Monday, September 27, 2010

The LORD Gave And The LORD Has Taken Away; Blessed Be The Name Of The Lord!

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, priest
Reading I
Job 1:6-22
One day, when the angels of God came
to present themselves before the LORD,
Satan also came among them.
And the LORD said to Satan, "Whence do you come?"
Then Satan answered the LORD and said,
"From roaming the earth and patrolling it."
And the LORD said to Satan,
"Have you noticed my servant Job,
and that there is no one on earth like him,
blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil?"
But Satan answered the LORD and said,
"Is it for nothing that Job is God-fearing?
Have you not surrounded him and his family
and all that he has with your protection?
You have blessed the work of his hands,
and his livestock are spread over the land.
But now put forth your hand
and touch anything that he has,
and surely he will blaspheme you to your face."
And the LORD said to Satan,
"Behold, all that he has is in your power;
only do not lay a hand upon his person."
So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

And so one day, while his sons and his daughters
were eating and drinking wine
in the house of their eldest brother,
a messenger came to Job and said,
"The oxen were ploughing
and the asses grazing beside them,
and the Sabeans carried them off in a raid.
They put the herdsmen to the sword,
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking, another came and said,
"Lightning has fallen from heaven
and struck the sheep and their shepherds
 and consumed them;
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking,
another messenger came and said,
"The Chaldeans formed three columns,
seized the camels, carried them off,
and put those tending them to the sword,
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking,
another came and said,
"Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine
in the house of their eldest brother,
when suddenly a great wind came across the desert
and smote the four corners of the house.
It fell upon the young people and they are dead;
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
Then Job began to tear his cloak and cut off his hair.
He cast himself prostrate upon the ground, and said,

"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb,
and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD!"

In all this Job did not sin,
nor did he say anything disrespectful of God.
After Proverbs and Ecclesiastes we now move on to another ‘wisdom’ book and one of the most profound, the Book of Job.

The book is called after its central character and deals with the problem of the suffering of the innocent. It is regarded as a literary masterpiece, although the author is unknown.

Job, a good and upright man but also a very wealthy one suddenly loses all his wealth, including his property and his family. He himself suffers from a serious skin disease and he is reduced to sitting miserably on an ash heap.

Yet, Job never complains against God. When some friends, “Job’s comforters”, come to sympathise, he protests his innocence, for such afflictions were usually seen as punishment for sinful behaviour. Nevertheless, Job does not complain against God. Yet he curses the day of his birth and longs for death to bring an end to his sufferings.

All through, he maintains an attitude of acceptance and trust in God which is strengthened by his suffering.

The overall lesson is that even good people may suffer greatly in this life and this can be a test of their faithfulness. Nor is it possible for the human mind to grasp fully the thoughts of God and to understand why things happen the way they do.

So the book in general deals with a problem which is still a source of great puzzlement and contention: How can God allow a good and innocent person to suffer?

Today’s reading sets the scene for the long dialogue which forms the main part of the book. The opening verses of the book, which we omit in today’s reading, present us with a man of great wealth and with a large and united family, as well as being a man who is very close to God.

One day, we are told, when the “sons of God” came into the Lord’s presence, Satan came along with them. These “sons of God” are superhuman creatures who make up God’s court and council and are understood to be the angels. Satan was originally a general name for an evil being but later became a proper name and here plays a role similar to the serpent in Genesis, as a tempter to sin.

There is then a dialogue between God and Satan, also called the “Adversary” or “Accuser”. God, taking the initiative throws down a challenge. He asks Satan if, in his wanderings around the earth, he had come across God’s good servant Job, a man whose like cannot be found anywhere. “Servant” indicates someone with a special relationship to God and is used of people like Moses and David and, later in Isaiah, for the “suffering Servant” who is a pre-figurement of Jesus.

“That’s all very well,” replies Satan, “for a person who has been endowed with huge wealth and prosperity. It’s easy to be good in his situation. But just let his possessions be taken away from him and you will see he will soon begin to curse God.” Satan boldly accuses the man God commends: he says Job’s righteousness, in which God delights, is self-serving. This is the core of Satan’s attack on God and his faithful servant in the book.

God takes up the challenge. “Right,” he says, “Job is all yours. You can do what you like but do not harm his person.” Satan is given an almost free hand to do what he wants but his power is significantly limited by the greater power of God. The question now is: Will Job curse God to his face? If Job does not, the accuser will be proven false and God’s delight in Job vindicated.

We are now brought to the house of Job’s eldest son where all Job’s family are dining together. One by one messages of disasters begin to come in. First, an invasion of Sabaeans have carried off Job’s herds of cattle and murdered his farm workers. All his herds of sheep and their shepherds are then struck by lightning. Again, a group of Chaldeans take off all Job’s camels and murder their drivers. Finally, Job is told that a hurricane has caused the house of his eldest son to collapse on his whole family, killing them all. In effect, his family and future generations are wiped out.

The Sabaeans were predatory nomads, probably southern Arabians from Sheba, whose descendants became wealthy traders in spices, gold and precious stones. Later in the book Job refers to them as “travelling merchants” and associates them with Tema, which lies nearly 600 km south-east of Jerusalem. Chaldeans were a Bedouin people until c.1000 BC, when they settled in southern Mesopotamia and later became the nucleus of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire.

Job is left with nothing. How will he respond? Will he curse God or at least complain and ask why these things are happening to him?

In fact, he goes into a penitential mode, tearing his clothes and shaving his head. Perhaps these things are a sign of his sinfulness for which he needs to repent. There is no sound of complaint but rather of total acceptance of what has happened to him: He was born naked from the womb of his mother and naked he will return to the womb of the earth. Everything he had was a gift from the Lord and now they have all been taken back. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” Job’s faith leads him to see the sovereign God’s hand at work, and that gives him repose even in the face of calamity.

In fact, in the long dialogues which follow with his friends, Job will show that acceptance of what has happened to him does not come so easily. But, through it all, he never questions the justice of God; it is just that it is so difficult to understand.

We can see that the problems we have with the sufferings of the young and the innocent are nothing new.

These questions become perhaps even more painful and meaningless when many try to solve the problem by removing God from the picture altogether. But that does not solve the problem and does not take away the pain. If there is no God, if we convince ourselves that all is simply the result of chance, then why does the sense of wrongness still assert itself? In a world of pure chance there can be no absolute truth or falsehood, no objective right or wrong. Things just happen in a totally mechanical way.

Taking away God does not solve the problem because ultimately he is the source of the problem! – as Job recognises. Somehow, the answer is only to be found in a God who is full of love and compassion, in a God who allows his own innocent Son to suffer terribly and die in agony. Somehow the answer has to be found there in the Suffering Jesus. Many have discovered that the way out is not the removal of their pain but in being able, together with Jesus, to go through it. Pain can destroy but it can also heal.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 17
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
Hear, O LORD, a just suit;
attend to my outcry;
hearken to my prayer from lips without deceit.
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
From you let my judgment come;
your eyes behold what is right.
Though you test my heart,
searching it in the night,
though you try me with fire,
you shall find no malice in me.
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me; hear my word.
Show your wondrous mercies,
O savior of those who flee
from their foes to refuge at your right hand.
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:46-50
An argument arose among the disciples
about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus realized the intention of their hearts
and took a child and placed it by his side
and said to them,
"Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
For the one who is least among all of you
is the one who is the greatest."

Then John said in reply,
"Master, we saw someone casting out demons
in your name, and we tried to prevent him
because he does not follow in our company."
Jesus said to him,
"Do not prevent him,
for whoever is not against you is for you."
Following on Jesus once again telling his disciples that he was going to be “handed over” to suffering and death, we were told in our previous reading that they did not understand what he meant. It did not make sense to them.

Now, almost as an indication of how far they were from Jesus’ thinking, they began arguing among themselves which one among them should be seen as the greatest. Why should they be arguing about this? Was it because, whatever difficulties they had in accepting what Jesus had said about his future, they were wondering what was going to happen after Jesus had been taken away from them? If they were to remain together as a group, which of them would be in charge?

Perhaps Peter was already beginning to think that he should be the one. Perhaps some of the others felt it should be one of them.

But Jesus, who, of course, was not present during these sensitive discussions, was well aware of what was going on. He took a child and put it in their midst. “Whoever receives a child like this in my name, receives me. And whoever receives me, receives him who sent me. For the one that is least among you all is the greatest.”

It is interesting that the greatness is to be seen in the child rather than in the one who receives it. The child represents all who are vulnerable and weak and powerless. To “receive” such persons is to treat them with the utmost dignity and respect and to accept them and lift them up.

In Jesus’ eyes, such little people are truly great because, to those who have eyes to see, they are the ones in whom we can especially meet Jesus and love and serve him. St Francis of Assisi, who kissed the leper (a particularly daring thing to do in his time), or Mother Teresa, tenderly picking up a decaying, barely living body off the street knew this well. To find Jesus in such a person is to make direct contact with God himself.

Jesus himself will reach the peak of his own greatness when he hangs dying and helpless on the cross. This is the lesson the disciples will learn to see and accept in time. We have to keep working on it too because it does not come easily to any of us.

The second part of today’s gospel points to another area where the disciples have to change their outlook. John, the brother of James, who both come across in the Synoptics as somewhat hotheaded (they had the nickname “sons of thunder”), tells Jesus they saw someone driving out devils in Jesus’ name. They had told the man to stop because he was “not one of us”. (Was there an element of jealousy also? In Mark 9:14ff, we are told that the disciples failed to drive out an evil spirit from a boy.)

Here we have something of the arrogance of the insider, of the elitist. John and his companions felt that the exorcism of evil spirits in the name of Jesus was something only they were allowed to do. Jesus did not agree. “Leave him alone,” he told them. And he enunciates a principle for them to follow: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

It is a constant temptation among more devout religious people to set themselves apart from “the others”. It can happen to bishops or priests or religious. It can happen in a parish to members of the parish council or some parish group – a prayer group, charismatics, the liturgy committee or whatever.

We can find ourselves developing a two-tier community of “us” and “them”. We can find ourselves looking down on those who come in late for Mass and hang around the back door or who only come occasionally or maybe even only turn up at Christmas.

Even more, we can be tempted to set ourselves apart from non-Catholic and non-Christian groups. We can fail to see God working in all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, atheists, agnostics and people who apparently do not believe in anything.

Of course, as Christians, we do have a distinctive understanding of life and its meaning coming from the teaching and life of Jesus and it should not be compromised. But, at the same time, we do not have a monopoly of the truth. No one has. The full Truth is beyond all of us. We are all searching. Still less do we have a monopoly on good works. God can and does use any person to build the Kingdom. And it is our responsibility to work hand in hand with such people. Ultimately, our aim is not to promote our Church but God’s work and God’s plan for the whole world.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I wonder if Jews hearing the parable of Lazarus, covered in sores at the rich man's gate thought of Job, who had been rudely separated from his own former identity as a rich man (although Job had been godly).

Job's prayer after he lost everything is popular today at funerals - amazing when you consider this is supposed to be the oldest book in the Bible, perhaps even predating Judaism itself (Job does not appear to have been a Jew). It seems as though, from the day it was first written, the story just never stopped being relevant.

Job sees himself in his loss as a new-born infant, without wealth, wisdom or status. In that condition, eternal truth shines clearly through him to touch our souls today. Maybe Our Lord means something similar when He says:

"Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest."

The less 'ego' we have, the more we are able to serve the Gospel. As St John the Baptist said - 'He must increase and I must decrease.' We will only be able to bring Christ to others by becoming that nameless child in His name.