Yesterday was a fun one! In honor of (approximately) the Feast of St. Francis, we invited everyone to bring their fur-babies to church for a blessing. Although there are many types of fur- and feather-babies in our lives, the only animals that actually made it to church yesterday were the dogs. Still, it made for a fun, cute and lively environment.
It was not obvious how to preach for this service. Every Animal-Blessing service I’d ever attended in the past was held outdoors, separately from the Sunday morning Eucharist, and therefore, had no sermon. And the lectionary readings for the day were not well-aligned with the events of the day. In fact, the readings were a tad brutal. But I found a way in by telling the story of Balaam’s Donkey.
As you’ll see if you read the story, God chose to be revealed (through an angel) to the prophet’s donkey, instead of to the prophet himself. Perhaps this is because animals are often aware of spiritual or metaphysical realities that we cannot, or will not see. Or perhaps it’s because God so frequently uses those whom we dismiss, in carrying out divine purposes. Both of these are important spiritual lessons, and both are confirmed by Jesus’ message in yesterday’s Gospel reading: “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This is just how God operates – the opposite of however we might do it.
But there’s another aspect to the tale of Balaam’s Donkey that’s important to explore right now. As the story goes, the king of Moab is afraid that the armies of Israel will overrun Moab and defeat it, so he finds a prophet-for-hire named Balaam, to go and curse Israel. The king flatters Balaam with the words, “whoever you curse is cursed, and whoever you bless is blessed,” hoping that this will be enough to protect him from invasion.
However, if we skim past the part about the talking donkey, we see this story has a surprise ending. The prophet who was paid to curse Israel turns out not to be such a false prophet after all, and God will not let him fulfill his commission to curse, but rather puts blessings in his mouth. For example, in Numbers 24:5 he proclaims “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!” and goes on to deliver the final ironic blow to the king who hired him, saying to Israel, “Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you.”
The prophet confesses that it is not he, Balaam, who is the authoritative blesser and curser. But rather, God is the authority, and God’s chosen people are the standard by which blessings and curses are defined.
This may hit home right now, to anyone watching the news, or anyone with friends and loved ones living in the Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. I myself have several friends who live in or near Jerusalem, and so far, they are safe from the recent violence between the Israeli army and the terrorist forces of Hamas. I am also planning a pilgrimmage to the Holy Land in January, and thus, watching the situation unfold in earnest.
Our first instinct, as Christians, and as democratic people who support peace, should be to condemn the unprovoked attacks on the nation of Israel, and to support any effort to spare lives and restore the peace. We want to bless those who bless Israel, and by extension, curse those who curse Israel.
I do not have a “but” for this. I don’t want to back-pedal, or water down this sentiment in any way. However, there is some nuance to be gained through the story of Balaam. Notice that this prophet is a foreigner himself, acting on behalf of a foreign power. If the goal was simply to prevent his nefarious mission, God could have simply struck him down. And indeed, this is what the angel might have done, if his donkey had not seen the danger and protected him from the angel’s deadly sword. Put simply, God allowed a way out, providing for redemption instead of retribution.
So despite this scene in Numbers being decidedly pro-Israel, it is not anti-everyone-else. The beautiful words of blessing that have rung in our ears for millennia were not spoken by Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah. Rather, they were spoken by a Babylonian prophet-for-hire. God, once again, used the vessel we would least expect, and God did so for a reason.
Yes, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are God’s chosen people. But God is very careful to demonstrate that this does not make everyone else “un-chosen”. That every ethnicity, every race and every gender together comprise the created image of God, loved by God, redeemed by God. It was Israel’s role to be the chosen nation, but (in this case) it was Balaam’s role to be a vessel of truth. Everyone has a divine role to play. In that sense, we are all chosen: Jew and Gentile alike. Israeli and Palestinian alike.
And this is an urgently needed perspective for a time such as this. Yes, of course, we support Israel in its right to defend itself against a military incursion. Yes, we work together toward the defeat of all terrorism, wherever it may be found. But no, we do not condemn peoples. We do not hate individuals, or groups of them. We are called to love our enemies, but what’s more, we are called to see beyond whatever is driving us apart. We may be witnessing what appears to be abject evil, but to paraphrase Richard Rohr, evil is nothing but the frustrated desire for good.
God, help us to see, in these harrowing events, and in these consistently challenging times, the image of God and the desire for good in all people. And let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem, even today. Amen.