Lectionary Commentary

October 11, 2009
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 23

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also: [Year B Archive]


Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm 22:1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
The passage assigned in the lectionary for today jumps some twenty chapters from last week’s passage, from the folktale frame of Job deep into Job’s complaints. The lectionary thus bypasses much of the discussion of guilt, judgment, innocence, suffering, and theodicy developed between Job and his friends. But the emotional tone of today’s reading can be seen to follow pretty directly from where the folktale left Job: sitting on the ash heap, scraping his sores, and wondering where God is in the midst of his pain. The accusation laid against Job by Satan, the Naysayer, is that Job’s faith would evaporate if the benefits of that faith—wealth, family, health—were taken away from him. Here the benefits have been taken away, and Job’s faith is shaken, but it is not fully destroyed. In this passage Job laments his sense of God’s absence. Job wants to “lay my case before God,” to “fill my mouth with arguments,” to prove his innocence and therefore, he believes, the reasons he should be released from suffering. But he cannot make his case before God because he cannot find God: he has no operative sense of God’s presence with him in his suffering: he laments “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” His feeling of God’s absence is so deep that he nears the border of despair, wishing he could absent himself from existence: “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” Job’s lament over God’s absence echoes the near despair felt by many people in the midst of unexplained suffering, and the passage contains powerful emotional resonances for anyone who has cried out to God for release from pain and sadness and has felt their cries go unanswered. Whitehead famously describes God as “the fellow-sufferer who understands”; Job here laments deeply on behalf of anyone who has felt the lack of God’s fellowship with them in their suffering. But it is also important to note that Job’s feeling of God’s absence is not taken here as implying God’s non-existence, or even God’s non-involvement in Job’s plight. Job does not deny here that God is aware of Job’s need, or that God intends some meaning in so “terrifying” Job. Job’s faith that he can “learn what God would answer  me” and “understand what God would say to me,” Job’s basic trust that he could comprehend God’s meaning in his suffering, is still intact; his faith in the fundamental goodness of God is not erased by his experience of the power of destructiveness in his own life. In a way, it is that very tension between trust and experience that is driving Job’s lament; presumably he could, if he wished, give in to nihilism, reject faith, choose to believe that his suffering has no meaning and leads to no good end, and curse God and die. The fact that Job refuses to give up on God, even when he feels that God has absented Godself from him, is the shaken but not destroyed core of Job’s faith.

Psalm 22:1-15
The psalm, best known to Christians for its use in the stories of Jesus’ Passion, is selected here to echo the themes of Job’s lament over God’s absence. Like Job, who turns in all directions and cannot find God, the Psalmist asks why God is “so far from helping me,” why the Psalmist cries by day and by night, yet God does not answer and the Psalmist can find no rest. The anguished tension between the expectation that God will deliver and the fact of continuing suffering is amplified in the psalm by the mockery of the Psalmist’s opponents, who taunt the sufferer by saying “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” with the clear implication that they expect no such deliverance to be forthcoming. But, like Job, the Psalmist’s basic trust in God’s power to deliver is not destroyed; the Psalmist recognizes God as the one “who took me from the womb,” the one who “kept me safe on my mother's breast,” and the one to whom the Psalmist’s whole life has been committed. Unlike Job, the Psalmist goes on to ground this faith not only in personal experience, but in the common recollection of the people, saying to God “you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.” The Psalmist trusts in the possibility of such deliverance for himself even now, even at the same time he experiences so keenly the feeling of God’s absence. As with Job, it is in the tension between such trust and such experience that the core of the Psalmist’s faith resides.

Hebrews 4:12-16
The Hebrews reading for today forms a pointed contrast with the Job reading and the Psalm: where the earlier readings stress God’s absence, the Hebrews passage speaks of the intimate, pervasive, even inescapable presence of God. God’s “word,” God’s effectual presence, is described here as “living and active,” as able to penetrate into the most basic fabric of human existence, even to the anatomical connection of “joints and marrow,” even to the juncture of “soul and spirit” or the meeting place between the individual personality and the divine animating energy. It is because of this intimate  presence of God’s word in the constitution of existence that “no creature is hidden” before the word, but all is “laid bare,” and the word “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” But at this point the author switches metaphors, turning from the imagery of a penetrating sword to the figure of a compassionate priest: Jesus, the Son of God, the incarnate word, is the one who has this intimate knowledge of human reality, and because of it he is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” and be on our side in our struggles, tests, and sufferings. Trusting in this intimate compassion, then, those who believe in Jesus are encouraged to “approach the throne of grace with boldness,” so as to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Mercy and grace are figured here not as external powers coming from above, but as arising within the human soul from the pervading intimacy of the living and active word.

The paradox between the sense of God’s absence in the first readings and the sense of God’s presence in Hebrews can be comprehended from a process perspective. Process theology asserts that God is intimately involved with every creature, principally through providing initial aims and receiving final satisfactions. For each moment of creaturely becoming, God begins the process by giving the moment a feeling of what it could become, and God fulfills the process by receiving the completed moment into God’s own experience of all that is. This is the living and active presence of God that pervades the fabric of existence. But in the societies of moments that make up human experience, the initial aims and final satisfactions in which God is active are mostly below the threshold of consciousness. Whitehead points out that consciousness is adapted to reveal what is different in experience, not what is continuous, and the aiming-and-receiving activity of God moment-by-moment in creaturely becoming is in fact too pervasive to stand out in ordinary awareness. When consciousness is dominated by pain or suffering or despair, the activity of God at the juncture of “soul and spirit” may not stand out in experience, and what a person is conscious of is a feeling of God’s absence. A spirituality based on a process reading of the Hebrews passage would respond to such a feeling of God’s absence with the counsel, not to look for God forward or backward or right or left, but to look for God within, below the threshold of ordinary consciousness, in the arising of new possibilities even from the wreckage of old failures, in the creating energy at work in the most foundational levels of our existence.

Mark 10:17-31
As I read it, the most important line in this Gospel story is “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” The encounter between Jesus and the rich man, and Jesus’ subsequent warning against riches to his disciples, has generated reams of commentary on Christian attitudes toward wealth, which I will not presume to summarize or argue here. In view of the absence/presence themes in the other readings, what emerges as important in this passage on this day is the recurring question “Where is God in this?” The man wants to know what he can do to ensure his eternal life. He has kept the commandments, he has lived as devoutly as he can, and yet he still wants to know what more he can do to make sure he will merit a heavenly reward. Jesus’ answer to him essentially boils down to saying “Nothing. There is nothing you can do to make sure God will reward you.” The observation that he still lacks “one thing” is not meant to indicate that there is one more task he can perform to earn salvation, that giving away all his wealth to serve the poor is the one final act that will seal his everlasting deal. Instead, the call to divest himself of his wealth through giving to the poor is a call to give up the entire enterprise of attempting to do something to inherit eternal life. Wealth is an effective sign of power; what matters about wealth is not what it is in itself (apart, perhaps, from some artworks deemed precious) but what it allows its owner to do, the means it provides for its owner to exert her or his will in worldly affairs. The great danger of wealth, as Jesus explains it to his disciples, is not that wealth is somehow inherently evil—Jesus does, after all, promise wealth “a hundredfold” to those who have given up worldly goods to follow him—but the problem with wealth is that it makes it “hard to enter the kingdom of God:” wealth is a constant temptation to put the working of one’s own will in place of responsiveness to God’s will; wealth almost inevitably constitutes a barrier to entering into right relationships of mutual well-being; wealth impedes the divine commonwealth of giving and receiving in freedom and love. Jesus’ call to the rich man to give away his riches therefore amounts to a call to give up his power, to give up his desire to secure his place before God, and to accept that it is not possible for him to enter God’s reign on his own. Instead, he must recognize that what is not possible for him is possible for God, that what he cannot do on his own power can be done with God’s power, that his participation in the commonwealth of God is not something he can secure but something he can only accept. As it says in Hebrews, his approach to the throne of grace is enabled only by trusting in the intimate compassion of God. This passage thus poses its own form of the today’s question “Where is God?”:  the rich man has been thinking of God as a distant overseer keeping score, as it were, of the merits earned by human creatures and dispensing rewards in a far future world; but Jesus tries to get him to see God as always present, intimate in his life, empowering him moment by moment to live into renewed relationships in which all things are possible. In the story, the rich man does not see the new aim Jesus is giving him and does not make the leap to trusting in God’s creative power in him more than he trusts in his own power mediated through wealth. The question for us is whether we will.

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.