In a small book called Random Acts of Kindness by Animals, there is a story about sparrows. In a street in Italy, a fallen sparrow lay helplessly. Soon many other sparrows surrounded it, trying to carry it to safety, away from the heavy traffic. A man got out of his car and waved other drivers away. Traffic then came to a standstill. The sparrows, with great effort, managed to carry the fallen bird to the side of the road. There they rested for a minute, and then managed to prop up the injured bird and fly it over a wall into a garden.
While the motorists remarked over the kindness of the birds, within the world of sparrows it seems what they did was what was expected: their norm. What they did is notable among humans, whom European studies show do not usually stop when someone is injured along the road.
Jesus famously told a story about this, in which two of three people fail to stop to aid a wounded man in the road. The third, a member of a segregated minority, like the sparrows, gives aid and succor.
Luke tells the story of Jesus admonishing his disciples to do what is expected of them by God, and using a mustard seed as an example of what it takes to live faithfully: a small amount of faith, which can grow into a large deed, even into a life’s work.
Jesus compares them to slaves who are bound to serve. I confess a dislike for the image. I would prefer it if Jesus had used the chance to denounce slavery. But his reference is not to the buying and selling of people, but to the deep bond, which is not a choice, and not revocable, and not arguable: the bond between God and people. In that bond, lovingkindness is what is expected. Not a marvel. Not a wonder. An automatic response to need.
St. Francis, the first to proclaim that the life of the Spirit, and ensoulment, are the connection of all creation to God, preached to the birds, the fish, even a ravenous wolf, in his responsiveness to his own need and theirs.
His own family ties were riven by his father’s anger, when Francis became responsive to the needs of the poor. Living without the great love of his parents, Francis wove for himself a family of all living.
He learned about God’s love, and about the responsiveness of faith, from every creature, calling them all Brother and Sister.
And I think St. Francis would be moved by this, also from Random Acts of Kindness by Animals:
One year swallows heading toward southern Europe for the winter were faced with unusual cold. As they flew over Switzerland, many couldn’t make it and fell to the ground. In a concerted effort, the whole of Switzerland mobilized. School children and others picked up the birds and brought them to the local airports and railway stations by car, train, even in cages strapped upon children’s bikes. The birds were hand-fed meat on the ends of matchsticks, then flown by Swiss air to their destinations. One hundred thousand birds were saved.
Image: Study of a Flying Sparrow. Udine Da Giovanni. 1515-20. National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm, Sweden. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.