What do you want me to do for you?

25 October 2015
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25B (RCL)
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

I find the prose conclusion to the Book of Job very unsatisfying. It’s not as if all those new children could make up for the children he lost at the beginning of the book, and the restoration of Job’s fortune’s answers none of the questions about God’s justice raised in the long, painful, poetic discourse that makes up the bulk of the book. But, I think this conclusion provides a hidden clue for understanding the context of the questions raised. The prose conclusion begins with the phrase, “Then the Lord restored the fortunes of Job.”

The phrase, “restored the fortunes” occurs a number of times in the Psalms and in the various prophets. It almost always refers to the fortunes of Israel. Rather than just a general theodicy in the Wisdom tradition, this hints that the Book of Job may have been composed as an inquiry into the causes and meaning of the Exile in Babylon. In my mind, that conjecture is strengthened by the presence in cuneiform poetry of a text called “The Babylonian Theodicy.” That text also takes the form of a dialog between a righteous sufferer and his good friend. Nowhere in that text does the god in question show up for a conversation with the righteous sufferer. The fact that God appears to Job in the whirlwind would be a way of claiming the faithfulness of the God of Israel, even during the Exile, over against the faithlessness of the Babylonian gods.

If this is indeed the context of the composition of the book, then the arguments of Job’s friends can be read as attempts to answer the theological questions raised by the crisis of the Exile. When God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, God is seen as the creator of the whole cosmos (rather than just the God of the nation), but the deuteronomic solution (we are being punished for our own sins) is rejected. Instead, Israel is chided for thinking that its election was for its own benefit, and not as part of God’s overall plan for the cosmos. Job is essentially told to move himself off center of God’s plan. Job’s response that he had only heard of God with the ear, but now sees God’s face, and covers himself in dust and ashes would fit with an understanding that Israel’s sufferings are for the redemption of the whole world, as in the later chapters of Isaiah.

What Job “sees” is the interconnections of everything in God’s cosmos, the lion and its prey, the crocodile, the hippopotamus, the raven — all the things that seem evil and destructive and all have their place in God’s plan. Even suffering then, fits in the scheme of things.

The story of Bartimaeus in Mark’s Gospel raises similar questions. The disciples have consistently failed, up to this point in the Gospel, to “see” the meaning of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. James and John came to Jesus in the verses just before this passage, and asked for a favor. Jesus replied, “What do you want me to do for you?” The request to sit, one at the right and one at the left of Jesus in his glory. Jesus replies that it is for those for whom it has been prepared, and we see, at the crucifixion, two bandits enthroned with Jesus, one at his right and one at his left.

Now, Jesus, his disciples and a crowd are leaving Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, and pass Bartimaeus, a blind beggar on the side of the road. He cries out, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me.” This would be the standard address of a suppliant entering the presence of a king. The crowd shushes him, but he cries out the louder. Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call him. He comes to the center of the crowd and Jesus asks the same question he asked James and John: “What do you want me to do for you.”

Bartimaeus responds, “Rabbouni, that I might look up.” Rabbouni occurs only one other time in the New Testament: it is the term of endearment that Mary Magdalene used for Jesus when she recognized him in the garden of the resurrection. Bartimaeus wants to see things from a divine perspective in order to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bartimaeus is the only person whom Jesus heals who is named in Mark’s Gospel; and he is the only person we are told “followed Jesus on the way.” He is given the gift of seeing Jesus’ death as enthronement in glory, and our progress on the way as part of God’s saving plan. Job repents in dust and ashes when God shows up — Bartimaeus follows on the way. If God showed up and asked what we wanted, what would we answer?

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