12 Dec. Monday of the 3rd Week of Advent
Numbers 24:2ff. Balaam’s oracle about the glorious future, when a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter from Israel.
Matthew 21:23ff. When the Jewish leaders demand proof of his authority, Jesus points to John’s non-hierarchical authority.
Facing our own truth
We must be honest with ourselves, with others and with God who is over all. We cannot forever dodge or camouflage the truth, and bluff our way along. In the case of Balaam, a foreign prophet was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. Yet the messengers of the king could not induce him to act against the Lord’s will. Balaam replied: “Even if Balak gave me his house full of silver and gold, I could not act contrary to the command of the Lord, my God. But wait till I learn what else the Lord may tell me (Num 22:18-19).
From the last sentence we see that Balaam was anxious for guidance from the Lord agreeable to the king. “Stay overnight,” he says, maybe tomorrow I will learn something else from the Lord! The story now takes on a touch of grim humor. Because Balaam deludes himself with the hope that the Lord might change the message to one congenial to the Moabite King, the donkey on which he was riding became stubborn, went off the road and even talked back to its master. When Balaam attempts to beat the donkey into submission, the animal answers back: “Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now?” The implication is: animals are more obedient than human beings. The prophet Isaiah used the same example effectively:
An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master’s manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood. (Is 1:3)
Where animals respond directly and continually, people will go in circles to deny or avoid the obvious. In the last resort they will simply refuse to answer. Such was the case of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. When they challenged Jesus’ authority to heal and to teach, Jesus replied: I too will ask a question [of you]. If you answer it for me, then I will tell you on what authority I do the things I do. What was the origin of John’s baptism? Was it divine or merely human?
The leaders feared the people’s wrath and could not say that John the Baptist was a fake. Yet under no condition were they willing to agree that John who pointed to Jesus as the promised one could ever have spoken with divine authority. So their reply to Jesus was: “We do not know.” But if people from all ways of life persistently called John a prophet and remained loyal to him even when it was politically dangerous because of Herod the Tetrarch, then the odds are highly in favour of John that he was a genuine prophet and spoke with divine authority. Common sense and a strong consensus among many good people cannot be denied without denying God, their creator, nor can anyone remain passive or neutral when such a person as John speaks in the name of God.
Both biblical readings, in a sense, reach deeply into the flesh and blood of human life as created by God. A pagan prophet, despite his greedy desire for royal gifts, cannot resist the compelling inspiration of the people whom God has led out of Egypt. They possessed a strength, a forward vision, a consecration, an integral goodness which promised a future when “a star shall advance from Jacob.” John the Baptist preached the solid virtues of honesty, generosity, hope, humility, loyalty. In Luke 3:11-16, John calls out: “Let the person with two coats give to him who has none. Tax collectors, demand no more than your due amount. Soldiers, do not bully people. Denounce no one falsely. One mightier than I is coming after me…” Finally, he was imprisoned and eventually executed for denouncing Herod the Tetrarch for incest with his brother’s wife (Matt 14:3).
Sophisticated people of academia or religion – all of us in areas of life where we are educated and secure – will continually be challenged by common folk who speak the honest-to-God truth. Unless we listen to them and reply humbly Jesus will say to us: “Neither will I tell you on what authority I do the things I do.” Lord, give me an open heart to listen and a willing spirit to respond to you, in my life.
First Reading: Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17
Balaam looked up and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. Then the spirit of God came upon him, and he uttered his oracle, saying: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with eyes uncovered: how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm-groves that stretch far away, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall have abundant water, his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
So he uttered his oracle, saying: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites.
Gospel: Matthew 21:23-27
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.