Daily Reflection
December 12th, 2005

Eileen Burke-Sullivan

Theology Department
Click here for a photo of and information on this writer.

Third Monday of Advent
Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17
Psalms 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Matthew 21:23-27

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.

Balaam, of course, made no material profit from his assignment. Balak is furious with him and I suppose he is lucky to get away with his life – but his reward must surely have been coming so close to Yahweh and being filled with Yahweh’s Spirit. The author of Numbers does not tell us that Balaam complained about his situation.

But where does today’s Gospel fit into this meditation about the authority of God’s word? In the text from Matthew Jesus is engaging in a debate or challenge with the religious authorities, men who (presumably) have pondered God’s word and who interpret it for the people. These are the ‘scripture scholars’ and ‘pastors’ of the first Century Palestine and Judah – the men who are given authority because they are presumed to know the truth of God’s word and know that God’s word will be fulfilled. Interestingly they challenge the authority of Jesus’ deeds. From the context of Matthew’s Gospel we can surmise that the deeds they are challenging are Jesus’ entry into the city – palm branches and acclamation all around – his “cleansing” of the money changers and cheats in the temple, and the healings he accomplished there. These actions of Jesus are – as his words are – the intentional proclamation of God’s Reign. In word and deed Jesus is announcing the dawn of a new order in human history that will have ramifications for all of human life for those who accept His authority.

We can surmise from the question they pose that the priests and scribes know what the words and deeds of Jesus portend. They know, but like Balak, do not want it to come to pass. Jesus bests them by asking a simple question regarding their convictions about John the Baptizer. If they recognize John’s authority it will convict them for failing to listen to John. They can’t deny his authority because the people will tear them apart – so out of fear and shame they can not speak – that is, they no longer have any authoritative word.

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.

Click on the link below to send an e-mail response
to the writer of this reflection.
Let Your Friends Know About This Reflection By Sending Them An E-mail


Collaborative Ministry Office Guestbook