Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Readings for Proper 23 (28) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary
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Proper 23B/Ordinary 28B/Pentecost 15 October, 2006 Textweek
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
The Old Testament reading from Job as we read it today, is post-Easter and one of the insights that we have because we read it after Christ, is we can actually see in that reading that it is actually an experience that is Christ-like. Long before Christ there were narratives and there are narratives in the holy writings, in the scriptures, that reveal the Word. It’s quite good to get that because quite often the church has taught something a bit different - that the Old Testament teaches one thing but then Jesus came and brought something new. That undervalues two things, I think: it undervalues the ancient teachings that were there before Christ and it also undervalues the eternal nature of God’s word. God’s word is not spoken to a person in an age: always and forever it is revealed for all throughout all time.
So we can look at the reading from Job with already a knowledge of what’s revealed in Christ and appreciate that in this reading from Job, something of the same ilk, of the same value, is revealed. And that’s helpful because then we can project forward from Christ to us and start to look at, what is it that we reveal that is in Christ? Not only do we have the opportunity to be revealers of God’s word, but one might argue that that’s exactly and only what we are called to do. So the short reading from Job is talking about the experience of the absence of the divine. Verse 3, ‘Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling’. That same experience and feeling is captured in the psalm and it is that psalm that is uttered and echoed by Christ from the cross. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There’s a pretty good bet that most of us might know that same experience – that experience of God forsaking us, that experience of God’s absence. But I wonder, do we also know the orientation of Job from that place of being forsaken? See, I think in our modern world such experiences - the absence of God, the absence of the divine, being forsaken - provide a doorway that we go through, and the doorway that we go through is the doorway to depression - ‘Woe is me’, and then before you know it one shrivels up into a darkened hole.
How different though, is the narrative that we read about in Job. Job is actually inwardly aware and confident of the place in which he stands, for he says in verse 7, talking about an encounter with God: ‘There an upright person could reason with God.’ Job doesn’t shrivel, what Job does is he says, ‘I want the opportunity to reason with God; I want to encounter because I’m confident that if I can have an encounter with God we can sort this out’. And that is also a reflection that we will also see revealed later in Christ. It echoes the dialogue of the Garden of Gethsemane, it gives integrity to the words on the Cross – they’re not, they no longer become just words, they actually become a dialogue that speaks of relationship with God.
In the Gospel reading today it’s as if Mark has taken that extreme example that we find in Job, it’s as if he’s lifted that from the old scriptures and said look I actually want to tell that narrative, but in my present moment, in the light of Christ. So what we find in the gospel now is a similar narrative, but this time rather than being illuminated by the character of Job it’s illuminated by the character of Jesus, both of them, both of them calling us to look at our relationship with God.
So the narrative begins in verse 17, ‘A man came up and knelt before him.’ A man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him – that actually is unusual, it’s an unusual action; it doesn’t occur in other places, it’s got a sense of urgency about it and it’s got that unusual sense of worship. People didn’t run up to Jesus and drop to their knees; this wasn’t a culture that knelt to pray, and yet there’s this outward show of real piety. Next we get the address that precedes the question: ‘Good teacher’, and immediately following in verse 15 we get the response of Jesus, himself questioning that address. What on earth is this approach all about? There is something unusual going on here; there is something being uttered by the man and it’s even called a frown on Jesus.
What we then find is, in the man’s question, what he’s looking for – he’s looking for eternal life. He appears, from the list we get from verse 19 on, he appears to be upright. He appears to maybe have and to be coming from the same place as Job. ‘You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’ He says, ‘Teacher, I’ve done those, I’ve kept them all since my youth.’ Pretty upright – ‘kept them all since my youth.’ But look at them closely, count them, there aren’t ten. The commandments listed are only those that deal with human relationships – there’s something missing. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus acknowledges, ‘Yep, there is absolutely nothing wrong, you’ve done them all, that’s wonderful. However, what about your relationship with God, primary, in the first commandment? Where’s that one? That’s missing, it’s unsaid, it’s unspoken.’ Unlike Job, perhaps what we have in this narrative is an example of modern man.
Job sought with confidence, with real confidence, an encounter with God. ‘Right, I am in this place of forsakenness, what do I need? I need an encounter with, I need to speak with, to be fully in relationship and question that relationship between me and the divine’. The man that we find in the gospel is almost perplexed by his own emptiness. He wants an answer, he looks to Jesus, he runs to Jesus, he kneels, he worships, he keeps the commandments. But, and it’s the ‘but’ that is then revealed by the response that we have in the words of Jesus: ‘Sell what you own.’ Doh! ‘Sell what you own.’
Now at this point we can quickly shut down because all of us here today know this is not the commandment, this is not a gospel that we are going to follow. But stay with it, because this isn’t a story telling us that wealth is wrong. It’s as if the dialogue is saying, Jesus sees something, he perceives that the man has put his trust, his faith, in his own piety, his own ability, his own achievements, his own wealth, his own possessions - that’s where he’s coming from, that’s where his faith is.
Mark in writing the gospel is seeking to witness the word that is revealed in and through Christ, and what Mark is giving us is, he’s saying that these - your wealth - these are the very things that can get in the way. Not only can they get in the way of our relationship with the divine, as we all know too well they can replace our relationship with the divine. There was recent snippet – you know when you walk past televisions and they’re on and you see odd bits? I don’t know whether it was news about interest rates or an advert for house building, but it basically said, ‘Your home or your house is the greatest investment that most people will make in their lives.’ That’s the truth. That is stunningly sad! Stunningly sad – the greatest investment that most will make in their lives. It’s a bloody house! You can rent the flipping things if you want, you know? A focus on wealth and possessions is either an orientation away from the divine or it’s a barrier that hides, it hides from us the glimpse of the divine. It’s not that we are God-forsaken, it’s just that we fill our field of vision up with possessions. You know, you can no longer see the wood for the trees.
I think this is the same gospel narrative that we find in stories of Jesus healing the demoniacs – casting out those who are possessed, for the modern world is possessed by its possessions. And probably that’s enough; if we can get that, if we can just grasp the importance of that part of the gospel then that’s enough. As it says in verse 26, ‘They were greatly astounded’. If we could leave here being astounded by that word that’s revealed, that would be enough.
Now the gospel does go on a little bit and it’s really helpful to read that last bit, because the last bit says is we cannot come into that place of divine uprightness ourselves. So we can’t leave going, ‘Right, I really heard that this morning, I am going to do something and change my life’, because what we’ve done is we’re now back into the same place of ‘my self-sufficiency’. What the remainder of the gospel today says is, to sort this out it is to be done in relationship with God, that’s what it’s about, that’s what to seek. Don’t go and sell everything; if you do feel called to that, to sell all your goods and give to the poor, just replace ‘poor’ with ‘priest’, that’s fine, you can do that. I wouldn’t though, I would actually go out and say, ‘I heard something today about my life being chocka-block, possessed, blocking a vision of the divine, in the same way that the life of this man that we hear about is blocked. He appears to do everything good Anglicans do. He runs off to church on Sunday, he kneels, he does all of that stuff, obeys the commandments, probably even wears a suit, shirt and tie on Sunday, all of that is fine, but something is not there, something is missing.
All who turn from their sources of self-sufficient achievement, all who turn from those sources - that is, home, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, land – all who turn from those sources of self-sufficient achievement and turn toward the divine, will become whole, forever; they will, for eternity, have a Christ-like experience. The last will be first, birth and death will change places, the place and the process of dying will become the place of rising, rising to the creativity of life.
The Lord be with you.
The Lord be with you.