For Oct. 14, 2012: Proper 23, Year B

The Reading            Job 23:1-9, 16-17

The book of Job, composed between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, poses one of the great questions of life: if God rewards virtue, why do bad things happen to good people? In today’s reading, as Job grieves in ashes for his children and his lost wealth, he demands a hearing with God—and he is terrified that God is no longer anywhere for him.

The Response            Psalm 90:12-17

The Epistle            Hebrews 4:12-16

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews continues to explain to a Jewish audience why and how Jesus is the Messiah. The word of God here refers not to scripture but to God’s ongoing revelation and discernment of our hearts; unlike Job, however, our judge is Jesus, who knows exactly what it is like to be human.

The Gospel            Mark 10:17-31

 

Further thoughts

The lectionary today gives us some difficult and chewy food for thought. It was accepted wisdom in Judaism that God always rewards the virtuous with material wealth and therefore that loss or absence of the good things of life was a sign of guilt. This is the assumption that Job’s friends in the fourth century BC made earlier in the book when they called upon him to confess the sin that must have impelled God to take away all of his children, all of his wealth, and even his health. It is also a source of the shock and grief of the man whom Jesus instructed to sell his possessions—for they were his badges of rightness with God—and of the subsequent astonishment of the disciples. To put it in 21st century terms that are all too common, if even God’s evident favorites can’t enter the kingdom, what hope is there for the other 98%?

Job resists his friends’ insistence that he find a sin to repent: to have earned the depth of grief, destitution, and pain he is in, he would have to have behaved viciously, but his conscience is clear. In any case, even if Job deserved punishment, how is it just to his ten children to kill them? It follows logically that, whatever the source of these disasters, it is not God’s justice. Job retains enough confidence in his friends to challenge them to their faces, rather than just writing them off as idiots; today’s reading follows that outburst—and, significantly, enough faith to challenge God, too, even angrily. He is aware that God is not a merchant bartering righteousness for goodies. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win: he simply dies like everyone else.

Here may be the root of the rich man’s quandary, and often ours. We understand buying and selling and scarcity: we give up time to gain income or income to gain time; we trade money for goods and services, and if we hand over more money we expect better stuff or a greater return; all in all, it seems sensible, and we tend to expect that God’s favor also is to be bought, whether with money or power or charm or good behavior.

But the kingdom of God operates differently. We come into the world with nothing except our skin and what lies within it—and even that is on loan. What gets us into God’s good graces is simply God’s good graces, through the sacrifice of Jesus, and what keeps us believing that that grace is there for us is giving love to and receiving love from each other.

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