The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Maybe we’ve all been in Job’s shoes at some point – or the shoes of his friends. We see so many people suffering for no apparently reason – shot on college campuses and in elementary schools, millions forced out of their homes and nations across the Middle East, as well as mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America, thousands displaced and near a dozen drowned in South Carolina, the crew of a ship lost off those shores with little trace. Death and destruction are all around us, and many ask why, what did they do wrong?
Some people seem to delight in assigning human blame – we heard them in the midst of Katrina, blaming those floods on supposed sins of this nation. The pundits were wrong about what the sins were – it was lax oversight, faulty engineering, inadequate predictive capacity, and lack of concern for the poor, coupled with the natural violence of storms, and intensified by the greenhouse gases we keep dumping in the atmosphere.
Yet the questions remain. Where is God in the midst of all this senseless death and destruction? Job’s friends are certain that he has done something wrong to reap all this suffering. Yet Job continues to claim his own righteousness, for he has cared for the poor and dealt justly with his neighbors. But at some point in the shadows of all his loss and illness, he just wants to end the suffering. Today we’d probably say he has PTSD. He can’t find God in the midst of his misery, and his hope is fading. That reality has something to do with the growing number of states who are responding to the lament of the terminally ill: ‘just let me die, give me peace!’ Job wasn’t mortally ill – yet – but he’d clearly had enough, in spite of his faith. He wanted a conversation with God about his own righteousness and God’s justice.
The man in the gospel is more like Job at the beginning of the story, with 10 children, thousands of livestock, and servants to answer his every whim. Job lived so righteously that he even asked forgiveness for his grown children after their nightly revelry, concerned they might have overdone it. The gospel character seems to have a similar level of scrupulosity. He’s anxious to live a good life and find a timeless righteousness – what he calls eternal life.
His interchange with Jesus is telling. He addresses Jesus as good, and hears that only God has that character. Jesus is being a bit rude here, for the implication is that this fellow is not as good as he thinks he is. And then Jesus reminds him of the commandments about loving your neighbor as yourself – he leaves out the ones about relationship with God. And the man says, yes, I’ve done all that, I’m keeping them. And then we get a bit of narrative that’s not so clear in translation. It might more accurately say, ‘Jesus gave him a piercing look and loved him anyway,’ and said, go sell what you have and give it to the poor. Jesus is expanding his focus, as he did when the foreign woman asked him to heal her daughter. He declined, saying his work is with his own people, and she challenged him, “even the dogs under the table get crumbs” – ‘isn’t my daughter worth at least that much?’
Jesus re-evaluates this rich man and then intensifies the commandment to love your neighbor. He’s saying, ‘if you really want to be good, and find heaven on earth, then let go of what you have and join the poor. You can’t love your neighbor without compassion, if you’re afraid that what you have will be taken away.’ Then he really sticks it to the disciples: ‘it’s really hard for the rich to find that heaven on earth – it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle.’ The disciples respond, ‘impossible!’ And Jesus offers an answer much like what Job gets – ‘God is God and you are not.’ Peter, being Peter, protests – ‘what about us? We’ve given up everything – fishing boats, parents, families, homes, fields, tax booths.’ They get a piercing answer, too, an apparent promise that those who give up everything for the sake of the gospel will get it back a hundredfold, with persecutions to boot, like whipped cream and a cherry on top. And, by the way, the first will end up last. So, what does that mean for these first disciples?
Hard words, piercing words, as Hebrews calls the word of God, which will judge the human heart.
Where do we put our ultimate trust? What do we truly and fully believe – what do we give our hearts to, as “believe” means at its deepest root? There’s at least a hint that Job trusts in God’s own righteousness, in spite of what’s happened to him. The man who comes to Jesus, like the disciples, still trusts in what he has or what he has done.
We are not that different, two thousand years on. Most of us, most of the time, lack Job’s patience (literally, his willingness to suffer), and we lack his confidence (literally, his faith). Like Job, we often find our friends asking less than helpful questions in the midst of our torment – what did you do wrong? Why didn’t you try harder? It must be God’s will!
Those are jabbing words, not the piercing word of God. That Word comes in human flesh, and shows what it is to love neighbors by laying down his life for his friends. He is pierced at the last, his fate pierces his mother’s heart, and ultimately new life pierces through death and the grave. We may not know why or how, except that God is faithful, and loves us beyond imagining. That may be the most piercing reality of all – to ask and wonder where God’s love is in the midst of suffering – and yet to discover that God IS in the midst of it, walking, enduring, suffering with us in death and ashes and despair.
The conversations about “death with dignity” or “state-sanctioned suicide” often miss the deepest part of the lament about meaning and love in the face of mortality. There are jabbing and piercing words on all sides in this struggle. A medical industry that seeks to fix rather than heal will do all it can to keep a dying body metabolizing when the soul is ready to depart. There is good and piercing reason to attend to the lament of one caught in that maelstrom. A society that values human life primarily for utilitarian and consumerist purposes is ready for speedy fixes when usefulness seems past, and the lament about that must be loud and sustained, even lusty.
Jesus is both first word and last. The lament raised over his passion must be the lament we raise over the passion of sailors lost at sea, young men of color gunned down on our streets, girls trafficked across this nation, children fleeing violence south of our border, and those who die too soon – or even too late. If we are to find eternal life, it will be in sharing our lives and love, our deepest compassion, with those who suffer, as Jesus did. The good news is that he went before us, and is with us, and will be with us, in the midst of life and on both sides of the grave.
Be of good courage, be fully human and as good and godly as possible – and let go of whatever gets in the way of that. When we can freely be and do that compassionate solidarity, we are indeed being saved and healed and finding heaven all around us.
Praise the Word that pierces death and gives us life.