Posted on July 6, 2014

My friend Ben Witherington (a brilliant biblical scholar and prolific author) was the first to inform me about an intriguing practice in ancient Israel (in biblical days). When people needed to scale a mountain, they went about it in the most interesting fashion. Instead of leading a donkey that carried their supplies, they followed the donkey. Seriously, they allowed the donkey to lead them. Why on earth would they have done so? They did so because donkeys have an intuitive knowledge of finding the best way up an incline. They do not always follow the quickest way, but they find the safest way and the easiest incline. Donkeys are not dumb, you see. They have enough work to do without creating more for themselves. They instinctively value their safety as well as the best way to manage a steep hill. So, ancient travelers would follow their donkeys when faced with a mountain they had not scaled before.

There are numerous titles sometimes applied to donkeys, some of which I have been called. I used to resent that whenever it happened. However, after learning what Ben taught, I now think I should have felt complimented. Those travelers long ago learned some truly valuable lessons from donkeys. Let’s remember just two.

First of all, the best way is not always the quickest way. We may try to fast-track education or relationships, but there is no substitute for allowing the time required for experience to become our best teacher. I would not want to go to a surgeon who spent six months in med school. If someone is going to operate on me, I want that person to have allotted sufficient time learning the science. I’m one of those persons who feels comforted if the pilot of my airplane has gray hair. Whereas “love at first sight” makes for good movie plots, real love ordinarily takes a long time to develop because real love involves trust (and that has to be earned over time). Even Christian faith is a journey. Ongoing biblical study and theological reflection deepen our walk of faith. We do not just wake up one morning knowing all there is to learn about what it means to be disciples. The bottom line lesson, I suppose, is that sometimes patience really may be the queen of the virtues. Time spent in process is not time wasted. The best way is not always the quickest way.

And second, like those donkeys knew by their very nature, we always need to be aware of the cliffs we could potentially fall off of. (I realize that I concluded that sentence with a participle, but “off of which we could fall” just didn’t seem to fit in a blog about lessons we learn from donkeys!) None of us is above or beyond temptation. None of us reaches a point where our own needs (whether ego-related, physical, professional, financial, emotional) have been forever tamed and can thus be ignored. “What’s in it for me?” is a question that lurks in almost every endeavor or relationship, and unless we remain aware, we can easily (and without meaning to) fall off a cliff. I remind myself frequently that though clichéd, WWJD is still a good question to keep in mind.

They allowed their donkeys to lead them. Who knew? Apparently they knew. They realized that important life lessons can be learned from unlikely teachers.


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