Being an ass

Psalms [120,] 121, 122, 123 (Morning)

Psalms 124, 125, 126, [127] (Evening)

Numbers 22:21-38

Romans 7:1-12

Matthew 21:23-32

So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at Ir-moab, on the boundary formed by the Arnon, at the farthest point of the boundary. Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send to summon you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?” Balaam said to Balak, “I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say.”–Num. 22:21-38 (NRSV)

Once again, my three long-eared equines–donkeys Miss Sylvia and Miss Topaz, and Mel the Mule–would be very disappointed in me if I did not base today’s reflection on the story of Balaam, his donkey, and the angel. (They’d probably pin me against the feedlot fence and go, “Oh, sorry–saw an angel…heh heh.”)

Yesterday’s reading from the Hebrew Bible lays the background for our reading today. Balak, king of Moab, is somewhat afraid of the Israelite’s reputation in battle, so he is looking to hire professional help in cursing Israel. If he’d had Craigslist, the ad would have probably been something like, “Wanted for hire: Will pay choice from my house full of silver/gold for respectable prophet/seer for the purpose of cursing one of my more worrisome enemies. References with examples of previous curses performed with optimal results requested. No posers or seers with lackluster reputations need apply.” Balaam was simply a gun for hire–so imagine his confusion and consternation, when he, a Mesopotamian, starts getting instructions from the Hebrew God not to curse the Israelites. Imagine the nervousness of Balak’s servants when Balaam admits as much. No wonder it’s a good reason to get out of town quietly before Balak gets wind of it.

So, despite God’s instructions to stay, Balaam sets out with his two servants and his donkey. However, God has other plans, and dispatches an angel to block the road–not one of those happy little gift shop Tinkerbell-looking angels or a Precious Moments one, mind you, but a Viking-oid lets-get-ready-to-rumble angel with a Conan the Barbarian sized sword, which, at first, only Balaam’s donkey can see. Our donkey friend is no fool (interestingly, the Bible doesn’t tell us if the donkey is a jack or a jenny; I’m going to take liberties and show my preference here). She first turns away in the field, whereupon Balaam takes a switch to her hide and urges her forward. This time the angel stands in the narrow walled gap before them and in the donkey’s haste to turn back, she crushes Balaam’s foot against the wall (an experience any equine owner can relate to as “not fun,” second only to near-decapitation by limbs,) and he thrashes her again. He pushes her forward again, and yet again the angel is standing ahead in another narrow spot, this time so narrow there’s no room to turn around–so our long-eared equine friend, who’s definitely had enough this time, simply lies down.

However, this time, as Balaam begins to administer yet another beating, the roles are suddenly reversed–the prophet who’s behaving like an ass, hears wisdom from an ass who speaks like a prophet! Only then does Balaam see the truth of the situation, and it’s enough to convince him to return and do the job God has lined out for him rather than Balak’s job for hire.

Our story is a reminder that, when we are in positions of authority, to heed the voices of those who bear the burden of what we are charged to do. We may well be visionaries and prophets when it comes to the big picture, but it’s a lonely, self-centered place if we believe too much about our own press clippings. It’s seductively easy to slide into believing in one’s self as prophet rather than to believe in our skills at hearing the full meaning of our visions and committing to doing the work of change with a humble and contrite spirit. Sometimes it takes hearing the truth as the people in the trenches see it, and God bless the ones who speak out to authority when it saves lives even at the risk of a beating.

One of the things I caution new equine owners is that the human-equine relationship is a partnership. One does not get on the back of an equine and expect to drive him or her like a car. It’s the merging of two thinking beings accomplishing a common task. Yes, the one holding the reins gets to call the shots. But when one’s normally tame mount keeps engaging in an unexpected, untoward behavior, it’s time to get out of the saddle and see what’s really going on. Is it a rock under a shoe? An unexpected danger in the road? If not, it’s the rider’s responsibility to de-condition the equine to the object he or she finds fearful, or it will be fearful of it forever. I spent hours once with a plastic grocery bag on a stick de-conditioning my mule when one spooked him on a ride.

It only stands to reason that our power-based human-human relationships deserve as much. Perhaps our Gospel reading today provides the message. As righteous as we might well feel of our positions in power in this life, the “tax collectors and the prostitutes” will be allowed in line before us in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now might be a good time to practice that skill!

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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