Paraphrased from the medieval work, 'Gesta Romanorum'
I was struck by this little story, which explores how a loving God can permit evil. It reminds me a bit of the Book of Job, at the end of which God says (if I may paraphrase), "I am God. I know what I'm doing." That answer (which critics have found so offensive) has always been very comforting to me. I may not know what God is doing, but I know he is in charge, and that he is good. The Parson and the Angel is my title for this story, which I have paraphrased and frankly, tamed down a bit. I hope your enjoy it.
There once lived a parson who served in a remote village, doing his best to obey God and care for the people in his charge.
Then one day, near the village, a shepherd put his master's flock down for the night and then carelessly fell asleep himself. And while he slept, a robber quietly led away all his sheep. Awakening, the man ran to the owner of the sheep and told him of the theft. But the owner was furious and had the shepherd slain.
Hearing of the shepherd's death, the parson became angry and said, "Oh God, how could you permit this to happen? That poor shepherd should not have lost his life for a moment's carelessness. If you permit injustice to triumph, then why should I serve you? I will return home and live for myself as others do." So saying, he set off walking.
But God chose that the parson should not abandon his ministry and sent an angel to him in the appearance of a man.
"Friend, where are you going?" The angel asked.
"I am going home to live for myself," he replied.
The angel answered, "I will go with you, for I am an angel and God has sent me to accompany you."
"Well, angel," the parson said, "come with me if you please, but I shall no longer serve God."
So the parson and the angel walked until dusk, then stopped at an inn, where they were welcomed by the innkeeper, who fed them and gave them the best room in the house. But in the middle of the night the angel arose, took a brand from the hearth, and set fire to the inn.
The people at the inn barely escaped with their lives, and the parson, who saw what the angel had done, said to himself, "This is no angel of God! The innkeeper has been kind to us and he has burned down his inn."
But he was frightened and didn't say a thing; and the next day they traveled together to another town, where one of the chief citizens entertained them royally.
But that night the angel stole from their host a valuable gold cup.
The parson watched, and said to himself, "This is no angel of God; this is a lost angel. Our host has treated us well, yet he has robbed him." But he was frightened, and didn't say a word.
The next day they came to a river, and as they crossed the bridge they encountered a poor man walking to church in the nearby town.
"Friend," the angel said to the poor man, "which way do we go to reach the city?"
As the man pointed, the angel suddenly pushed him over the side of the bridge into the water, where he drowned.
"This is a devil!" the parson told himself. "This man has done nothing to deserve such a fate." He looked for a way to slip away from the angel, but finding none, and fearing him greatly, continued to walk with him.
That night they entered a town and knocked on the door of a house to ask for shelter.
"Please let us stay under your roof tonight," the angel said, "for the wolves may attack us if we remain outside."
"I don't want you in my house," the man said. "If you want a place to stay," he pointed, "there is a pig sty over there."
So they stayed in the sty with the pigs, but in the morning the angel went again to the door, and when the owner appeared, presented him with the golden cup he had stolen earlier.
As they walked away, the parson overcame his fear. "I don't want anything more to do with you!" he said. "You go your way and I'll go mine."
"Good friend," the angel said, "hear me out before you depart. It is true that the shepherd should not have been killed for loosing the sheep, but God allowed it because of crimes he committed earlier. And the owner of the sheep is even now repenting of the evil he committed.
"As for the inn; before the innkeeper inherited it, he was a generous man, giving selflessly to those in need. But when he acquired the inn, it became his idol. He became covetous and stingy, spurning the poor and using everything he earned to improve the inn in hopes of acquiring yet more wealth. But now he understands what the inn did to him, and has returned to following God.
"The man from whom I stole the cup was once a temperate man, but when he was given the cup he took far too much pleasure in it and drank from it so frequently that he was often drunk two or three times a day. But now he has quit his heavy drinking and is again the temperate man he once was."
"But what of the innocent man you drowned in the river?" the parson demanded.
"That man was a good Christian, but was about to fall into a terrible sin. Rather than permit one of his children to so deeply defile himself, God graciously commanded me to bring him home, where he now reigns in heaven."
"And the ill-natured man who refused us a bed for the night?"
"By God's mercy I gave him a valuable gift to enjoy, for he will have no enjoyment in Hell where he will soon abide.
"Friend," the angel said, "do not presume to call God to account, for he knows all things and does nothing without reason, though he may not choose to explain his actions to you."
Hearing this, the parson fell down before God and begged forgiveness, then turned and made his way back to his parsonage, where he became a good and faithful servant of God.