I also have to say that a friend asked on Facebook for people to chime in about their favorite Biblical character. Someone wrote, “Balaam’s talking ass.” It was too good to pass up. So here we go.
Now, relax, this is not a profane sermon. This is what the Bible says. Balaam’s donkey saves him from his awful rush to judgment. And then the ass tells Balaam not to abuse her.
What if our animals could talk? What would they say to us? Thanks for the food? Let’s play ball? Could you change my litter box? Oh yes, scratch me there, yes, ahhh.
My home church in Cleveland, Ohio does a living nativity service every year on Christmas Eve. There is always a camel, a goat, a donkey and other such animals making a holy mess in the sanctuary. The donkey often brays during the soprano’s solo. One wonders what he’s trying to say.
But let’s get back to the scripture. Now, a few things about this remarkable animal. First of all she is female. The Hebrew makes this clear. A Jenny as opposed to a Jack tend to be very obedient and subservient. They can be easily lead, making them great pack animals. They are also very sure footed and will seldom do something that will put them or their riders in danger. They may appear stubborn, but that is often because they know more about danger and how to walk on crumbly ground than do their riders. Think about the animal instinct, that base wisdom that we all have hidden in our amygdale that keeps us safe? More about that in a moment.
Atop the donkey was Balaam. Now, Balaam was a guy having a real bad day. He was not a Hebrew. He was a Gentile prophet who knew his way around things. He predicted the star of Bethlehem. He also loved money, prostitution and fame. He knew his market and would often bless or curse people if it meant a big payday. His big payday as today’s scripture opens up is the one that Balak, the king of Moab has contracted him to give against the Hebrew people. The Hebrews were about to conquer Moab on their way to the Promised Land and King Balak needed something, anything to thwart the attack. So, he employs, Balaam the curser for hire to insult and demonize the Israelites.
The only problem is that every time Balaam tries to curse Israel, he blesses them instead. Dang. “I meant to say damn you, and praise you came out of my mouth”. He tried this three times with the same result. Balaam looked like the backside of a horse to Balak. Balak didn’t give him the money he promised because Balaam didn’t live up to his end of the bargain.
Balaam even tried to seduce the people of Israel in order to earn his fee. This, too did not work. Balaam got on his donkey and headed into Moab with the intent to curse Israel and earn his big payday. Of course, this was against the wishes of God. Commentators have wondered if Balaam resembles soothsaying preachers who do their work for money, saying things that they know are against God’s will because it will make them more cash. I am suspicious of TV preachers, for instance, who love to demonize certain sectors of the community, or another’s faith tradition, while at the same time ignoring the needs of the poor and the outcast. The latter being what the scripture is so clearly about.
Anyway, Balaam and his donkey are headed to Moab so that Balaam can get his big payday. God has appeared several times, but each time Balaam ignores the presence of God. But what is easier for those of us with higher learning and certain blinders on to ignore is very clear to Balaam’s donkey. We’ll see which one is the mute donkey, the dumb ass in this story.
The Donkey sees an angel of YHWH in the road with a sword drawn. In self-protection, the donkey goes off the road and into a field. Balaam smacks the donkey.
Next, the angel of YHWH stands in a narrow path between vineyards with a wall on either side. The donkey scraped Balaam against the wall. I remember when I was a boy scout many years ago, we took a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. One day we were given donkeys to help carry our loads. The donkeys were not dumb. When they came close to a tree, they would scrape up against the tree in an attempt to knock the stuff off of their backs. Balaam did not appreciate this and hit the donkey again.
Finally, the angel of YHWH stood in the path and blocked it. The donkey had nowhere to go, so it lay down on the ground. Balaam, of course, hit her again.
Then the donkey speaks. I still imagine Donkey from the Shrek movies talking with the voice of Eddie Murphy, or the Bill Cosby routine where Silver objects to the Lone Ranger’s commands. “Wait a minute, get off my back.”
The donkey asks, “What have I done that you have hit me three times?” Balaam, says, “You made a fool of me in front of my friends.” Of course talking to a donkey doesn’t make you a fool. Then the donkey tells Balaam to wake up and smell the coffee. “Haven’t I been your donkey all my life and have I ever lead you astray?” “Maybe it’s not me that is the problem.”
Why couldn’t you have seen the truth right in front of you? Even a dumb ass can see the truth. Why is it so hard for you?
An angel of God again shows up in the road, Balaam sees the angel and realizes that the donkey saw better than he saw. Balaam’s response was to shoot the messenger. The correct response should have been, “I wonder why my usually trusting donkey is acting so strangely?”
Think about the asses in your life. I mean those people who annoyingly point out the truth that’s right in front of you.
When I was at the Baptist Peace Fellowship Conference this past month, Tony Campolo preached a sermon in which he spoke about a group of young twenty-something Christians who take the Bible seriously. They take it so seriously that they are trying to implement the words and works of Jesus. They are doing service for and with the poor and needy. They are living in community. They are environmental activists. They are people who believe that when Jesus said that we are to befriend the friendless, advocate for the widow and the orphan, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, he actually meant that we were to do it. They call themselves “Red letter Christians.” It’s all very inspiring. To Tony’s great delight, they wrote that everything they learned they learned from Tony Campolo and the Bible. But to his embarrassment, they went on to say that they were going places that Tony would never go. Why? Because he as too rich. He had made too much money selling his books and being a big TV star. He had these 401k’s that he was concerned about. They said, he would never be able to sell all he had and give the poor and then come and follow Jesus. Sell some things, sure, but not everything. Maybe up to half our fortunes, as the billionaires said this past week, but not everything. Those words of Jesus echoed by people who take Jesus seriously came as an indictment to him and he asked us if they were an indictment to us? Don’t you hate when the donkey speaks?
When I was in Seminary, we had a student publication called “Balaam’s Ass.” It was a forum for people to write and speak about their lives and the way they were thinking theologically. And it was also a challenge for us to speak, with the clarity of the donkey who saved Balaam’s life, by pointing out the obvious. When something out of the ordinary happens, maybe we need to not beat the donkey, but pay attention to why things are different.
Look at the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. We can learn a lot from the animals there. In the Mississippi delta there is a huge area where there is no animal life. No fish, no algae, no nothing. This is before the big oil spill. This is what they call the Mississippi Dead Zone. This is the result of the upstream runoff of pesticides and other pollutants compounded to kill the animal life downstream. This is why we plant rain gardens and do our best to preserve wetlands and plant prairie grasses in the Mississippi watershed. The dying wildlife are just like Balaam’s Ass. They are telling us the truth.
We will see how the lifecyle of the other gulf animals and fish fare as a result of the oil spill. These animals might well speak to us and tell us to wake up. Remember, Balaam’s self interest and the lure of wealth stopped him from seeing God’s messengers. Might we be similarly blinded?
The same could be said for wildlife going extinct in the Brazilian rain forest and the flooding that comes from not having the foliage to hold the water in—all because we seek the short-term profit from the lumber and grassland we have planted to provide beef for McDonald’s.
What is the point of all of this?
The point is that God is telling us in the scripture, as God tells us throughout the Bible, wake up.
Wake up and remember that the lure of wealth is a death spiral.
Wake up and remember that we have a responsibility to care for our community.
Wake up and remember that we have a responsibility to care for outsiders.
Wake up and remember that our salvation is directly tied to the salvation of even our worst enemies.
Wake up and see that the world is a wonderful and powerful place.
Wake up and enjoy the love of those around you.
Wake up and believe that we are not alone—there are others who share your passion and your power.
Wake up and remember that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Wake up and remember that you are made in the divine image.
Wake up and remember that your worst enemy is also made in God’s image.
Wake up and remember that if God can talk to a dumb ass, then God can talk to even me. God can even talk through us.
But wake up, remember, give thanks and know that God is not done with us. Know that God has a great sense of humor and that God wants us to live and thrive.
So wake up. Listen to the seemingly mute donkeys of life.
Wake up and know the truth, be influenced by the truth, be changed by the truth. And thank God for all of the animals who point us in the right direction and even save us.