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."
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."
We must be honest with ourselves, with others and with God who is over all. We cannot forever dodge 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 of Moab 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 until I learn what else the Lord may tell me (Num 22:18-19).
Clearly Balaam hoped for guidance from the Lord that would be agreeable to the king. "Wait overnight," he says, "and maybe tomorrow I will learn something else from the Lord!" The story now takes a turn of grim humor. Because Balaam deludes himself with the hope that the Lord might change the message to one more congenial to the king, the donkey on which he was riding went off the road and talked back to its master. When Balaam tries 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 docile than humans to the will of God. Where animals respond instinctively to life, people will twist and turn to deny or avoid the obvious. In the last resort we may 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 would not dare to 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.
Sophisticated people, or indeed most of us in areas of life where we may feel educated and secure, will continually be challenged by common folk who speak the honest-to-God truth. Unless we listen to them and seek the truth, Jesus will say to us: "Neither will I tell you on what authority I do the things I do." Lord, grant us an open heart to listen and a willing spirit to respond to you.
The question asked of Jesus in today's Gospel follows from his cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, "What authority have you for acting like this?" The religious leders claimed authority over the Temple and they certainly had not given Jesus permission to do what he did, driving out all who were selling and buying in the Temple, overturning their work-tables and spoiling their business. He did not give a direct answer to the question about his authority to do this, but the attentive reader of the gospel knows the source of his authority. From before his birth Jesus was called Emmanuel, "God-with-us."
God is present in a unique way in Jesus, which is why he has authority over how God's Temple should be run. Because Jesus is God-with-us, he knows that the Temple was not being run in the reverent way that God would want.
As we are draw closer to the birthday of our Emmanuel, he shows us how to honour God properly and helps us by pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts.