Guest Lectionary Reflection by the Rev. Timothy Jones
Proper 22, Year B
October 3, 2021
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
It’s maybe the world’s oldest question: Why do horrific things happen to decent people? Sometimes the question can be framed even more simply: Why do annoying or disappointing things happen when I’m just going about my life?
As one commentator notes, “Faced with the challenges that the book of Job offers, it may be useful for the preacher [or reader] to begin with questions—questions with which the book itself wrestles.” I’m thinking of questions that go even further than the “why” of suffering: What is the relationship of faithfulness to prosperity? Are the two perhaps not as linked as we sometimes (maybe subconsciously) think? The book bearing Job’s name certainly wonders about a too-easy connection there. Job finds the answers may not be as tidy as first he thought.
This ancient book begins to answer our questions not with a philosophical treatise, but rather a story: “There was once a man … whose name was Job.”
And the story of Job’s suffering and making sense of hardship hardly lacks for drama: “Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’”
Job reminds those of us who teach or preach that we want not to tell only the polished discoveries, only the end points, without ever relating some of the wrestling it took to get us there. A good story will instead take the reader along through the uncertain moments that will lead—if only by steps and sometimes by struggle—to insight, wisdom, and open-ended wonder. That’s how Job’s book unfolds. As we try to communicate with our hurting parishioners, sometimes acknowledging the reality of brokenness can be the beginning of healing and renewed trust. And in the end (as the book concludes), it’s not answers so much that will help us, but the presence of another, caring friend, and the presence of a good God, who is the Ultimate Friend.
How can you lend an ear, rather than give an earful of advice, when you encounter someone suffering? Is it reasonable to expect that all our questions about the suffering of the innocent will be answered? How does the pandemic give us a new sensitivity (and renewed alertness) to others’ pain?
“I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered,” the psalmist declares. “I have walked faithfully with you.” In light of Job’s confrontation with his “friends” who tried to pin his troubles on his sins, it’s not hard to see why the lectionary assemblers included this psalm. If someone thinks they are comforting you by tying your trials to your personal missteps, they are hardly helping. Our hurts and heartaches are certainly more complicated than that. So the psalmist can be forgiven, perhaps, for ways he, like the character in Hamlet, “doth protest too much,” defending his integrity.
But there are also signs that the psalmist knows that he stands, like all do, before God’s searching, piercing gaze:
Test me, O Lord, and try me;
examine my heart and my mind.
And he knows his hope is mercy, God’s extravagant, freely offered grace: For your love is before my eyes. …
That help is the ultimate reason the psalmist can sing “aloud a song of thanksgiving … recounting all your wonderful deeds.” He keeps God’s love before his eyes.
On the one hand, when someone unjustly accuses you, there may be a place for not accepting their blame game. On the other hand, we don’t stand on our accomplishments or buy the delusion that we are truly righteous. None of us earns God’s mercy. It can only be freely given by God, and gratefully received by us.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
How does God communicate with us? The writer to the Hebrews thinks first about how “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” He’s thinking of the formal words of Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah: their soaring, sobering words. Sometimes commanding words, other times comforting words.
And God used varied words: “In many and various ways” could be translated as “in many fragments and fashions.”
But when the writer says that God has spoken through the prophets, he likely meant all of Scripture, and especially those people through whom God spoke so vividly: Moses, Aaron, Abraham and Sarah, Esther, David, Deborah.
But now, God has spoken even more definitively, through a cohesive and comprehensive narrative: “in these last days he has spoken through his Son whom he appointed heir of all things.”
It’s not that the writer of the book of Hebrews didn’t appreciate words themselves. The whole book has an eloquence that makes scholars think it was intended to be read out loud in a formal setting. The author crafted his words carefully, wanting them to be savored, absorbed, wanting them to inspire. It is all urgent and elegant, which makes it especially appropriate to be read in church.
But for all he loved words and their rhythms, the author of Hebrews knew that when God wanted to communicate even more vividly, he would do so through a human life. God speaks now not just by revealing thoughts, but by coming. By not just giving us insights, but also walking into our midst, inhabiting our neighborhood. Not only telling stories, then, but also living them out and becoming a key actor in the Gospel drama. In Jesus we see God’s preference for communicating through real lives. And especially through the very incarnate life of Jesus. The focus now dramatically shifts to him.
How does God communicate God’s purposes through Christ? How do we better listen to God’s revelation of truth and his invitation to relationship? How is Jesus now the center of God’s revelation of God’s very self to us and to the world?
Not the easiest passage to lead a class discussion on or preach about! In fact, the context for Jesus’s teaching about marriage and divorce has to do with the religious leaders of Jesus’s day trying to “test” him. You might even say “trap” Jesus!
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” On the one hand, the adversaries asking the question know the answer: “Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife.” But they know there is no simple, easy answer; they very well knew of the ongoing controversies in Jesus’s day, the competing factions of opinion. However Jesus answers, he will likely offend someone.
And it’s very possible to preach this passage in our day in a way that creates, on the one hand, harm to tender consciences, or, on the other, disregard for the sanctity of the marriage commitment.
As Jesus so often brilliantly did, he reframed the issue behind their question: In his answer, which recognizes humankind’s “hardness of heart,” the point is not so much the justification for divorce as the grounds for marriage: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’”
Marriage can be wonderful! It is a created gift of God. And sometimes difficult. The writer of Genesis wrote that “the man and his wife were naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). But then sin entered the world. And one of sin’s casualties was trust. The man and the woman looked at one another and realized that here was a creature who could cause deep pain.
The wisdom of the church through millennia therefore recognizes complications in the pre-fall creation ideal. The Episcopal Church has held that marriage, divorce, and remarriage rest on two convictions: First, that marriage is a lifelong union instituted by God, confirmed by how “our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” And second, because divorce is a reflection of the estrangement that has threatened humankind ever since evil intruded on the Garden, God, in mercy and redeeming love, can bring new life, even a sanctified remarriage, in the midst of relational brokenness.
How do you think Jesus’s hearers heard his words? How did he manage to transcend the leaders’ categories as they tried to “trap” him? How has divorce affected your own life—and that of family members you love?
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Timothy Jones is the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Halifax, Virginia, and he blogs at www.revtimothyjones.com.