Cleaning up a poorly told joke.

On Sunday last, I preached from 2 Peter 2 during the evening worship gathering. I’ve spent several weeks examining Peter’s letters and I’ve found great comfort in the truths he expresses to the churches through those epistles. Along with studying Scripture, I’ve taken to reading Martin Luther’s commentary on the epistles as well. Luther is a figure of church history who I find endlessly intriguing. The more I read him and about him, the more I am interested in this venerable (and vulnerable) stalwart of the Christian faith. Unlike many before or after him, Luther possessed a sharp wit and an unbridled tongue, which often got him in trouble. Yet that same unfiltered candor is what God used to bring about the Protestant Reformation. 

My affinity for Luther and my examination of 2 Peter, however, collided this past Sunday in an unfortunate sort of way.

You see, in 2 Peter 2, the apostle goes on a 22-verse diatribe in which he castigates “false prophets,” detailing their corrupt nature and the devastation they leave behind with their “great swelling words.” (2 Pt 2:18) By way of an example, to clarify the true character of these “presumptuous” teachers, Peter alludes to the Old Testament prophet Balaam. (2 Pt 2:15–16) By going “the way of Balaam,” these deceivers were revealing who was ruling their hearts, and it wasn’t the Lord who bought them. (2 Pt 1:1) Avarice and covetousness governed their decisions and their determinations. Such was Balaam’s downfall. In his case, it took the miracle of God speaking through a donkey’s mouth for him to listen. Balaam’s rebuke came in the form of a “speechless donkey” who “spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (‭‭2 Pt‬ ‭2:16‬)

The fact that God used a “King James donkey” to convey his message is proof-positive that he can use anyone and anything to propagate his truth. Yes, even an ass. Which is where Luther comes back into this little story.

You see, during my sermon, I tried to make the joke that Martin Luther was sometimes referred to as “the ass that prophesied to Rome.” I stumbled my way through that tongue-in-cheek reference, so I’d like clear up what I was trying to say by referencing a passage from W. H. T. Dau’s Luther Examined. He writes:

In Numbers (chap. 22) there is a story told of the prophet Balaam, who went out on a wicked mission for which a great reward had been promised him. He rode along cheerfully, feasting his avaricious heart on the great hoard he would bring back, when suddenly the ass that bore him balked. The prophet began to beat the animal, but it did not budge an inch. All at once this dunce of an ass which had never been put through a spelling-book began to talk and remonstrated with the prophet: “Am I not thine ass? What have I done unto thee that thou hast smitten me?” To his amazement the prophet was able to understand the ass quite well. This dumb brute made its meaning plain to a learned man. It was an intolerable outrage that an ass should lecture a doctor, and balk him in his designs. Luther is that ass. Rome rode him, and he patiently bore his wicked master until the angel of the Lord stopped him and he would go no further. The only difference is that Balaam had his eyes opened, left off beating his ass, and felt sorry for what he had done. Rome’s eyes have not been opened for four hundred years. It is still beating the poor ass. It does not see the Lord who has blocked her path and said, You shall go no further!1

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have tried to make an ass joke spontaneously. But the point remains, that whether it’s a “King James donkey,” Luther, or Peter himself, God is in the business of using the unlikeliest and unworthiest of vessels through which to channel his abounding grace. Thank goodness that’s still true for “King James donkeys” like me.


W. H. T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Revaluation (St. Louis: Concordia, 1917), 53.