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Stop Saying “Everything Happens for a Reason”: The Lectionary for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Stop Saying “Everything Happens for a Reason”: The Lectionary for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost October 18, 2015

 

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt.
Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 and/or Jeremiah 37:7-14

What It’s About: Both of these passages are about happy endings to awful stories. The Job passage narrates the end of Job’s troubles–the point at which he capitulates to the unknowable ways of God, and in turn has his fortunes (and family) restored to him. The Jeremiah passage is about God’s promise to restore the destroyed people, and bring them back from exile and loss. In both cases the reward for suffering is great.

What It’s Really About: I’m not sure how good we should feel about that paragraph right above this one. Yes, there is a restoration. Yes, there is a triumphal and tearful and joyful return to the way things before, as a reward for suffering and faithfulness. But this kind of loss can never really be mitigated, can it? The ending of Job has always bothered me. What about all the suffering that had happened along the way? What about those sons and daughters who are dead? The great beauty of Job’s new daughters must be little consolation to them. And the Jeremiah passage is the same way; yes, there the promise of a restoration, but at what price? How much blood has flowed in the meantime?

In both cases, the reader gets the distinct sense that s/he should feel good about the outcomes. Job has his fortunes restored; what’s the problem? God is leading the people back to the land; no harm no foul! But of course, questions of theodicy and the meaning of suffering are much deeper than some sort of cosmic insurance policy, where you get it all back and more. The basic question of why the suffering happened–in both cases with God’s approval and even at God’s initiative–goes profoundly unanswered.

What It’s Not About: You know that saying, “everything happens for a reason?” Stop saying that. It’s a stupid thing to say. The “reason” in Job is that Satan (who, in this cosmology, is God’s partner, not God’s enemy) wanted to test Job. There is no greater cosmic significance. It’s just a side bet in the heavenly court. And Jeremiah is not much better; presumably God has taught the people a lesson about faithfulness, but unless we could somehow demonstrate that every child, woman, and man who perished at the hands of the invaders were the very ones who were responsible for the apostasy and unfaithfulness God wished to punish, then this isn’t satisfying to me. Everything does not happen for a reason, and saying so is not helpful in any sense–pastorally, biblically, or theologically.

Maybe You Should Think About: If Job teaches us one thing, it’s that we can argue with God. The book of Job is a little ambiguous on this, at the end–it seems like God pulls rank and tells Job to be quiet–but despite all of Job’s protest, things turn out ok for him (if you ignore the collateral damage). So I think Job–and the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, really–encourages us to contend with God, to ask hard questions, and to trouble the conventional wisdom. So, maybe think about taking these texts on. Critique them, wrestle with their questions, and ask, honestly: is this the God we believe in?

 

Hebrews 7:23-28

What It’s About: It’s about Jesus as the high priest–but not the high priest in a way we would understand or know. The author here is working with metaphors (that he thinks his audience will understand), drawing parallels between Jesus and the high priest of the Jerusalem temple. I love Hebrews for this reason; it gives us a window into Christology and soteriology in their infancy. How does Jesus save? The author isn’t quite sure, but it’s kind of like how the high priest saves–as an intercessor and a propitiator.

What It’s Really About: Scholars tend to agree (although there is always dissent) that Hebrews was a sermon delivered in the city of Rome. (It’s definitely not one of Paul’s letters). The book got its name because from antiquity, people recognized that the assumed audience is a group of people who know a lot about the way the Jewish temple works. Maybe they were Jewish Christians? It’s hard to say for sure, but I find it fascinating to try to imagine the first setting of this document–perhaps a small gathering of Christians in Rome, some of them Jewish, some of the gentile, with a leader trying to interpret the scriptures and the tradition, and trying to make sense of Jesus, in a way that was compelling and interesting for those gathered there. It’s fascinating to take Hebrews and read backwards from there to the kind of audience it must have had.

What It’s Not About: This is really an evolutionary dead end for Christology and soteriology. We don’t really think about Jesus as an eternal high priest anymore. We do–ask Christians if Jesus is like a high priest and most will probably say yes–but as a living metaphor, this one is really not very vital anymore. Why? We don’t really know very much about what a high priest is, or does.

Maybe You Should Think About: If someone were reading backwards from your sermons or your church’s sermons, and trying to figure out what kind of people you are, 2000 years later, what would they think? What kinds of concerns and problems would they identify in your rhetoric? What kind of people would they assume you are, from the kinds of things you preach about?

 

Mark 10:46-52

What It’s About: This is a bare-bones healing story, in typical Markan brevity and simplicity. There is a man who cannot see; he asks Jesus to see, and Jesus restores his sight. There isn’t much ornamentation to this one.

What It’s Really About: Whose idea was it to heal this man? It certainly wasn’t Jesus’ idea. Bartimaeus (the blind man) hears that Jesus is passing by and asks Jesus to heal him. Stories like this one fascinate me; it seems like Jesus wasn’t just going around healing people willy-nilly. Jesus, it seems, was content to pass by some people, or maybe unaware of some afflicted people he was passing by. On several occasions in the gospels, Jesus needs to be asked, or reminded, to heal someone or perform a miracle. What’s going on in these passages. Is this just good storytelling, or is there something theological at stake here? Are there limits to Jesus’ self-emptying? Does Jesus sometimes just want to walk down a road without healing someone?

What It’s Not About: Verse 48 is interesting, but it’s passed over quickly. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” This is often a feature of these kinds of stories–the disciples or others telling the plaintive person to keep a lid on it. In Mark, this is pretty typical of the disciples, if that is indeed who is telling him to pipe down. The disciples are always misunderstanding Jesus’ purpose and message. It’s easy to imagine the Markan disciples saying to a blind beggar, “hush, he’s on a tight schedule, you’ll mess with his head. Just sit there and be blind.” The disciples never get it in Mark.

Maybe You Should Think About: Who tells our blind beggars to pipe down today? A lot of people. Think about the times people in need are told–often by Christian people–to be quiet, to work harder, to show initiative, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to help themselves. Those are all ways of telling them to be quiet. Jesus, here, is active, once he knows the need. He doesn’t engage in blame, and he doesn’t require an explanation of how the blind man got to be blind. He just helps him. Not everything happens for a reason. Sometimes blind people are just blind, and they deserve help.

 


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