The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – October 24, 2021
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
All of us need divine mercy. All of us are “standin’ in the need of prayer” and need the wisdom and guidance of God for the journey ahead. There are times that we need to call upon God, and discover that despite the power differential between God and humankind, God asks us “What do you need? What is the deepest desire of your heart?”
This week concludes our journey with Job. We have covered a lot of ground over the past few weeks: there is a debate in heaven, God gets hot under the collar when Ha’ satan challenges Job’s piety and lets the divine district attorney take everything from Job; Job suffers a theological crisis, and rightly challenges an apparently arbitrary and absent god; and then receives a peek at the inner workings of creation. He never receives an intellectual answer to the problem of evil. But the small and brittle god of chapters one and two appears to grow in stature, and become in Job’s mystical experience, the God of the cosmos. The voice from the whirlwind overwhelms Job and he recognizes that God only knows the complexity of the universe and the interplay of order and chaos. The world is amazing and beautiful, indeed, awesome, but also wild and dangerous. Even God has trouble controlling the more atavistic forces of the universe. Job has suffered, but there is, the text suggests, redemption to be found when we faithfully respond to the tragedies of life. The Psalm speaks of redemption for all who call upon God in distress. Despite the sorrows of life, they will taste and see that God is good. The Letter to the Hebrews describes Christ the High Priest as savior of all who call
on him. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus responds to sight impaired Bartimaeus, granting him the healing that he desires.
In the wake of his mystic vision of the universe, Job confesses his ignorance and insignificance. God is God and he is Job. Job never receives an answer to his question about divine justice: he has been good and yet he has suffered. His friends see his suffering as a sign of Job’s sinfulness. Job never retracts his challenge, but God’s grandeur makes his own suffering apparently insignificant in his eyes. Still, it is important to note that Job’s God is best defined by power and not love; Job’s God has little compassion for his faithful servant.
After reading the final chapter of Job, one of the participants in my Job bible study noted, “This is too easy. The author ties everything else in a pretty bow and solves all the problems of suffering by giving him new children and property.” Job receives “replacement children” and greater wealth than he had before the contest between God and Satan (Ha-satan). It is a curious ending, perhaps tacked on to appease orthodox readers. It certainly differs from the heart of the book of Job as well as the metaphysical vision. The ending suggests that there may be some validity to the acts-consequences theology Job challenges. One wonders if Job ever overcame his grief or fully trusted God despite his reward.
Still, at heart, Job is a radical text. It never fully answers the problem of evil. It challenges the rewards-punishment approach of the Hebraic tradition, even with its happy ending. It recognizes that the universe is chaotic as well as orderly and God may even have trouble keeping leviathan and behemoth in check. A beautiful universe contains pockets of chaos. To our chagrin, or at least to the chagrin of those who think themselves righteous, there are no guarantees. Goodness may lead to poverty as well as abundance, and evildoers may flourish in this lifetime, despite their flouting of God’s law, economic justice, and ecological and interpersonal well-being. The greed of the wealthy harms innocent children and the working, righteous poor as well as so-called welfare cheats invoked by the privilege. Only reward beyond the grave – and conversely punishment – can restore the order of the universe, at least to some.
In Job’s case, there is no afterlife to count on. If he has any hope, besides his equanimity and faithfulness, he must receive a reward in this lifetime, and so he does, with new sons and daughters, prosperity, and a long life. This seems too easy. But, perhaps, there is a nugget of truth hidden in this Hallmark movie ending. Those who persist and seek God in the darkness of life will discover redemption in their suffering. They will discover the wisdom of Paul’s affirmation that “in all things God works for good,” despite the challenges and upheavals of life. Such rewards must be spiritual and emotional, the healing of souls and not necessarily our economic or physical lives, the abundance of spirits and not necessarily material possessions. God is at work to heal the world and although we need to seek Shalom for all – economic and environmental healing – we must equally seek to be aligned with divine possibilities in the difficulties of life. Although God, I believe, does not cause our suffering, God invites and energizes us in the quest for healing for ourselves and others. (For more on Job, see Bruce Epperly, “FINDING GOD IN SUFFERING: A JOURNEY WITH JOB.” – /www.amazon.com/Finding-God-Suffering-Journey-Job/dp/1631991078)
The Psalm encourages those who feel bereft to call upon God for their salvation and deliverance. Those who cry out to God will receive an answer. They will be delivered from the power of fear. They will taste and see the goodness of God, despite the bittersweet nature of life. The Psalm begs the question, “Can we experience divine companionship and the goodness of life even our previous certainties are challenged and life falls apart?” Divine consolation occurs not by denying the pain of life, but by living with and through them, trusting the companioning grace of God.
The reading from the Letter to Hebrews portrays Christ’s constant intercession on our behalf. Christ’s identification with our suffering is also the antidote to our suffering and sin. Intimate and acquainted with our pain, Christ reaches out to bring us healing. Our savior knows us intimately, understands us fully, and does all that is possible to bring us peace of mind, body, and spirit.
The encounter of Jesus with Bartimaeus joins human faith with divine action. A sight impaired beggar calls up the healer Jesus, begging for divine mercy. He simply wants Jesus to notice him and respond. Unlike the distant god of Job, Jesus acknowledges his petition and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” While the answer should be obvious, Jesus wants to encourage the man’s agency. Jesus wants the man to declare what he truly wants. Jesus allows the man to set the conditions of healing, trusting his freedom and agency. Divine healing is relational, not unilateral. Faith opens the door to a greater influx of God’s power. The power is already at work in us, but we need to open the door to receive the full blessing. When Bartimaeus states his need, Jesus mediates God’s healing touch to him, curing him of blindness. (For more on Jesus’ healings, see Epperly, HEALING MARKS: HEALING AND SPIRITUALITY IN MARK’S GOSPEL and GOD’S TOUCH: FAITH, WHOLENESS, AND THE HEALING MIRACLES OF JESUS.”
We all need the mercy that Bartimaeus seeks. Job desperately seeks an answer from God and his endurance is rewarded. The Psalmist calls on God in a time of despair and discovers the palpable and sensory presence of his Savior. Christ’s identification with our pain mediates divine energy to heal bodies and spirits. God seeks our well-being. Yet, while prevenient in nature, the divine quest is never fully embodied without our openness. Where do we need to be open to God’s all-pervasive healing energy? Where does our congregation need to call upon powers beyond our abilities? Where do persons and institutions need to rely on divine mercy for their salvation?
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; and 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.