By Robert Ellwood, The Peaceable Table
Stories and sayings involving animals do not surround the figure of Jesus as much as, say that of St. Francis of Assisi or the Buddha, especially in the latter's previous lives, or even the Prophet Muhammad and his beloved cat, Muezza.
Yet they are there, and some are very significant. We will here just present a representative sampling, saving fuller discussion for later.
Accounts in the Canonical Gospels
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." (Matt. 10:29) "It [the Kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches." (Luke 13:19) These sayings tell us that that which is small and little-regarded by society nevertheless has value to God, potential for greatness.
"I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11) By society's standards, it is almost always the sheep whose life the owner takes to benefit himself; but God is working to turn our upside-down world right.
And, in congruence with this statement, we have the parable of the lost sheep: a shepherd with a hundred sheep goes after one that was lost, "and when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'" (Luke 15: 3-7)
And the seemingly ungracious metaphorical words of Jesus to the Greek Syrophoenician woman who had asked him to heal her daughter: "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs,"But she replies, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's broken pieces." And Jesus' more gracious reply: "For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter." (Mark 7:27-29) Jesus seems to have been willing to learn a great lesson from this woman about the breadth of God's love for humans; perhaps for animals also?
Then, in his Jerusalem ministry, we see the overturning of the tables of the moneychangers, and the chairs of those who sold pigeons for sacrifice (notice that he doesn't knock over the tables with the confined birds on them!)-- (Mark 11:15) -- and climatically, the entry in the Holy City on the back of a donkey. Matthew tells us "this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet (Zechariah, 9:9), saying
Tell the daughter of Zion
Behold, your king is coming to you.
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a fine poem, which has always been a favorite of
mine, put in the mouth of that donkey. The narrator describes him- or
her-self as born under strange omens, as monstrous, but as having a wondrous
secret: there was an hour, fiercely sweet, when he bore the Christ.
These sayings and narratives all have in common an implicit recognition of subjective feeling on the part of the bird or animal -- the sparrow's fate is known to God, the dogs are fed -- whether or not that is the main point. The Good Shepherd image is even revolutionary. Against them must be set others in which that is not the case. Interestingly all these latter cases involve larger bodies of water, and a farming and fishing society's instrumental view of animals is presupposed. Possibly the ultimate background is the ancient Near-Eastern tendency to view the sea-- including fresh-water seas like Galilee -- as representing chaos, as it were creation not yet fully formed, and potentially threatening to swallow up that which has form. These latter incidents are all miracle-stories, generally involving nature as well as healing; some might consider them parables acted out by Jesus.
The first and perhaps most important symbolically is the incident in the
country of the Gerasenes, where Jesus met a man possessed of many demons
called "Legion"--significantly, the name of a basic detachment of Roman
troops. Jesus cast them out, liberating the man; whereupon the demons begged
him not to send them into the abyss, but to let them enter a herd of swine
nearby. He gave them leave to do so, and then "the herd rushed down the
steep bank into the lake and were drowned." (Luke 8:26-33) Thus, like
Pharaoh's horsemen in the Exodus, the Legion is swallowed by the sea as the
oppressed victim is liberated. As we have pointed out before in PT, this
story need not be taken as history, one reason being that in fact pigs can
Another cluster of incidents, all having to do with fish as caught for
food: in debate over whether Jesus should pay taxes, the teacher implied
that he need not, but so as "not to give offense," told Peter to catch a
fish from the sea, "and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take
that and give to them for me and for yourself." (17: 24-27). (Most mainline
New Testament scholars agree that this story is also nonhistorical.) Then
there is the famous story of feeding the five thousand in the wilderness
with five loaves and two small fish (Matt. 14:17 ff.), echoing Israel's
extended founding story of being fed in the wilderness by God. Lastly, in
the final chapter of the Gospel of John, we find the account the miraculous
draught of fishes. The resurrected Lord, standing at daybreak on the banks
of the Sea of Tiberias, called out to the disciples who were fishing in a
boat, asking if they had caught anything. When they said they had not, Jesus
told them to throw their net on the other side of the boat. It was suddenly
so full of fish they could not haul it on board, but had to drag it to
shore, "full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them."
(Commentators suppose that number must have some significance, but to the
best of my knowledge no one is sure what it is.) There they met Jesus, with
bread and frying fish over a charcoal fire for their breakfast--a story that
echoes and affirms pre-Resurrection accounts, such as Luke 5: 3-7, of Jesus
helping his fisherman disciples. (John 21: 4-13)
We may now turn to animal narratives in apocryphal literature about Jesus. Some of these are quite interesting. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, tells us that as a small child, Jesus made sparrows out of clay, then gave them life so that the flew away. This story, with its allusion to the Creation acount, incidentally, is picked up by the Qur'an even though it is not in any of the canonical Christian gospels: "I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will create for you out of clay as the likeness of a bird; then I will breathe into it, and it will be a bird, by the leave of God." 1
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was popular in the Middle Ages, perhaps influencing the placement of domestic animals in Christmas Nativity scenes, tells us that when the newborn Jesus was placed in the stable, the ox and the ass continually adored him. Later, while traveling, Mary and Joseph with Jesus and other children met a dragon, which caused the other children to flee. But Jesus was unafraid and met the dragon, who worshiped him. Jesus said to his fearful parents, "Do not be afraid; and do not consider me to be a child, for I am and always have been perfect; and all the beasts of the forest must needs be docile before me." 2
Most impressive of all is a story from a Coptic fragment, of unknown
background but certainly from ancient times. It is worth recording in full:
"It happened that the Lord left the city and walked with his disciples over
the mountains. And they came to a mountain, and the road which led up it was
steep. There they found a man with a pack-mule. But the animal had fallen,
because the man had loaded it too heavily, and now he beat it, so that it
was bleeding. And Jesus came to him and said, 'Man, why do you beat your
animal? Do you not see that it is too weak for its burden, and do you not
know that it suffers pains?' But the man answered and said, 'What is that to
you? I may beat it as much as I please, since it is my property, and I
bought it for a good sum of money. Ask those who are with you, for they know
me and they know about this.' And some of the disciples said, 'Yes, Lord, it
is as he says. We have seen how he bought it.' But they Lord said, 'Do you
then not see how it bleeds, and do you not hear how it groans and cries
out?' But they answered and said, 'No, Lord, that it groans and cries out,
we do not hear.' But Jesus was sad and exclaimed, 'Woe to you, that you do
not hear how it complains to the Creator in heaven and cries out for mercy.
But threefold woes to him about whom it cries out and complains in its
pain.' And he came up and touched the animal. And it stood up and its wounds
were healed. But Jesus said to the man, 'Now carry on and from now on do not
beat it any more, so that you too may find mercy.' " 3
Andrew Linzey, in Creatures of the Same God, opines that though this
story is not from the first century, it may well contain a genuine
historical core. It is in keeping with the spirit of the gospels, presenting
Jesus as compassionate and a healer of those in pain; furthermore, it
presupposes his Jewishness, for it echoes the traditional Jewish precept
that an animal fallen under his or her burden must be helped. Alluding to
the Exodus, it tells us that God hears the cries not only of enslaved and
suffering human beings, but also of beasts of burden, to whom most
bystanders remain deaf--and takes action to deliver them.
Much more material could be gathered from other scriptural and apocryphal sources, including Islamic legends of Jesus and the long-lost Chinese "Jesus sutras" with their vegetarian Christianity (See Creatures of the Same God), but these must suffice for now.
No Single Picture
What can be learned from this survey?
It cannot be said that these varied accounts, from numerous sources over several centuries, offer an entirely consistent view of an attitude toward animals. Like the Hebrew scriptures / Old Testament, the Christian scriptures / New Testament and related sources do not present a totally God-suffused view of life, but rather portray life at least partly as we see it in this world, with all its confusion and ambiguity. Yet at the same time it is capable of receiving and bearing the grace of God -- even though the full import of grace received and borne within one may not always be understood.
Theologians such as Andrew Linzey who are concerned with animals rightly affirm, in my view, two principles which get at the heart of the gospel message, even if they were not always full comprehended at the start. These are that there is hope beyond despair even as we hear the whole creation, animals included, groaning and praying in anticipation of the consummation of all things; and that gospel ethics starts from universal unconditioned love, including love for all those who groan and pray even if not with human tongue.
Echoes of those principles can be heard in the limited source material here presented. Coherent or not, what does emerge at first glance is a picture of animals, from fish to fowl, from sheep to donkeys and fish: though lowly, and valued mostly for their economic benefit in a traditional rural society, nonetheless they can be bearers of crucially important messages about God and the world, about hope and neglect--and, supremely, about the importance of "the least of these" to a compassionate Creator.
- Andrew Linzey, Creatures of the Same God. New York: Lantern Books, 2009, pp. 64. A.J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted. New York: Macmillan, 1955, p. 80.
- Linzey, Creatures of the Same God, pp. 66-67.
- Linzey, Creatures of the Same God, pp. 60-61; Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010, pp. 108-09.