Job 42:1-6, 10-17
When my daughter was about three years old, my wife was trying to get her dressed to go somewhere, and she was putting up a fight about putting on some pants. The phone rang, and my mother-in-law was on the phone, so my wife talked to her for a few minutes in Spanish. After she got off the phone, my daughter, still adamant about not cooperating, said to her, "Ooga booga!" "What does that mean?" my wife asked. "It means I don't want to wear pants, and I don't have to!" my daughter replied. In her ignorance of the ways of the world, she assumed that since she couldn't understand Spanish, it must just be a bunch of gibberish, so she figured she could make up her own language as well. Comparing a three-year-old child's understanding of the world with an adult's is analogous to comparing an adult's understanding to God's, as Job discovered. Job had been through a lot in recent days: the loss of his possessions, the loss of his children, and the loss of his health. He thought he understood how God worked, and he was mad because God seemed to violating God's own code of conduct. Why had God allowed all these terrible things to happen to him when he was God's faithful servant? Why did God let the wicked run roughshod over the good? God had to be called to account! In his ignorance, Job challenged God to appear before him. Much to his surprise and chagrin, God took him up on his challenge. It is interesting to note that God never answers any of Job's questions directly. God refuses to be judged by humanity's puny intellects. Instead, God issues intellectual challenges to Job to ascertain whether he is really ready to sit in judgment upon God. Since Job is completely unable to answer God's questions, it is clear that the trial of God will not occur with Job as judge. Instead, recognizing the profundity of his own ignorance, Job humbly repents, and God accepts him. Though they are not part of today's reading, verses 7-9 are crucial to understanding this chapter, and the whole book. God is angry with Job's friends because they have not spoken correctly concerning God, while Job has. What?!! Job said that God was unfair, that he allowed injustice in the world, and that God had punished him for no good reason. Was he right after all? Yes! By human standards, at least, everything that Job said was true, and God praises him for his perception. Job may have spoken in ignorance, but his friends spoke in presumption. Job may not have had a very good understanding of the ways of God, but his understanding was much better than that of his friends. Furthermore, while Job spoke rashly to God, he didn't speak rashly for God, as his friends had. Job prays for his friends' forgiveness, God accepts his prayer, and all is restored. Job's family and friends bring him gifts, and before too long Job has twice as much wealth and ten new children. Contrary to expectations, the story of Job has a happy ending. The present form of the book may mask the fact that many, perhaps most, who suffer do not end their lives in prosperity. Their personal book of Job stops at the end of chapter 41. For them, the words of Job--which God praised as right--are their own words, which they address to those of us who are not suffering: "Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!" (Job 19:21). Let us respond to our own suffering with faith and to the suffering of others with mercy.
Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
It is hard for those who have never suffered to relate to those who have undergone grievous suffering, and vice versa. The psalmist praises God for God's beneficence, and he testifies that God has always been there when he was in need. His life reflects the mighty hand of God, who "camps around those who fear him." All those who take refuge in God are happy, but those who reject God, their memory will be cut off from the earth. None who take refuge in God will be condemned. The psalmist's words reflect the experiences of many people, especially those living in the industrialized world. We've had our share of tough times. Maybe we've been without a job for awhile, or we've suffered an illness or injury, or we've not reached an important goal, or we've lost a parent. These are all significant trials and should not be dismissed as trivial. However, a brief period of unemployment does not compare with chronic poverty and joblessness. Even a serious illness or injury from which one has recovered does not compare to losing a limb to a land mine. Having goals that are not realized is not the same as knowing that you will never have the opportunity to reach any of your goals because you live under a repressive regime. Losing a parent is not generally as traumatic as losing a child. How can those of us who have not really suffered all that much in our lives relate to those whose lives have been full of pain? How can Job relate to the psalmist of Psalm 34? Those who have suffered greatly during their lives have to realize that their experiences are not more authentic just because they involve greater struggle. Those who have suffered less have to realize that those who have suffered more profoundly have a message to which we need to listen. Those who have led mostly happy lives can rejoice in God's provision, but they should not presume to dictate to those whose lives have been hard how they should feel about God. Many have suffered tremendous personal loss but have thereby developed a deep sense of the presence of God in their lives. Others who have suffered think God doesn't exist or doesn't care. We're all shaped by our experiences, but common experiences don't imply common understandings of life. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, we can always learn from others, both those who have experienced more pain and those who have experienced more joy. Both are life's teachers, and we should not think that one (usually the one we're most familiar with) is a better instructor than the other. Above all, those who have suffered little and have much for which to praise God should avoid judging those who do not feel the same towards God or towards life. It is indeed ironic that the one of whom it was said "He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken" was the same one who cried from the cross, "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" Jesus knew great joy, and he also knew great sorrow, and his understanding of God was unsurpassed. When we can embrace our lives as they come, whether happy or sad, easy or hard, we will have learned something important about trusting in God.
Psalm 110 is the most-quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament, thanks in part to its centrality in the book of Hebrews. The author identifies Jesus as a high priest, but of a special kind. He is not a Levitical high priest, descended from Aaron, but a priest of the order of Melchizedek, a shadowy figure from the patriarchal narratives who is the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem). Melchizedek blesses Abraham after Abraham returns from a successful campaign to retrieve his nephew Lot from captivity, and Abraham gives him an offering (a tithe). The author of Hebrews argues that since Levi, the ancestor of the high priests, was at that time "in the loins" of Abraham (this statement is based on the idea that the man plants the seed in the fertile soil of the woman; there is no concept of equal providers of 50% of a child's DNA!), in a sense Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek, thus demonstrating that Melchizedek's priesthood was superior to Levi's. Psalm 110 picks up on this obscure story and compares the newly anointed Davidic king with that legendary priest-king of Salem. The new Davidic king, the psalmist says, probably during a coronation ceremony, is now both priest and king of Jerusalem, as his descendants will be forever. The author of Hebrews sets aside the temporal reference to the Davidic king and instead applies the statement about Melchizedek to Jesus, not because of his Judahite heritage but "through the power of an indestructible life." If, as most scholars believe, Hebrews was written after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Levitical priesthood was no longer functioning, so there was no hope of redemption through the sacrifice of animals. The Jews solved this theological dilemma by making study of the Torah a sacrifice superior in efficacy to animal sacrifices. Christians solved the same theological problem differently, by transforming Jesus into the high priest "who ever lives to make intercession" for his followers. Both the Jewish and the Christian solutions to the crisis of 70 C.E. demonstrate a creativity that may be said to be inspired by God, a new way of thinking about God and humanity's relationship with God. For the author of Hebrews, Jesus, the spiritual descendant of Melchizedek, was the perfect high priest, a continual source of hope and confidence for everyone who turns to him. Here we see the genius of Christianity, inspired by the example of Jesus himself, who reinterpreted scripture to make it meaningful to the people of his day. Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch translations of the gospels, speaks of scripture as being "filled with meaning" because of the life of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 2:15, for the traditional rendering "fulfilled"; I prefer the phrase "filled with new meaning"). As followers of Jesus and people who walk in the traditions established by people like the author of Hebrews, it is our obligation to make the scriptural text meaningful to people today. Stale exegeses that merely explain the scripture in its historical context are insufficient to the needs of the gospel. While we must surely begin with the historical meaning, to the extent that we can discern it, we must do all we can to distill the message of each passage and present it afresh to each new generation of believers and potential believers. In that way the hope of a permanent high priest, who continually lives to intercede on our behalf with God, can be an ongoing source of confidence.
Never take your car to a mechanic with clean fingernails. When dealing with mechanics, you want to find someone who's not afraid to get his hands dirty. Too many Christians go through life afraid to get their hands dirty. Preaching the gospel and saving souls is all well and good, as long as it fits into our schedules or our programs. We've defined ministry in such a way as to make it convenient for us rather than for the person in need. Of course, we stand in a long line of Jesus' followers who have been more concerned about ministry than about actually ministering. As Jesus walked through Jericho, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus began crying out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" The response from many of Jesus' followers? "Sssh! Be quiet! The teacher is busy now; he doesn't have time to talk with you, much less meet your need." Fortunately for Bartimaeus, his persistence paid off. It turned out that Jesus, even though he really was "on a mission" to reach Jerusalem, had time to stop and heal the beggar. What was the beggar's need? In too many of the churches with which I've been associated, people would have said, "He needs to be saved," by which they meant, "He needs to say some magic words, be baptized, and join the church." How is it that our Christianity has become so warped that either we don't consider a blind beggar worth stopping for (he doesn't fit our church's demographic profile) or we're not even able to tell what a blind beggar needs most? Jesus didn't hesitate to stop, and he was easily able to identify the need: sight. After Jesus met that basic need, is it any wonder that the man immediately began following him? When I was in seminary, I went through several studies that were designed to teach me how to witness or how to live the Christian life. The problem with all of them was that they prescribed the same exact steps for every person, regardless of background, personality, or ministry context. In one case, we were assigned to visit people from a prospect list and recite a fixed set of Bible verses, following a fixed script of introductions and transitions. Did our teachers really think that the people we were talking to would respond to that kind of impersonal, cookie-cutter evangelism? If so, they were wrong, as the results showed. In another case, we followed a study guide that was supposed to make us better disciples, primarily through scripture memory and singing scripture songs. I'm all for scripture memory (I'm not wild about all scripture songs), but that's hardly all there is to being a disciple. The entire course seemed based on creating generic, "scripture-filled" Christians, then sending them out to create more generic, "scripture-filled" Christians. What a perversion of the gospel! Nowhere in these standard evangelism or discipleship studies were we encouraged to treat people as anything other than targets to be assimilated into the church (shades of the Borg!). While there may be some value in courses like the ones I described, if supplemented with practical guidelines for recognizing and ministering to the real needs of real people, in many cases we'd be better off discarding them altogether and beginning again to develop a model based on the life and ministry of Jesus.