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Study by Ivan Kromski (Russian, 1837-1887)
for his painting Christ in the Wilderness, 1872.

Chosen in view of Sunday's gospel, in which Jesus prays in a deserted place.
The graphic and the original are in the public domain.
Scripture readings, February 7, 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

(Click here for complete texts)
(Haga clic aquí para textos en español)

Quick Summaries:

1st reading: The book of Job, uniquely in the Hebrew Scriptures, challenges one of the fundamental tenets of Jewish wisdom, the proposition that if you live a righteous life, God will reward you.

2nd reading: Ancient Corinth was a sophisticated city where many teachers proclaimed new religious and philosophical ideas. Paul, a stranger to the new Christian community there, has to establish his credentials. The virtues of which he boasts are surprising.

Gospel reading: This passage remembers Jesus healing, driving out demons, preaching and praying. It remembers Jesus' own words giving emphasis to one of those purposes.
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We read from the Book of Job only twice every 3 years, in year B, Ordinary Sundays 5 & 12. That well-worn quote, "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away," is from Job. That verse may give the impression that Job is about passivity before God, but it's more complicated. The book is less passive and more revolutionary, frankly questioning some of its readers' assumptions, and, I will venture, prompting us to question some of ours. One of its purposes is to vanquish one of the naive premises of many religions, that God always rewards good behavior. Here's the setup of the book:

There was "a blameless and upright man named Job, who feared God and avoided evil." But Satan makes a bet with the Lord, that Job can be made to curse God if Satan is permitted to take away the things that make Job happy. Seriously, that's how the book starts.

You know much of the rest, how Job gradually loses all that is dear to him. A trio of friends (memorably named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) visit and propose that Job must be guilty of a sin, not publicly known, that has caused him to lose favor with God. Job denies this, and a long, nuanced discussion follows. Each friend speaks three times, and Job responds to each speech. In every speech, a friend tries to convict Job, and then Job vindicates himself. After thirty-one chapters, the prosecutor-friends are silenced, and Job has honestly questioned the fairness of God.

This prompts a fourth visitor, a young man named Elihu, to enter the conversation. He is dismayed that the three others had not defeated Job in the argument, and angry that Job considered himself, not God, to be in the right. Elihu gives hearty speeches in defense of God's righteousness. (But his arguments are similar to those of the three elders, and even to the self-defense by God in the next 4 chapters. This leads some scholars to conclude the Elihu chapters are a later addition to the book.)

(And here's the 50-cent-word of the day, "theodicy," from Greek words meaning god and justice. It's the philosophical/theological defense of the justice of God, in the face of all the apparently undeserved suffering among God's creatures. That this is an uncommon word now is probably because they don't award doctorates in theodicy any more.)

Back to Job. To wind up his cross-examination of Job, Elihu describes God's power manifest in nature, especially in violent storms. That is the Lord's cue to enter the argument at chapter 38, verse 1:

"Then the Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said: 'Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? And who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? ...'"

God and Job, mostly God, argue back and forth for four more chapters. They break no new ground. Job makes something of a concession halfway through the last, short chapter, "I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes." But he never admits a sin. (And that short verse is textually obscure.) All in all, the theodicy gets no better than: "Well, you just shouldn't question God."

Post-Job Theological Development: Thus the whole book is a powerful statement that God's ways are not ours, that God does not simply reward all good behavior and punish all sin, that the mind of God is often unknown to us, and that human suffering is not all punishment due to sin. We could say that the book prepares the world for Isaiah, chapters 40-55, where the Suffering Servant poems make explicit the hope that good for others can come out the sufferings of an innocent person. That, in turn, prepares the world for the good news of Jesus. Jesus somehow knocked down Paul of Tarsus, who realized that God loves us without holding our sins against us. And the followers of Jesus and Paul eventually started abolishing slavery, that locus of so much undeserved suffering.

The conclusion of Job is unsatisfactory because 1), we would like to earn God's favor by good behavior, and 2), the suffering of the innocent seems to demand an explanation from God, an explanation better than, "It's not for you to ask questions." But the Book of Job made the cut when the rabbis were editing the canon of Scripture. Nor did the Christian inheritors of the canon censor it. Nobody downgraded the book to "apocryphal" status. So the wisdom of our elders seems to be that, if you think God permits some damnably unfair stuff, well, God can take that, your faith can take it, your faith-community can take it, and it's arguably healthier to live with the tension.

That great American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by the great American critic of religious hypocrisy, has a famous meditation on the perceived justice of God. A Miss Watson in Huck's Missouri hometown owned a slave named Jim. He ran away, and ran into his friend Huck, who was also in flight. Together they cobbled a raft and started floating the Mississippi, which only flows into states where life for a fugitive slave is ever more dangerous. Huck, schooled in property rights and racial hierarchy, believes he'll go to hell if he doesn't work to return Jim to Miss Watson. He writes a confession to Miss Watson, telling her where her agents can apprehend Jim. That makes him feel "good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now." But then he remembers all Jim's kindness to him. This reverie fills a beautiful paragraph, which ends "and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

"It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

'All right, then, I'll go to hell'- and tore it up."

(That's in chapter 31. So read the book again; I re-read it every ten years.)

For what it's worth, here's what I remember about my early theodicy. Theologians depict God as self-sufficient, happy, needing nothing and absolutely free. So God didn't need to create anything. Thus in creating us, in the divine image, mind you, God wants us to share that freedom. How much freedom? Enough that God won't intervene, at least not directly, when we sin against the innocent. A theodicy all about freedom, about what you'd expect from a guy in his twenties.

Then there's this, from a few decades later: Theologies and economies are systems, and they run by fairly predictable rules that keep the rule-makers comfortable. God, again, does not intervene directly. But prophetic people are calling out systemic injustices with all the vigor that their biblical forebears did even if they didn't have the vocabulary.

Probably my last sally at theodicy: Living things evolve because resources are scarce and they go to the more competitive. We're here because our ancestors were successful in competing for resources. Faint heart never wins fair maiden, so we're descended from the vigorously and victoriously competitive. We inherited their competitiveness and the evolved preferences that made them successful. (I'm leaving out, here, the Darwinian details.) But I read our Scripture as accounts of prophets urging our ancestors to balance competition with compassion for those less likely to succeed. God's telling all of us to give everyone less dominant a break. That's fair.
Other sources of commentary
on Sunday's readings:


Introduction to this Message Series

I'm Greg Warnusz, of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, since the church's founding in 2005; author of Lector's Notes at since 1999; and web steward for FOSIL since about 2011.

This, the 46th message in a (mostly) weekly series, aims to help you apply the Bible readings you'll hear in church (or would hear if your church weren't locked down) to the life of the parish (or other Christian community) that you hold dear.

These are not devotionals (which are everywhere). I'm offering what I learned in the seminary, this intellectually honest way to read the Bible:
  1. Learn what the writer of the Bible passage was trying to help his or her ancient community cope with (my specialty).
  2. Ask how your own community today is dealing with something like that (your specialty).
  3. Suggest the connections, craft a biblical approach to your community's mission.
  4. Remember Bible passages were composed for whole communities, not just for individuals.
  5. Then the rest is up to you (readers / listeners), your communities, and the Holy Spirit.
Step 1), above, is the hardest. I offer this because I'm grateful for the seminary education I received and the continuing education I enjoy. Step 2) is my passion because my beloved parish community faces serious demographic challenges and will soon face ecclesiastical ones.

This is a new endeavor, likely to improve with age. Next week's may be shorter. It takes 3 years for Catholic and most Protestant churches to complete their Sunday surveys of the whole bible. Stick with me. Thank you.
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