“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). Here we wonder about encountering G-d at the intersection of Bible and Life–typically prompted by the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.
Job. Since the Lectionary has jumped around a bit, Job 29-31 is Job’s final speech in the dialogue with the three friends. (Elihu appears in chapter 32, and talks until the LORD’s appearance in chapter 38.) In this final speech Job recalls his past (chapter 29), laments his present (chapter 30), and ends with an extended set of self-curses (this chapter): may such-and-such happen to me if… If we’re looking for a summary of what is exemplary, this chapter (along with chapter 29) is more than adequate. We could do worse than use it to evaluate our choices—up and down the ballot—on November 3.
Acts. Luke started his account with this: “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Lk. 1:5-6). Now we hear Peter: “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” The “yoke” was unbearable for Zechariah and Elizabeth (and Joseph and Mary and…)?
The Book of Job is also an essential complement to the Psalter. There’s a lot of overlap between Job’s complaints and many of the psalms. While the psalms are generally anonymous (the attribution to David serving some of the same functions as the overlap with Job I’m describing), Job’s words, e.g., today’s reading, help us better imagine the human experiences behind the Psalter’s words.
Acts. How to hear the references to the Jews in today’s reading without putting ourselves—and them—in danger? At the end of Simeon’s encounter with the Holy Family in the temple: “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Lk. 2:34-35). Jesus periodically throws us into crisis, so that it’s not enough to have been faithful yesterday.
How to make sense of this? James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis” (excerpted as #519 in the Hymnal of 1940, dropped from the Hymnal of 1982), offers powerful images, but shows little interest in listening sympathetically to one’s opponents. Then there’s this from Dimble in C. S. Lewis’ That hideous strength: “If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder” (Chapter 13, Section 4).
Returning to Acts, the Old Testament reflects a fair amount of ambiguity (Dimble’s “elbow room”) re what God will do with/about the Gentiles. Between Jesus and the Spirit’s work some of that ambiguity disappears, and that forces choices, since Israel’s identity is also involved. “The falling and the rising of many in Israel,” indeed. Nor was this the last time Jesus threw us into crisis (the institution of slavery, the status of women, ecological justice—the list keeps growing because Jesus dreams big).
Job. I find Newsom’s approach to the Elihu speeches helpful: in the Persian/Hellenistic periods there’s increasingly attention paid to the dynamics of repentance (Prayer of Manasseh, Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4); the Elihu speeches are inserted in part to develop this theme. Is repentance barely offstage in our other two texts, the implied preferred course of action for Paul’s and Jesus’ interlocutors?
Acts. Luke’s “orderly account” (Lk 1:3) may strain the reader’s patience: the Jews “filled with jealousy; and blaspheming,” Paul and Barnabas speaking out “boldly” and claiming to the that “light for the Gentiles.” I am still thinking about Job’s questions:
7 Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? 8 Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God? 9 Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one person deceives another? 10 He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality. 11 Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you? (Job 13:7-11)
Or, perhaps more directly: Luke’s citation of the “Golden Rule:” does it apply (as in today’s Acts reading) to how we describe those who disagree with us?
John. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” In all the Gospel accounts Jesus is reluctant to engage that question directly, perhaps (also) because ‘Messiah’ is too misleading a title. Jesus points (again) to his works, and talks about his “sheep” (the shepherd image also having heavy messianic overtones—see here and here). Jesus’ “you do not belong to my sheep” could be a conversation stopper; it could reset the conversation.
Righteousness is in the spotlight in our first and third readings: Job and his friends argue about its applicability to humans; Jesus calls for a righteousness exceeding that of “the scribes and Pharisees.” If righteousness is a sort of excellence, it may help to recall what excellence in the arts and sports looks like: always learning, seeking to improve, expanding one’s range of awareness, and so regularly thinking/working outside the box. In the Gospel according to Matthew Joseph is the first person identified as righteous (a tsaddiq); an angel helps him understand that being a tsaddiq means handling Mary’s unexpected pregnancy differently. Job is a tsaddiq. But when God finally shows up, it’s not to affirm Job’s status (though that happens too), but to push Job further along his journey of discovery and self-transcendence. Tamar, one of Jesus’ ancestors: her family is badly stuck, her creative and risky strategy gets it unstuck and earns her father-in-law’s verdict “She’s more righteous than I am.” (Read the story!) Our world gets stuck in too many ways. We need more Tamars and Josephs, more tsaddiqim, to get it unstuck.
Job. Expanding on yesterday’s observation, as the argument between Job and his friends has continued, the evil worthy of divine judgment and human condemnation has come into sharper focus: indifference to or squeezing of the poor, e.g., here in Eliphaz’ speech:
5 Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities. 6 For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing. 7 You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. 8 The powerful possess the land, and the favored live in it. 9 You have sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the orphans you have crushed. 10 Therefore snares are around you, and sudden terror overwhelms you,
This is the evil that Job accuses God of ignoring; it’s the evil that had no place in Job’s past. Here Job and his friends are in full agreement. In our context in which indifference and squeezing are increasingly public policy (e.g., raids on No More Deaths), that should give us pause.
Acts. As in Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Jesus’ resurrection is pivotal: if God raised Jesus, then many things need to be rethought. As in that sermon, Paul leads with the “forgiveness of sins:” “Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free [literally ‘justified’] from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” Commentators wonder what contrast between Moses and Jesus Luke/Paul has in mind; this commentator wonders whether this rhetorical strategy doesn’t reduce Jesus to being a better brand of detergent.
John. Among the many metaphors used in the New Testament for Jesus’ death, Jesus’ metaphor here perhaps deserves more attention: The Good Shepherd deals with the wolf.
Job’s speech continues to develop previously introduced themes. Around vv.7-12 the distinction between Job’s fate and Jerusalem’s fate (586 BC) pretty much disappears. Job’s call for “pity” (v.21) echoes standard wisdom instruction (Prov 14:21, 31). Job again looks to someone (anyone!) to arbitrate his dispute with God (vv.25-27). With apologies to Handel, capitalization of ‘Redeemer’ is a theological dead end (Wrathful God vs. Merciful Jesus—see August 28 post).
The Lectionary omits chapters 20 (Zophar on the doom of the wicked) and 21 (Job on the prosperity of the wicked). The oppression of the poor emerges as a key element in Zophar’s description of the wicked (vv.19-21), and Eliphaz will accuse Job of the same in chapter 22.
Re whether the oppressing wicked in fact prosper, our experience suggests that Job has the stronger argument. Here, as with other themes in the wisdom traditions, More in Bolt’s A Man for all seasons provides useful commentary: “If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all…” So we’re back to “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (1:9)
Acts. The beginning of Paul’s speech is partly throat-clearing, partly stage-setting. Paul’s news is as important as Israel’s prior key moments (the exodus, king David) and it is news already announced by the prophets. If “put up with them” rather than “cared for them” is the correct reading in v.18, Paul’s also warning the audience not to repeat their ancestors’ mistakes.
John. “…for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” The underlined phrase translates aposunagōgos (only in John: here; 12:42; 16:2). In every generation God’s people have opportunity to prove Jesus’ words true: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep” (Lk. 7:32).
“Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’” Perhaps Jesus is talking only about this man. Perhaps Jesus is talking about what it means to be human: a sort of stage on which God’s works are seen. Read as the latter, multiple connections with today’s other readings. Job: the arguments (chs. 4-27) are over just what divine works are being seen! In the arguments all the participants are a potential stage, and what is seen is as much a function of who is seeing as what God is doing.
While in John Jesus gives a man sight, in Acts Paul takes a man’s sight. (Commentators notice echoes of Paul’s blinding on the Damascus road [Acts 9].) As in the previous Herod story, “God’s works” are clear and satisfying to those who share Job’s friends’ commitments (“God’s justice now!”). Luke describes Paul as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Paul, who will later write “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them,” (Rom. 12:14) delivers a scathing accusation followed by an announcement (curse?). The Holy Spirit, on board with Paul’s speech and action, or simply unwilling to leave Paul hanging?
Job. Job’s speech combines a number of themes, the major one being that human life is too ephemeral for God to worry about. “…look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.”
Out of a very different context Kundera wrote “We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture” (The Unbearable lightness of being). Does all of this just get swept away with the Doctrine of the Resurrection?
Acts. The slapstick comes to an abrupt end: “When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death.” Later, in Philippi, when an earthquake frees Paul and Silas in another prison: “When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here’” (16:27-28). So the apostles learned something from Peter’s experience?
In vv.20-23 Luke affirms (celebrates?) a direct connection between Herod’s impiety and his appalling death. Is the world a better place when God meets and sometimes exceeds our expectations? Is Herod a stand-in for Luke’s expectations for other officials (in this life or the next)?
John. Both Jesus and the crowd are attacking. Is Jesus’ appeal to his not seeking glory another attempt to give the crowd reason to believe that will make sense to them? It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of character in arguments, whether then or now.
Job. With our different perspectives, experiences, and commitments, it would be surprising if we didn’t argue. And some of us have heard the calls to fear God, to love God, to trust God—and that affects the arguments. Vv.7-11 are an equally important call: don’t show God partiality. We might wonder what that means. It certainly means not knowingly using faulty arguments to defend God. Does it mean that if we’re going to err, err in favor of those protesting against God?
Acts. If there’s a soundtrack for Peter’s story here it’s perhaps Yakety Sax (h/t Benny Hill). Is Luke really venturing into the genre of slapstick? (V.8: Peter is clearly only half awake. Vv.12-15: Peter at the gate.) Does Luke employ this genre elsewhere?
John. “You are from your father the devil…” The catastrophic ways Christians have used this text threaten to render it permanently radioactive. Here, as elsewhere in John, a variety of strategies have been proposed, including rendering hoi Ioudaioi by “the Judeans” rather than “the Jews” (rejected by Adele Reinhartz in The Jewish Annotated New Testament). I think a more radical strategy is needed.
Consider these two texts:
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, (Jn. 1:11-12)
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32)
From this Gospel’s perspective, after Jesus’ coming “his own” include the believers. Recalling Spufford’s HPtFtU (Human Propensity to F*** things Up), there’s no reason to think that the believers won’t replicate the conduct of the Jews. In other words, rather than soften “the Jews,” give it its full weight so that we who now claim to be included in “his own” recognize our danger. (Here I’m channeling Paul: the vine metaphor and wilderness relectura).
Hence the importance of “continue in my word.” That I am baptized, that I have been faithful—that’s good. But that doesn’t relativize the importance of what I do today. So Ezekiel emphasizes the importance of the present, concluding “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live” (18:31-32).
Theologically, this may be why it’s important that Judas was one of the Twelve in all four Gospel accounts. Betrayal comes from within “his own.” And no better way to blind ourselves to the danger than to decide that the problem is die Juden.
In John’s stark language, my choices reveal my parentage. The LORD would have me remember that today’s choices are not bound by yesterday’s.