21 So Balaam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.
22 Then God became angry because he went. So while he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two servants, the Lord’s messenger stood in the road as his adversary. 23 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned from the road and went into the field. Balaam struck the donkey in order to turn him back onto the road. 24 Then the Lord’s messenger stood in the narrow path between vineyards with a stone wall on each side. 25 When the donkey saw the Lord’s messenger, it leaned against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he continued to beat it. 26 The Lord’s messenger persisted and crossed over and stood in a narrow place, where it wasn’t possible to turn either right or left. 27 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger and lay down underneath Balaam. Balaam became angry and beat the donkey with the rod. 28 Then theLord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you’ve beaten me these three times?”
29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you’ve tormented me. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now.”
30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on whom you’ve often ridden to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
Balaam said, “No.”
31 Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and Balaam saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand. Then he bowed low and worshipped. 32 The Lord’s messenger said to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I’ve come out here as an adversary, because you took the road recklessly in front of me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it hadn’t turned away from me, I would just now have killed you and let it live.”
34 Balaam said to the Lord’s messenger, “I’ve sinned, because I didn’t know that you were standing against me in the road. Now, if you think it’s wrong, I’ll go back.”
35 The Lord’s messenger said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But don’t say anything. Say only that which I tell you.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.
Numbers 22:21-35 NRSV
This month is all about animals. Last week we looked at the lions in the den. Next week we discuss the bears and the children. This week it’s all about the donkey. Donkeys were an important part to Middle Eastern culture. When they were domesticated in the fourth millennia BC, they changed the world, as we knew it. First, they were an easier animal to work with. More so than the cud chewing ox. The domesticated donkey meant more could be accomplished and, people could travel further. It was a beast of burden, but a steed of royalty.
Let me recap the scripture, no there is too much, let me sum up: We have this story about this guy who just wants to get what’s his. The price is right, so he sets out on a quest for someone else. During his adventure he decides he is not going to work for the guy who hired him. Instead, he’s going to help the focus of the initial quest. Oh yeah, and there’s a talking donkey… and I’m not talking about the hit animated comedy Shrek. I’m talking about Balaam, the foreign prophet. It’s a story we are supposed to laugh at. A donkey sees God when Balaam can’t. Balaam punishes the donkey for saving his life. Ancient Near-East comedy at its best. After all, it’s not our prophet, so it’s OK to snicker.
It’s part of the reason I’m drawn to him. It’s not like he chose to be born outside of Israel. God still called him. For goodness sake, why is no one laughing at Jonah? He thought he could run away from God and found himself in the belly of a big fish! Oh, it’s because he was an Israelite. That makes it unfortunate, and a good life lesson. Not something to laugh at. I’m drawn to this outsider because I feel I can relate. As a young child, my mother’s second husband brought domestic abuse, neglect, and verbal abuse. It would take years to deal with the damage it did to me. I was in seminary when I first understood it for what it was. I don’t care to talk about my past anymore, but I used to wave it like a flag. I used to think my past made me special, because it was the only time people paid attention to me. In truth, because I couldn’t see that my past broke me, I was unwilling and unable to heal. It left me unable to connect with people. In being broken, I had no place to talk, and nothing I could add to the conversation, until I was willing to admit I was broken. Then I had to piece myself back together first, before I shared my story.
Now on the healthy side of life, I tend to see the person who sits on their own, or doesn’t connect as easily. I’m drawn to helping them relate to the group. I’m often frustrated when someone does something that ostracizes people, or how some seem to naturally get a pass because they were born to the right family or accepted by the right people. So, yeah, I’m naturally going to stick up for Balaam, the outsider prophet.
Then there is the other side of the story. Last week I told you there was a time to stop talking. There are times when the best gift you can give someone, is the gift of presence and silence. Outside of crisis, there are also times to act, and open our mouths. I may have a soft spot for the outsider prophet Balaam, but this prophet was still about to go to Israel and throw down a curse. See, Balaam was not like the other prophets we read about in the bible. The other prophets get a message from God and share that message. Balaam, on the other hand, was a prophet for hire. He was known for his ability to throw out curses and blessings and have them stick. If we had read earlier in scripture, we would have learned King Balak was scared. He saw what the Israelites had done to his neighbor, the Amorites. He was afraid his land of Moab was next. He decided to call for Balaam. We don’t know how, but even with multiple warnings from God, Balaam eventually decides to take Balak’s money offer and go curse Israel. This is the story of the bad guy Balaam becoming a good guy. (Still sounds like Shrek, but let me continue.)
We all know those people. They are the ones whose actions purposefully or inadvertently hurt those around them. Because the community is a system, ultimately the person endangering others gets hurt too. Balaam was headed down the wrong road, literally. It was going to lead to a whole heap of trouble.
You know, when we are called to be quite, we are acting to not hurt the person in crisis. When we are called to open our mouth, we need to be prepared for repercussions. People want order and routine. It’s not that the order or the routine are correct. It’s just that we have this primal understanding to watch out for change. It comes from our caveman days. Movement in forest, bad. Our reflexes tells us to lash out at those things that are different, because that’s how life worked back then. More than likely those things were bad. Now, we react the same way when something different could actually be good, because it might be the routine or the order that has become corrupt.
Truth hurts. It hurts the person hearing it, and it often hurts the person saying it. Truth hurts because we don’t want to hear we have been headed in the wrong direction. Balaam was headed in the wrong direction. He was warned, not once, but twice not to go curse Israel. His salvation came from one of the most unlikely of sources: His donkey.
A few years ago I had an epiphany. It was during a nativity play and the director was casting for God. She cast this booming voice. Someone who spoke and everything he said just filled the room. It hit me. Every time I “hear” God in a play it’s this loud and terrible voice. Why do we do that? Does God come to you in a loud and booming voice? When God comes to me it’s usually in meek, and very unlikely places. For example, I was telling you how I was broken, and my realization I needed healing didn’t come until Seminary. Let me tell you about that moment.
I had registered for a class on Moral Justice, Care, and Faith. It was a psychology class. I was told ahead of time there would be no theology or bible in this class. It was the truth. It was probably the only place where I didn’t walk in with my bible. There came a moment in the class where we were discussing the difference between introverts or extroverts. We were off topic. Y’all know who Dr. Jerry Gladson is? He’s an introvert, but he teaches classes at Columbia, and was the Senior Minister at First Marietta. I asked my professor about him. He’s very connected to those around him, for being an introvert. He said an introvert still connects with society, it just wears them out quicker. Without realizing it, I said, “I bet they struggle with conflict.” He responded, “You put an introvert’s back against the wall and they’ll act, and probably stronger than an extrovert.”
To everyone else in that class, it was just an interesting moment. To me, in this quiet room, spoken by a soft voice, God had unlocked the truth. I grew up thinking I was an introvert. I thought I was an introvert because the thought of getting in front of a group of people seized me with fear. The thought of dealing with conflict stopped me in my tracks. I was not an introvert. I was a broken extrovert. It was my past that kept me from dealing with conflict in healthy ways. In a class where we were promised God was not going to be discussed, I had met with the divine.
That’s what the donkey is for me. It’s not the bloggers who promise God in their advertising riddled pages. The ones who scream the truth laced in venom. Often times it’s not the obvious places. God is in the donkey, speaking in ways we, or often the person we are talking with, don’t expect. God is in the man in the wilderness, completely disconnected with the corrupted routine and order. God is the woman at the well, a second class citizen who brought her town to faith. God are the people who sat at the restaurant counter asking for equal treatment. God is Jesus on the cross being punished for speaking the truth. Being punished for trying to keep us from that danger. God is often not the booming voice, but the still small echo. The last voice we ever expect to fix our brokenness. To fix our unhealthy systems.
Today I ask you to listen out for our unexpected God moments, and not to punish them when they come. I ask you to extend grace to those who do lash out at those unexpected voices. Like Balaam, they may not realize the dangers they are being moved away from. Mostly, I just ask you to realize that all have the ability to see the truth. Even when it seems we have to fall on the person to keep them from harm. Everyone has the ability to change for the better. In those moments, there God is also.