By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
February 4, 2018
Scripture: Numbers 22:21-38
Donkeys rarely get a role – much less a speaking role – in the bible. Today, however, Balaam’s donkey is not only a main character but is actually the hero of our story.
To understand what is going on in this admittedly unusual bible story, we need to know a little of what has come before. You know some of this background, I’m sure. Let’s start with the Israelites: God’s people. The Israelites have come out of Egypt because they were being oppressed by Pharaoh.
They have been wandering in the wilderness for a whole generation. At this point in the story, they gotten out of the wilderness and set up camp on the plains of Moab. So there is a whole new generation of Israelites, and there are a lot of them. God has fulfilled God’s promise right there that Abraham’s ancestors would be fruitful and multiply. The people of God are thriving – hurray!
However, not everyone is excited about that. Enter King Balak. Balak is the king of the Moabites. He’s looking at these Israelites who are camped out on the plains of Moab and looking pretty cozy there, and he is worried. King Balak is worried that these Israelite immigrants (maybe more appropriately described as refugees given Pharaoh’s violence toward them)… he is worried that they are multiplying so fast that they are going to use up all of the resources of Moab, and he is worried they might start a war and try to take Moab for themselves. He doesn’t want them in his land, and he certainly does not want them multiplying.
Now King Balak has heard about the guy with the donkey: Balaam. (I know their names are similar.) The donkey guy, Balaam is described as a diviner. He has special divine powers. He is able to bless or curse people. Balaam is a Moabite, a subject of King Balak. He is not part of God’s chosen people, but even so, he knows the Israelite God Yahweh. Well, all King Balak knows is that Balaam is powerful and might be able to help him with his Israelite immigration problem. So King Balak summons donkey guy Balaam to meet with him, so he can command Balaam to curse the Israelites, so they will quit multiplying, and he can get rid of them.
Our scripture today opens with Balaam on his way to meet King Balak. But as you heard in our scripture, God has other plans. The angel of the Lord appears three different times to try to stop Balaam’s progress. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and tries to alter his course, and every time, rather than heeding the donkey’s warning, Balaam strikes the donkey to try to get him to keep going. Finally, Balaam’s donkey speaks up – literally! He tells Balaam to stop striking him, and points out that he has been a loyal donkey who would only be stopping and going off course for good reason.
Once Balaam is convinced that his donkey is someone who he should listen to, Balaam is able to see the angel of the Lord himself. The angel tells Balaam that if it hadn’t been for the donkey, the angel would have killed Balaam. And Balaam finally hears God’s message to him which is: when you meet with King Balak about those immigrant Israelites, only speak the words that God tells you to speak. Do not help King Balak by cursing the Israelites with your words.
In this story, donkey guy Balaam possesses the power to bless or to curse God’s people by his words. I think we too have the power to bless or curse by our words. Now, we might not have magical divine powers like Balaam, but the words we speak, the opinions we share, have consequences. Sometimes our words are a blessing. And sometimes they are a curse.
In our story, Balaam has a choice. He can curse the immigrant Israelites because that’s what the powerful, corrupt king wants him to do. Or he can bless them because that’s what God wants him to do.
He is fixing to curse the Israelites when his donkey tries to get his attention. His donkey, this powerless, abused animal has something important to tell him that will help him see and hear God’s message. But Balaam just sees the donkey as getting in the way of what he wants to do. So instead of listening to the donkey, he beats the donkey. Balaam wouldn’t ever dream that maybe the donkey can tell him something about God. And yet, only when Balaam listens to the donkey’s words, is he able to hear God. Only then, can he receive God’s instructions to bless instead of curse.
As I pondered this story this past week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of political discourse in our nation. How often do we really listen to the people who we see as getting in the way of us having what we want? How often do we listen to the voice of the member of the other political party? How often do we listen to the person who deeply disagrees with us: that person who maybe we think is responsible for everything that is wrong in this country in the first place? How often have we metaphorically kicked those who are getting in our way rather than stopping to listen to them?
What if instead of getting angry and frustrated with our political foes, we listened to them instead? What if before we decide to kneel during that national anthem, we talk with a veteran who thinks we should stand in respect for the flag? What if before we condemn people who kneel, we talk with a black mother who is terrified for the safety of her teenage son? What if we talk the veterans who don’t really like the kneeling, but still believe that they served for your right to kneel if that’s what you choose to do?
What if we listened to victims of sexual assault before we decried political correctness? What if we listened to the men who are afraid they will be unjustly accused? What if we listened to refugees to hear about the violence they fled and the ways they are contributing to our country? What if we listened to poor white people who feel like they are being told they are privileged, even though they can’t find a decent-paying job and feed their families?
Before we speak, before we post on Facebook, before we forward that email, before we re-tweet, before we even have a good rant in the privacy of our own living rooms, what if we listened to the very people we think are the problem? What if we listened to those we have been treating as less-than-human, as obstacles in the way of getting what we want and what we think we deserve?
Friends, I’m not sure you know this. Maybe you do. But we are a politically divided church. We do not agree on many of the issues I just named. But what if in our diversity, we could at least be an example to the world of people who absolutely refuse to treat someone as less than a beloved child of God – just because we disagree? What if we absolutely commit to listening to one another, and even reaching out beyond our little community, to listen to the voices of people with radically different experiences and opinions than us?
Maybe then we could be like the diviner Balaam and hear the words that God is speaking to us. Maybe then we can even be a light and an example – this church – for the people and systems all around us that are so very divided and broken.
May our listening and our speaking be a blessing to the whole world.
May it be so.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Re-read the scripture for today. What details are especially interesting to you? What are you drawn to?
- What questions do you still have about the scripture? What do you want to learn more about? Is there anything your find problematic or concerning?
- Who is one person in your personal life that you have trouble listening to because you have deep disagreements? What do you disagree about, and why might you find it so hard to listen?
- Have you ever listened to someone whose life experiences were very different from yours and changed your perspective / opinion because of it? Tell us about that person and how/why you changed.