A farmer, working in his field, noticed his horse was sickly. Feeling compassion for the animal, he let it free to live the rest of its life in the mountains. Friends of the farmer noticed that he was working his land without the help of his horse. “How will you continue to grow your crops?” they asked. “How terrible!” To which the farmer responded, “Maybe. We shall see.”
Two weeks later the horse returned, rejuvenated by its time away. It was accompanied by 11 other horses, all healthy and well. The neighbors gasped; “What luck! You are so fortunate!” “Maybe,” said the farmer, “We shall see.” The next day, the farmer’s son went to the corral to ride one of the horses. He was thrown and broke his leg. The same neighbors expressed sympathy. “You poor man! You will never be able to harvest enough without the help of your son.” Again, the farmer said, “Maybe. We shall see.”
Soon after that, war broke out. The injured son could not join the army, as his broken leg had left him with a limp. This meant that, once he was healed, he could help his father on the farm. None of the other farms had workers to bring in the harvest, so the farmer and his son became very wealthy. They were generous to the villagers, who all exclaimed, “You must be very happy! How fortunate you are!” And again, the farmer replied, “Maybe. We shall see.”
This famous parable is attributed to the Zen Buddhist tradition. And while there are certainly aspects of Zen Buddhism that differ from Christianity, elements of this tale could be helpful as we continue to know chaos in our individual and collective experience. The story highlights that no state of being is final; we should not expect that either times of tragedy or times of joy will be universalized and permanent—in this lifetime, at least. And our faith assures us that God is present throughout: replenishing and sustaining us when we feel all is well and faithfully working amid pain and death to offer us new life.