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Monday, Third Week of Advent

December 12, 2005

Blessed Our Lady of Guadalupe Day! (look for her story in the “saints of Advent” category)

Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17
Psalm 25: 4-9 “Teach me Your ways, O Lord”
+ Matthew 21:23-27

Today we hear two examples of a common misconception about the nature of authority. You may remember the story of Balaam because of the talking donkey. The Israelites, still on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, had camped in the plains of Moab, on the far side of the Jordan. Balak, king of Moab, who was afraid of this vast people, tried to hire Balaam to curse them. Balaam at first refused to go with the king’s messengers, but finally got the go-ahead from God. Apparently he still wasn’t quite ready for the mission, though, because an angel barred his way. Balaam didn’t see the angel, but his donkey did and was severely beaten for her attempts to avoid certain death. Finally God opened the donkey’s mouth to scold Balaam for his abuse, and opened Balaam’s eyes to the angel who stood in his path. Properly chastened, a humbler Balaam was allowed to continue the journey. What we read today is what happened when Balaam tried to “curse” Israel. He blessed them instead, angering the Moabite king who had tried to purchase a curse! Balak (the Moabite king) didn’t realize that the authority to curse and to bless comes only from God, and cannot be bought or sold. The end of the blessing predicts the Messiah: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

The star who advanced from Jacob, the staff that rose from Israel was Jesus, the King of the Jews, nay, more–the King of Kings! In our Gospel we see Him facing off with a group of chief priests and elders of the people. They’re in no fit temper, having suffered His cleansing of the Temple the day before. “By what authority do you do these things?”, they demanded (Matthew 21:23). Like Balak, they failed to recognize the power that comes only from God. Their own power could be bought and sold (note that it was out of fear of the people that they didn’t state their true belief–that John’s Baptism was of merely human origin), so they naturally assumed that must be the case with authority in general.

Jesus, knowing that a direct answer would do no good, revealed to them the condition of their own hearts. He set them to thinking about the origin of the authority of John the Baptist. If they didn’t even believe in the forerunner of the Messiah, how could they expect to recognize the Savior Himself when He came? When they refused to commit themselves, He followed suit, refusing to commit Himself to an answer to their demand. He then went on to address several parables to them in which they could see the consequences of their unbelief, giving them opportunity to repent and convert.

Balak and the chief priests and elders of Israel all assumed that authority was a personal possession meant to benefit the one who wielded it. They confused authority with power, with brute force. They were like the leaders God condemned in Ezekiel 34: 2-4, 9-10: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered he fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally…because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God: I swear I am coming against my shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep so that they no longer pasture themselves.” These leaders, who governed by power, made decisions based on the benefit (the milk, wool and meat) and risk (the bother of doctoring and hunting for the sheep) to themselves.

Authority as God created it, however, is a sacred responsibility to serve and not to be served; or in other words, to love as God has loved us (Matthew 20:28). It’s the surviving remnant of the sacred order that was destroyed in the Garden of Eden. God is the source of all true authority because He is the source of all true order. He is the only One who fully knows what’s best for each person in each situation and He delegates His authority solely for the benefit of His people. One who governs with authority is aware of being accountable to God for the welfare of those entrusted to him. He’s aware that his job is to pasture the flock, not himself; that he is called to lay down his life for his sheep as Jesus did (John 10:11). A true leader needs to count on God to show him what will truly benefit the other, what will foster His sacred order in their lives and help them get to Heaven. If he tries to figure it out himself, he may discover that he’s trying to win their praise or avoid their disapproval, ultimately pasturing himself.

To one degree or another, we are all leaders. We influence those around us, either for their benefit (pasturing God’s sheep) or for our own (pasturing ourselves), and we will be held accountable. It was only after Balaam had been forcibly reminded that he was accountable to God that he was allowed to proceed and prophesy over Israel. The chief priests and elders of Israel who refused to recognize their accountability forfeited their place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

May we so unite ourselves with the mind of Christ that when the King returns He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many; enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 25:21).

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