A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through . . . a Donkey? (Numbers 22:22b-31)
While [Balaam] 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 the Lord 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.
Martin Luther is undoubtedly best-known as the father of the Protestant
Reformation.He protested against what
he perceived to be the excesses and missteps of the Catholic Church of his day,
and his work eventually caused the division we still see today between Catholic
and Protestant Christians, though, thankfully, relations between the two are
warmer today than they were in his day.
What many people don’t know is that Martin Luther also had a sense of humor
that was, perhaps, bawdier than what you might expect from a great church
leader.In particular, he had a great
affinity for jokes and one-liners about flatulence, making him just as suited
to be a middle school boys’ youth pastor as a great theologian.
Even in his own day, many people thought him vulgar and inappropriate, but
Luther was quick to respond, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass,” and
the implication was clear: God could also speak through one like him.
What we have just read is
one of the stranger and more peculiar stories found in Scripture.To even begin understanding it, we
desperately need some context.
The people of Israel have
been on the move, and they are now encamped across from the kingdom of
Moab.The king of Moab is threatened by
their presence, fearful that his kingdom will be overtaken.He is looking for any advantage he can gain
over them, and he decides to enlist the services of Balaam, the man we just
Balaam is an entrepreneur
of sorts, and what he sells are blessings and curses.He’s not particularly religious himself, but
is apparently well-studied and good at his job, because his blessings and curses
seem to work whenever he invokes them.The king of Moab, looking for some supernatural help, summons for Balaam
to come and curse the people of Israel so they won’t overtake his kingdom, and
offers a high price for Balaam’s service.
Initially, Balaam declines
the contract, because God has appeared to him and told him not to go and curse
the people of Israel.But the king of
Moab is persistent, he sends another delegation with a higher offer, and the
deal is apparently too sweet for Balaam to resist – after all, business is
business, money talks and his donkey walks, as it were – and so off he goes.
En route, an angel from
God appears on the road with a sword drawn, visible only to the donkey.Not once, but three times the donkey tries to
change course – veering first into the field, then into a stone wall, crushing
Balaam’s foot, and then finally, when there was nowhere else to go, lays down
on the road and refuses to go further.
Each time, the donkey is
rewarded with a beating from Balaam.The
donkey has had enough, and opens his mouth to speak.I apologize in advance for not having a good
Eddie Murphy impression so you could hear the voice of the donkey in its
original form, so please forgive me.The
donkey says, “Dude!(It doesn’t say,
“Dude,” in the English, but it’s pretty close in the Hebrew)Why do you keep beating me?Have I not carried you for years?Have I ever done this sort of thing before –
no, I haven’t – and so maybe there’s a reason I keep changing course, and it
might do you some good to find out why!”
Friends, that is one smart
I used that word in a
sermon in my last church, talking about Jesus riding that animal into Jerusalem
on Palm Sunday.One lady was quite
perturbed by my use of that particular word, even when I told her that that
word’s meaning is determined by the context in which it is used, and she just
said, “Well, that word refers to a beast of burden and NOT to a particular part
of the body!” and I just smiled and said, “You bet your beast of burden it does!”
Let’s go ahead and name
the donkey in the room.In our culture,
the word, “donkey,” is often used as a euphemism for that other term that’s a
little less polite. There is no way to know if the word, “donkey,” had
the same connotations as it does for us today, but there seems a certain
fitness that sometimes it takes a donkey for us to realize what we’re doing,
especially when we’re on the wrong path and need to change course.
When we are doggedly
pursuing a project, and something comes along that is an interruption, an
annoyance, a detour, or a roadblock altogether, we aren’t that pleased,
either.We will likely experience
anything or anyone that stands in the way or delays our progress as a pain in
But I wonder how often we,
like Balaam, find ourselves on a road we shouldn’t be on in the first place,
and what seems like an interruption or a distraction or a detour is actually
there for our benefit.
I am a person who loves to
find backroads and shortcuts.I love to
be on the road less travelled – perhaps to find a way that’s just a bit quicker
than the beaten path, perhaps to feel like I have some sort of inside
knowledge, I’m not sure.When I lived in
Boone, someone told me about an old road that led outside of town to the area
where I lived.I knew roughly where both
ends of the road were, and decided I was going to try to find it one day.I turned off the main road, and then off the
side road, and then onto a windy, one-lane mud path.
I was sure I had found it
– the secret, hidden road no one else travelled!Today was the day I was going to conquer
it!I soon discovered why no one else
travelled this particular road.I pushed
my Pontiac Vibe up the side of this mountain until I came to a place where a
rockslide had covered the road, making it impassible, and I had a particular,
colorful thought as I thought about what a pain that was!
I got out of the car and
climbed over the rocks and walked a little further up the road, and as I went
around a curve that started steeply back down, I saw down at the bottom of the
slick, muddy incline that the road was washed away completely.I realized, had the rocks not been there, I
wouldn’t have stopped back there, and would have come around this curve and
started down that muddy hill with probably no way to stop before I got to the
spot where the road was washed out, and would have careened several hundred
feet to the bottom of the mountain below.
When I first encountered
those rocks, I thought, “What a pain in the proverbial.”But those rocks kept me from going any
further down the road toward something that was infinitely more dangerous.It was an additional pain in the proverbial
to back the car several hundred yards down that windy road to a spot where it
was wide enough for me to turn around and return from whence I had come, but
I’d rather have that frustration than what would have awaited me had I been
able to keep going.
When it comes to what we
experience as donkey-like people and situations, maybe that circumstance or
that person is there to help put us on a different path, or at least to slow us
down enough to think through what we’re doing and whether or not it’s a project
worth pursuing.Maybe we’re on a path of
our desire and have given little regard to what God might want.Maybe we’re on a road that goes nowhere, or
is a dead-end, maybe even a road that leads to destruction.
Other times, it takes a
donkey in our lives, someone or some situation who is an absolute pain in the
proverbial, for us to realize how much a donkey we are making of
ourselves.For Balaam, it took his
now-famous talking beast for him to realize how stubborn he was being, how
headstrong and intent he was on his own plans rather than God’s, pursuing
profit for himself while ignoring the directive of God.By the end of it, Balaam has come to realize
that he, not the beast, is the bigger donkey in the story.
Yes, it’s annoying when
someone or something comes along that interrupts our plans, but if we’re on the
wrong road to begin with, then maybe that pain in the proverbial is actually a
blessing in disguise.
Remember, blessings and
curses were Balaam’s business, and business was good.Being called in by the King of Moab was
likely one of the biggest contracts he had ever landed.After Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him
and he, too, sees the angel of the Lord on the road, he has a change of heart
about offering blessings and curses on the spot for the highest bidder.
If you read on, you’ll see
that he continues on to meet the King of Moab, but does not agree to curse the
people of Israel, agreeing instead to only say what God permits him to
say.The King of Moab takes him to the
top of four different mountains and orders him to curse the Israelites
below.Four times, Balaam refuses, only
speaking oracles about God’s favor and blessing on the people.The king sends Balaam home, furious that he
has blessed the people rather than cursed them.
How many times have we
found ourselves cursing others, when God has called us to bless others?
In reality, what does it
profit us when we make decisions out of our own greed and ignore God’s interest
in the good of all?How many times have
we tried to bend God’s ways to suit our ways, asking God to bless the road
we’re already on and what we’ve already made up our minds to do?How many times have we put the bottom line
ahead of common decency, to the point that the term “business ethics” is
treated like an oxymoron?
From time to time, we all
find ourselves on a road we probably don’t need to be on, and the correcting
word of a friend or stranger – even who seems like a pain in the proverbial –
might be what we need to realize what a donkey’s hind end we are being
ourselves, and get ourselves on a better path.
As Martin Luther said,
“God once spoke through an ass,” and the implication is clear: God can use and
speak through anything and anyone – including us.That reality doesn’t give us license to act
like jerks, but neither should we be surprised when God shows up in unexpected
ways and people and places.If God could
speak through Balaam’s donkey, God can certainly speak through ones like you
and like me.
Let us pray.
God, we can get way too caught up in ourselves
sometimes.We are so interested in our
desires, our plans, our hopes, that we lose sight of what you want.We experience every distraction and detour as
a real pain in the behind, and are often blind to the ways we’re acting like
big old donkeys ourselves.We pursue
profit rather than you.We put our ways
ahead of yours.We stick to our own path
rather than seeking out yours.We curse
others rather than bless them.Put your
messengers on the road we travel, help us to see where we are in error, so we
can better turn toward you.Thank you
for your many blessings in disguise.Amen.