The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,
the utterance of one whose eye is true,
The utterance of one who hears what God says, and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the almighty sees enraptured, and with eyes unveiled. . .
Numbers, 24: 3-4
“By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this power?”
Matthew 21: 23
Today’s gospel raises the question of what constitutes “authority.” The juxtaposition of the reading from Numbers and the gospel passage suggests that authority requires the ability to recognize the truth of things that transcends one’s subjectivity and self-interest. Jesus’ challenge to the chief priests and elders points to the fact that humility and repentance are required if one is to know the truth. As the reading from Numbers points out, it is the “one whose eye is true . . . who hears what God says and knows what the Most High knows” who utters and lives the truth.
Past the midpoint of this Advent season, we are asked to consider why it is difficult for us to recognize the coming of the Lord into our lives and world. The “chief priests and the elders” of Matthew’s gospel are unable to recognize the authority of Jesus because their “vision” is limited by their own self-interested and arrogant habits of mind. In Jesus, God longs to be with us, but we value our own opinions and positions over the openness to reality that would allow us to recognize God’s in-breaking into our world.
These days in the United States we are “debating” whether or not to chain people to the floor until they freeze to death and to “waterboard” them countless times is torture. And, even if it is, we largely argue, its utility justifies it. But the real vehemence in the defenders of this behavior is not due primarily to a political justification but rather self-justification. Many years ago, speaking to a different moral issue, the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon pointed out that American society suffers the results of “an impoverished moral discourse.” In today’s gospel, Jesus is pointing out to those who are challenging him that they suffer the same impoverishment. They fall silent when he forces a change in the parameters of the conversation, a change that would force them to stand by their own words. “John’s baptism– where was it from? From heaven or from human beings?” (Matthew 21: 25) If we can never acknowledge our lack of understanding and our personal and collective sinfulness, we will never recognize love and grace when they are offered.
Christmas is a time of warm sentiment and good feeling, but it is far more than that. It is a challenge to those of us who are believers to bring into the darkness of our world that light of God’s Word. “He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him.” (John 1: 10) Our challenge this Advent is the one that Jesus addresses to the chief priests and elders: to speak aloud a truth that is not relative and calculated and then to stand by that utterance. This is bound to make our personal, interpersonal, and social lives a good bit less “comfortable,” and it is likely, at times, to reveal us as mistaken, ridiculous, and even sinful. But absent such humility and honesty, we shall continue to make the same mistakes and commit the same sins. It is our task as believers to enrich our nation’s and world’s “impoverished moral discourse” not with our own wisdom but with “the utterance of one who hears what God says.”
In the December 22 and 29 issue of The New Yorker, in a commentary entitled “Torture and the Truth,” Jane Mayer writes the following:
[Darius] Rejali [a professor of political science at Reed College and an expert on torture regimes], who has studied the tension between torture and democracy around the world, says that “there’s a five- or six-year window for any kind of accountability. We’re now past that window. The two sides are entrenched.” Without a mutual acknowledgment of the mistakes made, and some form of accountability, he warned, another reversion to torture may be difficult to prevent: “Nothing predicts future behavior as much as past impunity.”