The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twentieth Sunday of Pentecost – October 3, 2021
Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-10; Mark 10:2-16
Today’s passages are problematic in many ways. They present a curious, if not, amoral or immoral image of God. Challenge our acceptance of divorce and portray the necessity of suffering and sacrifice, even by God, for the greater good.
This week’s readings begin with a reflection on the prelude to the Book of Job, one of the greatest and most challenging descriptions of both God and the human condition. Accordingly, it is appropriate to focus on the reality of suffering, not only in terms of the theological problem of evil but the pain we experience, either deserved or undeserved. It is important to recognize, with Buddhism, that suffering is universal and that none of us is immune from the realities of pain, illness, and mortality. As my training pastor, now over forty years ago, Dr. George Tolman proclaimed, life is “life is risky business, no one gets out alive.” We must ask: What is God’s role in the suffering we experience? How do we creatively respond to the realities of suffering and pain, our own and other’s?
The reading from Job is strange, to say the least, and presents a challenging image of God’s relationship to human good, not to mention God’s moral character. Long before Satan (hasatan) become identified as the source of evil, he was perceived as God’s eyes and ears on earth, a type of divine spy or district attorney. In Job’s story, Satan returns to the heavenly staff meeting with a report about things on earth, presumably noting all the problems created by humankind and the moral ambiguity of all humankind. Defensively, God boasts about one righteous man, and Satan responds with the suggestion that Job is righteous only because of his good fortune. If you take away his wealth and power, and then his health he will turn away from his creator.
The “assembly in heaven,” I believe, is a metaphor for the apparently random and unsought events that occur in our lives. Suffering comes to us often out of the blue and without our consent – a tidal wave, political upheaval, the diagnosis of cancer, an automobile accident, sexual assault. “Stuff happens,” to put it mildly, that changes our lives for the worse and we must be honest about it, not condemning victims, or taking God off the hook. We must confess also that how we describe God can be a factor in creating more suffering in the world.
This ancient tale describes our experiences of suffering. We never know the whole story of the apparently arbitrary misfortunes (or good fortunes) we experience– if there is a whole story – and must deal with the realities of unexpected, unearned, and unsought pain. Job suggests that, at least in one case, our suffering may be the result of a boasting match between God and Satan. Other explanations include God’s will, or the workings out of karma (cause and effect) from this or past lifetime, but as Paul Simon says, virtually every religious explanation end with the reality that “the information’s not unavailable to the mortal man.”
Life is difficult. Pain happens. We don’t know its source but we must endure or make the best of it. Today’s reading from Job invites the congregation to reflect on the universality of suffering. Whether we are the spouse of a person with Alzheimer’s, diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, mourning a friend’s death in an automobile accident or COVID, or dealing with an unexpected financial or professional reversal, we all must deal with suffering – our own or others’. A child celebrates her birthday with joy and presents in a small town in the USA; a later, she’s bedridden as a result of COVID. We wonder how could God allow for such pain or even choose suffering, if God is truly good and loving?
No one is immune from suffering of body, mind, spirit, or relationships. It’s only a matter of time. Suffering can ennoble or destroy us. We never fully know our character until we face unwarranted and unexpected suffering. As Viktor Frankl suggests, however, we are called to be worthy of our suffering, and that’s one of the themes of Job. Despite his pain, he must seek to be as moral and noble as possible. For Job, this will mean challenging God’s own justice.
In Job’s world, it is assumed that the good will flourish and the evil suffer. This is at the heart of the Jewish theology that undergirds the Book of Job and Job’s quest for divine justice. Here’s the story: Job is good, and Job is suffering. What’s wrong with this picture? How can the good person be suffering, if God’s promise is that the righteous will prosper? Job has done everything right and should be receiving the bounties of divine promise, and yet he is destitute. The acts-consequences, goodness-reward, evil-punishment, calculus isn’t working for Job and it doesn’t work for many people today.
To some extent, the problem of suffering will remain inscrutable to us. We should be especially humble when we try to explain other peoples’ suffering. Some, like Rick Warren, see everything significant in life – good and ill – coming from God’s hand without our consent. The evils of life are intended to be a test placed before us. God tests our mettle and determines who succeeds or fails, with eternal consequences. Yet, too many people fail the divine tests placed before them.
In contrast, many new age/new spirituality or prosperity gospel teachers substitute the omnipotent mind for the omnipotent God. They believe, as do the sages portrayed in the best-selling book, The Secret, that “we create our own realities.” Our good and bad fortune reflects of our thoughts. Negativity might lead to cancer while positive thinking leads to wealth. In Christian circles, this linear acts-consequences thinking is enshrined in the “prosperity gospel” and its belief that faith leads to wealth and success while lack of belief (and contributions to their particular ministry) is manifest in sickness and poverty. (For a response to Rick Warren, see Bruce Epperly, “Holy Adventure: Forty-one Days of Audacious Living.”)
The arbitrary and omnipotent God, however, is little better than the demonic. We can fear but not love such a deity, who dispenses cancer, accident, and good fortune simply because God wants to. On the other hand, philosophies that emphasize the power of the mind to shape reality victimize the victim, blaming him or her for her or his suffering. Neither viewpoint is worthy of the compassionate Savior and Healer. The only God worth worshipping is unambiguously on our side, not capricious or arbitrary. God must be, as Whitehead notes, the fellow sufferer who understands and the fellow celebrant, as I believe, who is invested in eliminating suffering as much as possible and responds to pain that God has not Godself chosen. (For more on Job, see Bruce Epperly, “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job.”)
The Epistle of Hebrews speaks of the redemptive power of suffering. Although we may dispute many accounts of the cause of suffering, we recognize that responding faithfully to suffering can deepen our faith and compassion for others. God suffers and divine suffering becomes the pathway to healing. God is not immutable or immune, but suffers along with us, feeling our pain and suffering, a suffering that I believe God does not cause or will. In experiencing our suffering first-hand, God provides a pathway to redemption. God is on our side and will do anything within God’s power to bring healing to the world.
The reading from Mark begins with a dialogue on divorce. There is no avoiding the pain caused by human decisions, often in marital situations. We must preach without judging those who are divorced in our congregation. We all have fallen short, and need to recognize that we all have failings and should not judge others as greater sinners than ourselves. While the question of divorce is a worthy topic, I will focus on the children, especially in light of our recent and continuing treatment of immigrant children separated from their parents and our nation’s current favoring of tax cuts for the wealthy over programs for vulnerable and impoverished children not to mention the controversies about mask mandates in schools.
The children, as John Dominic Crossan asserts, were expendable in the first century. To some they were “nuisances and nobodies.” In this encounter, Jesus’ companions want to silence them. Instead, Jesus blesses them. Blessing children is more important than preaching a sermon. The God of Jesus would not punish children for their parents’ sins, inflict arbitrary pain on them, or hurt them as part of God’s greater will. God loves the innocent and powerless. God’s love embraces the sinner and saint, the wayward and the righteous. God tries to give us better than we deserve.
We will experience more of Job in the next few weeks, and this is good, for suffering challenges our vision of God and the goodness of the universe. There are no guarantees, but there is a God of mercy and love, who is faithful through all the seasons of life. God has a bias toward the broken and will do all in God’s power to bring healing to those who suffer.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including FINDING GOD IN SUFFERING: A JOURNEY WITH JOB; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.