Widening the circle

7 October 2012
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22B (RCL)
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

We have several troubling readings this week. Right of the bat, Job presents us with the problem of God “allowing” Satan to harass Job. Much ink has been spilled over the problem presented by this book. Archibald McLeish wrote the play J.B. Robert Frost explored the story in his “A Masque of Reason.” Rabbi Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People as a commentary on the book of Job. So, why does God allow these things? I think the prefatory story is meant as something of a joke. Job had 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen and 500 she-asses before Satan got a hold of him. Really? At the end of the story, God restores to Job 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen and 1,000 she-asses. Really? So, the story is meant as hyperbole. It’s the story of the suffering righteous one, with a twist. God allows the suffering, which comes through a divine agent (Satan), rather than the usual human agency. Job also calls his wife a “foolish woman”. I think he means “Lady Folly” as opposed to Lady Wisdom (cf. Proverbs). The author of this book wants to take on simplistic theology.

The friends of Job are the worst characters in the story. At the end of the book, when God shows up to Job, he never tells Job he was wrong in insisting on his righteousness, just that he doesn’t get the whole picture. Leviathan (the crocodile, a symbol of evil) and Behemoth (the hippopotamus, another symbol of evil) have their role to play in God’s creation and purpose. Job shuts his mouth before the divine presence. But God takes the friends to task for being poor friends, insisting the Job must have sinned somewhere to deserve this. The author disputes with deuteronomistic understandings of suffering as well as with simple understandings of Wisdom. What would have helped Job was friends who stood by him.

And, of course, we have difficulty with the passage from Mark about divorce. How do we reconcile Jesus unbending statement with our own (we hope) more compassionate stance? It strikes me that the question may not really be about marriage at all. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees ask Jesus a question about marriage in Mark’s Gospel. The Sadducees is more obviously not about marriage. There was this woman, who married the elder brother, one of seven. Each in turned died childless and she was married to the next in line. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Of course, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, and this question was meant as a trap. Jesus clarifies what the resurrection is about — it is not just a continuation of this life, but a whole new category of existence.

The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection, and their emphasis on living a just life was to guarantee that they would be among the just who were raised at the last day. So, is divorce permissible for a just man? Jesus turns the conversation toward what justice looks like in the community, rather than just for the individual. The man who divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery. Ditto for her. Each has the potential to work an injustice against the other. And then Jesus (now for a second time) blesses the children. The consequences of divorce go beyond the man and woman, and reach out to the whole community.

I think there are marriages whose continuation would bring more damage to the community than would a divorce. But the issue is not what is convenient for the two parties, but what is good for the justice which resides in community. When we face a crisis, do we think the rules are there to govern the behavior of the individual, or is the community there to support us in that crisis. Justice is not about following rules so much as it is about healing community, widening the circle.

Even Hebrews is indirectly about the difference between the rules (the law delivered by angels) and the community (established by the high priest like us who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters). How do we as a community step in to help when we see a couple going through a divorce, or a Job going through tragedy after tragedy? How do we widen the circle?

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