As one who falls down with eyes uncovered...
Balak had one simple task that he wanted Balaam to perform. He wanted the prophet to curse Israel. That's all. Just curse them, so that they will be unable to overcome Balak and his forces. Just curse them so that their threat may be contained. Just curse them.
But Balaam, as Numbers offers up today, saw that it would please the Lord the he would instead bless Israel. The cursing, if there was to be any, would be reserved for Balak, and for Moab. It would be reserved for Edom, and for Amalek. Talk about a backfire.
At root, this is more than just Balaam choosing sides. And it also doesn't offer up or defend Israel's pride of place. Balaam has worked his art, and has performed his divination. He has sought the signs and what he has seen, he offers up. A line from both his blessing, and his curse, lingers with me: he is "[the one] who perceives the Almighty's visions, who falls down with eyes uncovered." (Numbers 24: 4, 16)
Seeing things as they are is important in life. Seeing them as God sees them is paramount for a life of faith, and it is transforming of perspective, and of purpose. Balaam sees before him a choice. He may choose what is politically, and personally, expedient. He can accept Balak's direction; or, he can embrace what God is showing him. He chooses the latter, and continues to support the way prophet's are called to function in the world: to see and speak to God's will.
God's will is that Israel continue to move through the wastes, to be formed and reformed as a delivered people, and to be hewn and forged into a people who can live faithfully into the Covenant. That is a very difficult pilgrimage, and it is full of both blessings and curses. There are blessings when the people attend to the way of life that God has directed them toward. There are curses when they wander from faithful practice, as when some of the Israelite men take up with Moabite women, and when they turn away from Covenant at Peor. Once again, even as Balaam blesses them, Israel stumbles and faces another brutal correction. Israel may be the subject of God's work in the world in Numbers, but as such it seems that they will continue to be an object of those blessings that come from keeping covenant with God, and those curses that fall when they to fail to keep the same.
There is a powerful resonance in the Gospel today of this balance of blessings and curses as Jesus offers his "sermon on the plain." He begins his teaching in parallel to the sermon on the mount from Matthew. He blesses the poor, the hungry and those who mourn. He blesses those who are rejected for righteousness' sake. But then he also offers curses: he curses the rich who have received their comfort; he curses those who have plenty, for they will now know hunger; he curses the joyful, for they will know sorrow; he curses even those of whom others speak well, for they will know rejection. Every time I come to these passages, I find myself a bit shocked by a Christ who chooses to balance blessings with curses. We would rather have him just bless. It is more pleasing, much less shocking and far less challenging to us in our daily lives.
Jesus directions following these blessings and curses raise the bar even higher for us. This direction goes far and above just keeping the "golden rule" and working and figuring out "what would Jesus do." We are to love those who hate us. We are to give a second cheek to those who strike us. We are to loan without expectation of repayment. We are to give our shirts when someone takes our cloaks. Worse yet, we are not to judge, or to condemn. We are to give, and give...and give.
In the same way that God is making of Israel a people who will stand as an example of living into a call to Covenant, we too as the Body of Christ are called to live into the words, and practices, that Jesus commends to us. That firm foundation Jesus refers to in his closing parable is, simply, us. We are to be a people who put into practice the teachings of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims. Rather than picking at splinters in each other's eyes...we pluck the logs from our own. Like Balaam, we are invited to fall down before God with eyes uncovered. In Christ, we are invited to see life clearly, embrace our neighbor lovingly and serve the world humbly. No storm, or curse, can then prevail; and we then become a true blessing to creation itself.