Old Testament: Job (1:1, 2:1-10)
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
The Response: Psalm 26
1 Give judgment for me, O Lord,
for I have lived with integrity; *
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.
2 Test me, O Lord, and try me; *
examine my heart and my mind.
3 For your love is before my eyes; *
I have walked faithfully with you.
4 I have not sat with the worthless, *
nor do I consort with the deceitful.
5 I have hated the company of evildoers; *
I will not sit down with the wicked.
6 I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, *
that I may go in procession round your altar,
7 Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving *
and recounting all your wonderful deeds.
8 Lord, I love the house in which you dwell *
and the place where your glory abides.
9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, *
nor my life with those who thirst for blood,
10 Whose hands are full of evil plots, *
and their right hand full of bribes.
11 As for me, I will live with integrity; *
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.
12 My foot stands on level ground; *
in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.
The Epistle: Hebrews (1:1-4, 2:5-12)
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
The Gospel: Mark (10:2-16)
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The teaching of biblical books like Deuteronomy (e.g. 28:1-7) and some of the books that follow it seems clear: if you obey the commandments of God, you will do well. You will have a long, happy, and prosperous life. You and your family will be blessed in countless ways. God will protect you from loss and suffering, and you will enjoy an abundance of good things. Faithful people are blessed and do well. Unfaithful people are cursed and suffer.
We don’t know who wrote those books with their clear-cut statements about faithful living leading inevitably to health and prosperity; but we can safely say they were compiled and edited by people who themselves happened to be rich and healthy and who were living prosperous lives. They apparently were well educated, well connected with the leading people of the nation, lived comfortably, and were economically well-off. When you are fortunate enough to live that way, it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that good people prosper and bad people don’t.
The problem, of course, is that life obviously doesn’t work that way. No matter what some carefully selected biblical quotes taken out of context say, those simplistic, black-and-white statements just don’t hold up. That realization was the starting point for the story told in the book of Job, the beginning of which we heard this morning. We’ll be hearing other parts of that narrative over the next three Sundays.
The story of Job struggles with the age-old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa?” Spoiler alert: Job doesn’t come up with any clear, satisfying answer. But then, nobody else has either.
Some Christians and some churches purport to give clear and simple answers to this and to other complex questions, to provide certainty to those who join them. But the simple fact is that uncertainty is an inescapable part of the human condition. There’s no way around it. Clear-cut, universally applicable declarations simply do not hold up when they come face-to-face with the lives of real people.
That is the case with what appear to be simple and absolute statements in the New Testament as well as those in the Old. In the gospel reading that we just heard, for example, Jesus makes an absolute statement about divorce. Two schools of Jewish thought in his time argued with each other over what the conditions were under which divorce was permitted. Rather than siding with either of them, Jesus rejects divorce outright. Some would claim and have claimed that having a clear-cut statement from Jesus settles the issue once and for all.
But even for the early church, that simply was not the case. Matthew’s gospel, for example, is based on Mark’s; but when it quotes Jesus’ declaration (5:32 and 19:9), it builds in an exception right away. It twice adds to Jesus’ words forbidding divorce the excluding condition, “except for unchastity”; the absolute apparently is not exactly absolute. St. Paul adds other exceptions. In First Corinthians (7:10-16), he acknowledges that a wife can be divorced from her husband, but then gives his instructions to those that are. And he then follows that exception with another one: if an unbelieving partner separates from a believer, the Christian is apparently no longer obligated to the unbeliever and is free to remarry.
The implications here go well beyond questions of divorce and remarriage. More important than these particular instances is the very fact that the early church, in the New Testament itself, found the need and the right to make exceptions even to an absolute declaration that it considered to have come from Jesus himself. It did so in order to exercise a responsible freedom in interpreting a basic principle within the context of the lives of actual people, focusing both on the ideal and on the lived needs of the community and of its members.
We do that, too, by the way. So do those who claim to take the scriptures literally and follow them literally. Think, for example, of Jesus’ teaching in next Sunday’s gospel reading, calling on those who want to become perfect to go and sell everything they have and to give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him. Or think of last Sunday’s reading, which includes instructions about cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes; fortunately, few people have tried to follow those instructions literally. Faithful Christians throughout the centuries have found it necessary to interpret and reinterpret those seemingly absolute statements.
They do so for a higher purpose. N.T. Wright has asserted: “In God’s many-sided world, solutions can take the form of a living embodiment of God’s healing love and power.” Put another way, the challenge that faces believers of all ages is to hold with respect the declarations of scripture while, at the same time, embodying for the world today God’s healing love and powerful, life-giving grace.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are free to disregard the scriptures or the church’s tradition. They remain our starting-point for prayerful and thoughtful considerations of what they mean for the lives of people in our time and place. But it does mean that we cannot simply latch onto a quote or a slogan as though it needed no ongoing reflection and interpretation in the light of what God’s Spirit might well be saying to the church and the world in our time.
William Willimon has made a similar observation in regard to the early church’s experience as reflected in the Acts of the Apostles. In particular, he noted the struggle that the early Christians had with the notion that God’s Spirit was working in the lives of people whom their prior interpretation of scripture had excluded. They found that being faithful to what God was doing in their time meant putting aside the way that they had read scripture in the past and coming to understand God’s word and God’s work in new ways. But, he cautions: “This does not mean an undisciplined flight of fancy into our own new bold ideas or the pitiful effort to catch the wind of the latest trend in the culture under the guise of seeking new revelation. Rather, it means that we are continuing to penetrate the significance of the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ is Lord and to be faithful to divine prodding. Faith, when it comes down to it, is our own often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’”
When you get right down to it, that is the central criterion for the choices that we make and the actions that we take: to perceive, with the help of God’s Spirit, what God is doing in the world, where God is leading us now, and to dedicate ourselves to accompanying God on that journey.