Some years ago, at a zoo in New York, the elephant keeper noticedthat one of his charges, a female elephant named Sophie, had picked up astick with her trunk, and was using the stick to trace patterns in the dirt.Over the next several days, he noticed that Sophie made a regular habitof scratching the ground in this way. The keeper was curious. WasSophie merely scratching the dust at random, or was she a real artist?After all, elephants are renowned for their intelligence, and her keeperthought that Sophie was especially clever.
The zookeeper set out to discover the answer to his question. Hebrought several large sheets of paper to the elephant compound, andsubstituted a paintbrush for Sophie’s stick. He placed the paper on theground in front of Sophie, dipped the brush in paint, and gave it to her.Sophie caught on immediately. She was clearly delighted with thisimprovement over her usual medium of stick and dirt. With a few deftmovements of her trunk she applied paint to paper. The difficulty was todetermine when Sophie was finished with a particular piece. The keeperdecided that whenever she paused in her work, he would replace thepaper with a fresh sheet.
In this way, Sophie soon used up all the paper, and her keeper wasleft with a portfolio of her work. He was delighted with the results. True,2he couldn’t recognize anything in the paintings, but he thought Sophiemight be one of those modern, abstract artists. Now he needed anexpert opinion, so he picked out his favorites from among the paintings,and took them to New York University, where he showed them to afamous artist and critic. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the expert’sname, but I’m sure you’d recognize it if you heard it.
The expert looked through the paintings, muttered a mild expletiveand said, “I don’t know who did these, but whoever it is, he is verytalented.” The zookeeper replied, “Well actually. . .it’s a she.” The expertretorted, “Then she is very talented! Such boldness and freedom of line!If only I could get my own students to fill a canvas like this. Theyhesitate. They’re afraid to make mistakes, so their work is pedestrian andconstricted. Here on the other hand is confidence and boldness ofexecution. I tell you unequivocally, the woman who painted these is atrue artist.” The keeper replied, “Well actually. . .she’s an elephant.” When he recovered from his shock, the expert retorted, “Then this elephant is a talented artist.” Now Sophie more than earns her keep by the sale of her work to collectors.
I am reminded of this story by James’ insistence in our secondreading that we must act on the word of God. “Be doers of the word andnot hearers only, deluding yourselves.” Too often, even the most faithfulChristians fear to act upon what they believe. They are like art studentswho hesitate before a blank canvas for fear of making a mistake. If weget caught up in this hesitation, this fear, our contribution to the worldand to the Kingdom of God, can be cramped and stunted. We can burythe talents God has given us.
In our Gospel Jesus speaks of people who are careful to obey all the3minor rules of their religion, but who never get to the heart of the matter.They never get around to loving God and neighbor with freedom andpassion. They are like artists who find the perfect smock, choose just theright frame, and the right light, and who lay out their paints in theprescribed order, but who never lay brush to canvas.
How often we look back on our day and think, “There was amoment when I could have spoken up on behalf of my faith, or could havedefended some absent person who was being slandered. There was amoment when I could have spoken a kind word, or comforted someone inneed. There was a time when I should have prayed or tried to right aninjustice. Perhaps the story of Sophie can inspire us to fill our life’scanvas with boldness and confidence. If we are to be God’s hands in theworld, we have to take those hands out of our pockets. We have toovercome our fear of failure and embarrassment, and trust that Christ willbring good out of what we dare to attempt on his behalf. And if weappear to make fools of ourselves, well, then we are fools for Christ, andthat is no bad thing to be.