September 24, 2008
Get Along, Little Donkeys
Continuing our Fortnight of Donkey Tales, the following devotional is based on Exodus 23.
The attention given to donkeys in the Mosaic Law is an indication of how integral they were in ancient Israelite culture. A donkey was a family's transport--carrying, for example, Moses' family from the desert of Midian back to Egypt when he liberated his people. A donkey was a family's farm implement--how the work got done on whatever plot of land they maintained. A donkey was a pet of sorts; some biblical characters even had prolonged conversations with this long-eared member of the family.
And so, donkey tales in the Bible, even the most seemingly innocuous of them, are intensely personal. A person who sent his donkey somewhere with a message was going all in; a family who lost track of their donkey knew that their livelihood was at stake. Which leads us to today's donkey tale:
The text presumes two things: (1) you probably have enemies and (2) they'll probably have their share of troubles.
Now, enemies is an uncomfortable term; enemies are the enemy of a capitalist economy and a democratic society. The current political climate is a good example, as candidates for the most powerful position in the world choose their words carefully to acknowledge the dignity of their opponent while simultaneously leading listeners to the inevitable conclusion that their opponent is the antichrist. Meanwhile, champions of the free market look for ways of defending the notion of a near-trillion-dollar governmental bailout so that companies that are "too big to fail" rapidly approach failure.
The frankness of this passage is refreshing in such an age of spin and nuance, an age where we express our outrage loudly while subverting our opponents quietly. Say what you will about the Scriptures, but at least they cut to the chase.
The author of Exodus acknowledges, at least tacitly, that to be human is to have enemies, probably because to be human is to be morally compromised--finite and fallible, quick to judge and slow to repent. To be human is also to have trouble, however, as this passage is also quick to assume. Jesus even says it directly: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33)--probably in part because to be human is to have enemies, and to be human is to be finite and fallible, quick on the draw but slow on the uptake.
But the law here doesn't address the enemy or the troubled; the law here addresses the onlooker. Seeing our enemy in trouble is an ethical trilemma: Will we indulge the temptation to celebrate our enemy's trouble? Will we shrug off what we've witnessed and mind our own business? Or will we indulge the still, small voice that invites us to offer a hand? The law here reminds us that to be human is to have a guiding ethic--and, given our finiteness and fallibility, to seek after a guided ethic, something that the God of the Bible is happy to provide.
Mark Twain is said to have defined an ethical person as "a Christian holding four aces." The statement presumes two things: (1) there are others at the table and (2) there are no aces to spare. When we find ourselves holding all the cards, when we have the upper hand in the presence of our enemies, then we find ourselves at table with people without hope. And here the Bible is frustratingly, persistently clear: Let us lay down our cards and take up our cross. Let us love, for love comes from God.