Saturday, 28 March 2015

Lent day 34

In a modern leisure-laden society, beach donkey rides or encounters during a farm visit will for some provide childhood memories of animals that have accompanied human journeys across the earth for the past six millennia.
Lukes' Gospel doesn't mention how Joseph and Mary, heavy with child travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor does it mention which animals were in the stable of the inn where she gave birth, but the use of donkeys as beasts of burden and means of transport already had four thousand years of history behind it since the first wild asses of north east Africa were domesticated and bred by nomadic herders and traders. Donkeys nevertheless are commonplace in Nativity Plays and stories. They are however referred to in many other places in scripture.

The book of Numbers chapter 22 contains a surreal comic folk tale of a speaking donkey whose master Balaam is a diviner, called upon by the king of Moab to pronounce a curse on the children of Israel as they are passing through on their way to the Promised Land. He cannot bring himself to do it, and when he is tempted by the thought of reward to have another try, the donkey stubbornly refuses to allow him to proceed on his way. The donkey can see God's angel barring the way but Balaam cannot, but eventually he comes to this conclusion

"How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom God has not denounced?" (Num 23:8)

Donkeys were everywhere in the cities and the landscape, both domesticated working animals and wild ones.

"An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand." (Isaiah 1:3)

"He sends forth springs in the valleys; They flow between the mountains; They give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst." (Ps 104:10-11)

As robust hardworking beasts of burden they could be badly treated, left to die when old and weak. In times of famine, and among the poor, they would be taken for meat. In the hands of Samson, the jawbone of a dead animal picked up in a field becomes a mass murder weapon.

"He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, so he reached out and took it and killed a thousand men with it." (Judges 15:15)

Those who are more privileged and wealthy get to ride a tamed one as a status symbol. They get a passing mention in Deborah's victory hymn.

"You who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets, and you who travel on the road - sing!" (Judges 5:10)

Zechariah foresees the arrival of God's anointed Messiah into the holy city in a triumphal procession, as he comes to restore the fortunes of his people.

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zech 9:9)

The evangelists considered this prophecy fulfilled when Jesus entered Jerusalem publicly for the last time to the acclaim of the people. Jesus is portrayed preparing for this moment thus:

"When they had come near .... Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me." " (Matt 21:2)

Matthew cites Zecharaiah 9:9 in full commenting

"This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet." (Matt 21:4)

G K Chesterton's poem gives a donkey's testimony to the experience of being part of the story of humanity. Read it here. It fits well with what St Paul says about God's mysterious way of working.

"God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Cor 1:27-9)

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