As the world of the Midwestern American culture hurtles toward Santa’s arrival with a chariot of gifts, and college students consume vast quantities of coffee to get through all-nighters of paper-writing and exam studying it is an anomaly to stop and consider the authority of the word of God, perhaps. Today’s liturgy invites us to do just that, however; to stop and consider truth and its inherent authority.
Balaam is a pagan prophet of Moab, which was a region of the land that God has determined to give the Israelites. He is famous in the region as a soothsayer or “prophet for profit”. Because he worships Yahweh (the traditions don’t tell us why), it is God’s word that he reports to his pagan neighbors and his fame is due to the fact that his word is born out – it is known that what he says comes true. If he curses someone indeed his curse causes harm, if he blesses – the blessing brings goodness to the recipient. He is paid for his services of future telling and of blessing and curse, but he is astute about his clients apparently, and does not speak words that God will not fulfill.
Thus it is that Balak, the King of Moab sends for him when the
Israelites arrive on the borders of Moab returning from Egypt. Balak
has heard what the Israelites did to other tribal groups that stood
against them and he is not interested either in fighting them or
in simply allowing them to run over his tribal lands. He decides
to hire Balaam for a hefty sum to pronounce a curse upon the Israelites;
but Balaam sends back a message that the Lord doesn’t want
to curse the Israelites, so he is not coming. Offered a more substantial
profit, Balaam (and God, seemingly) relents and says he will come,
but he warns, he will only say what God tells him to say. The end
of the story (given that this is a Jewish account) is that Balaam
ends up not only NOT cursing the Israelites, but pronouncing a blessing
upon them. The author of the Book of Numbers tells us that the Spirit
of God came upon Balaam and he announces an oracle of blessing which
includes a mysterious promise – in the distance - of a star
advancing from Jacob and a staff rising from Israel to smite Moab
and all the other possible enemies of the Israelites. In Jewish
history this prophecy is seen to be fulfilled in David. For Christians,
the fulfillment is the final and absolute Messiah, Jesus Christ.
In either case, God’s word is spoken and is effective –
it comes to pass.
Today’s psalm gives us a clue about how to make sense of this wisdom in our own lives. The invitation of the liturgy is to attend to both the words we speak and the deeds we do. Ultimately, real authority comes only from God, and God is both Love and Truth; thus we can only speak with authority if we speak the truth lovingly. Our words will be known to be true when the deeds we perform come from the same source – deeds of truth and love.
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