We’re approaching the end of the Season of Creation, which concludes with Francis of Assisi Day on Tuesday, October 4. Many churches around the world celebrate Francis of Assisi day with a Blessing of the Animals service. At St. Peter’s in Kaikoura, it’s a highlight of the year.
Scripture itself encourages us to listen to the animals. Consider the famous case of the talking donkey in Numbers 22:22-33. In this rather strange episode, the king of Moab tries to enlist the help of a holy man named Balaam to defeat the Israelites. Balak, the king of Moab, asks Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Balaam saddles up his donkey and goes. Jude describes his error as a "rush for profit" (Jude v11).
While on their way, the donkey sees something Balaam can’t: the angel of the Lord standing in the road in front of him, sword in hand. The donkey does her best to keep Balaam from being hacked to pieces. Instead of being grateful, Balaam beats her with a stick. That’s when the donkey speaks. We read: “the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answers the donkey, “you have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
With these words, the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes and he can see the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. The angel tells him that had his four-legged friend not turned away, he would certainly have been killed. In other words, Balaam was saved from destruction by listening to the aggrieved voice of an animal.
What might this story have to say to us today? I wonder if we, like Balaam, are blind to the dangers that lie ahead? I wonder what warning we might hear from the animals, if we pay attention. I think of the 2001 tsunami in South East Asia and how the animals knew to head to the hills before the tsunami hit.
Kevin Durrant offers this reflection on this passage:
“We pollute our atmosphere, destroy our environment, clear our forests, drive plant and animals species to extinction, and consume oil and gas at a rate that cannot be sustained. Yet we seem to be oblivious to the dangers that await us along this road. Like Balaam, our blindness is caused by our affluence. The desire for material prosperity prevents us from seeing the sword-wielding angel. But it’s worse than that. Like Balaam, we seem willing to allow other people to suffer in order for our comfortable lifestyle to be maintained. The wealth we enjoy in our more prosperous part of the world is at least partly the result of other nations being cursed—cursed with unfair trading arrangements that ensure their exports cannot compete with ours; cursed with being bullied by multinational companies who exploit their natural resources without proper recompense or care; cursed with the terrible effects of a warming climate and an economic recession that they did little to create. Balaam was willing to curse the poor, homeless Israelites in order to secure his own material prosperity. Are we in the twenty-first century all that different? As Christians, Jesus calls us to pronounce a blessing on the poor, not a curse. He wants us to join him in saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” And then, he wants us to join him in doing something to make that blessing a reality. (Kevin Durrant, The Earth will Teach You, pp. 6-7).
Is there a sword-wielding angel standing before us in this historical moment? Sometimes animals raise the alarm through a decline in their own numbers. That is a sobering thought given we're in the midst of a sixth mass extinction episode. How might the animals in our world — perhaps especially the ones going extinct — open our eyes to see the danger ahead? As our eyes are opened, may we hear again the invitation to tend and keep the Garden of God's creation.
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We have invited these writers to share their experiences, ideas and opinions in the hope that these will provoke thought, challenge you to go deeper and inspire you to put your faith into action. These articles should not be taken as the official view of the Nelson Diocese on any particular matter.