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May 6, 2011

Does Anything Happen “by Chance”?

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Jesus uses an expression in a parable that may very well undermine the standard Christian belief that God controls the world and directs the affairs of human history. We might believe that surely nothing can happen “by chance” in God’s world, but that may not be the case. Virtually everyone knows the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-35). A traveler was set upon by bandits, who stripped and assaulted him, leaving him beside the road for dead. Subsequently three other travelers pass down that same road. Jesus introduces the first traveler, a priest, like this: “now by chance a priest was going down that road…” (Luke 10:31). The expression “by chance” floods the story with randomness. The expression informs the reader that only by coincidence was the first traveler a priest. Actually, it could have been anyone. In other words, Jesus did not deliberately select a priest as the first traveler—his choice was simply at random.

     Lest you think this explanation of the first traveler is misguided, the second traveler down that road, a Levite, is introduced by “so, likewise” or “so, in the same way,” signaling that this traveler too is a random pick as a character in the story. The expression, by chance, means that the characters in the story are random picks. They were not carefully planned; they were simply the “luck of the draw” (a card game metaphor) or the “roll of the dice” (a craps metaphor). The expression by chance means that the characters priest, Levite, Samaritan could have been anyone in any order. The expression subverts the story, for it might have been a priest—or even a Roman soldier, who tended the wounded man. The expression by chance challenges any interpretation of the story that focuses on the named characters—and incidentally ruins a few sermons I have heard (and some I have preached).

     The biblical view of reality is that everything happening in our world occurs according to the will of God—however unclear or murky the future may be, God is working in all things to bring about a good outcome (Romans 8:28), or if need be, to bring punishment and suffering (2 Chronicles 7:13-14). A song writer of the 19th century, Maltbie Babcock, expressed this absolute Christian confidence in God’s control of the world this way:

This is my Father’s world
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet.

God is the Ruler, and nothing happens without his deliberate or permissive will.

     We usually explain what appear to be glitches in the divine control of the world by exclaiming (with Paul) “how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33). That is, we may not understand the whys and wherefores of what happens, but we have absolute confidence that God, nevertheless, is in control.

     So how should one understand the “randomness” introduced into this story by the word chance? Even as a part of a biblical story the word chance threatens the idea that God controls everything, for it affirms that not even in the Bible is everything deliberately set.

     Am I reading too much into these two words appearing in one fiction narrative? Possibly—but maybe not. The writer of Ecclesiastes does not think that everything happens according to the foreknowledge and will of God; rather, some things just happen. Some things simply fall “between the cracks,” and are not part of God’s grand design; some things just happen—by chance.

     The writer of Ecclesiastes affirms that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to the intelligent “but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). In short, sometimes the swiftest runners do not win the race for unanticipated reasons, and for the same unpredictable reasons the strongest warriors lose the battle. All of us, the writer of Ecclesiastes affirms, are subject both to the vicissitudes of time (aging, I suppose) and the unpredictability of chance—a concept that is shared by ancient and modern human beings alike. Other uses of the word chance found in the Bible describe events thought to occur by coincidence, rather than at the deliberate behest of God (Deut 22:6; 1 Sam 6:9; 2 Sam 1:6; 1 Cor 15:37).

     I suppose that many of us at one time or another have found ourselves “between the cracks” with a growing sense of unease about God’s absence—which is where Job found himself (Job 23:3-7; 30:17-21). Throughout the dark night of his soul Job had only his integrity, which he refused to surrender (Job 27:3-6). His friends were full of pious platitudes, but Job would embrace none of their easy answers, and said to his counselors: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all! (Job 16:2-3). To have accepted their easy answers of pious faith would have cost Job his integrity, and he steadfastly refused to admit that his suffering was due to sins he had committed.

     Job is the epitome of a modern human being who stubbornly clings to a questioning faith, refusing to surrender personal integrity by repeating the shibboleths of traditional faith. And the writer of Ecclesiastes, a person of non-traditional faith, was honest enough to admit that we live in a world of unsettling contingency. Many of us find ourselves in their sandals today: carefully negotiating the tension between traditional faith and critical reason while refusing to surrender personal integrity.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:08pm

There seem to be three possibilities:
1. All things are by chance.
2. Nothing is by chance.
3. Some things are by chance.
I lean toward the third possibility.
Posted by Russell Keeling on 5/7/2011 at 10:17am

Charlie, you have a real aptitude for opening a can of worms.

Posted by Edward R. Smith on 5/7/2011 at 8:33am