Thursday, September 24, 2009

Proper 24 Year B

Proper 24B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Job 38:1-7,[34-41]; Psalm 104:1-9,25-37b


Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

The sophisticated arguing among Job's friends regarding evil and death in the world vis a vis God has explored many possible answers. Job makes one final plea to God, defending his honor, (chapter 31). [Chapters 32-37 are presumed to be a later interpolation into an earlier narrative]. God finally speaks. God speaks "out of the whirlwind." God ignores the questions Job's friends have been debating, which God describes as "words without knowledge," and Job's case for his own vindication. Rather God overwhelms all human questions by turning the tables on Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me...." Who was the architect who designed it? Who set its cornerstone? Who measures darkness and light and proportions snow and rain? Who watches over the wild creatures-- the lion, raven, mountain-goat, ostrich, horse, hawk and eagle, to name a few-- in their natural habitat? (Job's response to this blast comes in our reading next Sunday.)

God's grandeur and glory are celebrated by the psalmist who sees all creation as God's "cloak/chariot/garment." You originated and control all water, including floods, streams and mountain lakes. You control their boundaries, the psalmist acknowledges. You play with the "Leviathan" for fun. You provide food in due season. "You withdraw Your breath/and they perish." Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul.


The narrative of Isaiah envisions a "righteous one," whom God calls "my servant." This extraordinary person has the privilege but will pay the cost for extending God's role as healer in human affairs. "...[B]y his bruises we are healed...." This privilege is the pinnacle of human aspiration: "Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge." He "shall make many righteous." "God will alot to him a portion with the great." "He bore the sin of many, and made intercessions for their transgressions." But the cost for this privilege will nearly overwhelm him. He will be "plagued with diseases," wounded, crushed, oppressed, afflicted, the victim of a "perversion of justice," alienated from his own people. It will even be "the will of the Lord to crush him again."

The psalmist makes a bold, uncompromising statement of her trust in God, who is her "refuge," a place of safety and protection. When travelling a wild rocky path, strewn with boulders and inhabited by lions and vipers, she is lifted up by God's "messenger" who will "guard" her. God promises to answer, deliver, and grant her safety and long life.

The author of this "letter" addressed to "the Hebrews" takes up and creatively elaborates on the role of great significance to any Jew, the role of "high priest." One called to this role "offers gifts and sacrifices for sins." He deals with others "gently" because of his own "weakness." When he offers "sacrifice," it is for his own sins as well as others. One does not "take" this "honor, but is "called by God," just as Aaron was. Now the author casts the Jesus into the cosmic role of servant and savior. Christ did not "glorify himself in becoming a high priest." He was "appointed" by God. While "in the flesh," Jesus offered up prayers and supplications for those he loved with anguish and tears and with "reverent submission." "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered...." Because of what he endured, "he became the source of eternal salvation."

Jesus has just made the third prediction of his inevitable death in Mark's narrative when human ambition emerges yet again. This time, Mark places the ambition in James and John, who want to know if they can "sit on your right and and one on your left, in your glory." Jesus tells them they do not know what they are talking about. Can you "drink the cup I [will] drink" and go through the "baptism with which I am baptized," he asks. "We are able," they reply. Jesus then predicts that James and John will in fact know a fate similar to his. But he demurs about any future status; "it is not mine to grant." The other ten disciples turn on James and John, but Jesus moves on to another important teaching about God's reign. The usual way of doing things for those with some authority is "to lord it over" others. Those with more authority become "tyrants." But "greatness," Jesus says, is found in the role of "servant." This way of conducting human affairs is exemplified by Jesus himself: "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve...." Which finally will cause him to "give his life as a ransom for many."

As Job's encounter with God makes clear, God does not answer humankind's questions; God makes declarations that go beyond human understanding, through the human imagination and still beyond. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" A writer in Isaiah imagines a singular human being who aspires to be a healer, like God, but pays a severe cost. The author of that highly imaginative piece cast as a letter to "the Hebrews," uses the role of the high priest to sketch the role of Jesus as one of "obedience." In Mark's narrative, Jesus continues that running theme of the nature of God's reign compared to human expectations. "Greatness" under God's reign is measured by servitude, just as "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve...." These readings are quite clear: according to the scriptures, God makes declarations that simply disregard human ways of thinking; "greatness" is completely redefined as "servitude" to God and others; there will be a high price paid by anyone who aspires to this stance because it bucks the usual way of doing things; yet it is the direct way to mimicking God's role as "healer" in human affairs that will result in the highest "satisfaction" one will ever know. Despite the unbridgeable gulf between us and God, God communicates with the same basic message over and over throughout the scriptures-- to place oneself in service for justice and compassion for others. For Christians, Jesus is God's clearest communication of this message in his words and his actions.

Jean-Luc Marion regards the work of Emmanuel Levinas as a "Copernican revolution" in Western thinking because he placed ethics as the starting point for all human endeavors and the ego in "second place" to the other. (
The Visible and the Revealed, p. 67) In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes: "The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face." "His [or her] epiphany consists in soliciting us by the destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow, and the orphan." "The work of justice-- the uprightness of the face to face-- is necessary in order that the breach that leads to God be produced-- and 'vision' here coincides with this work of justice." "There can be no 'knowledge' of God separated from the relationship with men." "The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely his [or her] face... is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed." "The establishing of this primacy of the ethical, that is the relation of man to man (sic)... a primacy of an irreducible structure upon which all other structures rest... is one of the objectives of this present work." (pp 78-79) He calls this ethical work done in face to face dealings with others a special kind of "obedience" which is also "the forever primitive form of religion." (p.79)

Levinas was scrupulous in keeping his work separated from any of the revealed, historic religions, (as are almost all the writers whose work we explore as 'postmodern'), but his insights (and theirs) can reify religion by this radical insistence on going back to the foundation.

After Levinas, we return to this Sunday's readings with refreshed imaginations and hearts. Jesus insists that his work will not be fulfilled until he empties himself of all personal priorities in total obedience. As vivid as his words are, the memories of his actions are even more bright and clear--obedience to God always is fulfilled in the service of others. He tells us plainly that if we chose to follow him, we will endure the same fate in some way peculiar to our histories. But he also insists with equal relentlessness that this is the actual way to the highest human fulfillment, just as it is the only way to Easter morning for him. That all this flies directly in the face of our instincts and the customary ways of doing things is inevitable. In confounds our most sophisticated reasoning, reducing them to "words without meaning." But it has one redeeming feature-- it truly works, we are promised.