Saturday, August 27, 2016

Whether Pigs Have Wings

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, an Episcopal priest and spiritual writer, tells of a flock of guineas she had at one time.  There was one little guinea hen that the other hens refused to allow among their number.   The little hen, shunned and picked on by the others, would try her best to fly up to where they were perched, but they would never let her perch with them.  Finally she just wandered off and never came back, dying, I suppose you might say, of a broken heart.

            There is something pretty deep in our animal nature that tries to protect status, and, when status is denied or out of reach, desperately craves it.  Human beings are always talking about three things:  inclusion, affection, and control.  Nearly everything we do and many if not all words out of our mouths are not far from those three things:  inclusion, affection, and control. 

            So when Jesus gives his fellow dinner guests a commentary on humility, it might sound tame but it cuts with diamond hardness to the heart of the biggest challenge for the human animal.  Sure, one might argue that humility comes naturally to some.  And others might point out that even lower animals frequently intuit how to behave humbly.  No doubt genetics plays a role in fashioning some to be naturally submissive and deferential—if that is the same as humble.  But the fact remains that an overwhelming number of us obsesses on status, rank, privilege.  If we don’t have it, we tend to admire those who do.  Perhaps you have noticed, as have I, that when a person puts on a uniform of some sort or wins a position of recognized authority, in, let’s say, the Department of Motor Vehicles, she or he takes special delight in showing all the people who wait in long lines exactly who is boss.  There is nothing particularly odd about this.  It is primate behavior, and, as the guinea hens show, deeper even than primate behavior.  It is animal behavior.

            Some say that Jesus calls us to rise above our animal inclinations.  I am not so sure that is true.  What I believe is true is that Jesus calls us to be fully aware of who we are.  Taken on the whole, the Good News is that we are creatures who can be conscious of our capacity and our vocation to share God’s life. 

            I grew up on a farm outside a small South Carolina town.  My dad raised hogs.  My first acquaintance with hogs was when I was about 8 years old.  Daddy bought a sow who after a few weeks delivered quite a litter.  Always one to make connections, I began to relate to the new pigs as if they were pets.  One little pig was my favorite.  I would convulse with laughter when, after he was weaned, he would get into the trough with the wheat shorts we fed them and roll around as he slurped.  For a long time I thought that was the nature of pigs—to roll around in mud or food oblivious to anything but filling their bellies.  Many years later after I had long since left home, Daddy told me a story about pigs.  He said he noticed during the late summer one year that every morning, some of his shoats would maneuver out of their pen and trot across a bridge into a garden fairly well concealed from the house.  A while later, they would cross the bridge and return to their pen.  Strange, he thought.  After several mornings noticing that, Daddy went to investigate.  He found that the pigs had discovered his grapevines. 
Duroc piglets, the kind Dad raised
Having eaten all the grapes on the lower of two tiers, the pigs had figured out how to get to the upper vines.  Some of them stood together and let some of their brethren climb on top of their backs.  After a few moments, they would swap places, so all the pigs eventually got to eat some of the grapes.  And, of course, they moved their pyramid down the line as they wiped out all the grapes in one spot and needed another.

            To be sure, this story, which I might not even believe if it weren’t straight my father’s mouth, is no indication of a higher nature among pigs, just evidence that they are a lot smarter than sometimes we imagine.  And certainly it attests to there being a lot more to swine than the mud-wallowing and greedy eating that we associate with them.  And maybe that is not totally dissimilar to what people need discover about being people.  Groomed by a self-centered society, schooled in the touted benefits of competition, we frequently scramble for status, acceptance, prestige, power, control, and lots of things to reassure us that we’re hot shots, or at least relatively acceptable.  Whole industries exist to convince us that we are not as beautiful, as thin, as muscular, as young, as smart, as up-to-date as we should be.  We buy into the ongoing narrative that something is the matter with us, something that needs to be fixed lest we not be OK. 

            But there is more to us than the impulse to be self-serving.  Traditional language puts it in the phrase, “We are created in the image of God.”  I would go further.  I would say that the entire thrust of the gospel is that we are the image of God, and God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place, God’s partners, God’s tools, God’s means of expression.  That is why we keep talking about God, even when we can’t believe that there is anything to what we are saying.  And to be like God, in Jesus’ terms, is to be generous, to stop obsessing over status.  The paradox of God is that God voluntarily limits God’s self in order get down, down, down into the muck and mire of creation.  That is the story of Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, thought equality with God was not something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born as a human, humbling himself—to the point of embracing mortality, accepting death, and not just any death, but a death of indescribable suffering, death on a cross.  [Philippians 2:5-8]  The entire movement of the incarnation (the Word of God made flesh) is a movement from high to low and then to lower and then to lowest in order that all might be raised and given new life.

            That puts this teaching about scrambling for places of honor in perspective, doesn’t it?  We are not talking about ordinary human courtesy, though that isn’t a bad idea.  We are talking about a sharp overhaul in attitude—a full realization of what we are capable of deep down in our souls.  It is nothing less than to share in the amazing humility of our generous and loving Lord, who for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might share riches that are far beyond the perks of this world.

            If Daddy’s pigs could only talk, I wonder if they would come back and look at us quizzically wondering why we haven’t yet seemed to figure out that sometimes you can get more grapes  

by taking turns at being on the bottom.

            Pigs get a bad rap, even in the Bible.  Sometimes the least likely beings are the wisest teachers.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

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