Lectionary Commentary

October 18, 2009
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 24

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also: [Year B Archive]


Job 38:1-7, (34-41)

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
In the reading from last week, Job lamented God’s absence from Job’s experience of suffering. In today’s reading God speaks—after thirty-five chapters of Job’s friends trying to puzzle out the relationship between suffering and God and justice, and Job himself demanding that God resolve the conundrum, God speaks. And generations of commentators have remarked on the surprising discontinuity between what Job asks and God answers. Job has been asking how his suffering can be justified, and God answers by taking him on a guided tour of Creation. God asks of Job a series of questions, beginning with “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and going on to ask about mysterious and hidden details of the workings of the cosmos, from the widest ranges of astronomical and meteorological movements to the biological cycles of the shyest wild animals. Some of the questions have a satirical cast, highlighting Job’s (and the reader’s) ignorance: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” But many of the questions take on an air less of interrogation than wondering, almost rapturous, delight in the intricacies of the created order and the mind that can know it: “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?” Quite apart from their role in the larger book, the verses of Chapters 38-39 of Job form some of the most beautiful nature poetry in all of ancient literature.

The effect of this nature poetry on the overall theme of Job is, I think, twofold. In the first place it sets Job’s sufferings in a wider context—or, less gently, it puts Job in his place. Job has been asking how his suffering can fit into the pattern of God’s just disposition of things; God’s response shows Job that the pattern is far larger than Job had suspected, and the role of suffering in the constitution of Creation is a mystery that far transcends any human sense of personal right and wrong. Job simply cannot know what role his suffering plays in God’s ordering of things, so there is no “answer” to the question of suffering God could provide that Job could understand. God responds to Job’s question by revealing that it is the wrong question to ask. This may seem like cold comfort, the biblical equivalent of the movie observation that personal problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” little better than telling Job to “deal with it.” But this glimpse of the intricate beauty of nature has a second effect as well. In this guided tour of Creation God is, in effect, letting Job see the world, at least in some small way, as God sees it. God is making it possible for Job to transcend the ordinary human perspective and to share, to the extent it is humanly possible, in the “the wisdom to number the clouds” that belongs to God. In sharing with Job the intricacies of the creative process of the world, God is inviting Job to become a conscious co-creator with God in Job’s own small portion of that world-process. God’s speech from the whirlwind does not therefore simply dismiss or disqualify Job’s suffering by placing it in a larger world-context where it does not matter, but God reveals to Job the working of divine creativity that can also work in him, if he will work with it, to take him beyond suffering to some new realization of good. God puts Job in his place, and reveals that place as a place of creativity. In doing so, God not only reveals that Job’s question about the place of suffering in the order of things is the wrong question, but God also provides the basis for a more genuine answer. How Job realizes that more genuine answer is taken up in next week’s reading, the last of the four readings from Job assigned in this sequence of the lectionary.

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
This catena of verses from Psalm 104 is chosen to echo the sense of wonder in the beauty of nature that is prominent in the Job passage. Where the nature poetry in Job is cast as a series of questions posed by God, the psalm verses are statements of praise addressed from a human poet to God; the strong indicative voice highlights the active role of God in the disposition of the world. But it also serves to highlight the sense of human strength to be drawn from being witness to divine creativity: verse 24, “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,” breathes a quality of enthusiasm in creation that is also empowering for human creative work in the world. The psalm thus complements the Job reading not only in the echo of nature imagery, but in the faith assertion that sharing in God’s wisdom means sharing in God’s creativity.

Hebrews 5:1-10
Today’s reading continues the theme of God’s compassionate intimacy with human life in Jesus, first sounded in last week’s reading. Continuing the symbolism of Jesus as the Great High Priest, the writer  notes that “Every high priest chosen from among mortals... is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness”; therefore Jesus also, as the Great High Priest chosen by God, is intimately acquainted with the sufferings and weaknesses encountered in human experience. Jesus as priest intercedes for the faithful, “offering up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears”; and Jesus’ prayers are the more poignant because they are also offered for himself, in the knowledge of his death on the cross, “to the one who was able to save him from death.” Sharing in the “weakness” of suffering, Jesus’ priestly prayers for sufferers are grounded in true empathy. In this Jesus fulfills the epitome of the human priestly role. But what is unique about Jesus as priest, according to the writer, is that he is both priest and victim, both offerer and offering: “When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come... he entered into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:11-12). That means that Jesus’ “suffering” as priest is both expiatory, connected to his role as sacrificial victim, and exemplary, connected to his own intimate relationship with God as Son. Jesus suffered death on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for sins, of course; but more importantly, in the writer’s view, it was through this suffering Jesus “learned obedience” and “reverent submission” and so was “made perfect.” And having been made perfect, Jesus can now invite into that same intimate, saving relationship with God “all who obey him.” That is, Jesus in his “obedience” and “submission” willingly conforms himself to God’s aims for him, and in so doing provides a model that others can feel and follow in conforming their own lives to divine aims as well. This sort of “obedience” is not a simple accession to an external and heteronomous authority, but is the result of internalizing divine aims and seeing one’s personal aims in relation to them; it is a discovery of autonomy-in-relationship with God; it is the “service that is perfect freedom.” Jesus’ priestly service, including his self-offering in suffering, is therefore the exemplary fulfillment of the promise of new creative relationship that transforms suffering.

Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder—the hotheads—James and John come to Jesus asking for a favor. And the outrageousness of the favor they ask gives Jesus an opportunity to teach about new creative relationships within a new divine community. The brothers ask for the honor of sitting in thrones beside Jesus when Jesus is glorified. Jesus asks if they are able to accept his cup and his baptism, and the brothers answer with apparently unruffled confidence, “We are able.” And Jesus tells them they will indeed share his cup and his baptism, though the thrones are not his to bestow. It is unclear from the text just how well the brothers understand Jesus’ conditional response to their request. It seems clear enough that the cup and the baptism refer to Jesus’ own suffering and death on the cross, and more generally to the hardships that the life of discipleship will entail. Mark may also intend here a secondary reference to the church’s sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism, insofar as they reenact Jesus’ suffering and death as necessary concomitants of the promise of new life. What is not clear is whether James and John know this is what Jesus means. Many commentators opine that the brothers cannot see beyond their own ambitions, and therefore do not hear the echoes of suffering in what Jesus says, and therefore think that Jesus has granted them an honor in the promise of cup and baptism. Some commentators speculate that the brothers do recognize the reference to suffering and death, and their response is an assertion that they are ready to give their lives for Jesus without hesitation. They will fail in this in Gethsemane, of course; but the Book of Acts goes on to say that James was martyred in Jerusalem, and ancient tradition says that John was the only apostle to die of natural causes, after a long life given consistently to Christ’s service; so both of the brothers do, in due course, live out their seemingly overconfident “We are able” to give their lives for Jesus. But whether or not James and John recognize it at the time, the text makes it clear that Jesus answers their request ironically, promising them suffering when they had asked for glory. The irony is compounded when the rest of the apostles hear what James and John have done. The brothers may or may not have missed Jesus’ irony; the apostles certainly do. They believe Jesus has conferred an unmerited honor on James and John, and they are swift to complain about it. Jesus responds with a version of his teaching on the Great Reversal: in this world, Jesus says, the rulers and the great ones are those who lord it over others and are tyrants; but among those under God’s reign, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” The values and power-relations that characterize this epoch are to be overturned, replaced with values of service and relations of mutuality. Jesus himself is the model for this, the one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” There is irony in this response as well, in that relationships of mutuality in service elide any attempt to “become great” or “be first”: the only way to truly follow Jesus’ teaching here is to give up any pretense at being “the best” among the disciples. James’ and John’s outrageous request for thrones of glory is undercut, but the ten’s indignation at being left out of that request is undercut as well. What is left is the promise of Jesus’ cup and Jesus’ baptism, joining with Jesus in suffering and joining with Jesus in resurrective transformation, joining with Jesus in relationships of creative love that enact the reign of God.

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.