Consider the Ravens — Luke 12:24

Think about ravens. They don’t sow or harvest, they have no store or barn, yet God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than birds!

— tr mine

The common raven (Corvus corax) can live for up to 40 years. They mate for life (though can be unfaithful), and reproduce from the age of 2-3, one time each year. In each brood they average around 5 offspring.

Imagine an initial population of 100 breeding ravens and assume 5 chicks per year per pair, and 3 years before reproduction. After 1 year there would be 350 ravens. In 2 years 600. In three there would be 850, and in 5 years 1,975. After 10 years there would be 21,974, and after 30 years 28,200,000. Clearly this doesn’t happen. Some ravens must die off sooner. How many? Well to keep a stable population of ravens, over 70% of all ravens must die every year.

Ravens have very few natural predators. A few are killed, a lot die of disease. But most die from starvation, despite spending the vast majority of their energy trying to secure food. The raven neither sows nor reaps, nor builds barns, but God most definitely does not feed them. He allows the majority of the population to starve to death every year.

Jesus (who made the statement I quote) knew none of this. It is a curious fact that even this simple arithmetic wasn’t noticed for centuries of civilization. It took until Malthus in 1798 to draw attention to the implications of this elementary school math.

Jesus seems to be saying that the ravens spend less energy and less concern for eating than we do. Yet they find enough food to eat (by God’s provision). In this he was dead wrong.

A literal approach to the bible isn’t just bad biology when it comes to evolution or the history of the natural world. If you think Jesus is right in this statement, you have to deny Malthus’s basic arithmetic too.

And if you don’t like your biblical inerrancy literal, but instead seek to find metaphoric truth, well I think you are still in trouble. Because as metaphoric as it is, it is a metaphor for the wrong thing. In fact, as a metaphor it works perfectly for my point of view. Because to consider the ravens is to understand that there is no God who will ensure your needs are met.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Consider the Ravens — Luke 12:24

  1. Very interesting! It really can be surprising when you take a step back from the commonly understood meaning of a piece of writing, and consider the logical conclusions instead.

    I think another apologist’s answer is something along the lines of the author’s intent being more important than the literal words, or what you can deconstruct from them. “Hear what I mean, not what I say.” Could there be some validity to that here, if one were to aknowledge that the author had simply used a poorly conceived and inaccurate analogy?

    But on the other hand, that sounds like it could be an appeal to emotion, Hear what you want to believe, or what is intuitive to you, rather than thinking it through logically to its conclusion. Or, “Don’t think too much!”

    Or, as Luther humbly tendered (I hope this is not out of context):
    Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and…know nothing but the word of God.

    …or, “Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore.

  2. Ian

    Yes, I think you’re right. The obvious reaction for the faithful is “way to miss the point, Ian”.

    But what is the point then? Jesus is saying that we should worry less and trust God more. He is used something he believed to be true as an analogy. But if that is the point, then ignoring the particular natural analogy, surely we can conclude he was wrong. He didn’t know the truth: if you leave it to God to provide for you, you will starve to death.

    So then you do end up with those kinds of arguments that say “hey, don’t think about what I’m saying, just accept it without question at a deeper level”.

  3. He didn’t know the truth: if you leave it to God to provide for you, you will starve to death.

    Yes, a bad analogy should not be a hallmark of divinity or divine inspiration, particularly when the truth of the analogy is so especially bad.

    Here are a couple more apologetics that come to mind…
    Liberal: Your post is proof of God’s plan. Jesus exhibits the fallibility of the human form in God-made-flesh. In his human weakness he did not get the facts right, but in his divine nature he made a pretty darn good point.

    Calvinist: Exactly! Who is the pot to say to the potter that he deserves God’s grace? The ravens are a picture of God’s grace and judgement. “The wide gate leads to destruction [70% of the ravens]…”

  4. Ian

    I love it, brilliant attr!

  5. i translate this as being content with what you have, it is a lesson against greed. given his context, you had Jerusalem and Rome taking people’s stuff. Jerusalem through the sacrificial system and Rome which was taking away small family farms. so saying “be content with what you have” is a good lesson to hear. of course we can pick it apart and say “what about famines and such?” well, i don’t think he was speaking to a famine ridden place and time.

    seems to me that’s what the great spiritual teachers will always teach us, that we should live a simple life, not take more than our share. in this way communion and community are possible and we become brothers and sisters. idealistic, sure. impractical and unscientific, i am no so sure about that.

  6. Ian

    Yes, I wondered about that 01 – it seems the obvious generalization. Don’t store = don’t get more than you need. It is still very poor advice, though. Because there is a significant probability that you won’t have enough in the future. Saving in some form is just basic prudence. You can go too far, of course, but if you really take no care for tomorrow, then you’ll be in pretty dire straights some day.

  7. Ian

    … I read Jesus as apocalyptic, so I suspect he didn’t much care about the future, because he didn’t think there’d be one.

  8. i don’t read Jesus as apocalyptic. i read him extremely practical, can’t get more practical than ‘judge a tree by it’s fruit.’ i think it’s wonderful advice, no saving, take what you need, radical hospitality and self-giving. it fits in with Jesus’ overall message. same with this passage. it’s good advice. of course, it needs balanced as all disciplines do.

    of course, i don’t live this way, i have mutual funds and all that stuff and i do plan for the future and i want my kids to have enough. problem is, the companies i find that mutual funds invest in exploit as that tends to make the most profit. WallMart, Monsanto, Halliburton, etc. every mutual fund invests in these companies and the do gooder kinds aren’t even close to breaking even, they’re still in the red while these others are turning a slim profit. but i’m middle class, wouldn’t be talking like this if i had a poverty mindset.

    ethical dilemmas everywhere you look.

  9. Ian

    We have a massive problem in this country with folks not saving for retirement, and therefore having to be supported by the state. Chances are you’ll spend a significant amount of your life post-work, and a good chunk of the end of your life requiring support and services. Ignoring that statistical fact is immoral, surely.

    You say that the Jesus ideal is not to save. I think it is immoral to follow Jesus’s advice as you understand it. Because eventually the rest of society will have to fund your lack of prudence.

    Your saving (there are ethical investment funds over here, I’m sure there must be over there too), isn’t a failing, it is a moral obligation, I’d say.

  10. like i said, it’s a balance. here’s what i make of it for policy:

    Obama just extended the tax cuts to the wealthy. i think this is not only a bad idea economically but also biblically. things rarely trickle down. if we were to go to pre-Bush tax rates our deficit would be cut by a 1/3 off the bat. plus the wealthy invest their $$ and that doesn’t really spur the economy in the short term, and the long-term won’t happen if the short term doesn’t turn around. if we cut taxes for the poor and middle class, we’d see a short-term increase as the poor don’t save, they spend whatever they have. so does much of the middle class (according to Bridges Out of Poverty training that i’m in now).

    that’s the practical side. the biblical side comes in with God’s preference for the poor. so while we should save for the future so the state doesn’t support us in our twilight years, we shouldn’t hoard either. that’s why i have no problem with the estate tax over $250,000. the moral question is “how much is too much?” Jesus is saying, as i interpret, “a lot less than you’re thinking.” and i think he’s right. but i’m also thrifty and love shopping at Goodwill and Salvation Army and have never bought anything that wasn’t on clearance or a hefty sale. could be a problem for those not of that mindset.

  11. also makes me think of the whole ethical dilemma of “is it right to steal bread to feed your family? is that a sin?” i would answer that no, it’s not, but the sin is withholding bread from starving people and having a system set up where this unequal distribution of essentials. but that brings in the complexity of ability (physical and mental), willingness, economics, race, class, gender, etc. best to stick with “it’s a sin to steal bread period.” since it’s easier that way.

  12. [glib re-interpretation on]

    If ravens do die of starvation more than anything else, I would imagine their meat is tends to be neither tender or succulent. Few people ever praise ravens for their tastiness.

    And yet God does take them back and through the process of decay makes them one with the earth again.

    “They don’t sow or harvest, they have no store or barn, yet God feeds upon them.”

    How much more valuable are we than birds? Well, we store up a lot of fat and get very tender compared to wild birds.

    So to paraphrase Ian: if you leave it to God to provide for you, you might not make a tasty meal for God in the end. But, God will still feast upon you regardless.

    [glib re-interpretation off]

    I always thought Jesus had an overactive fascination with death. He’s extremely welcoming towards it.

  13. Ian

    Thanks 01 – yes. I follow most of what you say, and agree. I do think that when you get that nuanced, it doesn’t mean much to say that your ethics are someone based on the words of Jesus, though. Okay they are kindof connected, but no more closely than a thousand other different ethical points of view. But maybe that isn’t important. Maybe Jesus is totemic in that case, rather than causative.

    @Andrew – chuckled my way through that. Well Jesus (as portrayed in the synoptics) fascination with death is one reason I do read him as apocalyptic: as believing in an imminent end of time.

  14. i think you’re right. Kant’s ethics were based on the Gospels, so were Votaire, Locke’s and most recently Reinhold Niebuhr (among others). It’s my tried and true glib statement that “To follow Jesus, you have to get past Jesus.” meaning there are things and instances that Jesus didn’t think of and we’ll have to figure out on our own. to know his teachings and then logically jump, or “take a leap of faith” in such matters.

  15. Let me join ATTR and play the apologist:

    (1) In those agricultural days Ravens found food easily — not with the difficulty of scouring concrete cities. And as the grew, they spread to other areas. Jesus might have said, “Bacteria”, if he were incarnated in the 2000s.

    (2) You exegesis assumes a sweet, loving Jehovah. Jesus knew that his OT dad had no problem letting war, disease, disaster and the like limit human populations. I am sure that he rightfully assumed (using the science of his day) that when Eve ate the fruit, she cursed Ravens to a similar naturally controlled population phenomena. Perhap he meant all this in a relative turn. “My Daddy cares for those birds [albeit they get pummeled by reality just like you] but they don’t sow or harvest …”. ( This is sort of like ATTR’s Calvanist objection)

    PS — why did you give us the Latin for the common raven — I was waiting for a punch line.

    PSS – You see Jesus as apocalyptic (and I also agree that, if he existed, he probably was) but Ghost disagrees. I wonder if that is because the Gospel writers put a few extra choice expressions in there for cherry pickers. Also, the “Judge a tree by its fruit” fits very comfortable in the rageful Jehovah’s method to be used at the end times, no?

  16. Ian

    1) Is untrue. Malthusian math works at any point. If this were true the entire world would have been dominated by ravens within a few decades.

    2) Yes, although I’d point to the fact that this parable has been understood in the way I claim throughout Christian history. At least until Malthus pointed out it was a bunch of BS.

  17. Molly Rathbun

    I found the problem with Luke 12:24 was that Ravens actually DO store food.They store, or hoard food for up to a few months at a time. They dig holes and put extra food they find in the holes as storage. Being a believer this bothers me.

    I think it may have been mistranslated and that He said something more like” The Ravens don’t plant or harvest (farm) and then have a harvest saved up in a barn, but God provides a way for them to live.”

    The Raven scavanges and then saves from what he finds. He is not a farmer or creator of supplies for himself.

    i understand it to be that, Jesus is talking to believers in regards to being provided for.He’s asking us as believers to know that God will provide for us. The Ravens that die of starvation could be considered those who don’t believe in Him or follow his ways.

    But I also know that in terms of taking something like provisions to heart, Jesus means if you are a believer in Him, these things are true for you. He also gives us all kinds of other parables to live by as well as asks us to follow the other Godly commands from the old testament and not just Luke 12:24. Its a whole way of living.

    There are so many instructions on how to live a life according to Jesus. You are supposed to pay your debts, work, share, try to settle lawsuits, give to the needy, have compassion, forgive, live the ten commandments, love one another, be a good steward to the things you have, don’t be greedy, don’t get drunk, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, pay your taxes, obey the laws, keep the holy days sacred etc.

    It’s an entire way of living and then you could put Luke 12:24 in the equasion and even though you don’t have a hoard, a way for you to live will be made possible. Things would open up to you in terms of provisions if you followed His ways. Your righteous living and reliance on God would open the door for the provisions you needed. Maybe not a hoard but enough to live on that day.

    Remember: “give us this day our daily bread” and it never said bread for the next year, or five years.

    He is trying to teach those following Him all the ways that go together to live His way. It’s a total mind, spiritual change of viewing life in my opinion. It’s one of trusting on God in all you do.

    Jesus would know that Ravens store, and for me..well, I just think they didn’t repeat the story exactly right or it was mistranslated.

    The ones that” sow and harvest” could be land owners, and people who follow Him sometimes must leave traditonal jobs, family, housing, land and money behind. You might have to go places that no one will pay you to go, like minister to the homeless, people in jail, prostitutes etc. So you wouldn’t have a daily job that paid if you were doing certain works for God.

    The Raven was also considered kind of unclean because it ate dead things, and the parable I think was meant to say if God gives them free food, why wouldn’t he give it to the “clean or Holy” those who believe in Him?

    But Ravens do still store, so there is something wrong with Luke 12:24 and I think it’s the translation. The Raven lives for the “daily bread”. If he stores, then its just by luck he got something to store, if he had extra but he didn’t grow it. He had to go from place to place looking for the scraps and that’s not the same as a fresh harvest of wheat for example, or fruits that you planted in expectation of a harvest you could save for the future.

  18. Ian

    Thanks for commenting, Molly.

    The Greek word for ‘sow’ is σπείρω (speiro), which is the word for scattering seeds or planting them in a field. So yes, you can say that Jesus here isn’t wrong, strictly, because he is saying Ravens don’t engage in agriculture.

    But I think that’s rather silly. It seems clear from the context that Jesus is saying “Raven’s don’t work ahead of time for their food, but God feeds them.”

    So why not say Jesus was mistaken? He wasn’t an expert on Ravens. He didn’t know everything. He was fully human. He just got it wrong. I don’t understand why that is so terrible that we have to micro-analyse the individual words to try and find a way to make him right.

  19. Jacob Ruetz

    As the original post described, “it wasn’t noticed for centuries of civilization” that Malthius noted that many, many ravens die from starvation. In other words, in the time of Jesus, people had not noted this seemingly obvious flaw in knowledge.

    Jesus was not wrong, he was simply appealing to the cultural understanding of ravens, which is that they are plentiful and seemingly everywhere- which we know by their low cost in the market (compare to two pennies per bird).

    We cannot compare Jesus’ parable, which was spoken to a specific people in a specific time, to a future understanding of the bird anatomy. This idea that Jesus was wrong is silly, it is the inability of the post-er to take the cultural standpoint of Jesus’s crowd into consideration.

  20. Ian

    Jacob – it depends what you are saying. Are you saying that Jesus had no way of knowing that Ravens weren’t provided for by God, so he used what he thought, which was knowledge others would have also presumed? If you are saying that, then I agree, that’s what I mean by Jesus being wrong.

    Or are you saying, despite knowing that Ravens weren’t provided for by God, Jesus knew that those hearing him didn’t know that, so he based his parable on their ignorance, knowing full well they’d buy it? If so, then I think you have a bizarre theology.

    Its easy to say that I’m not taking the culture into consideration. But actually I am – the question is whether various theologies survive that cultural understanding.

  21. Demarus

    There is an angle that has not been explored, but is serves to support the point that the author is making. The angle is that ravens and all corvids have a habit if caching food in strange places. They absolutely do store food. They even pretend to hide it one place, but actually hide it in in another if they think that their original hiding place has been compromised. Corvids are very concerned with their future meal. They will store it now to harvest it later. I do not know who the originator of this biblical quote is, but it is erroneous! It should leave us to question.

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