The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Consider the ravens

The raven makes its first appearance in Scripture in the Book of Genesis after the Great Flood. It was an “unclean” raven that was first dispatched from the ark by Noah. Large and black, carnivorous and voracious, greedy and plundering, solitary and restless, haunting and hoarse, this predatory bird is associated with death.

It makes sense that before Noah would dare to send out a “clean” dove to seek evidence of life on earth, he would first dispatch the death-seeking raven, which “went to and fro until the waters were dried up” (Genesis 8:7). One can picture the raven feeding on the floating carcasses around the ark, picking the earth clean, as it were. Unlike the returning dove, Noah did not bring the raven back into the ark.

The raven, according to God’s command to Moses, was among those animals considered unclean, “detestable among the birds,” an “abomination,” and unfit for human consumption (Leviticus 11:13-15). And yet, it was—and is—one of God’s creations. Before the rain began to fall, God commanded Noah to take the clean and unclean animals into the ark. God’s providence sheltered them all, and all had a part in his plan.

Two themes that are consistent throughout the Gospel of Luke are Jesus’ compassion and his demand that followers be absolutely detached from the wealth of this world. “Do not worry about your life,” he tells his disciples, urging them to store up eternal wealth in heaven. “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:22-34).

He says this after someone in the crowd asks him to intervene in a dispute over a family inheritance. Cautioning against greed, covetousness, and the false security offered by an abundance of possessions, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), whose entire focus was on his wealth and how to hold onto it and enjoy it. Not considering that a fool and his wealth are soon parted, as the saying goes, he plans to build larger storehouses for his surplus.

Turning to his disciples, who had given up all to follow him, Jesus goes a step further and encourages them to put their complete confidence in the care of God, who provides for all. Concern over the necessities of life—even food and clothing—is not to distract the disciples from their foremost mission of spreading the Gospel.

Most of this passage parallels the one in the Gospel of Matthew (6:19-34). Both make explicit references to King Solomon, who asked God only for wisdom and was given all else besides (1 Kings 3). His splendor paled in comparison to that of the lilies of the field, which neither toil nor spin, Jesus says in both gospels.

Drawing on another image, Jesus refers to the “birds of the air” in Matthew. However, in Luke he is more specific: “Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24; some translations use the word “crows” for “ravens”).

This specific reference to the raven can’t be accidental. The unclean raven, having no barns for stored wealth like the rich fool, and which must go “to and fro” to find food just as it did in Noah’s time, relies completely on God. The disciples—who are of much greater value—must do the same, for “who provides for the raven its prey when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food? He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry” (Job 38:41; Psalm 147:9).

Ultimately, Jesus is providing a lesson in faith to his disciples. If hungry, restless, unclean ravens are provided for; so will the disciples be.

Perhaps the author of Luke is also making another subtle allusion, one with a twist. In the Old Testament, after announcing to King Ahab a three-year drought to illustrate that it is God alone who governs life and death, the prophet Elijah is cared for by ravens, who bring him bread and meat at the command of God (1 Kings 17: 4,6).

Interestingly, the prophet Elijah, and after him, John the Baptist, have long been associated with monasticism as a prototypes, or forerunners, of sorts. In the Christian tradition, monks, like Elijah and John the Baptist before them, are those who experience God’s call to live apart from the world in order to witness to it that God alone governs life and death—and does so impartially and generously. By their way of life, which seems strange to many, monks seek union with God in the “desert,” so to speak, to put their trust in divine providence and demonstrate, as the Letter of James states, that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

And so, we honor God, acknowledge that we are not God, and cry out as in Psalm 119 (also the monastic profession formula), “Uphold me, O God, according to your promise, and I shall live, and do not confound me in my expectation.” In this way, to return to the Letter of James, we hope to fulfill God’s purpose of becoming “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (James 1:18), generating the same life-giving goodness for all.

For this reason, in artwork depicting monks, we often spot a raven or two. For example, if you read the legends of either St. Benedict or St. Meinrad, or look at paintings or sculptures illustrating those legends, you will discover that ravens caring for and protecting the saints. Ravens are prominent in the modern insignia of both Saint Meinrad Archabbey and her mother house, the Abbey of Maria Einsiedeln in Switzerland.

Those “detestable,” “unclean” birds are not only provided for by God, but play a part in his plan of salvation for all!

And most importantly, given all this, we should reflect on Jesus’ words: “Consider the ravens. Of how much more value are you than the birds! … Strive for [the Father’s] kingdom,” and all else will be provided, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:24, 31, 34).

Elijah Fed by the Raven, c. 1510,
Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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