Asspiring Preachers (part I) In Praise of Balaam’s Donkey

Rev. Steve Schlissel - November 26, 2007

One of my students recently had an opportunity to fill a pulpit. When I sent him a brief encouragement just before his cherished opportunity to bring the Word to Gods people, he wrote back to me, “If I’m as good as Balaam’s donkey, I’ll be satisfied.”

And well should he be! Balaam’s ass actually sets quite a standard for asspiring preachers. Consider that mules excellencies, both negative and positive. Consider, for example, how diligent this beast of burden was in avoiding those mistakes found—in excess—in American pulpits. Avoidance of any of the following disservices would qualify Francis for a spot on the Top Ten Preachers list. (Yes, Francis. We’ve got to name her something, and Francis commends itself. Besides the Saint’s association and the saint’s eponymous mule—Donald O’Connor’s longtime film sidekick—I figured, why not?) It is obvious: Francis was no ordinary jackass. She avoided….

Reductionism: treating the Bible as if only those of its texts mattered which speak of individual, i.e., personal, eternal salvation. Francis wasted no one’s time on a fanciful flight in preparation for which, the Scripture’s wings would first be clipped. Such a procedure is supposed to permit God to get down to the most important business between Himself and any sinner. But it’s true motive is to permit the preacher to attain unto a cheap excellence—something like a mail-order PhD. You might say that limiting God so that He may only be expected to speak about one subject, conveniently permits similarly limited servants to think of themselves as “good and faithful” when they may or may not be. The servant whose God cares about only this question and no other, is like unto a student who has to worry about only one section on his final exam.

It’s like a wife married to an easy-to-please husband; his only concern with meals is that they be served hot. He never complains how bad her food tastes. He doesn’t even notice that. Why should he? For the only thing he expects is that his food be served hot. Similarly, those who present God as a God obsessed with only one message may (conveniently) release themselves from the drudgery involved in learning God’s will as it applies to all spheres of living. The really hard work for God’s spokesmen, however, involves learning from God and Scripture and providence how to live properly; how to live well.

This requires enormous investments of time, energy, study, observation and emotion. But if the minister convinces himself that his only task, following God’s alleged only concern, is to tell people how to die, and not to tell them how to live, he can memorize four so-called laws to be presented to four so-called types in four so-called situations, and his work is done. He’s ready to start collecting on his retirement!

Balaam’s ass, as one not ensnared by such deceptive logic, saw no need to “tame” God’s message, to whittle away at its edges to make it more aerodynamic. She did not represent God’s Word as having reached its height when it satisfied her own imperfect expectations of what it “ought” to say. She simply delivered it as she had received it.

And in that one particular, the ass comes out ahead of, not behind, most modern preachers whose myopia is self-diagnosed as “only caring about what God cares about,”. (Which, as we said, is very, very little.) Frannie did not ask Balaam if he was saved. Nor did she ask the most important question, “If you, Baly-button, were to die this very day and a holy God should ask, ‘Why should I let you into my Kingdom?,” what would you answer?” Thank Jesus that ass set a better example.

From my seat in the stadium, Francis enjoys a whopping edge over our contemporaries merely because she avoided a deadly, albeit ubiquitous, mistake. She spoke as if God were permitted to call anyone to account for anything at any time. Imagine! She did not begin the preaching exercise with the misguided thought that she should get people to a place of immunity from God’s “opinions.” She did not artificially limit God’s interests to a certain kind of salvation, one which—miraculously?—keeps the world of the convert just as narrow as the world of the preacher who converted him. She did not presume to make the sinner’s only concern the purchase of a blanket immunity by which he’d be exempt from God’s judgment in every other area, so long as he bought the one product God is selling, a product which supposedly hides from God’s eyes and from His judgment a big life of big defects.

Nope, Balaam’s ass did not reduce God, God’s concerns, or man’s ornery determination to create a swathe of living space where seldom is heard God’s discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day. Balaam’s ass did not try to sell Balaam a God-issued insurance policy against God’s right to judge. She did not seek to reach sinners with the message that they can be placed out of God’s reach—so to speak. Give her an A++!

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