A Reading from the Book of 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.
1 Give judgment for me, O Lord,
for I have lived with integrity; *
I have trusted in the Lord and have
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.
A Reading from the Letter to the 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 Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to 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
Two weeks ago, the psalm that we prayed together was Psalm 1, which serves as an introduction to the entire Psalter. It contrasts the life-situation of those who keep Torah, the teaching of God, and those who do not. It refers to this latter group as “the wicked.” Essentially, the righteous flourish in everything they do; their lives are filled with blessings. The wicked, on the other hand, suffer the consequences of their actions; or, as the psalm puts it, “the way of the wicked is doomed.”
This simple, clear-cut distinction between the lives of those who do good and the lives of those who do evil is reflected and held up to us as a reality in the book of Deuteronomy and, in various ways, in its successors: in the so-called “Deuteronomistic history: the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The good are blessed, and the evil are cursed; that is just the way things are.
The problem, of course, is the fact that that obviously is not the way things are. That is not the way that life often works. And the story of Job, which we began today, and parts of which we will be hearing each Sunday throughout this month, explores that reality. Here is an ancient tale about a just man who suffers terribly and about the efforts of his so-called “friends” to explain and justify his situation. The book gives no answer, because no answer is possible; it simply explores the problem.
Both the approach of Deuteronomy and that of Job are part of the bible. And both are part of our own lived experience as well: our actions do have consequences, yet, at the same time, good people do sometimes suffer. So which one is the correct one? Which won is “the truth?”
The great 20th-century, American, Christian ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr, warned generations of believers: “The greatest source of evil in this life is the absolutizing of the relative.” He cautioned them about the dangers of trying to narrow the truth in order to make it fit into simple, short, universally applicable declarations. “The Truth” (with a capital “T”) is often much bigger, much broader, than anyone’s narrow, simplistic formulations.
That is especially true when we try to apply absolute principles to the sometimes complex lives of real human beings. That happens, not only in our world today, but even in the world of the New Testament.
In this morning’s gospel reading, some Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking whether it was permitted for a man to divorce his wife. They already had their stock answer: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 spelled out the procedure for a divorce. The pertinent disagreement of their time was not about whether or not divorce was permitted, but only about what comprised sufficient legal grounds for divorce. Jesus responded by bypassing Deuteronomy’s law altogether and going directly to God’s original intention in creation. It looked as if Jesus had answered the question once and for all: “What God has joined, let no one separate.”
But this was, of course, the same Jesus who, in last Sunday’s gospel reading, had instructed his hearers “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off,” and the same with your foot or you eye. And his followers, the first members of the church, quickly found themselves having to deal, not just with abstract declarations and not just with theoretical ideals, but with the real and often complex lives of their members. And, in doing so, they recognized the often difficult responsibility of reinterpreting these unqualified declarations for real-life situations.
Despite Jesus’ absolute statement forbidding divorce, St. Paul’s instruction on divorce in First Corinthians (7:15) grants an exception to that rule for those who have married non-believers who then decide to divorce them. And Matthew, in his version of this scene, twice (5:2 and 19:9) makes another exception for situations in which there has been “unchastity,” whatever exactly he means by that. Both of these modifications to Jesus’ absolute rejection of divorce occur alongside Mark’s version in the New Testament. David Adams notes: “Already in earliest Christianity, the church saw fit to modify even dominical teaching on important subjects, a responsible freedom that, as precedent, is probably more significant than any one of the teachings as such.”
Some people, especially those of a fundamentalist disposition, claim to hold firmly to what they assert to be “the pure and simple truth.” Yet, as Oscar Wilde once pointed out, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” That is a statement that directly contradicts the often naïve edicts of fundamentalists: whether they are Jewish fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, or political fundamentalists. The truth is almost always much bigger than they are willing to admit; and differing perspectives often highlight other facets of a far greater truth.
That assertion doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want to do, whatever is convenient. That approach, just like the fundamentalist one, is a shallow attempt to find an easy way out of our responsibilities in life. Instead, we face the sometimes daunting task of taking very seriously the teachings of the scriptures, including the ideals set before us by Jesus, while at the same time recognizing the needs of people in the real-life context of their lives. We struggle — and, as a church, we struggle together — to perceive God’s presence in the world even when good people suffer and to discern God’s call to us even when the very real needs and crises in people’s lives demand that we adapt biblical ideals to serve the needs of God’s people, to do the work with which God has entrusted us.
Some in our current culture cling, almost desperately, to slogans or positions at one end of a spectrum or another; and they arrogantly claim that this is a sign of greatness. But, as mathematician, physicist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once observed: “We do not show greatness by being at one extreme, but rather by touching both at once and filling all the space in between.” This is the space in which we live our lives: the one that always exists between God’s ideals for which we must strive, on the one hand, and the real needs of God’s people, on the other.