St Francis. Applecross. Luke 10.25-37. Jonah 1.1-2.1; 2.10
Our readings today bring us to the core of our faith: the great commandments,
neighbourly love, resurrection, and eternal life.
And it is SO significant that the lawyer asks Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He does not ask what he must do to gain eternal life - because of course as a mortal
person, he cannot do anything at all to affect eternity. But the life eternal is his
birthright, as it is ours, because God has created us heirs to the Kingdom and made us
her adopted children. How we respond to this eternal gift is up to us.
Now, the exact question asked by the lawyer, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, is
also asked by a ‘certain ruler’ later in the Gospel of Luke. In his reply there Jesus
summarises the old law and then explains what the ruler is lacking, even if he does
follow this law – he must sell all he owns and distribute the money to the poor. And this,
after a boisterous youth, is the response to the gift of eternal life which St Francis, who
we celebrate today, chose. It is the response some women and men still choose today
when entering the Franciscan order.
But for those of us not called to serve God through this response, through selling all we
have and distributing the money to the poor, our Gospel today shows us another way,
that of neighbourly love. What is often overlooked though is the crucial role an animal,
most likely a donkey, plays in the parable: “Then he put him on his own animal”.
Without this animal, the Good Samaritan could not have been a such a good neighbour,
he could not have responded with practical compassion as fully as he did: the two
worked together, animal and human, to bring deliverance and life to the beaten and
And just as the animal is overlooked in most commentaries and discussion of this
parable, so too is the important role animals play in our lives. Over 2 billion people
depend directly, each day, in some way on animals to keep them alive, in farming, for
food, for protection. Billions more, me and you, depend on them indirectly every day.
Animals give us life, as we give them life.
But more than this interdependence between human and animals for the provision of
earthly life, animals and humans are bound together in our response to God’s gift of
eternal life, in the working out of our salvation.
Our first reading today shows Jonah as a type, a prefiguring of Christ – he is swallowed
and disappears from the land of the living for three days and nights. And the agent God
uses for his deliverance from the sea – the traditional Jewish symbol of chaos and
destruction – the agent is an animal: “the Lord provided a large fish”. He returns to life
when God speaks to the fish – and the Hebrew word used here is the same as when, at
the very start of the Bible, God speaks, saying, let there be light and there was light.
Jonah’s redemption, return to the dry land of the living is dependant on the word of
God, as is the entire universe, but it is worked out through an animal. This shows God’s
design that humans and animals are somehow, mysteriously bound together in our
This is why we find the Apostle Paul writing that creation, animals and all the created
world, waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Our unfolding in
God, our response to the gift of eternal life, is crucial not for just ourselves, but for all
creation, for all animals.
As part of this indivisible salvation of all things - animals, like humans, like Saints such as
Francis and ourselves, can at times show forth eternity in the world. Animals can
become bridges between the sacred and the ordinary, collapsing the boundaries
between the two.
There are countless examples of this – footage of a dog crossing a busy motorway,
risking his own life, to save another injured dog, dragging her to safety. A pregnant cat
breaking into a drug addict’s home, birthing under his bed, giving him hope and little
ones to care for, transforming his life, getting him off the meth. You will know many
more – times when we are touched, directly or indirectly by the love and power of
animals, times when the depths of our souls, not just our mind our emotions, are stirred.
When I was a teenager my mother looked after injured birds, birds who were hurt
mostly through traffic accidents. One day she brought home a magpie, and I helped, as
best I could, to settle her and care for her. She could not stand and lay barely breathing
in the cage, eyes mostly closed. After some time, I left her and went to watch TV. Then
after a while, I suddenly found myself up and walking back to her – one of those
moments of intuition we all have, when we act without thought or reason, and it is
always the right thing to do. As I returned and looked into the cage, the magpie, stood
up, for the first time. She looked me deeply in the eyes, her expression conscious and
clear and she made that beautiful magpie warble, and then, calmly, and easily, died.
The divine, the holy space, the heaven we are all drawn towards, broke through and was
made real on an ordinary patio in suburban High Wycombe. God spoke through that
magpie, as she can speak through all animals, as she has spoken through the animals we
know and have known.
And so, knowing that our lives are bound together before God, let us pray that that all
the animals here, and all who we know and have known, may through God’s grace feel
our love for them and know their place within our forever hearts. And knowing our
mutual reliance on God, we pray that we all, animals, and humans alike, respond as God
calls us to, as neighbours to one another, bringing each towards the inheritance of
eternal life, as promised by God.