The story comes to mind on the Shabbat when we read Parashat Balak.
Balak is king of Moab, and he hires the services of the heathen prophet, Bilam, to utter a curse against the Israelites.
The plan does not work because when Bilam opens his mouth the words of curse turn to blessing. God intervenes and Bilam cannot help himself. He can only say what God wants him to say.
The underlying issue is whether those who pay the piper can call the tune, whether a preacher can be paid to preach anything other than which God puts into his mouth.
The sad fact possibly is that in odd cases a preacher feels the need to protect his position and to say what others want to hear. No wonder there is that other story, “Rabbi, if you won the lottery, would you stop being a rabbi?” “No, but my sermons would be different!”
But in most cases the rabbi has and must have the conscience of the Biblical prophet, unable to say anything other than Ko amar HaShem – “thus says the Lord!” It is not easy, and though the effective rabbi has learned the art of subtlety and diplomacy and wraps up the message carefully, he knows that he achieves nothing if he courts popularity but puts the Almighty off side.
Not that this is an ethical problem restricted to rabbis. It is paralleled in many other professions, where one must resist the temptation to follow the Balak principle of he who pays the piper calls the tune.
In the legal world there is the problem of the independence of the judiciary. The teaching profession also constantly faces the problem of tailoring its teaching to the needs of political masters.
In its own way, the Hippocratic Oath in its various versions recognises the temptations that face medical professionals (in his Jewish Medical Ethics, chapter 16, Lord Jakobovits asks why there is no Jewish equivalent to this oath and concludes that it was unnecessary because its provisions are axiomatic in halachic teaching).
Jewish tradition is not impressed with Bilam. It considers him a man without backbone who is respected neither by man or God.
But whilst not exonerating Bilam, the person who reads the story should criticise Balak even more, for so cynically expecting that money can silence or twist a person’s conscience.
The one who pays the piper has no moral right to call the tune.