Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Proper 23 Year B

Proper 23 Year B

Job 23:1-9,16-17; Psalm 22:1-15


Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm90:12-17

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Job's trials had brought him to near death. He had argued with friends who were convinced that Job's plight had to be due to some unconfessed sins. Now Job realizes that all past assumptions about God by him and others are no longer adequate. This God can be unavailable at just the time we most want clarity and presence. "Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might even come to his dwelling!" "... I cannot see him."

The psalmist feels "forsaken" by God. His ancestors trusted God, who freed them, but he regards himself as a "worm and no man." He calls upon the Lord, who "drew me out of the womb." He pleads, "Do not be far from me...."


In a rare interval of peace and prosperity, Amos emerges to remind God's people of their continuing failure to establish justice. They will not "trample on the poor" with impunity, is his message.

The psalmist reflects on his finite years contrasted with the timelessness of God and asks for God's "kindness" so that we can "be glad" whatever time we have. May the times we were "afflicted" and we suffered "adversity" be endured with the memory of "Your works" to us and to our children. May God bless us.

The lyricist of the "Letter to the Hebrews" marvels at the fact that and the impact of God speaking to humankind. God's speaking is "living and active," it cuts to the bone "the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Like a steady, searching light "No creature can hide; all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account." Suitably harrowed, we are now ready to hear the good news. "We have a "high priest" who knows what our lives are like and, therefore, synthesizes with us." 'Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

Biblical narratives in general, and Mark's in particular, are not refined, polished, or systematic; they are bold, idyosyncratice, full of exaggeration and full of surprises. Taken for their actual worth, even twenty centuries of theologizing and sermonizing should not decrease their impact. Mark's story of the wealthy, good man who goes away dejected and Jesus' uncompromising saying retain the capacity to snap us to attention. A man approached Jesus with a serious question. But when he addresses Jesus as "good," Jesus reminds him that only God is good. Jesus responds to the man's question with an impressionistic summary of the Decalogue. Now Mark tells us this sincere, devout seeker has "kept all these since my youth." Here the narrative starts its unexpected, jerky twists and turns. Mark pointedly says that Jesus looked at the man and "loved him." "You lack one thing," Jesus tells the man who moved Jesus so deeply, "go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor...." Then, and only then, you will find what you are seeking. Emotions intensify. The man is "shocked." He walks away "grieving." Mark now tells us not only was the man devout, he was also wealthy-- "he had many possessions." Now Jesus turns to the disciples and upsets them, too. After saying that the wealthy will find it difficult to "enter the kingdom of God," he offers and image that means it is actually impossible! "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Mark says they were "astounded." Struggling with the full meaning of the absolute assertion Jesus has just made, they begin to wonder if their following Jesus is futile: "then who can be saved?" Here Jesus utter the coup de main: "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God: for God all things are possible." Peter seem not to have heard this astonishing statement and continues to press his point to Jesus about the loyalty of the disciples; "we have left everything [and everyone] to follow you." Jesus promises that they will receive a "hundredfold" of all they left behind. This emotionally rocky episode filled with shock, astonishment, love, dejection and puzzlement concludes with an aphorism that embeds itself in the imagination: "Many who are first will be last, and last will be first." In this story, so remarkably told by Mark, Jesus takes things to extremes-- exactly opposite extremes! He not only maintains traditional teaching regarding our obligations to God and to our neighbor, he elevates it to an absolute ideal which no human can attain; in the same breath, he establishes that with God "nothing is impossible."

Emmanuel Levinas was a student of Husserl at the end of his teaching career and of Heidegger at the beginning of his. He played a crucial role by introducing to France Husserl's Cartesian Meditations with his translation into French in 1931. But after that pivotal contribution and for the remainder of his lifetime's work, he made his own original and unique contributions. He developed the notion that for us God always remains more than "other," God is "other than other," he wrote. That is, we have no experience that makes God familiar to us. (Is it not unlike the realization that Job reached: "I cannot see God!" Which the psalmist echoes when he feels alienated from the very God who "drew me out of the womb." And, the God who Jesus insists is the only one worthy to be called "good.") Our expressing of God can only be a "trace," Levninas said, but it still disrupts, challenges and makes demands on us. It "separates" us from ordinary human conventions and relationships, Levinas realized. (Is this akin to Jesus' insistence that we must leave all behind that we hold dear to enter God's reign?) However, the trace of the infinite God shows up to us explicitly in one place, the "other" whom we encounter daily. Going further, Levinas insists that the needs of the "other" as experienced by us in our daily live's demands that I justify my existence! If I eat, someone else has less to eat or nothing to eat. (Is this kind of absolute understanding of obligation to justice akin to Jesus' insistence that entry into God's reign requires selling "everything" and giving it to the poor?) For Levinas, ethics/justice is the human quest that precedes all philosophy and all religion (and has been lost).

God is forever unavailable to us fully on our terms: "I cannot see God," Job regrets. Jesus maintains traditional moral teaching about love of God and others and elevates it to an absolute that we can never attain. We never let ourselves off the hook. It is a redress we can never fulfill.

And here is the single most important statement in this posting: It is in the continuous, life-long struggle to achieve God's impossible justice that we discover our humanity. It makes demands on us to give up circumstances and even friends and family on whom we have relied so that in other ways we gain a "hundredfold." This is the entrance into God's reign, where it is always true, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."