Category Archives: Critters in the Gospels

Which One of You, Having a Cow…? [Luke 14:5]

She got here the way

we all do, tripped up by fate,

or lured by the promise of more;

the same way we all do,

through a hole in a fence

she needed to squeeze through

because the grass was greener

on the other side;

or because so many grackles

suddenly rose in a loud

shudder of wings and caws

from that irresistible ditch.

She got here the way we all do,

tripped up, led on, curious,

ignorant of the laws of gravity,

or defiant of them and of all

the things our mothers told us.

At the brink, at the height

of freedom and enjoyment,

just this far from smelling

the clover, her knees buckled

and she fell in.

Now, like the pitiable rest of us

wedged between steep sides

looking up at sky, she is

terrified and breathing hard.

It’s not a day appointed for rescues,

but she got here the way we all do;

so you over there, retrieve the ladder,

and you, the harness and ropes.

And will someone please make

coffee?  We’re bound to be here all night.

St. Peter’s Fish [Matthew 17:24-27]

I think he misses fishing. In a boat, he knew what he was doing. After the keel grated across sand and they were off, he was at home. Out on the water in the wee hours, there wasn’t much he needed to say to others who worked alongside. Casting nets under stars required stamina, not conversation.

Now he has to talk a lot more than he’s used to. He gets himself in trouble every time he opens his mouth. On land, forgive me, he is a fish out of water. This time it’s the tax. They asked him, and he answered hotly, without skipping a beat  —  the teacher pays his due. But he didn’t know if what he said was true.

Jesus is indulgent. As if he knows Peter will soon be telling a bigger lie by the light of courtyard fires. If he can forgive him that whopper (and he will), he can forgive this little fish story. Jesus will make good. He will pay the tax. For Peter. And to avoid offense. That’s why, having put his foot in his mouth, Peter is coming down here to discover what’s in mine.

Soon he’ll be dropping in a line, fishing again. And all I ask in return for this favor, Lord—for this neat trick we concocted to save his face—is that, after removing the coin, he might take the hook out too, and throw me back.

The Strained Gnat [Matthew 23:24]


The moral, of course, is not to cultivate a habit of

scrupulosity about detail when it comes to sinning

while allowing yourself some serious whoppers.

To condemn the drinking of bugs with camel hairs

sticking out between your teeth is at best ridiculous.

The Law is holy, sweet and good: it will keep you.

The point is not to miss the point.

But you must not therefore conclude that Jesus teaches

not to strain the gnat. You still have to haul out

magnifier and mesh. You still have to angle the lamp just so

to give yourself sufficient light, she is so small.

You have to do this, for one thing, because

she is a creature that swarms upon the earth, and

Leviticus says for your own good you may not eat her

whole or drink her residue in the water she brewed in

after dropping terrified onto the roiling surface of the pot;

and, for another, because there’s always a chance

she might still be alive. For what good shepherd

does not leave the ninety-nine when one lost lamb

might still be bleating far away? And what sad boy,

finding himself in hot water, does not dream

he has a father who will pluck him from the deep?

Goats on the Left [Matthew 25]

The goats do not go off to hell because they are goats

or because they are inferior to  sheep

or because Jesus liked sheep better than goats.

The goats do not go off to hell at all: nations do, it says,

peoples who are stingy with water and food

and keep themselves warm and let others freeze

and visit no one in prison because people in prison

are horrible and do not deserve any visits.

The goats do not go off to hell: peoples who get

huffy and hurt and defiant and finally menacing

when someone says, what about poor people?—

they are the ones the implacable angels drive into

fire on the awesome Day when the Judge calls

everyone together for the sifting of wheat and tares.

It could just as well be the fat sheep

who do not make Christ’s cut of kindness

and the wiry goats who get the happy welcome home.

As adorable as most lambs are and as bad-tempered

as some goats can be, being sheep or goats

has nothing to do with why Jesus is telling the story

and what he means.  They are stand–ins:

 the goats do not go off to hell because they are goats,

but because they are nations that have not been

as human as humans should be.

The Lord Needs Them [Matthew 21:1-6]

It’s strange, to be sure, prompting many a doubt,

and even the scholars can’t figure it out

why Matthew, who no one would say is a dolt,

made Christ ride a donkey as well as her colt.

 Perhaps it was whimsy, just Matt being droll,

to mount the Messiah on filly and foal;

or maybe he found himself tied in a knot

when trying to make every tittle and jot

of prophecies old a meticulous fit

and didn’t know quite how to edit or quit

when verses came up that said “riding on two.”

We just can’t be certain, we don’t have a clue

why Christ so specifically (joking aside)

wants mother and offspring alike for his ride.

The question is open for you to opine

and your guess is good as the guess that is mine:

So I think that Jesus (this theory’s my own),

who knew what it’s like to be left all alone,

imagined the jenny apart from her foal

and felt donkey anguish knife into his soul,

and being a Mother himself, and so kind,

could simply not bear to leave baby behind.

The Swine Stick in My Mind [Mark 5:13]

It’s unbiblical to be sentimental

about swine. We are talking about

a herd of unromantic

Gentile meat and money, not

a herd of barnyard Wilburs,

pink and plump,

with plucky spiders for friends.

That said, the pigs stick in my mind.

I read commentaries.

I know the ways of different cultures,

ancient worldviews.

I understand the politics,

the story’s ethical edges.

Its justice dimensions have

preaching potential.

I should warm to it but

I hate what happened to the pigs.

I know that a bedeviled man

who was deader than

the corpses in the graveyard

where he spent his nights and days

in lacerating pain now sits adoring

at your feet, serene and safe.

It moves me that you thought

his sad hidden life

worth saving,

worth it too the ire of hard rustic men

who watched big money drown

in churning seas that day,

but this is still

one of those stories

I wish

no one had recorded.

The pigs stay with me all the way over the cliff,

and I am so astonished by you,


You could do everything,

even asking blind men,

What do you want me to do for you?

and then when they told you

you did it no trouble,

but for some reason, for some reason

we will never know,

you could not,

would not write “Some Wilburs”

in a web of creature


The Camel Speaks for Himself [Matthew 19:24]


I am the schooner of the dunes,

a looming bow of treasure.

Beneath suns’ spice and silky moons,

I sail in pearls and pleasure.

The incensed princes of the East

recline upon my leather;

for eyes, an oriental feast

of tassels, bells and feather.

And when time comes to sleep and dream

I kneel on carpets, nesting.

The comet’s tail and planet’s gleam

concelebrate my resting.

So go ahead, make fun of me

in moral illustrations,

my hairy flanks and knobby knees,

my humpback undulations.

With metaphoric kick and push,

with metaphoric wheedle,

go on and try to shove my tush

through tiny eye of needle.

For I am blessed with regal sense.

My self-esteem is healthy.

Your jokes are not at my expense—

the joke is on the wealthy.

Likewise [Luke 10:34]

It was nothing to the donkey. She took the new bulk on her black-crossed back without a twitching glance over the sheen on her shoulder.

It was light, lighter than jars of cool clay condensing, lighter than milled grain in burlap, lighter than bales or bundled sticks. It smelled of oil and wine.

It was nothing to her, to plod downhill in the heat, to halt at quick commands. It was nothing to wait, snuffling at flies, while he tugged at the shifting load.

The war between sides, the intake of aggressive breath, the long human detour around the other kind, these were nothing to her. She took the new bulk on her black-crossed back.

It smelled of oil and wine, and it was light, but not lighter than hitchhiking sparrows, or his hand on the lead, or his stubborn step on the riddled roadway down.

Candlemas [Luke 2:22-36]


Simeon, full of the Spirit, nearly fainted

when he saw the child.

He snatched him from Mary,

which alarmed her until she heard his praise.

Then she and Joseph were astounded.

Just as Simeon gave him back,

wise old Anna came in

and began shouting about the messiah

in the dramatic way of prophets.

More amazement ensued.

The whole thing was like a scene in a Hollywood epic:

swelling score, meaningful glances, a beautiful child.

Yet when they finished doing what the Law required

and his parents took him home, left behind for the priests

were two bobble-headed birds, slate gray,

cooing in the quiet after the commotion,

just a few steps away from the knife

that’s always sharpening somewhere for the poor.