Monday, September 27, 2021

October 10, 2021 - 20th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                       Biblical Words                                              [737]

 Job 23:1-9, 16-17;  Psalm 22:1-15;  Hebrews 4:12-16;  Mark 10:17-31. 

 The suffering righteous seek relief, but the wealthy righteous face a great challenge. 

Job 23:1-9, 16-17. 

The reading from the scroll of Job gives poetic voice to Job’s complaint, following his silent suffering in the prose Prologue (last week's reading in chapters 1-2). 

Preceding our passage there has in fact been several rounds of debate between Job and his friends, who originally came to comfort Job in his misery (2:11-13). 

These debates (chapters 3-27; later chapters are monologues) are written in the most sophisticated and elaborate poetry in the Hebrew scriptures.  Each of the three friends speaks about Job’s situation and Job replies to each one immediately.  Our passage comes in the midst of the third cycle of such speeches. 

The greatness of the book, and most likely its power and popularity in its own time, lay in the artistry and thought of these separate poetic speeches.  Each speech was worthy of pondering and study, and early pupils of this advanced branch of wisdom must have memorized and discussed each one in turn.  None of the speeches is a straw-man cliché, though the friends steadily argue the validity of conventional wisdom. 

There is a somewhat unconventional treatment of the Job scroll in my Study Bibles blog (Study Bibles blog – “The Job Project,” August, 2021).  

In our passage, Job yearns and cries out for a PLACE where he can present his case.  Where is the Place of God’s hearing?  If Job could only get to that place and present the evidence and argument for his innocence, he “would be acquitted forever” (verse 7, NRSV). 

There, in that divine place of judgment, Job says, “I would learn what he would answer me.”  “Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; but he would give heed to me” (verses 5-6). 

In that place God would not overwhelm, but listen. 

But alas, the place can’t be found.  It cannot be found up ahead, nor is it located behind; it is not seen to either the left or the right (verses 8-9).  Echoing the profound meditations of one of the psalmists (Psalm 139:1-18), Job says, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me [burned me in a refiner’s fire], I shall come out like gold” (verse 10). 

Job has his confidence – but for the time being he has no one to speak to – except his contentious friends. 

Psalm 22:1-15. 

The Psalm reading gives even more powerful expression to God-forsakenness than does the Job passage.  The opening words of this psalm are the only words that Jesus speaks from the cross in Mark’s passion narrative, where they are given in Aramaic, Jesus’ everyday language:  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (NRSV of Mark 15:34). 

The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s past actions: 

1.  I am abandoned and unheard, vv. 1-2;
      2.  You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, vv. 3-5; 
1’.  I am a worm, despised and mocked by all, vv. 6-8;
      2’.  You have known and kept me since my birth, vv. 9-10. 

This alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker.  God’s past actions create an expectation that God’s servant will be cared for and saved.  This expectation is expressed in the simple plea of verse 11:  “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” 

The piteous description in verses 12 to 15 is intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty inflicted upon the speaker.  A single metaphor is sustained, that of a hunted animal, probably the “deer” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm. 

This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all about, bulls and lions.  The attention moves steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward its center as its body is violated: 

Many bulls encircle me … they open wide their mouth at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.   

As they pierce the skin the inner organs are exposed and torn open: 

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast. 

And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter: 

… my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of compassion. 

(This reading leaves us in the nadir of despair.  This is as bad as things can get.  Where are we headed?)

Hebrews 4:12-16. 

The Epistle reading picks up the role of God’s judging word – trying and testing. 

This piercing two-edged sword “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (verse 12, NRSV).  The  suffering innocent in the psalms, as well as Job in chapter 23, prayed that they might be known and searched by God.  Through God’s word, God knows the truth of each person’s inner life, and a proper judgment of their innocence can be made. 

But there is a drastically important problem that may be exposed by this penetrating work of God’s word:  What if all is not well in the inner soul?  What if we are not really as innocent as we have wanted to believe – and to have others believe?  What if, in fact, we are sinners? 

The second part of the Hebrews passage addresses this condition.  It also announces the central and decisive thesis of the entire Letter: 

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (verses 14-15). 

If we are not in fact innocent when we reach the place of God’s judgment, we need mercy or forgiveness or someone who can annul, cancel, atone for our sinful condition. 

Taken in our radical human condition, we are not in Job’s situation; our condition is more like that of Cain, and requires atoning blood and a resurrection to restore us as God’s new creation (see Hebrews 12:23b-24). 

The whole central part of Hebrews unpacks this need for a mediator.  A mediator who gives a new covenant, who is the heavenly high priest empowered to annul past sins, and who also leads to a new community of the faithful which is marching through the wilderness of present trials.  In our passage, there is an ecstatic acclamation that there is such a mediator – who knows profoundly our human condition. 

Mark 10:17-31. 

The Gospel reading brings three incidents or pronouncements concerning the contradiction between wealth and the Reign of God. 

1)  The first is the rich man who has observed all the commandments and asks what else is needed to inherit “eternal life.”  (This phrase, eternal life, occurs in Mark only in this passage; it is frequent in the Gospel According to John, where it takes the place of “kingdom” language; see John 3:3-5, and the climax about "eternal life" in 3:14-15.) 

Jesus tells the rich man that the one thing still lacking is to sell all his goods, give the proceeds to the poor, and come to follow Jesus, which means to become a homeless beggar and to trudge toward Jerusalem to die.  Jesus tells him this only after “looking at him, [he] loved him…” (verse 21, NRSV).  We may take this to mean that Jesus looked deep into the man – searched his soul and tested his heart, as the Job passage has it – and then gave his verdict. 

The man is unable to accept this enormous challenge, and goes away grieving. 

2)  But things get even harder for the rich.  Jesus sees that the disciples need some reinforcement on this point, so he says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (verse 25).  Then who can possibly make it?, exclaim the “astonished” disciples.  And how shall we take the mysterious answer to that?  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (verse 27). 

One suspects that early followers, responding to well-to-do people deeply interested in the salvation brought by Jesus, concluded that God would find a way to let these folks in without turning them into mendicant beggars.  The impossible-possible saying by Jesus was thought to apply to this situation, and Mark so recorded it. 

3)  Another puzzling pronouncement results from Peter’s assertion that the disciples have done what Jesus told the rich man was required; they have given up all and are trudging with Jesus.  Jesus now says all such persons will receive their rewards – houses for houses, family members for family members, fields for fields – and along with these things, persecutions. 

This most likely means that wherever they go, in addition to periodic persecutions, they will find housing, will find family-like support and relations, and will find agricultural work.  The community of believers will be a close-knit supporting group.  

Almost as an after-thought, Jesus adds:  Oh yes, you will also have eternal life in the age to come (verse 30). 

However we listen to it, Jesus’ various sayings about wealth make it a great barrier to acceptance in God’s Reign.  The immediate generation of Jesus’ hearers was apparently summoned to give up the world’s ways and turn over all cares to God, which included going toward destinations likely to mean death. 

In time, the Christian pilgrimage was to last long enough and extend to enough places that wealth gradually became a responsibility and a trust, as is reflected, for example, in Paul’s collections from his better-to-do churches in Greece for the poorer saints in Judea (II Corinthians 8-9). 

No comments:

Post a Comment