The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 10, 2021
Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
Today’s passages are challenging in their images of God and human ethics. They are bound to raise questions about God’s nature and intent for humankind, not to mention the consequences of our own practices such as divorce.
Can God be fathomed? In the enormity of the universe, we know that our solar system is but a small speck. With the poet of Psalm 8, we wonder if amid a trillion galaxies, God takes notice of our lives. We wonder if we matter at all. The grandeur of the universe gives birth to the apophatic approach to theology and spirituality, the belief that God is beyond anything we can say or imagine. Yet, many who claim that we can’t say anything about God or must live in mystery, nevertheless, suggest that the ultimate is unchanging and all-determining. Others claim to know God’s ways completely, especially as related to issues such as homosexuality and abortion as well as the Second Coming and the afterlife.
The god they portray often appears the guarantee and supporter of their biases and the persecutor of those with whom they disagree. Though God’s ways are not our ways, when we speak of God we need to consider the character of the God about which we speak. Psalm 8 gives us license to engage in God-talk, for we are created a little lower than divinity, and given the gift of creativity and agency. Yet, our God-talk must be humble as well as bold.
Let me repeat: the fact that we can’t fully fathom God or discern the meaning of suffering does not give us the right to image God as omnipotent or arbitrary or hold that events spring entirely from the hand of God. There are many other options in explaining the suffering we experience, and that is the point of Job. At the very least, we are left with the questions such: Is an event good because God wills it? Or does God will it because it is good? Is there a meaning to suffering or do things just happen? Is the reality of God compatible with randomness and chaos?
Job is trying to make sense of a god he can’t understand and who seems hidden when we most need a word from God. Job wants a god with whom he can communicate; he also hopes that God is on his side and will appear to ease his suffering. Explaining the suffering we or others experience can be theologically problematic, especially in pastoral situations. Often, we attribute to God actions that would lead to indictment and arrest if performed by a human. Despite the mysteries of suffering and evil, we need to assume, as Jesus suggests, that God is at least as moral as a good parent or grandparent. Again, those who most ardently claim to know God’s will usually have the most punitive and exclusivist images of God.
Psalm 22 describes the experience of feeling forsaken by God. Other people prosper but we feel alone in our suffering. Our suffering alienates us from everyone, including God. We feel set apart by our suffering, and others treat us differently as a result of our current situation. We wonder if the God who once was real will show up again to dry our tears and ease our pain. No amount of counsel from prosperity gospel preachers or new age pundits can ease our pain when God appears to have deserted us.
Will our faith sustain us during the dark night of the soul? In moments of divine obscurity, can we trust, as Paul Tillich notes, the God who exists after every other vision of God has failed.
Hebrews describes Christ’s saving presence. Christ is able to save us because Christ is one of us. Jesus as Christ is not immune to suffering or temptation, nor is God immune from suffering and pain. Our salvation emerges as a result of God’s identification and understanding of our experience. Hebrews’ words are bold. They suggest that only a suffering God can save (Bonhoeffer) and that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, as Paul asserts, our own and God’s own weakness, God’s inability to “make things right” in every occasion. God is, as Whitehead notes, the fellow sufferer who understands.
The passage from Mark reveals the temptation of wealth. The approach is countercultural, then and now. As a culture, we have a bias toward the wealthy. Many complain about welfare mothers, and food stamp frauds, while failing to critique tax breaks and subsidies for the wealthy. In the spirit of Job’s friends and much orthodoxy, there is a tendency to identify prosperity with morality and poverty with moral deficiency. Yet, Jesus turns this upside down. The insulation wealth provides alienates us from experiencing the pain of the poor. Further, our security tempts us to rely on our own wealth and so-called goodness rather than God’s grace. Without a safety net, the poor must cast themselves upon God for their salvation. They have no hope but God’s future. Yet, as the Book of Job reveals, wealth can’t insulate us from suffering. Even the wealthiest will eventually face sickness, aging, and death. Will a life built solely on earthly treasures enable us to face what is beyond our control? Spiritual wealth alone can inspire a healing lifestyle, justice seeking, and earth care, and enable us to trust our futures to a power and wisdom greater than our own.
The passage from Mark counsels sacrificial living, living simply so that others may simply live and going from self-interest to global loyalty.
(For more on Job, see Bruce Epperly, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; for reflections on Mark, see Bruce Epperly, Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B and Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel)
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. He may be contacted for engagements or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.