Homily at Sion Community for the close of the 2019 Core Members’ Retreat on 16 December 2019.
Before the First Reading:
Today, we are going to hear a prophecy by Balaam son of Beor. But who was Balaam, and when was he prophesying?
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they camped in the desert south of the promised land. About 38 years after they left Egypt, they decided to enter Canaan from the north. This meant they would have to pass through the lands of the Ammonites in Edom and then the Kingdom of Bashan, using the travel route known as the King’s Highway (on the map shown, the solid black line running parallel to the River Jordan). They asked for safe passage, but the local kings were not comfortable with half a million refugees – or an invading army – passing through their territory. (Think of what happens today when thousands of migrants want to pass through Mexico on the way to the USA, or a military jet wants to refuel in a third-party country on the way to a strike.)
The Israelites took the highway anyway. Sihon, King of the Ammonites came with his army to stop them – but the Israelites won, and occupied the northern part of Moab, the plains (shaded orange in the second map). They went further north and Og, the King of Bashan came with his army. He too was defeated and the Israelites occupied Bashan (shaded purple). They were able to cross into the Holy Land and camp on the east side of the River Jordan (yellow circle).
Balak, king of the southern part of Moab, calls upon the most powerful prophet he knows, Balaam son of Beor, to come and curse Israel. Balaam is not an Israelite, but the Bible tells us his gift of prophecy comes from the God of Israel. So Balaam is taken by King Balak to various high places (red triangle), where perhaps they can see the Israelites camped on the far side of the Jordan, and instructed to curse them. Here’s what happened next… (Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17a)
Lord, make me know your ways!
It’s not easy, coming out of a wilderness.
Today we stand on a threshold. The first part of Advent, up to December 16, looks forward to the Second Coming, and the Gospels ask us to recognise who Jesus really is. Tomorrow we enter Advent II, when the Gospels will recall how Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, were prepared for the First Coming.
Today we stand on a threshold. We’re about to exit our retreat, and will soon exit community living for three weeks. Until we gather again in January, we will have to take more personal responsibility for our life of prayer and missionary discipleship.
Today we stand on a threshold. The Israelites are about to exit the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. Balaam was asked to curse Israel, but the only words the Lord would allow him to speak were blessings. He spoke of a King in the distant future. Now, it would be 400 years before David sat on the throne of Israel, and another thousand years after that to the birth of Christ, so Balaam was a ‘far-seeing’ prophet indeed. Like the Magi, he was not an Israelite yet he was given a glimpse of the Messiah!
What actually happened to the Israelites after Balaam blessed them?
They did not stay in the Promised Land, but camped in the plains of Moab. There, many of the Jewish men were tempted by the local women and invited to worship in the local temples. For these crimes, many Israelites were executed.
Some of the tribes asked if they could simply stay living in Moab and Bashan. Moses said that all the fighting men would have to help take the Promised Land, but those tribes could leave their families there and return to live there when the fighting was done.
Sometimes, it seems to me like the Church at large is living in Moab.
At best, the Church in Moab makes occasional visits to the battlefield, with moments of intense prayer, but mostly dwells in the comfortable territory of social work, youth work, fundraising and building maintenance. These things are easy to do. Why bother crossing to the land of Jesus when it’s comfortable in Moab? The Church in Moab settles for maintenance, not mission. (But Ruth left Moab and dedicated herself to the God of Israel.)
At worst, the Church in Moab is tempted astray by the surrounding world. Reiki and reflexology in retreat centres? Yoga in parish halls? And when does compassion and understanding for those struggling with their sexual identity or failed relationships need to give way to reaffirmation of moral boundaries?(Not included in the sermon as delivered, for brevity.)
Eventually, under Joshua’s leadership, Israel does enter the Promised Land.
Balaam prophesied about a distant future. I am going to attempt the same – the kind of prophesy not based on a revelation from beyond time, but from reading the signs of the times.
Can we imagine what the Catholic Church will be like in Britain, in Europe, in the year 2050?
I can imagine a future where the Church has been forced underground, as it was in the days of Henry VIII. Perhaps Governments will have made it illegal for a religious organisation to exclude women from any of its leadership positions – or at least to exclude a woman who insists she is really a man. Perhaps it will be a hate crime to teach that abortion is wrong in all circumstances. Perhaps it will be against the law for a priest to guarantee total confidentiality to anyone who speaks to him under the seal of confession.
Even if the law still respects religious organisations’ right to do their own thing behind closed doors, state-funded schools might not be allowed to give time to religious activities or promoting the Catholic understanding of healthy sexuality.
Maybe the law of the land will not have come down so heavily on churches – but the law of economics will. If our congregations continue to shrink at their current rate, many of our church buildings will be closed, and we will be worshipping in hired rooms in school halls or leisure centres.
Before Christ will come again, the Church must pass through a final trial. This will shake the faith of many believers.
The trial will be some kind of rejection of God’s truth in the name of solving humanity’s problems.
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.
Why does the Church say such things? She is drawing from the words of Our Lord himself, who said that even God’s chosen servants will be deceived ‘if such a thing is possible’. In times of confusion we must make our own the response to today’s psalm: Lord, make me know your ways.
Friends, I don’t know whether the final trial of the Church is near at hand, or far away. Many say we are already living in a post-truth society. If you believe you should have had a different kind of body, or if President Trump wishes something had happened differently, all you need to do is keep proclaiming the untruth until people start treating it as a fact.
Some worry that Pope Francis has already brought us to the final apostasy, because he has compromised on truth by his approach to divorce and remarriage. In fact, it seems to me that he has been careful not to CHANGE church teaching, in fact refusing to set down new norms and precedents, but instead has tried to draw attention to how we need to bridge the gap between the messy reality of human life and and the clear-cut statements of Scripture and Canon Law.
Pope Francis calls for discernment. What’s another name for discernment? “Lord, make me know your ways!”
As long as it is possible to follow the Vicar of Christ in a way in keeping with what has been revealed, we must do that. But there will always be a strand in the church which rightly questions innovation because our own teaching says one day Mother Church will fall into apostasy, and even many of her preachers and scholars will be deceived! So a good dose of self-criticism is also healthy! But the Catechism, drawing on Scripture, also says that the final trial will happen when Christ has been recognised by ‘all Israel’. Now it is true that Messianic Judaism is a reality which didn’t exist 50 years ago, but it would be too big a stretch to say that ‘all Israel’ has come to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Among Jews, Jesus as controversial today as he was in his own lifetime!
Lord, make me know your ways!
In today’s Gospel, too, Jesus – like Pope Francis – avoids giving a direct answer to a question. He knows very well that if his critics are going to embrace the truth, if they are capable of a conversion of heart, they have to weigh up the arguments before them at their own pace, free of pressure. So he answers them with questions they have to pause to ponder and process.
We can do the same thing. We have a Gospel to proclaim, but sometimes the best way to help others hear it is to ask them the right questions. Questions like these:
- If anyone can choose to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, how can we know what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is in the first place?
- Do I have human rights because I can survive without the support of another person or because I am human?
- How can we find out whether Jesus wanted women to preside and speak his words when his followers gathered to break bread?
- Do you want to live in a society where a vulnerable person can be given the assurance of absolute confidentiality by someone who doesn’t know what they’re about to say?
- Will accompaniment and discernment cause a person to disregard Christ’s teaching, or come to appreciate it?
We are now leaving the wilderness and entering the very place where Christ calls us to be disciples – the world of men and women, friends and enemies. This is the place, this is the time, where each one of us is personally called by Jesus to proclaim his Gospel. Whether we face a great apostasy or merely a chastised church, Christ is sending us out to proclaim his love and mercy. Let us keep praying, persevere unshaken, and seek His presence. Lord, make us know your ways!
The Enemy of Israel is worried. God’s Chosen People are coming out of the wilderness, and God will not allow us to be cursed. Let us cling to Balaam’s prophecy. I leave you with the words of St Peter:
We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power… We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things – prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.2 Peter 1:16-21 (abridged and rearranged)
A star WILL rise for us from Judah. Come, Lord Jesus! Marana tha!
(Recommended reflection music: Edge of the Age, by the Maltfriscans!)