“How can this be possible?” asked Nicodemus. Jesus replied, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand these matters?~ John 3:9-10
There are helpers and then there are helpers. It would be fair to conclude that a bird that gets its meals by picking at your skin, sometimes to the point of bleeding (and even sometimes drinks your blood) is a bit of a pest, or parasite. Indeed, Red-billed Oxpeckers are in what scientists would call a symbiotic relationship with a variety of mammals. The question is whether it is purely parasitic or if it is actually mutualistic. The fact that the birds rid the host of mites, ticks, and other actual parasites does indicate a mutual benefit. In the case or rhinos, this goes a step further.
Rhinos are solitary, so they don’t have the protection of the herd when a predator is near. Folklore has long suggested that oxpeckers serve as lookouts for rhinos, who are known to have poor vision. In fact, the Swahili name for the oxpecker is Askari wa kifaru, which means “the rhino’s guard.” In studies conducted in South Africa, they found that rhinos without oxpeckers on their backs only noticed an approaching human 23 percent of the time, whereas those carrying the birds detected the nearby person 100 percent of the time, and from much farther away than those attentive rhinos without oxpeckers to warn them. Given the very real threat of extinction due to poaching faced by rhinos, it would seem that each of these species relies heavily on the other to maintain their very existence.
Jesus and Nicodemus had an interesting relationship. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night looking for answers. Jesus provided metaphors and more questions. Nicodemus left literally and figuratively in the dark. In that exchange we might wonder if anyone was helped. But by the end of the story, it is clear that their was a symbiosis. While that literally means living together, we don’t see the paths of these two men cross again until Jesus has died. Being on the inside, Nicodemus was able to arrange for Jesus’ body to be secured and placed in a borrowed tomb. Surely, confused as he may have been after encountering Jesus, Nicodemus found the help he needed in order to be a help to Jesus at the crucifixion. Sometimes looking for the helper means not distinguishing between the one helping and the one being helped. In the long view, helping is nearly always mutual.
Prayer: Life-giving and Living One, thank you for the help you give each of us in the gift of helping one another, knowing that since you still come to us in the least, the last, and the lost, we are also helping you. Amen.