Accepting the Lord’s Authority in Showing Sinners the Way, Third Monday of Advent, December 14, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Monday of the Third Week of Advent
December 15, 2015
Num 24:2-7.15-17, Ps 25, Mt 21:23-27


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • “Teach me your ways, O Lord,” we repeated in today’s Responsorial Psalm, as we, at the beginning of this Year of Mercy, as we prayed, “Remember that your compassion — mercy — O Lord and your kindness are from of old,” as we invoked him as the one who “shows sinners the way” and guides the humble to justice” and holiness.” When we pray to this God of Mercy to teach us his ways, we recognize that God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts (Is 55), so we anticipate that his classroom is going to be one of conversion, as he flips occasionally upside down the ways we can look at things. That’s one of the things he does in today’s reading and in today’s feast, as we begin to examine just how deeply we are open to his instruction.
  • We can’t help but notice a huge contrast today between the first reading and the Gospel. In the Book of Numbers, we see this mysterious figure called Balaam, who was a pagan diviner whom the Moabite King Balac bribed to pronounce a curse over Israel. When Balaam tried to curse Israel on four separate occasions, however, he couldn’t. Instead he pronounced a blessing — and the greatest blessing of all, foretelling the coming of Jesus 1,300 year later: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: a star shall advance from Jacob and a [shepherd’s] staff shall rise from Israel.” Even though Balaam certainly didn’t start in the right place, he couldn’t help but acknowledge and announce the truth and the light God revealed to him.
  • In the Gospel we see something totally different. The chief priests and elders of the people, who had started with God’s revelation, who had prayed since their youth “Teach me your ways, O Lord!,” ended up rejecting God’s ways, spurning both Jesus’ fulfillment of all the Old Testament Messianic prophecies as well as telling the truth about the prophetic announcement of John the Baptist. For them, they were no longer interested in the truth. They were not interested in really learning God’s paths. They thought they already had all the answers they needed. They thought that they were firmly on the path. They were interested only in authority, and, frankly, not God’s authority but their own. They asked Jesus , “By whose authority are you doing these things?” because they knew Jesus didn’t have their authority, and likely, they thought, hadn’t received a mission from anyone else who could give it in categories they would acknowledge. The fact that God had given him authority — or even more, that he was God and was speaking on his own authority — hadn’t even crossed their mind. It was a category they refused to acknowledge even existed. Jesus knew this and for that reason asked a question not to trip them up but to bring them conversion, seeking to have them acknowledge God’s authority. That’s why he asked, “Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” It was designed to open them up to the fact that God as the Source of all authority could have sent John. But they didn’t respond with an interest in the truth of things, just with a political calculus: “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.’ So they said to Jesus in reply, ‘We do not know.’” At a practical level, however, they didn’t treat him as a prophet because they didn’t heed his message and make straight the paths and they didn’t heed his indication of Jesus as the Lamb of God who had come into the world to fulfill all the prophecies of the sacrificial lambs in the temple.
  • We see in the Psalm the attitude each of us should have toward God’s word announced to us with God’s authority through St. John the Baptist and announced to us by the Author himself is given to us in the Responsorial Psalm, “Guide me in your truth and teach me!” There’s supposed to be not only an openness but an active, hungry docility. And God always wants to respond to that prayer, but we need to be open to how he responds. The scribes and the Pharisees prayed Psalm 25 often, asking the Lord to teach them his ways, but when he sought to teach them through St. John the Baptist or come to teach them in person, they rejected his teaching, his truth, his ways. Today’s readings help us to examine our own attitude toward God’s prophecy. Are we responsive or resistant to the message God sends us? Have we acted on John the Baptist’s summons to us to make straight the paths of the Lord by conversion and a good confession or have we essentially ignored or just given lip service to the need for conversion God has announced to us through him on the Second Sunday of Advent, yesterday on the Third Sunday of Advent and other times throughout this Season? Have we opened ourselves up to the “star” of Jacob and the “shepherd” of Israel who came in order to revolutionize our lives and make us live like him in the midst of the world, sent out by him not only with his blessing but, to some degree, as his blessing?
  • There’s deep relevance to this acceptance of God’s authority and docility to God’s ways in the life of the great saint the Church celebrates today, St. John of the Cross. His father died when he was two and he, his mom and two brothers grew up in poverty. Eventually he began working in a hospital while taking simple classes and the hospital administrator paid for his education. He eventually became a Carmelite, the worldliness and in some places sinfulness of the Carmelites led him to think that he might be called to be a Carthusian. That’s when he met with St. Teresa of Avila, the foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, who asked him to work with her to reform the whole order. He did. And he suffered for it. Many of the Carmelites did not want to be reformed and they weren’t open to the fact that this reform was coming from God. On one occasion, the unreformed Carmelites essentially imprisoned him from months in a dirty, dank cell with just a sliver of light coming in. On the second occasion, they brutalized him as he prepared for death. But the religious name he had taken in the reformed Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, was well chosen: and it was through bearing that Cross that he discovered God’s power and wisdom, writing some of his greatest spiritual works — his four great poems on the interior life that led to his four great commentaries — during those sufferings. What we see in his case is that, even though he was inspired by the Holy Spirit more than any saint who has ever lived to give the road map of the interior life — something that has formed many to become saints — there were others, religious in fact, who opposed him, because he wasn’t doing any of this with their authority, approval or permission. They, like the chief priests and the elders, were oblivious to the fact that he was coming from God and working with his authority.
  • This is always a danger for us. We see it still in the Church. There are many today who are basically challenging whether Pope Francis is working for God. It’s of course possible for someone to think that a particular initiative, or appointment, or statement might be imprudent, but that’s different from the type of general questioning that some are engaging in, as if God couldn’t possibly be acting in him if he’s doing anything other than they would want. I’ve met some priests in the last week who told me that they weren’t planning to do anything for the Year of Mercy because they think that it’s really just a year of indulgence, a year to give divorced-and-civilly-remarried people sacrilegious communions, etc., as if this is an initiative that wouldn’t be coming from God. We see it in the way some respond, for example, to St. John of the Cross and to the other doctors in the Church. If we accept them as sent by God as the cartographers of the soul, why don’t we learn from them more, as through them God tries to show us his ways? And we’re all prone to looking at things from worldly lenses whenever, for example, someone even in religious life or in our dioceses asks us to do something contrary to our expectations or preferences. For many of us, our first reaction is to look at it as a personality conflict, or a blind spot on the one in authority, rather than looking at it first with the perspective of faith. In Advent, as we get ready to receive Jesus in history, mystery and majesty, we recall that in Bethlehem many refused to accept Jesus; when he comes in the Eucharist, many of the disciples turned away; and when Christ comes again, including under the distressing disguise of the poor and needy today, many people refuse to act on his words that mercifully teach us his ways.
  • As we learn from Balaam’s prophetic utterance despite his bad beginning, and the chief priests’ and elders’ refusal to accept John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ words and actions despite their good beginning having been nourished by God’s word and the worship of him in the temple, it doesn’t matter so much where we start but how we end up. This goes for us this Advent and it also goes for everyone else. We prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth in a stranger’s animal cave rather than a place and being placed in a beast’s trough rather than in a crib. That would have seemed in the eyes of the world and even in many religious Jews’ eyes as if the child were cursed from the start, but we know that even from those humble grounds, God turned that affliction into a blessing. In the most powerful way of all, when Jesus was pinned to a tree underneath a signed mockingly proclaiming him that king of the Jews, God did something even greater. The Jews and Romans both used to say, “Cursed be anyone who dies on a tree,” and many of the same chief priests and elders were cursing Jesus as they saw him dying on Good Friday. But God made that malediction the greatest blessing in human history — in fact the blessing with which we began our prayer of the Mass and the blessing with which we will finish our Mass, namely the Sign of the Cross. God always draws good out of evil, he always seeks to turn curses into caress, blights into blessings. We ask him to convert in us whatever is resistant to receiving his prophetic words and sharing them and to transform us into the disciples, prophets and divine blessing — like St. John of the Cross before us — the world so much needs this Advent and beyond!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 nm 24:2-7, 15-17a

When Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel encamped, tribe by tribe,
the spirit of God came upon him,
and he gave voice to his oracle:The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,
the utterance of a man 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:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob;
your encampments, O Israel!
They are like gardens beside a stream,
like the cedars planted by the LORD.
His wells shall yield free-flowing waters,
he shall have the sea within reach;
His king shall rise higher,
and his royalty shall be exalted.
Then Balaam gave voice to his oracle:The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,
the utterance of the man 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.
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.

Responsorial Psalm ps 25:4-5ab, 6 and 7bc, 8-9

R. (4) Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. Teach me your ways, O Lord.
Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
he teaches the humble his way.
R. Teach me your ways, O Lord.

Alleluia Ps 85:8

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Show us, LORD, your love,
and grant us your salvation.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel mt 21:23-27

When Jesus had come into the temple area,
the chief priests and the elders of the people approached 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 in reply,
“I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me,
then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things.
Where was John’s baptism from?
Was it of heavenly or of human origin?”
They discussed this among themselves and said,
“If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us,
‘Then why did you not believe him?’
But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd,
for they all regard John as a prophet.”
So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.”
He himself said to them,
“Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”