Today’s readings force us to face the challenges of mortality. As the commercial says, “life comes at you fast.” There is a sense of disorientation in these passages. There is a sense that something has gone wrong and help is far away. Authentic theological reflection and spiritual practice must be all season: it must embrace desolation as well as celebration, sickness as well as health, death as well as resurrection. Recognition of life’s perpetual perishing and the fleeting nature of everything that we love and all that provides comfort and stability can destroy us; it can also be the source of spirituality and enlightenment. Our salvation comes from traveling through the dark valley, hoping to catch glimpses of God’s nearness despite God’s apparent absence.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
The saga of Job continues this week. Tormented on every side and unable to find a moment of emotional or physical respite, Job wishes he was dead. His desolation leads him to doubt God’s justice. He wants to plead his case before God, but God is absent, despite his experience of God’s overwhelming and ambient presence. Job would like to put God on trial: the old calculus of acts and consequences no longer works. Job is theologically and spiritually torn: Is the system of rewards and punishments simply wrong or does God choose not to play by the rules, punishing the righteous arbitrarily and letting the unrighteous go scot-free?
Job still believes that the righteous receive rewards and the guilty suffer; he has been righteous but he is now suffering, and that’s too much to bear. His sense of the moral order of the universe has collapsed. Many of us have felt the same way: we have been faithful, but our marriage collapses; we achieved excellence in our profession only to find ourselves downsized and unemployed; we have prayed ardently but face the same emotional and physical pain daily.
We must be realistic here: while studies suggest that religious commitment and meditative prayer are good for our health, our fidelity cannot insure health and well-being.
At such moments, we live in hope that healing and possibility can emerge when life seems bleak. Our hope is in a God who feels our pain, accepts our anger, and gives us the courage to persist until we find our way. When we glimpse an open future, then we find the strength to persist, trusting that nothing can separate us from the intimate and responsive love of God.
Psalm 22 continues this meditation on desolation. The Psalmist feels the pain of rejection, illness, and theological disorientation. It’s unclear which pain is most devastating. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he pleads. Others find peace and well-being but I am abandoned in my pain. Why aren’t my prayers answered? I’m as faithful as those who claim healings or tell stories of rags to riches. Why isn’t God giving me success or curing my illness, when others are blessed? Am I doing something wrong? Am I a pawn in hands of an arbitrary God?
This is truly an “honest to God” prayer. The Psalmist lays it on the table, calling God to account, but bringing his whole life in its hope and hopelessness before God. Deep down, the Psalmist believes that God hears our prayers and that when we call, God will respond.
Hebrews continues the theme of self-awareness in times of trial. The word of God – God’s vision of Shalom – reveals everything. There is no need to hide the truth of our condition from God or ourselves. God has, as Psalm 139 asserts, searched us and known us. In the midst of our self-awareness, we discover something amazing: Christ is with us. Christ feels our pain. God is with us when tragedy strikes, crying with our tears, angry in our anger, relieved in our relief, and abandoned in our alienation. God’s love is receptive as well as creative, and God’s receptivity is the source of his responsive love.
God is truly the fellow sufferer who understands our suffering and feels our pain. God provides us a vision of hope to enable us to face life’s unfixable situations.
The Gospel reading speaks of Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young man. He has done everything right, followed the rules, supported the church, and given alms to the poor. But, he wants one more thing: assurance of eternal life in God’s company. Jesus honors his fidelity but tells him that he must do one more thing: sell everything he has and enter into solidarity with suffering and oppressed humanity. He goes forth grief-stricken, unable to let go of his social and economic standing.
While we are tempted to spiritualize this passage and need to ask ourselves, “What stands in the way of our relationship to God?” this passage addresses the danger of wealth. Dare we read these words in church without being accused of politicizing the gospel or promoting class warfare! How hard it is for wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! That was true in the first century and is still is true today!
The problem with wealth is that it isolates us from others. It buffers us against the suffering others experience and leads to false complacency about our own personal security. Amos 8:11 speaks of a famine of hearing the word of God: the “cows of Bashan” and their husbands have benefited from the poverty of others through their business practices. They turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of the poor. They justify the distance between themselves and the poor with shibboleths such as “we earned our wealth,” “they’d succeed if they worked harder,” “it’s only business, nothing personal,” and “the poor are lazy.” Their inability to hear the pain of others will eventuate in their inability to experience God.
Wealth often leads to rugged, uncaring individualism, and to the self-made, atheistic philosophy of Ayn Rand and her political followers. The wealthy are tempted to see their wealth as deserved, totally the result of their efforts. They affirm with pride how they “built” a company or gained wealth on their own, when their wealth is actually dependent on the sweat of workers, the ingenuity of inventors, the needs of consumers, and the support of the social infrastructure.
What is truly important? What stands in the way of following God? Today’s passages challenge us to self-examination and to embrace the whole of our lives in their fear, creativity, complacency, fidelity, or alienation. God knows, as Hebrews proclaims, and in knowing that we are known – and that what we do matters to God – we can find purpose and peace in the midst of the tragic beauty of life.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats.