One Christmas, when my daughter was quite small, I received a letter from her primary school that said on its first line, ‘Dear Mrs Durber, your daughter is an ass…’ and then the second line ‘in the school nativity play’. For a brief moment I had thought that this was an overly blunt assessment of her abilities as a scholar – but of course in reality it was a request for me to produce a costume.. (a task which taxed my skills to their limit…)
It’s a story that illustrates the dangers there might be in setting out a letter – but more importantly – it reveals how we have come to associate donkeys with foolishness or stupidity. I rather like donkeys myself – but I guess I’ve never thought of them as wise or knowing…I guess that might be as big as mistake as I sometimes make in estimating my own ability to see a situation right or make a good judgement. And today’s stories are all about the wonder that God speaks to us even when we are being stupid or when we are inclined to think others foolish while we are smart… We talk about the wise men from the East, but most of Matthew’s first hearers would have thought magi about as far up the intellectual chain as we might put a clairvoyant or someone who writes the astrologer column for a red top paper. Just as no one would have expected angels to appear to some grubby shepherds who work even on the sabbath day, neither would they have thought God would speak to foreign and gentile soothsayers. But God speaks nonetheless. And perhaps that gives us; rule breakers and foreigners as we are, the confidence that God can communicate even with us.
Hearing the readings for this Sunday, you might think that if you haven’t made it to a pantomime this Christmas then you haven’t missed your chance after all! The reading from the Old Testament must be one of the oddest in the whole Bible. It’s Dr Doolittle and Harry Potter all mixed up – and a donkey, poor creature, is always good for comic effect. There are quite a lot of stories in the Bible about donkeys, but this one is perhaps not the best known. But it’s well worth a look.
As the story goes, the King of Moab is worried about the large number of asylum seekers – Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt – coming onto his land, so he asks Balaam to come and put a curse on them (not a tactic available to our present Home Secretary…). At first Balaam refuses absolutely even to leave the house and do any of this, but eventually he gives in to the King’s demands, saddles his donkey and sets off. But then God sends an angel to stop Balaam putting a curse on anyone. The donkey sees the angel barring the road and turns off. Balaam doesn’t see the angel and just beats the donkey for not keeping to the road. This happens several times, until finally the donkey just lies down in the dust and refuses to budge. Then, since Balaam still doesn’t get it, God gives the ass the ability to speak – and, in perfect Hebrew, the donkey explains. Then Balaam sees what the donkey can see – the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn – and he gets the point. Instead of cursing the Israelite asylum seekers he blesses them. And so, a King with murderous thoughts is thwarted, and one of the great donkey stories of the Bible is born.
But does this funny story have anything more to do for us than make us laugh on a dreary January Sunday? You see Balaam was a magus – and the characters in the New Testament story are magi (the plural of magus). In both stories there is a King who wants to destroy the heart of Israel. And in both stories a King tries to use a foreign magus or foreign magi to do it (Balaam came from what is Iraq today). And in both stories he fails. In both stories, the magus or magi fail to deliver a curse, fail to make sure that the threat to the King is killed – and in fact instead of a curse they bring blessing and gifts. There are enough similarities here to give us the nudge we need to realise that the writer of the story wants us to ‘see’ something – to see a message from God right in front of our eyes. So what could the message be?
You could be forgiven for seeing these stories as starting with a good laugh at foreigners, a bit like those off-colour stories comedians used to tell. You have to laugh at Balaam – what does he know? Even his donkey, it turns out, can ‘see’, more than he can! What kind of a seer can’t see an angel when it’s right in front of his nose? Even an animal as apparently stupid as a donkey turns out to be more perceptive than him! And in the story of the magi in the Gospels there are things that make them look ridiculous too. Why do they turn up in Jerusalem and not Bethlehem if they were so clever about following stars? And how could they be so stupid as to let narcissitic Herod know there might be a new King being born? Couldn’t they have guessed he’d get so jumpy that he might even go killing children? These foreign prophets are really rubbish, you might say…
The early Christian readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have expected very little from these people – and would have cheerfully laughed at stories of them being bettered by donkeys or by their own camels.
But, what’s fascinating is that the Biblical stories of Balaam and of the magi who visited Jesus are more merciful to these fools than that. They really aren’t only pantomime villains or clowns. For all that Balaam is a bit of a fool in some ways, he does absolutely the right thing in the end – he refuses to curse the Israelites. He says,
‘How can I curse someone God has not cursed,
how denounce someone the Lord has not denounced?’
Those are words worth dwelling on… In the end he speaks the words of a man whose sight is clear, who does see a vision from God. In the end, he becomes a good seer, who sees the truth and who speaks for God. And, for all that those wise men in the Gospel story are absolutely stupid in giving the game away to Herod, they do find the child and they worship him, when other more local prophets who might have known did not. In the end, despite the odds, God is revealed to them and they are brought to their knees before God incarnate. Even to such as daft as these, God is made known.
I can remember that, as I was growing up, my father would chide me that I might be good at passing exams, but I had not enough common sense. And I bridled at the time, as teenagers do who think we know it all, but have since learned that he may have been right – and that wisdom takes many forms. And I’ve learned, as we all do, that the deepest wisdom comes more as a gift or an epiphany or revelation, rather than as something we work out for ourselves. It’s the old man Simeon, after all, in Luke’s Gospel who is about the only one in the Christmas stories who isn’t astonished or afraid, but simply ‘sees’ even with blind eyes, that God has come to be with us.
Religious folk like us do right to be modest about what we think we believe and know about God – and stories like the ones of Balaam and his donkey and those stupid sages show us that all human beings can be more blinkered than a race- horse and more fraudulent than the supposedly mighty wizard of Oz. Yet, God finds a way to come to us, even so.
There are lots of strange stories that come out year after year around Christmas time. There’s a persistent legend that on Christmas Eve at midnight, the birds and the animals have the ability to speak and they praise God. It’s a daft story of course, as daft as the story of Balaam and his talking ass. But perhaps it speaks some truth about the way God breaks in and breaks open what we think of as our human wisdom, and speaks through what we think of normally as foolishness. St Paul had something to say, after all, about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of human beings. Much of Christmas and much of what goes on in the world seems pretty daft sometimes. But, nonetheless, God speaks to us even when the world seems to have gone mad.
This year we bought a new set of crib figures. They are beautiful and we’ve put them in the window so that anyone passing, of whatever faith or view, can see them. We had to make some choices about which figures to buy or leave in the shop. We bought an ox, but not an ass – and the camel would have taken up a bit too much room on the table. But I’m wondering really whether we should go back and get the ass. If only as a reminder that if in our living we are sometimes ‘a bit of an ass’ – God comes to us nevertheless.
There was a time when we human beings thought that we were making progress, but the twentieth century taught us to be more modest about ourselves. Just as most of us, as we get older, recognise that wisdom is not always to be found where we thought. Today we discover again, perhaps, that human reason can only take us so far and that a truer wisdom is found in what God reveals in moments of our lives when, all unlooked for, we discover something of the mystery of God. Epiphanies are moments when that higher wisdom breaks in, when angels cross our path, when a child is born, when love is known, when kindness touches us, when glory dazzles us and hope confounds even Brexit and the travails of our times.
Thanks be to God, the only one who is all wise and all merciful, Amen