The Parable of the Donkey and the Fish

The Parable of the Donkey and the Fish

The Parable of the Donkey and the Fish: A Story About Who We Really Are

There was a donkey who dreamed of swimming in the ocean. Not because swimming in the ocean was any better or worse than, say, eating clovers in a field, but because he just had a fancy for it. So, one day, when whimsy struck, he trotted down to the beach and jumped in.

It didn’t go very well, and a little fish could see that it wasn’t going well. He looked sheepishly at the donkey for a while, kindly trying to find the right words.


“I do say, fellow…”

“It’s just that…”

But donkeys are known for being persistent—stubborn is the less polite way of saying it—and the donkey paid no heed to the fish’s feeble interruptions. Finally, the fish made a rather large “ahem” and said, “You do see that this isn’t going well, don’t you?”

“I’m quite fine, thank you.”

“No, you’re not quite fine.”

“I am.”

“You’re not.”

This went on for quite a while until, exasperated, the fish said, “Of course you’re not doing fine! You are a donkey in the ocean. If that’s not plain to you, then there’s really little reason to keep talking, now is there?” And with that, the little fish swam away.

We are not donkeys, but the little fish has wisdom for all us asses. If we don’t know what we actually are, we are likely to end up miserably swimming along, drowning, or worse (I know not which fate met the donkey, but surely it wasn’t good).

What you actually are, of course, is spirit, in unity with a mind, a body, and a soul. The only thing that actually satisfies us is what satisfies the spirit, and the spirit’s desires are very specific and cannot be counterfeited or faked. “Of course, then,” the fish might say to us, “you aren’t happy when you overindulge, for you are not just a body who loves pleasure.” Or “Of course you aren’t contented in reading endless books and acquiring more information. You’re not just a mind.” And “Of course having people like you and thinking you’re great will not satisfy you; you’re not just an ego.”

Whatever the adage—“Money can’t buy me love, money doesn’t buy happiness, all you need is love,”—they are all driving us to recognize how we are invited (by our society, by our culture, by our own egos) to trust in counterfeits to save us. Of course, if we reduced Jesus’ core message down, this would be right there in the heart of it: money, fame, success, being well-thought of…none of these can fulfill you. This is why Jesus, in addition to plumbing the depths, pointed out the obvious. Jesus was the master labeller. “This is spirit, this is flesh, this is light, this is darkness.” He told parables (far better than the Parable of the Fish and the Donkey, thank goodness) and he also took great care to label things, to make them as plain as possible. Jesus wants to lead people out of lies—lies that deplete and exhaust and frustrate us—into an experience of life. But the only way to walk his path is to first acknowledge who we are walking the path. We are not egos, we are not just bodies, we are not just brains nor minds nor emotions. Until we have the right “what we are” (an anthropology), we will never have a vibrant spirituality. And our God-given task is recognize and confess the reality of who He has made us.

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