God and the Animals: All Creatures Great and Small
Where the wild things are ...
Shortly after his baptism, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and there, according to the Scriptures, "he was with the wild beasts." Now what do you suppose Jesus was doing with those wild beasts? As we confront the wild and wooly events of our world, as we face up to all the strange and bewildering things that make our society sometimes seem like a jungle, it might profit us to consider what lessons lurk behind this suggestive phrase from St. Mark's gospel. Whether we are at the beginning, the middle or the very end of our terrestrial safari, we might all of us learn a thing or two from our Lord's experience with those wild animals, those birds of the air, those beasts of the field, those creatures real or fantastic that he encountered in the wilderness of Judea.
Clearly ours is an age of ecological consciousness, when we are increasingly concerned with the survival of many endangered species. We are aware of our participation in a single, ecological system. We are aware that a civilization which allows many wild beasts to enter into extinction may prove equally wasteful of human life. But these things we are learning from the secular world, and from scientific discover. Equally important for people of faith, there is a strong biblical warrant for recognizing our kinship with the animals. We are challenged to learn of them and from them as we shape our lives together under the rule of God. We are challenged to follow the footsteps of our Lord into the wilderness where the wild things are.
From the very beginning to the very end of the scriptures it is clear the animals have a large part to play in the story of salvation.
Case in point #1: Genesis, Chapter 1, The Creation. On the sixth day God created both animals and humanity. On the very day that Adam and Eve were brought forth, God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures, according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds." And after God had created all these living creatures, God stood back, "And God saw that it was good." So our kinship with the animals is not so much a lesson taught by modern day ecology, it is a lesson rooted in the authority of these scriptures which precede all our ecological science by several millennium.
Case in point #2: The great commission which Jesus gave to the disciples as the culminating act of his ministry and the consummating act of our ministry, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." And Mark adds, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation." Or as the King James renders it, "Preach the gospel to every creature." In a moment we'll see that the gospel requires more than simply preaching to the animals, but for now,
Case in point #3: God's Kingdom is for all creatures. At the very end of the scriptures, as we are given that fantastic vision of the culminating moments of history itself, John paints this scene. He sees the Christ figure on a throne of adoration, and around him the multitudes. It is not alone the human family which gathers at that hour, but as John puts it: "I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, "To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and power for ever and ever! Amen!" (Rev. 5:13) This passage clearly suggests that the animals join with us as fellow congregants in the worship and adoration of God.
Now what are we to make of all this? Are we to invite the lion and the tiger, the walrus and the whale to join with us in our churches on a Sunday morning? Not necessarily so. But we are to be aware of the larger world outside boundaries of this human family. We are alerted to the danger of turning inward and focusing upon problems that are clearly too parochial in nature. We are to avoid making of our religion into mirror in which all that we see is our own image and likeness reflected.
Jesus and the animals ...
Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness, where the wild things are, and he ended it, sounding a call to carry on his ministry within the context of this whole creation. Seeing the will of God written large in its widest dimension, Christ was able to put small things into perspective. And in sharing that sense of perspective with the disciples he frequently drew upon his experience in the animal kingdom.
For example, he criticized those scribes and pharisees who were overly concerned about trivia in these words, "Woe to you...for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith. You (are) blind guides, straining out the (smallest of insects) but swallowing a camel."
And following his encounter with the rich young ruler, he said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God, ... it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
And when the critics attacked him for carrying on his ministry of compassion even on the Sabbath, he cited our concern for animals as the baseline for putting the entire system of moral law into perspective. "Which of you, having an ass or an oxen that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?"
And Jesus sometimes took the behavior of animals as a model for human behavior. When he counseled with his disciples on how they should conduct themselves he said, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, therefore be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves."
Citing these and many other biblical warrants I would suggest that ours is a ministry of, by, and for all creatures, great and small.
We are challenged to relate to God's whole creation recognizing that we have as much to learn as we have to teach. In fact, even the lessons we learn from the lowliest of creatures may be most relevant to our daily living. This the authors of inspired scriptures clearly recognized. For instance, the book of Proverbs contains a whole compendium of animal references, a virtual menagerie of lessons drawn from the animal kingdom. It counsels us to consider the strategies for survival employed by God's most humble creatures:
Four things on earth are small,
but exceedingly wise.
The ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in summer.
The badgers are a people not mighty,
yet they make their homes in the rocks.
The locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank.
The lizard you can pick up in your hands,
yet it finds a home in the palaces of
See how these ancient lessons still apply. Like ants, there are times when we might be feeling quite small, but working together in a community of faith, we can accomplish many things which would otherwise be completely impossible. Sometimes like the badger, we may feel shunted aside and ignored, yet if we persist in our faith, we may find that it is possible to make a home even in the most rocky and uninviting soil. Like the locusts, we may not have a high and mighty leader who can tell us what to do or where to turn in any situation of peril, but as we remain open to the call of the Spirit that beckons from within, then we may move forward in the cause of Christ marching like a mighty army. And even a small group of committed Christians can badger the hell out of the principalities and powers of this planet, as Nelson Mandela and the others in South Africa have so clearly demonstrated in our day and age.
And then there remains of course the lesson that is relevant in moments of desperation when even the hard work of the ant, the persistence of the badger, or the discipline of the locust seem to fail. There's that rather crude word of hope which the author of Ecclesiastes shared with all of us who are sometimes so tired and discouraged that we are feeling like dogs. "A living dog is better than a dead lion."
Then there is the lesson of the dove. A lesson not to be forgotten by any Christian, a word of wisdom spun into poetry by the psalmist. It's the biblical antidote for burnout, the recognition that there are times when what we really need is a day of rest.
Oh that I had wings like a dove.
I would fly away and be at rest;
Yea, I would wander afar,
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would haste to find me a shelter
from the raging wind and the
And where might such a shelter be? It could be a shelter in time. A day of relaxation and rest woven into our weekly calendars. It could be shelter in space. A place of quiet and beauty where we find the opportunity for meditation and prayer. But above all, its the shelter of the Holy Spirit, which hovers and broods over us all, making it possible whenever the trials of the world seem overwhelming to find peace and protection, "in the shadow of thy wings."
So in conclusion, each of us is called to a ministry of, by, and for all creatures, great and small.
We are to be involved in a mission in which we learn from our fellow creatures as well as teaching. We are to listen, not just to the commands of the high and the mighty, but to the voice of the lowly and the least. And we are called to learn something about our Creator in the beauty of creation. So that from these lessons, our whole life of faith may continue to grow wider and wider in its perspectives.
"Look at the birds of the air," said Jesus, and in looking at the birds of the air, it is perhaps the eagle which captures our imagination and offers the greatest inspiration. For in its care for the young the eagle gives us a most vivid illustration of God's own love. "Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone shall lead us." (DT 32:11ff.)
By the power of the Holy Spirit God enables us to become the people we are meant to be. So that all of us can learn at last the lesson of the eagle. "They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles."
Oh Lord, let our hearts be open to share in a ministry of, by, and for all creatures, great and small. Let none of us think of ourselves as living on a level so far above our fellow creatures that we forget our kinship with the lowliest in your creation, and let none of us think of ourselves as so lowly that we have not the faith to wait upon the Lord, to renew our strength, to mount up with wings like eagles.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.