Lectionary Commentary

October 25, 2009
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 25

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also: [Year B Archive]


Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
The Book of Job ends with Job’s final response to God, after God’s guided tour of Creation, and a return to the framing folktale for a traditional “happy ending.” In God’s revelation to Job of the intricacies of Creation, God put Job in his place, his context in the cosmos, and showed it to be a place of creativity. In his final speech to God, Job accepts the place God has shown him. He repeats two of the original challenges God put to him—“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” and “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me”—and admits that his earlier railing against God had been without knowledge, and that now he has not only “heard of God by the hearing of the ear” but has encountered God in direct experience. Job’s response to this new knowledge is to “despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” This verse can be taken as a total self-abnegation, as Job’s defeat before the superior power of God. Or it can be seen in a more nuanced way: to “repent” is to “return,” and if Job “returns” to dust and ashes, that could be taken as an acknowledgement of his human status, the recognition that dust he is and to dust shall he return, his acceptance of his limited human place within the greater scheme of Creation. But God has revealed that limited place to be a place with its own measure of creativity, and Job accepts this as well. He proclaims “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted”: he has glimpsed God’s creating work, and his knowledge of that creating work is still with him in his acknowledgement of humanity, it now conditions what he knows of himself, it allows him to know himself as a co-creator—a limited co-creator, to be sure, but still a co-creator—with God in the constitution of his own life and relationships. This is shown in a tacit but important way in the verses omitted from this reading, when God tells Job’s friends, who “have not spoken of me what is right,” to go to Job and ask for Job’s intercession: God here declares Job a co-creative partner, who represents people to God and God to people in his intercessory prayer. The note of God’s creativity empowering Job’s co-creativity is continued, in a perhaps less realistic vein, in the folktale coda: Job’s brothers and sisters reunite with him and share their wealth with him; Job’s flocks and herds multiply rapidly, surpassing their former numbers; and Job himself fathers seven more children, more beautiful than before, whom Job honors above and beyond the customs of the time by allowing his daughters to inherit from his wealth along with his sons. God grants Job an extraordinarily long life, until finally “Job died, old and full of days.”

Does this happy ending “answer” the problem of suffering? Job had demanded to know how his undeserved suffering could be justified in the disposition of things by a just God. God’s speech from the whirlwind undercut that question, revealing the disposition of things to include far more than Job had considered, and revealing the disposition of things to include an element of creativity which can also be transformative for Job himself. God never does “justify” suffering, in the sense of providing an explanation or rationale or etiology of its existence. What God does is show how creativity can transcend and include suffering, opening from suffering a way into deeper wisdom, greater compassion, and the possibility of new good. What God does in the conclusion of the Book of Job is akin to what Whitehead describes: God takes what in the temporal world is mere wreckage and elicits from it those factors that can contribute to new aims toward greater goods. In the end, suffering is still mysterious and in some root sense unintelligible—the Satan, the Naysayer, whose accusation against Job’s faith launched the entire sequence, does not even reappear in the folktale conclusion, so even that folktale level of explanation is denied—but what comes to matter about suffering is not where it comes from so much as where it can go. The final word on suffering in Job is not one of explanatory analysis, but one of creative transformation.

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
This song of confident thanksgiving for deliverance from trouble echoes Job’s final status as someone restored to well-being and called to proclaim God’s faithfulness to others. Job himself could intone verse 19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” What looks to contemporary readers as perhaps too sunny an optimism in the psalm is anchored and deepened by its pairing with the Job passage. The faithful may indeed say with confidence “I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed”—but Job reminds us that God’s “answer” may not be what we expect, and the “radiance” of a co-creative life does not come without some profound revision of our sense of place in the process of things.

Hebrews 7:23-28
Today’s reading continues again with the trope of Jesus as Great High Priest. But today’s reading, more so than last week’s, presents a danger of supersessionism in its point-by-point comparison of Jesus’ high priesthood with the Temple high priesthood, structured to emphasize Jesus’ superiority. An interpreter today might do well to read the passage as a rhetorical argument from the lesser to the greater, rather than a temporal account of the end of one sort of priesthood and its replacement by another. What is important in this passage is not that Jesus is a better priest than those who came before (and after) him, but that Jesus exercises the priestly function in a different order of magnitude, a temporally and personally wider network of relationships. The priestly function of intercession serves as a presented locus, a humanly understandable role, onto which can be symbolically referred the more pervasive, deeper-ranging, more-than-humanly perceptible work of God’s Word, revealed in Jesus, in mediating divine creative energies to worldly occasions. Just as the priest offers sacrifices so that people’s prayers might connect with God, the argument goes, so also and more so Jesus the Son offered himself in sacrifice, once for all, so that through him people might themselves connect with God. Jesus the Incarnate Word’s work in mediating divine aims into human life can thus be illustrated by comparison with the priestly work of mediating intercession. Where this passage stresses that Jesus holds the priestly office “permanently, because he continues forever,” we can understand that to say that the constellation of eternal objects exemplified in Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection continues everlastingly in God’s Consequent Nature, and therefore continues to pass over into the constitution of new aims for human life in the temporal world. Jesus’ exemplification of how human life can express divine aims is always and everywhere available for prehension in new moments of human experience. That is the causal influence presented in the symbol of Jesus’ perfect everlasting priesthood.

Mark 10:46-52
The pairing of the healing of blind Bartimaeus with the conclusion of the Book of Job throws into high relief some interesting aspects of the Gospel story. At the end of the earlier story, God puts Job in his place as a limited creature who is also a co-creator, and Job accepts that place. Bartimaeus’s story also involves some dislocation and relocation of his place. At the beginning of the passage, Bartimaeus is in his accustomed place as a disabled beggar in Jericho: at the side of the road, out of the flow of things, marginalized. When he hears that Jesus is going by, and knowing of Jesus’ reputation for healing, Bartimaeus begins to shout for attention, begging now not for coins but for “mercy.” The bystanders attempt to shush Bartimaeus, to keep him in his marginalized place—partly because they feel it is out-of-place for someone of his low stature to try to get Jesus’ attention, and partly, no doubt, out of their discomfort for the religio-political overtones of Bartimaeus’s explicit naming of Jesus as “Son of David.” The bystanders try to keep Bartimaeus in his place, but Jesus calls for him, revealing instead that Bartimaeus’s place is before Jesus, a place where he can “take heart,” a place where he can be in direct contact with the active work of God. In that new place, Bartimaeus is to be more than just a passive recipient of others’ largesse, as he was as a beggar. Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” On the surface, what Bartimaeus wants is obvious: he’s already asked for “mercy.” But Jesus wants to make Bartimaeus an active participant in his own transformation; so the act of naming his need, the act of saying “Let me see again” is for Bartimaeus simultaneously an act of humility in acknowledging his limitations, and an act of co-creating with Jesus the new possibility he wants for his life. Jesus responds “Go; your faith has made you well,” signaling that Bartimaeus’s faith, not only Jesus’ power, is an active factor in his healing. Jesus thus reveals to Bartimaeus his true place: a place of human finitude and creative power, the place of a created co-creator with God of his own life-experience and relationships. The story ends with Bartimaeus following Jesus “on the way,” which I think is to be taken as meaning not only going down the road with Jesus, but becoming a disciple on the Way of Jesus’ filial relationship with God. The miracle in the story, then, is not only the physical cure, but more so the sign of Bartimaeus’s new place within the co-creative community of disciples embodying God’s reign of right relationships for mutual well-being in the world.

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.