From: Angels and Donkeys
A Story About Saving Children, and the Courage It Takes to Go Against
Social Conventions and Expectations
Until the birth of Jesus, donkeys were like anyone else; that is, just like human beings. I mean just like grown-up human beings, not like children. Children have always had the Spirit of Contradiction. But donkeys used to be docile, just like grown-ups today.
Here is how things changed.
In Bethlehem at the entrance of the town lived a Samaritan. He was a good man. He tried as much as possible to help people forget he was a Samaritan. He thought, spoke, and dressed just like anyone else. He was a conformist.
Everyone respects social conventions. Each of us likes to welcome our guests into a clean, well decorated home. Our Samaritan, who was single and whose house was in disarray, preferred to receive no one. There was one exception – if his best friend warned him way ahead of time, he would allow him to come into his house.
Everyone belongs to a clique. We trust the members of our families and our intimate friends. We like to do them favors. But of strangers, everyone has distrust. We don’t know whom we are dealing with.
So thought our Samaritan also.
Everyone is scared of traveling alone in deserted areas in the evening, when roads are especially dangerous. One hears so many terrible reports, so many stories about bandits! Our Samaritan, who was a peddler by trade, was always on the road. But just like everyone, he had common sense and managed not to be delayed.
So, our Samaritan was almost like everyone. He did own a donkey, and not everyone could boast about owning such a donkey.
Why the big fuss, you will say, about owning a donkey?
Well, first of all, this donkey was indispensable. It was used as a truck, since in those days trucks had four legs instead of four wheels as they do today. The donkey carried heavy merchandise for the Samaritan. It carried the Samaritan’s whole wealth.
Second, this donkey was a female, a very important fact for the rest of the story.
Third, one reason the Samaritan was so original was that his donkey was not like everyone. It had the Spirit of Contradiction.
Was the donkey, this female donkey, a descendant of Balaam’s female donkey in the Old Testament? (Read the Book of Numbers, chapter 22, in the Bible.) Maybe. In any case, while other donkeys obeyed, this donkey was a thinking donkey, and its thoughts resulted in the most unexpected, the strangest, consequences.
Sometimes in the middle of the road the donkey came to a dead stop, smelling something with its grey muzzle. It resisted so firmly that neither blows nor shouts could force it to walk any further.
Oftentimes the donkey did just the opposite. It took off at a trot, its nostrils open to the wind, and nothing could stop it, neither the calls nor the angry objections of its master. Had a special smell or a light on the horizon attracted it? Then the donkey would come back much later, having satisfied its taste for adventure.
Everyone felt sorry for the poor Samaritan for owning such a donkey. He who wanted desperately to look like everyone else, suffered severely to stand out so noticeably.
Ridiculous confrontations occurred so often between him and his donkey that in faraway villages he was simply known as “the man with the donkey.” People talked endlessly about his adventures.
But the most humiliating factor was that when the donkey opposed him and everyone else, the stupid animal ended up being right.
How the Donkey Revolted Against the Rules of Social Conventions
Very late one evening, a man and a woman came to the door of the Samaritan. It was on the eve of the census ordered by the Governor Quirinius.
Can’t you take us in? they asked. We come from far away and are very tired.
Impossible, growled the Samaritan, thinking of his messy room. Go elsewhere. There are hotels, and there are rich people with better lodging than I have.
We just came from the village, answered the travelers, and we knocked on every door. Everything is full. Wouldn’t you have a place in your barn? We could sleep on the hay.
I don’t have a barn. I keep my hay in haystacks. I have only a stable.
Oh! Put us in the stable, begged the woman. I can’t take one more step!
It is too little. Both of you would not fit in it, mumbled the peddler, lighting a torch to prove his point.
The stable was indeed very small and quite miserable. There was just enough room for the donkey that turned its head and stared at the flickering light of the torch with its big eyeballs.
You see, said the owner, it’s impossible.
If you only put a bale of straw under the manger, we could manage, suggested the woman.
Giving in to her persistence rather than to pity, the Samaritan accepted her idea. He untied the donkey to make it go out. For once, it would spend the night under the stars.
But the animal decided otherwise and launched a most ridiculous scene of stubbornness. Well-planted on its four legs, eyes protruding, nostrils dilated, it refused to move.
The Samaritan was furious. One really shouldn’t let people sleep under the muzzle of an animal. It is not correct! He kept jerking hard on the halter, swearing at the stupid animal. But knowing its habits, he knew ahead of time that he would not make the donkey budge.
Nothing doing, he said after a while, shrugging his shoulders.
Leave it there, said Mary with a smile. We’ll get along fine with it.
They got along so well, in fact that the donkey became the quiet and patient witness of the birth of Jesus.
Joseph put the newborn child in the manger, above Mary. This way the breath of the dozing animal kept the child warm. Its big body also kept the stable warm, so that the child and its mother didn’t suffer anymore from the cold.
When he opened the door the next morning, the bewildered Samaritan discovered that the two travelers of the previous evening had become three.
It is lucky my donkey refused to get out, said he to Joseph. The frost was so deep last night that without her in the stable, the newborn child would certainly have died from the cold!
Once more, he murmured on his way home, it is the donkey who was right and not me.
How the Donkey Taught Its Master About Helping Strangers
Ten days later, Mary was up and nearly back to her normal health. Joseph was thinking about returning to Nazareth when, during the night, he was divinely warned of the threat hanging over the child’s head. They must flee, he was told, before morning came; they must go to Egypt.
He woke Mary, but soon realized that she wasn’t yet strong enough to take such a long trip on foot.
Joseph knocked on the door of the Samaritan.
Lend me your donkey for one month, said he, or for six week at the most. We must flee to Egypt and my wife is still weary.
Don’t even dream of it, answered the Samaritan. I need my donkey to make a living, and also – I don’t know you. How do I know you would bring it back?
I promise, said Joseph. You can count on me.
No way, cut in the Samaritan. Can I trust the word of a stranger? The answer is no!
Very worried, the new parents and their baby started out before dawn. Joseph walked ahead, making the trail. Mary followed, stumbling sometimes as she carried the child. But what was the galloping sound they heard from far away? Were Herod’s soldiers pursuing them? Already?
No, it was the donkey, who soon caught up with them, sniffing them in the night with its wet muzzle. Possessed by one of its wild whims, the donkey had gnawed at its tie, escaped from the stable, and left on its night adventure.
Awakened by the noise, the Samaritan went out, calling his animal back but without success. It followed those strangers, he exclaimed furiously. Well, I have to resign myself to the loss. Ah, cursed be that animal! What will become of me without it to work?
Six weeks later Herod had died, and the Samaritan looked up to see Joseph walking toward him. Mary sat on the donkey, holding the child.
Your animal saved us, said Joseph. Without it, my wife could not have gone very far. The king’s soldiers would have discovered us and killed the child.
I was wrong again, said the peddler to himself, full of gratefulness. There are some honest people, even among strangers! One must learn to trust them. It is God’s way.
How the Donkey Taught Its Master Courage
Several years went by. Conflicts between the donkey and its master became less frequent. Not that the animal had become more reasonable; instead, its master had, little by little, fallen into the habit of obeying the donkey. Its lunacy seemed wiser than the man’s good sense.
One evening, and contrary to his habit, the Samaritan was delayed between Jerusalem and Jericho. His trip almost turned into tragedy.
He had heard about a band of robbers operating in that area, demanding money from travelers – that is, if they didn’t kill them outright.
It was nightfall. The Samaritan spurred his animal on, exciting it as much as possible. Often he thought he heard soft steps behind him.
Suddenly the animal started one of its caprices and refused to advance any further. First the peddler pulled on the bridle. Then, overtaken by fear, he turned nasty. He tore the flesh in the donkey’s mouth by jerking the bit roughly. Nothing changed the donkey’s mind.
Discouraged, he stopped and started thinking. He was thinking of fleeing, of abandoning the animal and its precious cargo, when in the silence he heard a moan. He was not superstitious, but the noise in the darkness filled him with terror. Once more he tried to drag the animal along, but with its muzzle on the ground it arched its back and obstinately dug its hooves into the ground.
The moaning became a long wail. The Samaritan thought he detected a call coming from a ravine below the road. He thought to himself, What if the donkey is right once more? Mastering his fear, he walked down among the boulders and found an injured man who would die if he got no help. Using oil and wine, he dressed the wounds of this unfortunate man, hoisted him up on his donkey, and immediately took him to the nearest inn. He watched over him through the night. Whenever he saw him weaken, he poured a cordial between his clenched teeth to give him strength.
The next morning the wounded man felt better. Convinced that the donkey had shown him what God wanted, the Samaritan pulled out nearly all the cash he had, gave it to the innkeeper, and said, Take care of him. If you spend more than that, I’ll pay you on my way back.
Although the innkeeper had no donkey to advise him, he trusted the Samaritan.
How the Donkey Found What It Was Looking For
Thirty years went by. The Samaritan had left Bethlehem and moved to Bethphage by the gates of Jerusalem. It was a better location for his business.
The donkey was still alive. Donkeys live long, sometimes for thirty-five years. But this one’s legs had become shaky, and its flanks had lost their luster and their fullness. Yet it was still the same courageous animal, only a little less original. In its mysterious animal consciousness, it had always looked for something, expected something. That’s why it had not been like everyone, docile like those who do not look for anything.
Now death was approaching and the donkey had not found what it was looking for, neither in the tufts of grass nor on the distant horizon.
The donkey found some compensation, however. She had given birth to a little donkey, a shaggy and petulant foul, of which she was most proud. The foal was already strong and would soon be ready to work. The mother donkey had begun dreaming something like this: He’ll be the one to find what I always looked for.
Old people console themselves with comforting thoughts, hoping their children will someday accomplish what they haven’t done themselves. And those children, when they grow old, will nurture the same dream. So it is with each generation.
One day, the donkey and its foal were tethered in front of their master’s dwelling in Bethphage. Two men appeared, put their hands on the bridles, and appeared to be about to take the animals away.
The Samaritan made a big racket. Flying out of his room, he yelled to the passersby, Thief! Thief!
The Lord needs them, the two strangers kept repeating.
The Lord? The Lord? And who is the Lord? shouted the indignant peddler. These animals are mine. And, who are you? I don’t know you.
We’ll return them to you, said the two men, who did look honest. You can count on us.
The Samaritan was about ready to end the discussion with his usual answer – No, the answer is no! – when a faint memory came back to him, of a man and woman and his refusal to lend them his donkey long ago. They were strangers, and everyone would have done the same. You can’t trust anybody. But then the donkey had run away, and it had been right in the end.
Pull the old donkey by the bridle, he told the men. It doesn’t know you. If it obeys you, well, then we’ll see!
The man who held the donkey pulled, and the docile animal followed him, while its little foal trotted alongside.
When they were a short distance away, the peddler shouted to the disciples, Take it to your Lord! This animal is always right!
And without worrying anymore, he went into his house.
As the prophet predicted, it was at the Bethphage gate that Jesus saw the donkey and its foal coming toward him. (The story is in Matthew 21:1-9.) Along the roadside, he picked a bunch of fragrant grass and offered it to the old donkey.
The donkey smelled it longingly with its grey muzzle. This was exactly what it had always looked for. A hundred times through the years it had trotted on this very same path and had hastily grazed this kind of grass. But today the grass held a new fragrance and flavor.
In their confused minds, as you know, animals see God less clearly than we do. They see God through their masters. This time, from the hand of the true Master, the donkey received the nourishment it had always hoped to find.
Jesus straddled the young donkey “which had never before been ridden.” The crowd spread clothing under its steps, and the old donkey followed behind, trampling it with its hooves.
A multitude of disciples waved palm branches, crying out, Blessed be the kingdom which is coming, the kingdom of David, our father!
When the procession reached the slope of the Mount of Olives, the old donkey noticed the white wall of Jerusalem. Through the years the donkey had traveled this path countless times, setting its eyes on the spectacle with the indifference common to animals. But today, these brilliant walls shining on the horizon seemed to be the sides of a Stable which it had always dreamed about and looked for.
The donkey raised its head and walked ahead more bravely.
Yet there was even more for the animal than the satisfaction carried by the fragrant grass and the vision of the Stable. On that morning, the old donkey also experienced the noblest of joys. It found itself in the middle of a large crowd acclaiming a King. And it had become the servant of this Prince who, it believed, was truly noble and truly good.
The old donkey’s soul felt overwhelmed with joy. True, the Creator had assigned the animal to the humblest of duties; but it saw its little donkey assigned to a place of honor. Until death came, the old donkey would happily remain in last place, following the steps of its own offspring.
So why do you think donkeys have the Spirit of Contradiction? Because the young donkey inherited his mother’s temperament. Later on, he married and had lots of children.