A reflection on the readings for Proper 23B: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Last week our readings were very complex. We began the book of Job with some troubling concepts presented about God, humanity, and the Satan. And we heard a difficult reading in the Gospel of Mark about divorce. But as a congregation we were celebrating the feast day of St. Francis and the kids were with us for the entire service. So instead of reflecting on the difficult readings I read a story, directed at the kids, but relevant to all of us, and we talked about the life and ministry of St. Francis.
So – this morning we have a little catching up to do. Let’s begin with last week’s troubling passage in Mark about divorce. Remember someone asked Jesus if it was okay for a husband to divorce his wife. And Jesus says, yes, according to the law of Moses it is okay. But, Jesus says, that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.
What Jesus is referring too, however, is not the kind of relationship that married couples have in this country today. Jesus is referring to legal contracts which made the wife a man’s possession. Cancelling this legal contract and disowning the wife meant that the woman was abandoned. She became a target for abuse, poverty, disease, and death. Jesus is making the marriage contract a binding one in order that women will be protected.
We also began the book of Job last week. It has been said that Job is a noble work of literature equal to the Greek tragedies, Dante’s Diving Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Goethe’s Faust. Modeled also on an ancient Babylonian myth about the god Marduk, Job exemplifies the literature of that era exploring the reality of suffering and the meaning of life. Job was probably written between the 6th and 3rd century BCE.
The characters in Job include:
God, who has a court of counselors who advise God.
The Satan – one of the members of God’s council. The Satan in Job is not the demonic counterforce familiar in Christianity and portrayed as the source of temptation and backsliding in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Nor is the Satan God’s evil antagonist, as described in Christian theology. Like the tempter in Jesus’ wilderness experience, Job’s Satan seeks to find out if our faith is authentic.[i]
The friends of Job: “Wise men” – each of these characters is a foreigner from places known for wisdom in the Near East during ancient Israel.[ii]
The story of Job is dealing with the reality of suffering and how to explain it or understand it. The friends of Job move around the questions and attempt to answer them from their own traditional belief in a God who rewards people for what they have done “right” and punishes people for what they have done “wrong.”
Job however raises a deeper question than right or wrong cause and effect. Job ponders the despair that accompanies suffering; especially the sense that God is absent in the presence of suffering which heightens the despair.
Job wonders, “What kind of a God is this God who in the face of suffering is nowhere to be seen?
The story of Job pushes us to explore the reality that God is in the midst of our suffering even when we have no idea how or where God is. Job meets God in a whirlwind – which suggests that in the very midst of our deepest despair God is there. God is a bigger God than the one Job’s friends portray – God is less concerned with punishment and reward and more concerned with being present in the center of the storm and working with us to transform suffering, through hope and grace and mercy, into some form of new life.
In this regard, transforming suffering into hope and new life, the story of Job mirrors the Christian story of what God is doing in and through Jesus. It’s the hope, grace, and mercy that the Eucharist points us toward. God is present in our suffering and leads us through it into a new place.
The thing is, as Job portrays, it isn’t always possible to know how God is with us. There are no obvious signs, like the whirlwind of cloud and dust nor do we hear the voice of God like Job did. Life does not always have a complete restoration of what was lost. A loved one who has died does not come back to life. Sometimes life just brings more suffering.
So the story of Job is a myth for the process of suffering in which we experience the absence and silence of God. The struggle is in part, how to remain faithful while moving through the suffering to a new place. The new place one experiences is usually the result of an inner transformation – something inside of us changes and thus the way we perceive the situation changes.
Richard Rohr in his book Job and the Mystery of Suffering addresses this when he suggests that the verb used to describe Job as repenting IN sack cloth and ashes may also be interpreted as Job repenting FROM sack cloth and ashes – in other words Job transforms internally and changes his outward action – he no longer sits as a passive victim consumed by anger and stifled by frustration but becomes someone who is working to move through his suffering into a new place.
The book we read in Lent, Speaking of Sin by Barbara Brown Taylor, discusses the merits of acknowledging that there is real evil in the world, sin happens, there are consequences, but sometimes those consequences are not obvious because they affect other people more than ourselves. This is the global sin that Mark makes reference too in the Gospel – sin that comes from how one segment of society lives and how that lifestyle impacts others – so for example, the coffee we drink can either sustain coffee farmers – if its Fair Trade - or deprive them of living wage. The cell phones and tablets and iPads and ebooks that we use are sometimes made by people working in substandard conditions, sweat shops, earning something less than a living wage.
Job reminds us that our suffering and the suffering of others is not a punishment that God deals out, but is part of life. Sometimes stuff happens.
The Gospel pushes around the idea that stuff happens, suggesting that sometimes the suffering of the world may in fact be the consequence of how we are living.
Either way we are not to be passive victims of our own suffering nor impassionate disinterested passersby of the suffering of others.
Our reading from Hebrews reminds us that what we do matters. Can we summon up hope in the midst of suffering? Or at the very least can we muster the hope for hope? Can we come to a place of inner peace in the midst of suffering? Can we recognize the suffering of others and how our lifestyle might be contributing to that suffering?
There is beauty in this broken world and beauty in our broken lives. The task of being a person of faith is to trust that. And perhaps, in time, as we move through our suffering, we will be able to recognize that beauty, claim, and proclaim it as the grace and mercy of an ever present God.
[i] Bruce Epperly at Process and Faith Blog: http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-10-14/proper-23
[ii] The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible: Abingdon Press, 1971