21 October 2012
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24B (RCL)
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b
Throughout the book of Job, Job has been asking for an audience with God. He intends to prove his righteousness before God and especially to his friends. Well, here at last, God shows up and gives Job his audience. Poets, commentators, theologians and ordinary people have always felt God’s response to Job somehow inadequate. Job suffers. God blusters. And significantly, the book does not answer the question, “Why do good people suffer?” I would argue, it doesn’t even attempt an answer.
If the book of Job is written in the Exilic or post-Exilic period (as seems likely), it proposes a different response to the catastrophe of the Exile than Deuteronomy or Lamentations. Lamentations responds that God has simply abandoned us. Deuteronomy suggests that God has turned God’s back on us because of our sin. Job seeks a different kind of theology. God has not abandoned us. After all, God does show up and give Job a divine audience. That is already startling; humans aren’t supposed to be able to see God and live, and yet here is God addressing Job out of the whirlwind.
And, essentially, what God says is, “What makes you think you’re so important?” The assumption that God is either actively punishing me or allowing some situation to punish me for my sins in any calamity that befalls me is its own kind of arrogance. What I’ve done must be so important that God needs to take time out of God’s busy schedule to squish me like a bug. God’s response to Job is essentially, “Who do you think you are? Get yourself out of the center of the universe.” For many of us, this is cold consolation. We want to think that God pays specially attention to us, that our good fortune is God’s doing, and our bad fortune is God’s doing. Is more comforting to think God is squishing me like a bug than the alternative, that I don’t rate that highly in the grand scheme of things.
But it is comfort. It forces me to step back and look at the bigger picture. I remember seeing a photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope. The astronomers intentionally point the telescope into what seemed like a black region of the sky (a very tiny sliver of sky, as well), and then opened the shutter for days. What they saw was thousands of galaxies in a tiny dark sliver of sky. It was a beautiful photograph, but the beauty was awe-ful. Our galaxy is hardly a speck in the universe, let alone our solar system, our planet, my street.
So, what do we do with that perspective? Throw up our hands in despair? The human response can go two ways. We can try to make ourselves seem really important (at least to ourselves), or we can pick an arena of action, and throw our whole heart into making a difference for others. James and John chose the first option: Let us sit at your right and left hand when you take power. After all, someone would have to sit on the twelve thrones judging the world at the last day. Might as well be us. Then we can really grind the teeth of those who have harmed us into the gravel. We can make it all come out right after all.
But Jesus points out the cost. Mark uses an unexpected word for “left” in this passage. The word is “euonomon” which means “good omened” but is a euphemism for left. James and John ask to sit at Jesus right and left, and he replies that to sit as his right and “good omened” is not his to grant, but for those for whom it has been prepared. Mark then uses the word exactly one other time, in describing the crucifixion of Jesus that they crucified two bandits with him, one on his right and one on his “good omened”. If you want to make yourself important, the gospel writer seems to be saying, this is the result.
Instead, says Jesus, you can become the servant of all. This moves us out of the center of the universe, and thinking that God pays particular attention to us. My calamity no longer seems any worse than anyone else’s, or like God’s doing. And I can find God in the midst of calamity, as well as prosperity, as I work to serve others. Hebrews tells us that after his suffering, Jesus enter the holy of holies as our high priest, that he took his suffering into the divine as the gift of a sacrifice, and there intercedes for us. We are to take our participation with others into the divine on their behalf. It shift us out of center, and puts God alongside us in our suffering.