Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Numbers 22:21-41) transports me to the Canaan Land Comedy Club circa 3,000 years ago, where a Seinfeld-like stand-up rolls out the first version of what will become a classic: Balaam’s ass walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey buddy, why the long face?” Cue the rim shot, and then realize you are in the pre-Nick at Nite world of animal speech. Before Mr. Ed or Pokey or Francis the Talking Mule or Shrek’s Donkey had ever opened their mouths, there was Balaam’s beast, doing the work of the Lord and getting his proverbial ass beat in the process. It does do this story wonders, though, to imagine Eddie Murphey’s voice coming out of Balaam’s donkey.
The backstory: Israel’s Moabite enemies wanted to co-opt some of the Hebrews’ holy help by hiring the prophet Balaam to curse God’s chosen. Balaam was half-hearted in his refusal, so they knew they had him, and sure enough, at first light he mounted the donkey and took off after the Moabites. God sent an angel to bar the way, and the donkey, upon seeing the swashbuckling angel, tried three times to stop his master’s journey. The foolish seer didn’t have eyes to see, though, and beat the poor pony like a piñata each time, but he couldn’t drag the sorry ass an inch farther, until finally the dumb brute gained speech and talked sense into the prophet, whose eyes finally were opened to the angelic presence. What a saga!
It reminds me of a story told by the prophetic figure of the Baptist Southland, W.W. Finlator, who had an early pastorate in a prominent first baptist church. He told of a time when the church sanctuary had been renovated, Episcopalian style. One of the church ladies, proudly showing off the new sacred space to a friend, pointed out the split chancel and two pulpits, saying “over there’s where one of the deacons reads the scripture, and Reverend Finlator preaches from the rectum up there.” The good reverend said that he found the comment to be fitting, because he did shoot from the hip quite a bit.
Finlator, whether preaching from a rostrum or shooting from the hip, was, like most prophetic voices, considered an ass by many in the culturally captive church of the south in the mid 20th century. He took his fair share of verbal beatings by his critics, as he had eyes to see what most couldn’t see – that the Lord wasn’t going to stand by while the church went off to curse integration, or labor organizing, or the peace movement. Finlator saw the saber-rattling angel barring the way, and the preacher was stubborn in his refusal to carry the church one inch farther along that road. In the face of these injustices, you could say of him what Shrek said to his tag-along friend: Donkey, you have the right to remain silent. What you lack is the capacity.
That we have a 3,000 year old story of God removing the capacity of a dumb beast of burden to remain silent in the face of abuse should not surprise us. This is, after all, the same God who uses the foolish of the world to shame the wise. And it also shouldn’t surprise us “wise folk” to realize that we have built our world on the backs of the world’s beasts of burden, and we live a lifestyle that necessitates their taking a regular beating whenever they try to slow down or halt our “progress.” The question this story raises for me is this: What would happen if we ever stopped to listen to the beasts of burden who carry whatever heaviness we pile on them? What if we suddenly gained ears to hear the voices of the undocumented folks who work our fields, who empty our bed pans, who stitch our clothes together? What if this story is telling those of us in the world of privilege that unless we start listening to these voices, we’re likely to be going bass ackwards in our attempts to follow Jesus?
Enough time at the computer. My back is broad, but it’s a hurtin.’ (And for those of you who thought the title was referring to one of my DA moments, maybe that will come later in the week.)