- Written by Mark Diller Harder Mark Diller Harder
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“Consider the Ravens”
‘Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.’ Did I hear that right? Consider the ... ravens?!? I always thought it was ‘consider the birds’, or wasn’t there even something about the sparrows??? Certainly not the ravens! What’s that about? I had never ever clued in before that there was this passage about considering the ravens. But there it was in front in me. We just heard it read out loud. It is such a familiar passage, but we always read it from the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. We don’t tend to read from Luke, where various parallel passages are scattered in a few different parts of his gospel. But Luke clearly names the birds to consider as ravens. What changes about this passage when it is about ravens?
Let’s start by simply considering what this bird is all about? We explored this a bit already in the children’s time. I am guessing that for birders, the Raven is not on the top sought after birds to put on their bird life lists. We did not strain our eyes looking for ravens in Mark Bauman’s backyard a few Sundays ago, and would have been disgusted if they came and took over the bird feeders. When I am travelling or in the wilderness, I get excited about seeing various bigger birds – blue herons, loons, eagles, owls, a sand hill crane, and even a wild turkey, but I have to admit that when I see a black raven or crow (I can’t tell the difference), I have not got all excited and grabbed my camera. I simply go on by.
Ravens have a bad rap. They are not ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ like other birds. Some call the birds ugly or downright scary and menacing. It doesn’t help that the bird is black and lacking in bright colours. It taps into our unconscious prejudices. Maybe we need a ‘black birds matter’ campaign.’ It is important to sing songs like ‘Joyful is the Dark,’ (HWB#233) and sing about the black silken plumage and beauty of a raven. Ravens are opportunistic – feeding on almost anything from berries to fruit to small insects and of course, to carrion, the decaying carcasses of dead animals. There are stories and studies of how ravens will follow and befriend wolf packs and clean up the dead remains of their kills. Ravens are associated with death. People even describe their croak as sounding like death. They have been seen as bad luck and an omen for death, almost as if they could smell it coming. I read Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem ‘The Raven’ (written in 1845) this week, in which a Raven raps at the window and then perches inside upon a bust above the chamber door, dead still, haunting and watching with peering and piercing eyes, as the human character ponders and laments the death of his beloved Lenore. In response to each downwardly spirally and depressing question, the raven simply responds ‘Nevermore,’ until the man’s soul is filled with shadows. ‘Prophet!’ said I ‘thing of evil’ – prophet still, if bird or devil! – Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore...Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken! Take thy beak from out of my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’ (excerpts from poem) This poem is but one example of the history in story and myth and legend and literature of the raven as representing war, destruction, doom and death. Talk about a bird that conjures up anxiety. And Jesus says do not worry. Or is he saying, as Debbie Blue suggests, ‘Look straight into the black abyss of death and fear not?’ (Consider the Birds - A provocative guide to the birds of the Bible, Abingdon Press, 2013, p.193)
During my recent vacation to Manitoba for a family camping reunion at Hecla Provincial Park on Lake Winnipeg, I happened to hear 2 totally unsolicited stories about ravens. Funny how when your ears are attuned to a topic, you often hear about it. The first was from my nephew Dylan, who shared an Ojibway creation story about a raven getting greedy and trying to eat not just one but all three eggs in front of him. As the raven was eating the 3rd egg, the Creator turned his white feathers black and constricted his throat on the egg; thus the raven has a bulging neck and has made a croaking sound ever since. Ravens are known for their voracious appetite, and in many First Nations stories the ravens are the tricksters, getting themselves into trouble through their sneaky intelligence. The second story came from my cousin in law Judith, who told of an injured raven rescued to a cage at a Wildlife Sanctuary on Vancouver Island. The keepers would place enormous amounts of food in the cage each night that would remarkably disappear by morning. They finally put up cameras and discovered that this raven would communicate and call out to other wild ravens that would come to the cage to be fed by this trapped raven. In return, they would scavenge the grounds for anything shiny – coins, jewelry, a watch – and bring them back to this raven. They also noticed that whenever the raven would see a nearby caged animal dispose of the bones from their meal, within an hour, those bones would all be in the raven’s cage. This raven had developed a whole bartering system and community through its high level communication. Ravens are the most intelligent of birds, and they have a whole system of communication that can actually tell other ravens about objects or events at a distance. When you look deeper there is much to love about the raven. They are intelligent, adaptable, opportunistic; they are committed and devoted parents and family birds, mating for life. And they love to have fun, making acrobatic rolls in the sky, dropping and catching sticks from the air, and playing wild tricky games with each other. They can easily trick other birds and animals out of their food. There is a complexity about ravens. Much to consider.
With my curiosity peaked, I searched out how the raven is portrayed within Scripture. It has an inauspicious beginning. The raven is the first bird sent out by Noah as the flood waters are receding and ‘it went to and fro.’ (Genesis 8:6-7) Nothing more is said. But we certainly hear about the white dove, that symbol of peace and the Spirit, that goes out three times and gives Noah the confidence that the waters had subsided from the earth. The dove is the hero bird! Many commentators write that the raven’s mission failed, he did not live up to the test. Some traditions even say that was when the feathers were turned black as a symbol of the hated, dark, bad, sinner bird, a symbol of evil, in such contrast with the dove. There are other short references. Leviticus and Deuteronomy list ravens as unclean to eat. In Proverbs 30:17 the ravens pluck out the eyes of children that mock and scorn their parents, and in Isaiah 33:11 the raven stands watch over the ruin of Israel by the wrath of God. In Job 38:44 the young baby ravens cry out to God as they wander for food, presumably due to a negligent mother. The raven is not faring well. But then we get this passage in 1 Kings 17, where it is the ravens of all birds that bring food, meat, for Elijah to eat as the awful drought over Israel begins. They sustain him for several weeks. This is unexpected. Does being disparaged yourself bring about a certain compassion for others? God uses the raven, just as God often uses the lowly, unassuming, unexpected character to bring about God’s purposes. As Richard Nelson writes in his commentary on Kings, ‘The good news of the Bible is that God offers life in the midst of death.’ (First and Second Kings, Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1987) And it is the ravens that bring life.
All of us leading worship and preaching this summer, have been captivated by the Debbie Blue book, Consider the Birds, (Ibid) from which we have based this series. In reflecting on the raven, she uses the term ‘mixing’ or ‘mixed.’ Ravens are a mixture of bad and good, unclean and kosher, stories of death and stories of bringing life. This mixture is rich in complexity and layers of meaning. Like the raven, our lives are probably just as complex and mixed. We too are both saint and sinner. She writes ‘The enduring beauty of the Bible is due in part to its tendency to deconstruct itself... What is condemned in the text is very frequently redeemed in the text at a later time or different place. Maybe this redemption is even for the birds. Maybe the Word of God keeps rolling with grace so thick and unrelenting – it’s even for the raven. Jesus says, ‘Consider the raven’: God cares for this condemned and hated carrion-eating procrastinator. God makes sure it is fed. God is an indiscriminate feeder – of course, God will care for you. Innocence is not a prerequisite. ‘(Ibid, p.196). End of quote.
So we are back to the start – we are asked to consider not the cute, light-eating, little birds of the air with their need for a few tiny seeds, but the ravenous, complex, paradoxical, trickster, ‘mixed-up greedy glutton carrion eater’ bird (Ibid, p.201), frequently associated with death and much anxiety. God will feed even this bird. How much more will God feed us! Now that is shocking and radical. Jesus astounds us once again. Think about all the levels of need and anxiety and pressure in your world and your life. Think about all the levels of need and anxiety and pressure in our world. Feeding a little sparrow won’t cut it. But maybe God’s promise of feeding the ravens can speak to us. This carries some weight. God takes the raven, with all is history, with its complex mix of bad and good, with its hungry appetite for food and appetite for the kind of generosity we see in feeding Elijah, and uses the raven as an example of trust and faith.
Debbie Blue labels her chapter on the Raven ‘Failure and Trust.’ There is much in our world that feels like failure, falling short, disappointing ourselves and God. Our hunger and longing for justice, for redemption, for making things right, for a better world is deep and unquenched. Jesus asks us to trust. To trust that this hunger will be filled, to trust that God accepts all of who we are even in our failures, in our sinfulness, to trust that there is a deeper purpose for our world, to trust that life can come out of death, to trust that God is ultimately in control and providing light and hope and life. ‘How much more value are you than the birds, than this raven? Can you add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.’ Yes, consider the ravens. In all the mixing and mixed-up-ness of our lives, open yourself to trust. Open yourself to God. Open yourself to be fed, just like the raven. God will feed you! God never will forsake in need the soul that trusts in him. Amen.