Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Proper 22 Year B

Proper 22 Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Job1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm26


Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4;2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

(This Sunday begins a five week sequential reading of the Book of Job as the first option in the RCL.) Although there are more ancient precedents from neighboring cultures of the story of Job, the canonical version clearly reflects the Hebrew wisdom tradition. The story begins by establishing that Job was a person who was "blameless and upright," a loyalist of the Lord. In a general audience before God, Satan appears unexpectedly and God asks " Where have you come from?" Satan reports that he has visited the every corner of the earth, "to and fro," "up and down." In his travels, has Satan met Job, the Lord asks. Satan avers, "there is no one like him on earth...." But given the human capacity to jettison everything they profess to save their own skin, Satan wagers that even job "will curse you to your face." Test him, God says. Satan begins by inflicting painful and hideous boils "from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." Job's wife taunts him, See what your integrity has gotten you. But Job responds to Satan's first test sagaciously: if we accept the good from God we have to accept the bad, too. Job passes the first test but there are six more to come.

The psalmist expresses confidence she can withstand the Lord's test, because she has "walked" in the Lord's ways and not "stumbled." Whatever travails come her way, her foot "stands on level ground."


With obvious parallels to Babylonian creation stories, this version emphasizes the Lord God who brings creation out of nothing, giving meaning to the presumed order in life. In this excerpt, God says that "It is not good that the man should be alone." So God forms "every animal of the field and every bird of the air" for companionship. But none is an adequate "partner." God takes a rib from "the man," creates "a woman" and, when he awakes, God presents her. Because she is "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," he calls her "woman." This explains why "a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."

The psalmist addresses the Lord as Creator, "whose splendor was told over the heavens," and who created a hierarchy with humankind at the pinnacle. (The meaning of the saying at the beginning of the psalm--"from the mouths of babes and sucklings/You found strength"-- is not obvious. Robert Alter speculates, "Perhaps the innocence of infants is imagined as a source of strength." [The Book of Psalms, (2007), p. 22]

(Today we commence a seven Sunday sequential reading of the "Letter to the Hebrews.") Although titled a letter, the lyrical power of this text might be better regarded as a hymn. It opens with gratitude that "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways," and quickly names the object of its veneration, " a Son," who is "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being...." After his crucifixion and resurrection, "when he made purification for sin," he took his rightful place "at the right hand of the majesty on high...." Peculiarly, the writer quotes Psalm 8, but only says 'someone once said' that humankind has "control" over "all things." Even Jesus submitted to this "control" "for a little while," so that he, too, "might taste death for everyone." It is fitting, therefore, that God's "children" are now regarded by Jesus as his "brothers and sisters."

The status of husbands and wives varied significantly within Judaism of Mark's/Jesus' time and even more within the larger context of the customs and laws of the Greco-Roman world, running the gamut from the wife having no rights (the most conservative Jewish position), to a husband could divorce his wife (the Jewish position to which Jesus alludes), to a wife could initiate divorce as well as a man, (in Roman law). Mark writes that Jesus said that divorce and remarriage is "adultery" no matter who initiates it. From this contemporary hot-topic, Mark abruptly returns to the larger topic of most of Jesus teaching, "the Kingdom of God." Some in the ever-present crowds around Jesus bring children "that he might touch them." Mark, as usual, presents the disciples as out of touch with the significance of the moment and says they rebuffed the adults and children. When Jesus hears and sees what is happening, "he was indignant and says to them, 'Let the little children come to me.'..." He adds a puzzling statement, "It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs." Then he adds one of those thresholds to the "kingdom" that seems virtually impossible to cross, "whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." In one concluding sentence, Mark paints an unforgettable picture: "And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them."

The psalmist places humankind at the pinnacle of creation; one creation story gives to "man" naming rights for all creation; the writer to
"the Hebrews" assumes humankind has "control" over things on the earth, (to which even Jesus submits for his larger purposes); Job passes the first of several tests with a piece of venerable wisdom that can only come from experience and age: (but will wisdom alone save Job through all his tests?). These bibilcal passages take for granted humankind's superior capacity to dominate creation, to understand its order and manipulate it, and they honor the accumulation of wisdom that can only come with experience and age. But two sayings shatter these seeming settled assumptions. Out of nowhere, the psalmist plops down a saying like "Out of the mouths of infants and children/your majesty is praised above the heavens." Then Mark's narrative presents a saying from Jesus that is completely out of context from what comes before and after and defies an easy interpretation: Unless we become "as a little child" we will "never enter" into God's reign. For "to such belong" belong God's reign!

Jean-Luis Chretien did not write about these particular passages, but he did write a brilliant essay,
The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For, which might help unscramble this seeming contradiction. Chretien delineates between the settled and unsettled, mastery and awe, memory and what we have forgotten. The power of what we believe is settled, mastered, "controlled", remembered is significant, indeed vital for our survival. It requires the development of life-long skills that enable us to predict and have some feeling of certainty about life. They bring soe order and sense to human realtions. Communally it leads to the disciplines of history, the maths and the sciences. All of these skills are derived form our capacity for memory. Chretien writes, "Memory reminds us of past satisfactions and thus permits us to desire; it is the principle of repetition." (p86)

For most of his essay, Chretien turns to anther side of this story. He notes these powers derived from the human capacity for memory also give us an "illusion" (his word), the "illusion" that we have mastered something. But, "When everything is preserved without lack, something is nonetheless lacking." (p. 50) Furthermore, human memory is not perfect, objective, disembodied. Secondly, we can only remember some things because we can forget other things. "Forgetting is the power that archives memories, conserves them, protects them and preserves them." (p.56) However, we are so dazzled by the powers derived from human memory that we loose memory of what is "immemorial." Beyond what we can remember, master, "control," settle, there is still an awareness, no matter how marginal in our daily busyness, of something larger, more lasting than ourselves, Quoting Husserl, Chretien continues " ' I am now, and this now belongs to a horizon of the past that can be unfolded to infinity. And that in itself means: I was eternally.' To this past without end corresponds a future without end." (p.65) The source of this awareness for Chretien is God, as revealed in scripture, which is "the only possible memorial of what is, radically inaccessible to our memory." (p.87) "The ceaseless coming of God to memory, by which he (sic) is unforgettable, does not signify that we hold the absolute within ourselves, nor does it mean that we could enjoy it in withdrawing into an interior fortress. God comes to memory in order to strike it with a wound of love that eternity itself could not close again. And this influx that tears us open shows us that he has set his heart on us in creating us in his image." (p. 86) Citing passages from St. Augustine's
Confessions and The Trinity, Chretien continues, "far from being a central object, God is eminently radiant for our memory, for what makes us present to ourselves; God is present to us only in comprehending us and exceeding us on every side." This "unforgettable is not what we personally grasp and what can withdraw from memory, but what does not cease to grasp us and from which we cannot withdraw." (p. 90)

Once we "remember" what we had "forgotten" because of all that we have successfully "remembered" (retained/mastered,"controlled") God, as revealed in scripture, causes us to "remember" who we really are. And when God reveals God's self, "God comes to memory in order to strike it with a wound of love...." "And this influx tears us open" and "shows us that he has set his heart on us in creating us in his image."

Chretien cites two specific traits that return to us-- hope and receptivity to the sudden appearance of what we cannot even anticipate. We hope again against what experience has taught us is impractical, if not impossible. "Hoping goes out to meet what it exceeds it by nature (and only hoping can do so, since it is purified)." "Its light precedes us, it already passes through us, for the very act of hoping for the unhoped for, and thus if hoping otherwise and wholly other than most people hope; this act is already unhoped for." (p. 105) "When it emerges, the unhoped for necessarily has a sudden and discontinuous character. It surprises, since it has not been foreseen, anticapted, contained in advance by our thoughts. It strikes like lightning, all at once." (p. 106) "What is seized, in a single blink of an eye, no amount of searching could enable them to expect. The instant of the gift brings together the unforgettable and the unhoped for in the gratuity of excess. To find without seeking is to let oneself find without having held the initiative. And letting oneself find is endless when it is God who does the finding." (p.113)

Experience teaches us. It gives us skills, mastery, the capacity to predict. It takes many years to accumulate and we honor it as "wisdom" and "maturity." But it is also slowly closes out openness to the "impossible" the "unexpected," which are God's speciality! Like cataracts, that also come with age sometimes, we no longer see God's world in its wonder, possibility, glory, hopefulness as God sees it, according to scripture.

Seeing the world the way God sees it, anything is possible again. Is this close to what Jesus wanted us to get when he said "Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never never it." For to such "belongs" the reign of God. Expect the "unexpected" which we "forgotten" how to hope for because, with all that we "remember" we have "forgotten" God's view of creation, to which Jesus is "the exact imprint of God's very being."