July 30, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, IX: God and Dog

Passage: Luke 16:19–31

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And at the rich man’s gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table;
even the dogs would come and lick his sores. —Luke 16:20–21

Jesus tells a little story about two men. One was poor, and one was rich. Jesus tells us that the poor man’s name was Lazarus. Poor as he is, he is the only character in any of Jesus’ stories who gets a proper name.

Jesus does not tell us the name of the rich man, but for centuries Church tradition has named him Dives, which is Latin for ‘rich.’ The rich man’s name is Richard, literally.

The poor man dumpster dives in the rich man’s opulent garbage. The rich man ignores the poor man. Both men die, and in the life of the world to come, their fortunes are reversed. Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham, and Dives goes to the fourth circle of hell.

Now this is one of Jesus’ finest little stories, dense with meaning and lesson for people such as we, but by concentrating on one of the story’s overlooked details, I want to turn the story in a direction Jesus probably never intended. I want to look at the dogs.

Jesus obviously made up this little fiction, but it actually gives us an accurate snapshot of one aspect of first-century Palestinian life: it shows us who the scavengers were.

Lazarus is poor, but he’s not lonely. On his daily quest for skimpy nutrition among Dives’ rich refuse, Lazarus is accompanied by dogs, and the Bible takes the trouble to point out that the dogs also lick Lazarus’s open sores. Scavengers will get calories wherever they can find them.

What I find interesting is that the dogs show Lazarus a touching intimacy that the rich man denied him. How does it happen that dogs show more mercy to Lazarus than his neighbor?

Now to be honest about it, I’m pretty sure Jesus never meant for the dogs to be a symbol of mercy and acceptance. Who knows if Lazarus welcomed the dog’s oral ministrations? Perhaps it irritated him, irritated his skin and irritated his mood; maybe he shooed the dogs away when he woke up to find his fellow scavengers violating his space in such an intimate and perhaps unwelcome manner.

The Bible, after all, is not in love with dogs like we are. Of the approximately 30 times dogs are mentioned in the Bible, all but one or two are negative. Dogs ate garbage and lapped up blood, anathema in the Jewish Holiness Code. The corpses of the dead who died shamefully and deserved no proper burial were left for the dogs to eat. In ancient Palestine, dogs were more pests than pets.

About 30 times. Not many, when you think about it. And almost all negative. It was one of the lowest insults you could level at a person: “You dog!” It’s still true today, even in a world besotted with dogs. When I’m playing tennis with my son, and I drive a perfect rally-ending forehand deep into the corner of his court, and he lunges for it and drops a cheap and anemic blooper that hits the tape and drops into my forecourt, and he has the nerve to boast about it rather than to apologize for it, I shout over at him, “You dog!”

The Bible’s not in love with dogs, but almost everyone else is. Did you know that the dog was the first animal human beings took the trouble to domesticate? Fifteen thousand years ago: way, way, way before cattle, sheep, and goats. Human beings were dog owners long before they were farmers or shepherds.

All dogs evolved from wolves, a much, much older species. As a discrete species, wolves are almost two million years old, dogs about 15,000. What’s the difference between a wolf and a dog, between canis lupus and canis familiaris? A dog is simply a wolf who will look you in the eye. Literally. A dog is a wolf who is not scared of you.

Like every other species, dogs evolved by natural selection, and in their case, the favorable attribute which, was fortified and clarified as it was passed down the generations was a certain fearlessness at the garbage dump. Wolves that dared to come close to humans got better garbage and perhaps the occasional handout, so after hundreds of generations and thousands of years, human beings eventually tamed these wild wolves and taught them to guard, hunt, retrieve, herd, and bark at trespassers; and the dog became man’s best friend. The dog, by the way, is the only canine that barks.

And so if you know that the dog was the earliest animal to be domesticated because it ate our garbage, can you guess what animal was next to be domesticated? Pigs eat our garbage, so they were next. Sheep and goats eat grass, so it took a lot longer for us to figure out that they could be useful too.

The creation myths of many ancient peoples show God going about the business of creating the world with a dog at his heels. In these ancient mythologies, the question of where the dog came from before God created everything else is left unasked and unanswered. The dog is just co-eternal with God; everybody knows that nobody does any important work without his best friend at his side, even God.

It’s just an accident of the English language—I think—but the word ‘dog’ is ‘god’ spelled backwards. In the mirror, ‘God’ is ‘dog.’ Well, almost. You’ve heard the old joke: What is a dyslexic insomniac agnostic? Someone who stays up all night contemplating the existence of dog.

So I’m not exactly sure what Jesus intended in his little story when he takes the trouble to point out that the dogs licked Lazarus’ sores, but based on my own experience of dogs, I’m going to read it as an emblem of canine mercy. The dogs did not pretend, like Dives, that Lazarus did not exist; they neither ignored nor neglected this sorry specimen of humanity, but dressed his wounds in their own crude way, doing what they could, something his human neighbor should have done for him perhaps, but never bothered.

They preferred the company of their fellow scavenger to that of the rich man ensconced safely in his lavish mansion. In his need and in his trouble, teetering at the far edge of a fragile existence, Lazarus was closer to their own scorned status, unwanted and homeless as they themselves.

The dogs are simply blind both to Lazarus’ poverty and to Dives’ prosperity, as dogs always are, and in their blindness, in their indifference to Lazarus and Dives’ relative status in the human pecking order, they at least approximate God’s own monumental indifference to human status or rank.

Unconditional love demands a certain blindness to rank, status, and condition. Unconditional love between human beings is not exactly impossible, but it is extremely rare. We all know we need it now and then. We all need someone who will love us not because of but in spite of who we are.

We praise unconditional love, but we’re also suspicious of it. As one theologian put it, such devotion without boundaries seems foolish and cowardly; it’s so easy to take advantage of.[1] What if your son is an unredeemed drunk who keeps falling off the wagon; should you love him without condition? What if your husband is a serial philanderer; should you love him unconditionally? What if your employee is an incurable cheat; should you love her without boundaries?

Unconditional love is both foolish and cowardly; perhaps that is why the only place you can really get it is, as they say, from God or golden retrievers. Only God and golden retrievers will love you infallibly. A dog will love you whether you are rich or poor, smart or stupid, beautiful or not so much. The vocabulary of human beauty is gibberish to a dog; the syntax of human rank and class and status is a foreign language he will never master.

A dog will love you whether you are old and wrinkled or young and clueless. A dog will love you whether you beat it or caress it, whether you abuse it or nurture it.

By the way, did you know that most golden retrievers are Presbyterians? The breed originated in Scotland in the latter years of the nineteenth century, so my guess is that most of them are Presbyterians, though a little friendlier than the austere Calvinists most of us are used to.

Some golden retrievers have converted to Catholicism. In my former hometown, Father Wissel was the Monsignor at St. Mary’s Church down the street from me. There were always two papist golden retrievers cavorting in the front yard of the rectory. Their names were Chase and Morgan. Up the turnpike at the Diocese of Bridgeport, Bishop Lori had two catholic golden retrievers: Barnes and Noble.

In her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert confesses to a certain bad habit of falling in love with the wrong men. She falls desperately in love with a New York actor named David, and admits that if she could think of a stronger word than ‘desperately,’ she would use it, and notices that she is driving him away by being a little too needy.

Finally she sees what’s wrong. She discovers that she is, as she puts it, the planet’s most affectionate creature, a cross between a barnacle and a golden retriever.[2] The clinginess of the golden retriever is about an inch away from that of a barnacle: I know this because I have a giant yellow furball attached to my knee wherever I go. I love it.

God and golden retrievers. Unconditional love seems so foolish and cowardly sometimes. But I wonder sometimes if we could learn something from God and golden retrievers, from Lazarus’s dogs and Lazarus’s God. I wonder if there’s anybody in your life who needs you to turn a blind eye to their scars and rags and disfigurements and lack of any meaningful standing in the class-conscious human community. I wonder if there’s some Lazarus in your life who could really use a little mercy just now. What’s the larger sin? Love that lasts too long? Or love that quits too soon?

A long time ago, I read a beautiful novel called The God of Animals. It’s about a 12-year-old girl named Alice growing up on a Colorado horse ranch where they have a riding school. Alice’s father Joe is far from perfect. At times he is indifferent to his two daughters, other times clueless, sometimes downright mean, but he loves his horses.

He prowls the Kill Sales for new horse stock. Kill Sales are auctions where old, used-up, abused horses are sold by the pound because they’re good for nothing but the glue factory or dog food. That’s the inevitable destiny for most of them.

But Joe buys them for next to nothing and puts them out to pasture at his ranch, and in the evenings after the riding school clients have gone home, he works with them to see if he can redeem something of their broken existence. Impatient and demanding with almost everybody else, including his daughters, Joe is respectful and patient with the broken-down horses. He calls them The Old Men, and gives them names like Ace and Admiral, Chief and Charlie.

He loves to tell their stories to anyone who will listen. Charlie had been dragged behind a moving truck till his hooves were ground to nubs and had to be bandaged and regrown like endangered plants. Chief had been starved to the point of madness and left in the desert to die alone. Old Ace had been beaten with a hammer so hard his skull is misshapen forever after.

When people ask what The Old Men are doing on a working horse ranch that can’t afford freeloaders, Joe just tells them that The Old Men are retired.

He puts little children on their backs, because these old horses are harmless, little children and very old people, with whom these old horses are so gentle. One time a little girl with absolutely no talent for riding, a perpetual last-place finisher, rides Old Ace in a show. Old Ace is the horse who was beaten in the head with a hammer. “Damn, that is one ugly horse,” says one observer. But when Ace and the little girl place second, the little girl starts sobbing. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she says.

And this is how the novel ends:

I used to watch my father visit The Old Men in the pasture at the end of the day, and they would come trotting over at the sound of his voice and gather round him and groan with perfect pleasure as he scratched their ears and necks, whispering to them under his breath. And he would tell me what these horses might have been had things been different and kinder with them. And that’s how I’ll always remember my father: the sound of his voice as he spoke their names, the gentleness of his touch, and the way that he loved, truly loved, every one of them: each of those broken promises, all those dreams that never came true.[3]

And as for the last words of a novel, that’s just about as good as it gets: the way he loved, truly loved, every one of them, each of those broken promises, all those dreams that never came true.

That’s what most of us are, right? Broken promises, dreams that might never come true. God loves us just the same. Maybe we all should be like golden retrievers. Maybe we all should be just little more like God. Is there anyone in your life who is a broken promise? Is there anybody in your life who is a dream that hasn’t come true yet? It’s something to think about.

[1]Paraphrased from Stephen H. Webb, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 82.

[2]Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love (New York: Penguin, 2006), pp. 18-20.

[3]Aryn Kyle, The God of Animals (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 34-35, 187-188, 304-305.