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September 17, 2017

“When Animals Talk Back”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Matthew 6.25-34

Numbers 22.21-35

September 17, 2017

            There is a Danish Proverb that says: “A donkey that carries a lot of books is not necessarily learned.” Many proverbs about donkeys are similar to this – making remarks that asses are not wise and do not know their nose from their elbow, but today we hear a story of a donkey who gains wisdom from God. This donkey doesn’t carry books, but certainly is learned through the Spirit.

The story of Balaam and his talking ass is not in the lectionary, but I chose it because it is one of my favorites and it goes along with our ark theme that includes animals and creation. This is an allegory that reminds us to look for God in some unexpected places because sometimes we are too focused on the wrong thing to notice that God is speaking to us.

            Balaam was a prophet. He was someone who spoke truth to the people and called them to take action accordingly.[1] Prior to this, King Balak, a Moabite, was preparing for Israel to enter the Moabite land. Balak has asked Balaam to curse them, and so Balaam is hitching up his donkey to do so. [2] Balaam climbs upon his trusty steed and begins his journey.

            This donkey is loyal to him – this is not a rental or a borrowed donkey. They have a relationship, perhaps like we might have with a pet. Except, this is more than a pet – this pet has a task – to transport Balaam to curse the Israelites.

            God does not want Balaam to follow through with King Balak’s orders. God has already made a covenant with the Israelites that they will make it to the Promised Land.[3] So, God sends an angel to stand guard and warn Balaam to turn back. This angel is referred to as Balaam’s “adversary.” This word for “adversary” is also translated as Satan in some places. Why is that? The word sometimes translated as “Satan” in Hebrew is meant to be “adversary,” some people just gave a specific adversary a name. Really, the word means someone who is pushing back against another person. This adversary has drawn a sword and is going against King Balak’s plan.

            The donkey sees the angel and isn’t stupid. He tries to redirect and go a different way rather than confront the angel which is clearly more weaponized. Balaam does not see the donkey and becomes angry that the donkey appears to be misbehaving. So, Balaam beats the donkey and reroutes. This is repeated, like those times the GPS insists in her snarky little voice, “You missed your turn – turn now!” the donkey keeps rerouting, and Balaam, like those of us who think we know which way we are going and are positive we know more than that little piece of technology on our dashboards, becomes more and more frustrated.

            Finally, Balaam’s ass lies down. Balaam is furious. God finally opens the mouth of the donkey and he says, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" Now, maybe some have become accustomed to talking asses – it seems that Balaam is, because he doesn’t flinch when the donkey speaks – he doesn’t blink or wonder why this animal is talking. Instead, he shows absolute frustration – not because the donkey has changed course, but because Balaam is embarrassed. “(Y)ou have made a fool of me!” he tells the donkey. He’s embarrassed that the donkey has taken him the “wrong” path and he is ready to kill him over it – a harsh reaction to a wandering donkey.

            The donkey tries to reason with him – he argues that he has been a loyal and trustworthy donkey. Has this donkey ever led him astray before? The donkey goes on to explain that there is an angel sitting in the way. For whatever reason, Balaam is distracted and cannot see this adversary. Maybe he is too focused on the king’s order. Maybe he hasn’t paused and asked himself a discernment question – “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” As soon as the donkey points out the angel, Balaam sees and understands. He backpedals and tells the angel that he would gladly turn around and forget the king’s orders. The angel tells him to stick with it, though. The change is that he is to speak the words of God, not the words of the king.

            The talking ass saved Balaam’s. He literally saved Balaam’s life because the angel told him that if the donkey had continued walking forward the angel was prepared to kill Balaam. God’s creation – the donkey – saved him and spoke to him. Through new eyes Balaam was able to change his perspective and refocus his mission.

            Sometimes we just need to refocus. It is easy to put ourselves on autopilot, continue on like business as usual, and not question if we are headed in the direction God has called us. We are comfortable on autopilot. We are often content when life seems static, because too often our lives are chaos. A moment of breathing time can seem like heaven. We are overwhelmed by the news – natural disasters in different places around the world, war, violence, racism, and on and on. Not to mention the personal burdens we carry with us. Autopilot means that we are surviving, not thriving, and that we are just making it. Balaam was on autopilot – doing what the king said and not rocking the boat. That was the easiest route for him.

            Except, God doesn’t call us to the easiest route. God calls us to confront those issues in the world – to address war and violence and racism, to seek forgiveness and to call out when we have been hurt and seek justice. Living the static life may seem like a worthy cause, but years later, we’ll still be on autopilot and empty.

            Facing the harshness of reality can be difficult – it can be anxiety inducing. To go against the king’s words would be frightening for Balaam – for anyone. To go against status quo can make us worry about our safety, our jobs, our families. If we are following God, we need not worry. The Matthew passage addresses the anxieties of the world, and Jesus tells the disciples that we must learn from creation how to go about our lives with less anxiety.

            Jesus tells us to consider the birds – they aren’t hoarding all the food and starving the other animals. They are taken care of, just as God promises to provide for us. Jesus gives the lilies as another example. The lilies are not churning over what tomorrow will bring. I love the last lines of this: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.” Amen. We have enough to worry about in this moment, we don’t need to worry about more. We don’t need to add worries. In fact, we don’t need to worry at all – because God will provide, even when it seems like all hope is lost. Just as the donkey showed Balaam the way, creation shows us the way to a less anxious presence. We will still worry – but perhaps we can tone it down a bit. Perhaps we can recognize the blessings we do have, and share what we have been given with someone who is worrying about food and shelter. This doesn’t diminish our worries or downplay them, but to realize that we each carry our own burdens, but to remember that we are here to help one another – to be in ministry with one another.

            God speaks to us through trees and horses and donkeys and lilies. Be at peace and listen for God. Don’t be stuck on autopilot – be daring and go a new way, exploring God’s call in your life. Be ready to take a risk, turn off your GPS, and follow the donkey. Sometimes an ass turns out to be right. Be generous and offer your burdens to God, as we walk together in hope, peace, and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Nili S. Fox, “Numbers” in The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 329.

[2] Ibid., 328.

[3]Ibid., 328.