Monday of the Third Week of Advent

December 16, 2019

Nm 24:2-7, 15-17a/Mt 21:23-27 (187)

Today’s readings seem to be about listening and paying attention, and about failing to do so.  In the Gospel, we see Jesus teaching in the temple area, but the priests and elders don’t listen to him:  instead they want to know about his credentials!  “By what authority are you doing these things?”  Two thousand years later, as we picture the scene, we can only exclaim, what a failed opportunity to be quiet, to listen, and to learn from the greatest teacher humankind has ever known. 

The story of Balaam, the Gentile prophet, involves a similar theme. In the preceding chapter, Numbers 22, we learn that the King of Moab has hired Balaam to come and use his prophetic powers to curse the Hebrews. Balaam accepts the offer, and sets out on his journey to Moab.  But an angel of the Lord stands in his road to warn him away.  The donkey Balaam is riding on sees the angel and turns aside, though Balaam fails to.  This happens again, and Balaam begins to beat the donkey.  At that point, God gives the donkey a voice, and he chastises Balaam for failing to see the angel right in front of him. As a child, I loved this moment with the talking donkey, and I still do. 

Balaam now listens, and learns, and when he gets to Moab, he not only refuses to curse the Hebrews, but he prophesies, as “the spirit of God came upon him.”  And that beautiful prophecy looks all the way forward to the birth of Jesus: “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall arise from Israel.” 

Seeing, listening, paying attention to the voice of God:  For me, winter nights here in Minnesota are the best for this.  I like to walk my dog at night, and there are moments when the winds die down, no cars are passing, and the sheer, powerful silence makes you stop for a moment.  The dog quietly sniffs at something, while that silence seems to blanket everything, like the snow.  Above, the half-moon comes out from some clouds, and the sky is the darkest blue imaginable.  The whole creation seems to speak a single word, a single thought:  peace.   

Moments like those are brief and not too common, but they leave you wondering: what if I could stop and listen that closely more often?  This great creation seems to speak with “the spirit of God,” and it always says, and always promises, that one thing: peace. 

Ray MacKenzie
Professor, English