Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 8, 2009
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Job 7:1-4,6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23; Mark 1:29-39)
I want to say at the outset that the readings in today’s liturgy are not the easiest to pray over or preach about.
Still, the first reading from the Book of Job could not be more timely, more relevant. It’s as if the author were reading the minds and hearts of the hundreds of thousands of good people who have just lost their jobs Or lost their homes due to foreclosure. Or had their pensions taken away from them. Or their 401k plummet overnight.
It seems the Lord might be saying, “Maybe a little dose of Job would be helpful at this time.”
We have used the figure of Job for ages as a two-dimensional symbol. Perhaps this is a good time to go back and get in touch with the whole story.
At the beginning of the story Job is at the top of his game. He’s flying high, with the world at his command. He has a spread of lands that is huge; he has herds and flocks of animals; and he has a large extended family that enjoys the fat of the land, loving to revel in banquets and parties. And overnight it will be swept away. Does this sound familiar?
You see, Satan had entered into a contest with God about Job. He said, “Sure, Job is described as a ‘blameless and upright man who fears God and avoids evil.’ But that’s a snap when you have it easy and everything is going your way! Just touch all those possessions of his and I’ll bet that he will turn and blaspheme you.” God accepts the challenge, and Job experiences a whole raft of disasters one after another. First, a messenger comes and tells him all his oxen were stolen; another follows, to tell him his sheep and shepherds have been struck by lightening; a third says his camels and their herders have been destroyed; and finally comes one to tell him that all his sons and daughters have been swept away by a violent windstorm – during a party.
But even in the face of all these disasters Job remains faithful. So Satan doubles down on his bet. He says, “OK, those things were important but they didn’t touch his person. Afflict his very flesh and he’ll surely blaspheme.” God takes him up once again, and Job is afflicted with horrible boils and running sores so that even his friends can’t stand looking at him.
The question of the book becomes: how will he respond? And here is just a part of his first words:
“Perish the day on which I was born,
the night when they said, ‘It is a boy!’
May that day be darkness;
let not God above call for it,
nor light shine upon it!
May darkness and gloom claim it,
clouds settle upon it,
the blackness of night affright it! . . .
May the stars of its twilight be darkened;
may it look for daylight, but have none,
nor gaze on the eyes of the dawn,
Because it kept not shut the doors of the womb
to shield my eyes from trouble!
Why did I not perish at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Or why was I not buried away like an untimely birth,
like babes that have never seen the light?. . .
Why is light given to the oilers,
and life to the bitter spirit?” (3:3-20)
Hard words. Words we would rather not listen to. Disturbing words address to the all-holy Lord. Coming from one who is supposed to be devout and God-fearing.
Then three strangers arrive. They are representatives of the traditional views of the community. They have a long debate with Job, trying to convince him that his complaint against God is unjustified. Their argument is that God is just and so the fault must really be in Job. They try to convince him that he must be guilty of some sin he isn’t even aware of.
They are simply repeating the received wisdom of that era: if you are good and do the right deeds, those of the covenant, God will have to bless you with the blessings of this earth. But if you sin, God will just as surely punish you by giving you pain and hardship in your life. It is a theology strongly expressed in Ezechiel. It reduces God to a kind of ATM machine that has to follow our way of thinking, automatically. God becomes an instrument of our need. The conclusion is that if you are experiencing hardship you must have sinned. It was a thread that continued long in the tradition. We see it even in Jesus’ time: when he is approached by a blind man his disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus has to correct them, saying “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” (John 9:1-3).
But Job will not be overcome by their argument. He has not sinned. He goes through a sort of public examination of conscience that demonstrates his fidelity. Listen to his record. (Paraphrasing):
I didn’t walk in falsehood;
I didn’t eat the produce of the land without paying for it;
My heart wasn’t enticed by the sight of a woman;
I paid my servants fairly and didn’t mistreat them;
I took care of the poor and the widows;
I didn’t allow a homeless one to go without clothing;
I didn’t raise a hand against the innocent. . .
Job is telling the truth. He has played by the rules and he is still being unjustly punished. He’s challenging the received piety and teaching of the community. Life is showing him that it’s not the way things work in the real world. The reality is that good people get pink slips through no fault of their own; and greedy, selfish ones get golden parachutes.
There is a Job side to each of us. We want to know. We want to see the balance redressed. Notice that God never reproaches Job for that; it’s not arrogance, it’s the way we are made. Job is pouring out his heart honestly. He’s in pain. He is still in relationship to the Lord. It’s a form of prayer.
The debate goes on for several chapters and the effort at resolving the question by human reason is going nowhere. Eventually Job’s honest complaint compels the Lord to respond. God takes the whole debate to a different level, with some of the most beautiful poetry in the scriptures. I will only quote some of the snippets and suggest that we all read it and pray over it in a quiet space.
“Who is this that obscures divine plans
with words of ignorance?
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
And who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb . . .
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther . . .
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning
and shown the dawn its place?
Have you entered the sources of the sea,
or walked about in the depths of its abyss?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Can you raise your voice among the clouds,
or veil yourself in the waters of the storm?
Can you send forth the lightenings on their way,
or will they say to you, “Here we are?” (Ch.38)
The whole perspective of the debate is changed. Job had really kept the law, he had done everything right. But in the process he lost sight of his own identity; he forgot who God was and so he didn’t know who he was. He put all his faith in his own deeds, and made himself the source of his justification.
After God’s response Job comes to his senses. He is humbled and says:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
I have dealt with great things that I
do not understand;
things too wonderful for me,
which I cannot know.
I had heard of you by word of mouth,
but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:1-4)
In our present time of crisis and anguish our leaders will use their best wits to try to lead us back to a place of security and stability. They will create plans and projects and allocations of resources. And if we are wise we will accept the fact that they are human efforts; they will be fallible and flawed. We have no assurance that they will succeed but we must support them in their efforts knowing that they may fail.
Job was trying to confront the mystery of breakdown with the best tools he had available to him: the law and his obedience to its demands. He was living, you see, in the time of the promise. He was awaiting the coming of the Messiah who would be the fulfillment of the promise.
You and I, on the other hand, have been blessed with the fulfillment of the promise. We are graced with the revelation that the Messiah has come, that our God is not the remote God far removed from us, but Immanuel, God-with-us. A revelation in the very flesh of Jesus.
In the Gospel we have a picture of what some scholars call “an ordinary day in the ministry of Jesus.” And what does he do in that ordinary day? He proclaims the good news of salvation. He prays to his Father. He heals people. And he frees them from the demons that bedevil them.
And what was the greatest demon? Fear. Anxiety in the face of life’s struggles. How often he repeated the words throughout his ministry. Fear not. . . Why are you fearful, oh you of little faith? . . . Let not your hearts be troubled. . . And to the centurion: fear is useless.
And more than even preaching, he went through it himself. There is nothing that we are asked to face that he did not experience. Even to death. He might have claimed equality with God but instead he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave; he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
And because of his acceptance of the Father’s will he was raised to life. He was empowered to send his Spirit to you and me. So that we can continue his mission. That we can proclaim good news, that we can find life even in the midst of death. That we can be healers ourselves. That we can stand by our sisters and brothers and support them in their pain. That we can overcome fear and anxiety by showing our compassion and showing our neighbor the power that comes from trust in the Lord.
All things are possible for those who trust the Lord.