In a Brazilian folk tale called, “The Little Cow”, a master of Wisdom was walking through the countryside with his apprentice. They came to a small disheveled hovel on a meagre piece of farmland. “See this poor family,” said the Master. “Go see if they will share with us their food.”
“But we have plenty,” said the apprentice.
“Do as I say.”
The obedient apprentice went to the home. The good farmer and his wife, surrounded by their seven children, came to the door. Their clothes were dirty and in tatters.
“Fair greetings,” said the apprentice. “My Master and I are sojourners and want for food. I’ve come to see if you have any to share.”
The farmer said, “We have little, but what we have we will share.” He walked away, then returned with a small piece of cheese and a crust of bread. “I am sorry, but we don’t have much.”
The apprentice did not want to take their food but did as he had been instructed. “Thank you. Your sacrifice is great.”
“Life is difficult,” the farmer said, “but we get by. And in spite of our poverty, we do have one great blessing.”
“What blessing is that?” asked the apprentice.
“We have a little cow. She provides us milk and cheese, which we eat or sell in the marketplace. It is not much but she provides enough for us to live on.”
The apprentice went back to the Master with the meagre rations and reported what he had learned about the farmer’s plight. The Master of Wisdom said, “I am pleased to hear of their generosity, but I am greatly sorrowed by their circumstance. Before we leave this place, I have one more task for you.”
“Return to the hovel and bring back their cow.”
The apprentice did not know why, but he knew his Master to be merciful and wise and so he did as he was told. When he returned with the cow, he said to his Master, “I have done as you commanded. Now what is it that you would do with this cow?”
“See yonder cliffs? Take the cow to the highest crest and push her over.”
The apprentice was stunned. “But, Master …”
“Do as I say.”
The apprentice sorrowfully obeyed. When he had completed his task, the Master and his apprentice went on their way.
Over the next years, the apprentice grew in mercy and wisdom. But every time he thought back on the visit to the poor farmer’s family, he felt a pang of guilt. One day he decided to go back to the farmer and apologize for what he had done. But when he arrived at the farm, the small hovel was gone. Instead there was a large, fenced villa.
“Oh, no,” he cried. “The poor family who was here was driven out by my evil deed.” Determined to learn what had become of the family, he went to the villa and pounded on its great door. The door was answered by a servant. “I would like to speak to the master of the house,” he said.
“As you wish,” said the servant. A moment later the apprentice was greeted by a smiling, well-dressed man.
“How may I serve you?” the wealthy man asked.
“Pardon me, sir, but could you tell me what has become of the family who once lived on this land but is no more?”
“I do not know what you speak of,” the man replied. “My family has lived on this land for three generations.”
The apprentice looked at him quizzically. “Many years ago I walked through this valley, where I met a farmer and his seven children. But they were very poor and lived in a small hovel.”
“Oh,” the man said smiling, “that was my family. But my children have all grown now and have their own estates.”
The apprentice was astonished. “But you are no longer poor. What happened?”
“God works in mysterious ways,” the man said, smiling. “We had this little cow who provided us with the slimmest of necessities, enough to survive but little more. We suffered but expected no more from life. Then, one day, our little cow wandered off and fell over a cliff. We knew that we would be ruined without her, so we did everything we could to survive. Only then did we discover that we had greater power and abilities than we possibly imagined and never would have found as long as we relied on that cow. What a blessing from Heaven to have lost our little cow.” (1)
This story is not a prescription for how the church or society should treat economically disadvantaged, underprivileged people — by ignoring their plight and expecting them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Instead, I offer this story as an allegory, a parable, of whatever it is in our lives that keeps us bound, that keeps us stuck.
The cow, in the story, represents that which the farmer believed would help them survive in the big, bad world. And without it, they would be lost.
What is ‘the cow’ in your life? Whatever you believe you cannot live without. What keeps you bound, shackled in a sense? It may not appear or even be a bad thing. It can be the ‘best’ thing in your life, you will say! And that’s point of the fable.
The cow was the only thing, the best thing, the poor family had going. In our lives, it can be the relationship we have with our work. It can be a person. It can be some activity of our lives that we think we want and need. What is the ‘cow’ in your life — things to “let go ” of, either in church life or your personal lives, that would enable the freedom of God to operate?
Letting go of over-attachment to building? Property? Material riches? Some significant aspect of your financial portfolio?Clutching on to church programs and processes that have had their day, making room for something new?
It could even be your reputation, your status, or social position. Whatever it is …
If we should lose that, why would God want that for us? And when we do lose it, we may be angry at God for taking it away from us. We may shake our fists at God, walk away in disgust and anger, never to darken the door of a church again. We may be blind to the possibilities on the other side.
In the Gospel text today (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus travels to opposite side of Lake Galilee. He goes to what I will call ‘the other side’, where the people in the Gentile territory there respond to the miracle of exorcism with fear. The man they knew to be living on the outskirts of town, out of his mind, full of demons — now sat at the feet of Jesus “in his right mind” (v.35).
Odd as it may sound, we often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We can take a false sense of security from the patterns of our lives we learned to cope with over the years.
And we may fear what change — even change for health — may bring. Because that would mean losing that which we have grown accustomed, even cherished, for a long time. We keep ourselves from seeing the possibilities on the other side.
The truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ reverses the fortunes of those in low estate. The “good news to the poor” which Jesus announces in his inaugural speech (4:18) becomes a reality in the healings and exorcisms that follow in Luke’s Gospel.
But this freedom and health does not come without major disruption in people’s lives. This is the part we like to dismiss in our “feel good”, “prosperity-gospel” driven culture of church in North America.
Because to the people whose living depended on the pigs — those pigs who ran off the edge of a cliff to their deaths — their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds in the Gospel story are understandably afraid, too, even angry at Jesus. And despite the healing, they want Jesus to leave them (v.37).
The story demonstrates that the the Gospel brings upheaval and sets in motion powerful forces that will disrupt our lives.
At first, the good news of Jesus will not seem good to everyone. At first, our economic and social lives are put on their heads. At first, we will experience pain and suffering. We will need to surrender that which has given us a sense of security in life.
We cannot have Easter without “Good” Friday. The cross precedes the empty tomb. The way of salvation goes through suffering, not around it. We cannot avoid pain in our journey towards liberation, healing and salvation.
The good news is the promise that there is no darkness, no loss, no pit too deep that God will not go into, in order to carry us through to the other side.
(1) cited in Richard Paul Evans, “The Walk” Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2010, p.285-288