Lectionary Commentary

October 4, 2009
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 22

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also: [Year B Archive]


Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 24
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Today begins a series of readings from the Book of Job that will occupy the First Testament position in the lectionary for four weeks. It is a commonplace in Job commentary that the book as we now have it is an ancient folktale about a man who remains faithful through a series of familial and personal calamities, into which has been inserted a lengthy, probably post-exilic, set of reflections on the problem of theodicy and undeserved suffering. It is not uncommon to treat the folktale as a more-or-less inconsequential “wrapper” for the more sophisticated and more interesting discussion of theodicy. But the folktale—which forms the bulk of the lectionary assignments for the first and fourth Sundays of this series—has its own points of interest.

One of those points that I find most interesting is the role of Satan. In the folktale, Satan is not presented as “the Devil,” the implacable foe of God, the “prince of the power of the air” whose mission is to disrupt and destroy whatever God creates, as the figure would become in later Jewish and Christian writings. Instead, Satan is presented as a member of the celestial court, one of the “heavenly beings” who attend God and assist in the management of Creation; in fact, in the original Hebrew of the passage, “Satan” is not even a proper name: it is a title, bearing a definite article, “the Satan,” meaning “the Adversary” or “the Opposition” or even “the Naysayer.” In the folktale, the Naysayer is a trusted member of God’s government, whose role is to break up too-easy agreements among God’s councilors and to expose the gaps between divine ideals and creaturely actualizations. In earthly councils such naysayers can be annoying but extremely helpful; I’ve been in many meetings of church councils and committees where some idea or project seems to be going along swimmingly, until one person speaks up and says “I hate to be the devil’s advocate, but have we thought of...” and then goes on to point out a flaw in the plan that could have been disastrous had it not been caught beforehand. The effect is often to deflate the mood of the meeting; but after the deflation comes the hard work that makes the plan better. It is intriguing to consider the Satan in a similar role in the folktale.

In Chapter 1 (which the lectionary passage largely skips) God gathers the council and boasts of the faithfulness of Job; while the heavenly beings agree happily, the Naysayer points out that of course Job is faithful: God has given Job wealth and family and health; why wouldn’t Job praise God? Now, if any of those things were taken away... So God gives the Naysayer permission to destroy Job’s crops, flocks, and children. As modern readers we are rightly shocked at the callousness of this response; but we may do well to remember that folktales often depict characters in two dimensions, without the psychological depth or genuine feeling to which we are accustomed in fiction, more as stand-ins for moral principles or characterological abstractions than as people. On the level of the folktale, what matters is that all of Job’s material reasons for trusting in God are taken away, and yet Job still trusts. That leads to a second round of naysaying, as related in today’s reading: God still boasts of Job’s faithfulness; and the Naysayer accuses that, if Job’s personal well-being were attacked, his faith would fade; and God gives the Naysayer permission to attack Job’s person. Job is afflicted with loathsome sores, and sits in ashes to scrape his scabs, and yet still does not cease to trust in God.

We can see Satan’s role as Naysayer here as probing the idea of faith for its weaknesses, exposing the too-easy association of God’s favor with material goods, laying bare the gap between a divine ideal of trust and the actualities of life that often make such trust difficult. The effect of this naysaying is initially negative—certainly for Job, but presumably for God and the heavenly council as well—but in the longer term it has the positive outcome of revealing that Job’s faith runs deeper than just gratitude for his material goods, vindicating God’s trust in Job, and demonstrating an ideal of faith that can be relevant to those who are themselves suffering. In process terms, the Satan’s naysaying introduces into the idea of faith a necessary contrast, a discordant element whose incorporation and harmonization with other elements in the idea of faith renders that idea more complex, more persuasive, more interesting, more beautiful. It is because Job’s faith is in the end able to transcend and include the fact of suffering that he illustrates more fully the ideal of trust in the ultimate goodness of God. That revelation of a deeper dimension of faith would not, paradoxically, be possible without the attacks of the Naysayer. Although this notion of the introduction of necessary contrast is largely absent from the essay on theodicy that comprises the bulk of the Book of Job, its role in the framing folktale is significant—and it is not unrelated to the role Jesus takes on with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel passage.

Psalm 26
This psalm selection is chosen to echo a theme that is important throughout the Book of Job, though it makes only a marginal appearance in the framing folktale read this day: the theme of innocence and integrity as a foundation from which to call upon God for vindication. The Psalmist is in some situation of difficulty, never spelled out in detail, from which he needs to be vindicated and redeemed. He is confident that God will indeed rescue him, because he does not sit with the worthless or consort with the wicked, but instead hates the company of evildoers, washes his hands in innocence, and loves the Temple. The ideal of integrity is of course important; but after delving into the folktale of Job, I can’t help but feel that a little naysaying might be called for here, as well. The protestation of unalloyed innocence is bound to strike postmodern ears as overconfident and unselfaware; we are all too aware of people who protest their integrity most loudly while they are engaged in corrupt deals or exploitative relationships; we have all seen that “hating evildoers” is an exclusivity that is itself evil; we are all conscious that integrity is a goal to be striven for and not an accomplishment to be boasted. A process perspective particularly reveals the gaps between divine ideal aims for us and our concrete actualizations in moments of experience. Yet that same process perspective allows us to see how successive divine aims working through successive worldly occasions can build us up toward greater realizations of ideal qualities. We might, paraphrasing Whitehead, speak of “an asymptotic approach to integrity,” a gradual movement in our lives by which we come closer and closer to integrity while recognizing that we are never completely there. In that light, the desire to “walk in integrity” might be seen as an ongoing quest for moral growth, and this psalm a lure for the feeling of Peace toward which we strive.

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
As this Sunday begins a series of readings from Job, so it also begins a series from the Letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews presents a distinctive challenge to today’s interpreter, in that much of the letter lends itself to a kind of supersessionist reading which we today find deeply problematic. The clear intention of the Hebrews author is to show that Jesus has taken into himself and redirected the sacrifice-based worship of the Temple; we today can appreciate the rooting of an understanding of Jesus in such Jewish tradition, but we would want to reject any suggestion that, because of Jesus, the worship of Israel is now defunct. The opening verses of the letter are a fine illustration of the problem: the author witnesses that “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,” but then immediately contrasts that with “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” We can affirm this insofar as this connects the prophets and Jesus as both speaking on behalf of God; we can affirm that, for us as Christians, Jesus the Son spoke definitively; but if the verse is taken to mean that God’s speaking through Jesus invalidates or replaces or supersedes the prophets, then many today would find it problematic. Care must be taken in the interpretation of many such passages throughout the letter.

Perhaps of greater immediate interest in this passage, however, are the hints at a cosmological understanding of Jesus as the Christ. The letter echoes images from the Fourth Gospel and the Letter to the Ephesians in speaking of a “Son” of God who is “appointed heir of all things,” through whom God “also created the worlds,” who “is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being,” and who “sustains all things by his powerful word.” The divine “Son” is intimately involved in both the creation and the fulfillment of worldly process, the principal divine agency by which continuing creation happens; or, in panentheistic terms, the activity of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Then, in the verses from Chapter 2, the author quotes from Psalm 8, and echoes the Christological hymn in Philippians, in saying that Jesus was “for a little while made lower than the angels,” but is “now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” The notion of the incarnate Jesus being “lower” than angels need not invoke the classic three-tiered universe and its attendant modern criticism; more important than spatial symbolism is the theme of kenosis and the divine “Son” relinquishing divine prerogative in order to share the experience of suffering and death as a human being with the human beings God means to save. In this way the author can affirm that Jesus is both the “pioneer of salvation” and a fellow-sufferer in the midst of human life. It is because Jesus calls and enables people to be his sisters and brothers in relation to God that, through Jesus, people have access to the creating and sustaining and fulfilling energy of the divine word. It is by being purified in the ministry of Jesus that people can take up their own roles in the work of transforming suffering within a panentheistically charged cosmos.

Mark 10:2-16
The first part of today’s reading shows Jesus in controversy with a group of Pharisees. In this controversy Jesus is depicted as speaking so as to discomfit the settled certainty of his hearers, to expose the gaps between divine ideals and creaturely realizations—in short, Jesus here is functioning as something of a naysayer, not unlike the Satan in the passage from Job. The Pharisees, trying to trip Jesus up, ask about the legality of divorce; Jesus turns the question back on them and asks them what is written in the Mosaic law; they correctly report that the law includes provision for divorce. That should be enough to answer their original question—“is it lawful?”—but Jesus does not leave it there: Jesus introduces an element of contrast by saying that the commandment was written “because of your hardness of heart” and not because that is what God actually wants. The divine ideal for marriage is that the two become “one flesh,” that is, they share their lives so intimately and thoroughly that they cannot be completely themselves without each other. But the sad fact is that “hardness of heart” intrudes in human life, our creaturely realizations do not live up to the fullness of divine ideals, and there is a gap between what God wants for married people and what they actually experience. In cases where that gap becomes unbearable, divorce can conceivably become a lesser evil than trying to maintain an unfulfillable relationship; that is when the law might appropriately be invoked. But Jesus’ point is that the law is not an ideal, but only an allowance for human weakness; this interrupts the Pharisees’ habitual confidence in the law as the perfect revelation of God’s will, exposes a gap in their interpretation, and opens up the possibility of a deeper understanding of and devotion to God’s call to love. Jesus’ negative reaction to the Pharisees has the larger positive meaning of trying to expand their recognition of the aims of God.

Might Jesus’ saying have a similar discomfiting role in our situation? For centuries the church took this saying as a literal commandment of Jesus to disallow divorce; untold numbers of women have been told by the church to remain in violent and destructive marriages on the basis of this Gospel verse. Today, in the United States, most legal barriers to divorce have been relaxed or removed; to some, this seems to put our society in a position to be condemned by Jesus’ saying. But what if Jesus did not mean his saying to be taken as a legal rejection of divorce, any more than he took the Mosaic saying as a legal validation of divorce? It is more likely that Jesus’ saying is meant less to lay down any given law than it is to be a continuing reminder of the gap between God’s aims for us and our living up to those aims. Pointing out that gap can humble us, but it can also call us toward better realizations of God’s aims. Whether we consider divorce lawful or unlawful per se, Jesus’ naysaying to the Pharisees continues to open up before us the possibility of recognizing a call to a deeper love.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World, and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.