Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are a lot of different names for the animal. Sometimes it’s called a burro. Sometimes an onager. Most often we call it a donkey. Breed it with a horse and you get a mule. There are other names for it, too, but some of these have been corrupted and misused to mean other things, so we’ll skip those. No matter what you call it, though, it’s been used as a pack animal since soon after the Flood, and maybe even before that. Although it’s not a big animal, it can carry a heavy burden for its size. Sometimes it has a reputation for being stubborn, but some scientists now think that its refusal to move is based on a keen sense of danger, perhaps to protect itself from injury.
In Bible times, donkeys were one of the most popular beasts of burden, along with the camel and the ox. Donkeys were probably the most commonly used animal for both riding travel and for carrying things. That’s because they were far less expensive than either a camel or an ox, and much easier to train and to feed.
Donkeys are mentioned many times in the Old Testament, including our first lesson today, the story of Balaam and the people of Israel. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all used donkeys. So did Jacob’s son Joseph, as well as Moses and Joshua, and even King Saul and King David. Many of the prophets wrote about donkeys, too. The most famous mention of donkeys in the Old Testament is probably that in the book of Zechariah, which we also heard today. There, the prophet foresaw the donkey that would carry Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, just five days before He would be put to death on the cross for our sins.
But after more than 130 mentions of donkeys in the Old Testament, they are mentioned only a few times in the New Testament. We heard the story today and many other times about how Jesus sent some of His disciples to fetch a donkey and her colt so He could make that ride into the city. Both Matthew and John wrote about that event in their Gospel books. But there are only two other times donkeys are mentioned in the New Testament.
One is when Jesus rebukes a synagogue leader for criticizing His healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. Jesus told the leader that he certainly would take care of his own animals’ needs on the Sabbath, so why shouldn’t Jesus meet the woman’s needs on the Sabbath, too. The other time is when St. Peter, writing a letter to the early Church, refers back to the story of Balaam, saying how people who reject the Gospel are just as foolish as that prophet. He had to be stopped by God’s use of a talking donkey from sinning against the Israelites.
In that situation, Balaam had been requested by King Balak to come and curse the Israelites. The king hoped that this curse would allow him to have success against God’s people in battle, and prevent them from coming into his land. In those days, a curse was considered a very powerful thing. Many believed that cursing someone would be able to stop them from doing something, or cause harm to come to them.
But God didn’t want His people cursed, so when Balaam was traveling to meet with Balak, He caused the donkey to stop—not just once, but three times. The angel of the Lord—who many believe is the Son of God before His human birth as Jesus—first blocked the road with a sword, and the donkey ran off the road into a field. When Balaam continued his journey, the angel of the Lord forced the donkey against a wall, crushing and scraping Balaam’s foot. And the third time, the donkey simply gave up and laid down, because she couldn’t get past.
In the end, it was not the donkey who was stubborn, but Balaam himself. The donkey was allowed to perceive God’s presence, was enabled to understand God’s will, and steer away from the danger. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be as smart as that donkey? But we are not. Even with all the abilities and information God gives us, we continue to ignore His commandments and His warnings, and we run ourselves right into the middle of trouble. We sin against the Lord and our neighbor, over and over again, and if we do not turn aside from this, we will surely be struck down by His sword of judgment.
Our lesson reading stops today before we find out what Balaam finally ended up doing. He eventually meets with King Balak. Instead of doing what this earthly king wants, though—for him to curse God’s people—Balaam listens to the heavenly King. He does what God wants, which is to bless the children of Israel. A donkey carries a prophet with God’s message to a king and a people, and through that message, His people are blessed.
In our third reading, many centuries later, another donkey carries another prophet with a message from God. This time, however, the message is not just for an earthly king and a particular people, but it is a message from THE heavenly King that is meant for all people. This message is not a message that we simply hope will help win a single battle against our earthly enemies, but it is a message that is absolutely certain to win the ultimate cosmic battle between good and evil, life and death. It is a message of both curse and blessing, though, for those who oppose God will not get their way, but those who submit to His will and accept His promises shall receive everything they need for eternal salvation and joy.
The coming of this Prophet and this King on the donkey fulfills the promises of God. It isn’t just a temporary fix; it’s the ultimate solution to mankind’s ultimate problem: We have sinned against God and against one another, and we cannot stay on the path. We wander off into the field; we bump up against obstacles; we give up and fall down, wondering what we can possibly do to please God and to avoid being struck down by His powerful sword of justice and punishment.
Yet we can’t do a thing. The only effective answer doesn’t come from the mouth of the donkey, but from the mouth of the living God who rides upon the donkey: Jesus must be handed over to evil men, and be crucified, and after three days rise. The four-hooved beast of burden carries the One who will bear the true burden: The guilt and punishment of your sins. Cloaks were laid on the donkey; palm branches were laid on the road. But laid on Jesus was the awful load of your sin, and He has borne it away as His own, so that you could have a free ride.
So don’t be a stubborn donkey, and certainly don’t be a stubborn individual who opposes God, either. Don’t try to defy God and choose your own path, trying to get around the will or the sword of the angel of the Lord. It won’t work, and it only risks your destruction and death.
Listen to the voice of God as He beckons you, enlightens you, and equips you to follow Him. Listen as His Word teaches you, as it leads you to font, pulpit, and altar. Most importantly, listen as He leads you to the foot of His cross. Follow Him to the temple, through the streets, to the garden, and the places where His trials begin, to the places where your salvation and eternal life were earned by His suffering and death. His journey was all for you, from heaven to earth to hell and back again. He has accomplished all things necessary to lift your curse and to grant you blessing upon blessing, now and forever.
In the holy (X) name of Jesus, Amen.