work â in some cases even homeless â victims of forces beyond their easy control. Still, we know from experience that times of adversity are often also periods of great energy and creativity â for society as a whole and for us as individuals.
Most of us can probably tell of instances in our own lives when apparent hardship or tragedy brought in its wake opportunity and prospects we might never have otherwise experienced had it not been for what we at first mistook for unmitigated misfortune. Who can tell, really, what blessings may ensue from todayâs hardships and perils?
Perhaps there is wisdom after all in the attitude of resignation of the old farmer in the tale. Who can ever say for sure what is good luck or bad? Sometimes the wheel of fortune is more than just a game show on television. Yet Christians have more than quiet resignation to blind fate or destiny to fall back on. For, while acceptance of divine predestination has been an important element of some Christian traditions for centuries, it has never kept genuine people of faith from prayer, hope-filled trust in the Lord, and acts of mercy.
The words of the Book of Revelation â arguably one of the more weighty works of the New Testament â are as profound and rich today as they were the day they were written. âI am the Alpha and the Omega,â proclaims the Christ of the ages in our second reading today, âthe first and the last, the beginning and the end.â Good fortune and bad may be part of our human vocabulary and experience, but they say little about the Lordâs all-encompassing and unending love and compassion, which forever transcend our limited human realm of change and chance.
There is nothing under the sun that is not part of Godâs plan for us, Godâs people. There is nothing that can keep us from Godâs love. To know this brings more than abject resignation to fate, more even than quiet reassurance amid the âchanges and chances of this mortal life.â To know Christ is beyond fortune or destiny. It is the Good News proclaimed by our Lord throughout the gospels. It is the fulfillment of his ardent prayer today in the Gospel of John, that we all âmay become completely oneâ in him and the Father.
To know Christ and the Fatherâs love is life itself.