Fair and Square
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: JOB 7: 1-4, 6-7
FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
Job spoke, saying:
Is not man's life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
He is a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for his wages.
So I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, "When shall I arise?"
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle;
they come to an end without hope.
Remember that my life is like the wind;
I shall not see happiness again.
I was hacking away on my keyboard yesterday when my doorbell rang, and I received a visit from two elderly women from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With all the unsolicited emails, robocalls, and other electronic overtures on behalf of the kingdom of mammon or Russian election mischief, it is refreshing to meet human beings—in this case of advanced years—following the call of the Great Mission from Matthew 28. For years I have wanted to invite such guests into my home—though I suspect the Witnesses do not drink coffee, which is about all I have prepared in mid-morning. Yesterday I was in a hurry and did not have much time to give them.
I am long past the day when I feel inclined to parry with Jehovah’s Witnesses over bible quotes, and the recent visits of JW’s suggest to me that their purpose of visiting is much less polemical than in years past. My visitors yesterday offered me this year’s first edition of The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom. The Watchtower (and you can follow this link to what I received yesterday), according to Wikipedia, dates to 1879 and is the largest circulated periodical in the world, at 70 million copies in 327 languages. The spokeswoman struggled to explain to me the cover story, asking me “if the Bible is still here.” After some gentle exploring, I finally understood her question, appropriate to every Christian of all denominations and beyond that; “Is the Bible Still Relevant Today?”
When I told her that I very much agreed the Bible had much to offer today—and this coming from a Roman Catholic teacher, no less—she was so pleased and thanked me profusely for answering my door. I was good to my promise and read a sizeable portion this morning in preparation for today’s commentary on Job. I could never be a card-carrying Jehovah Witness because of the tradition’s one-dimensional approach to interpreting the Bible, but in a catechetical sense the JW’s work excessively hard to create meaningful points of contact between the Bible and the skeptical, secular world. I am not overstating the case by very much when I say that the Witnesses—judging from their literature—are more eager to embrace the world’s questions and critiques than Catholicism may be.
In the late Old Testament Era several sacred texts were written to address what the twentieth century would call “existential angst,” the pain of living. We can include questions of suffering, injustice, the unafflicted lives of sinners, and the very elementary question of what happens after the grave. There are at least three books in the Hebrew canon that address this existential or psychological pain of living; collectively they are called the Wisdom Books, specifically Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes [or Qoheleth]. Our guest expert today is Dr. Robert Alter of Cal-Berkeley, translator and commentator of The Wisdom Books (2010). Alter has translated many of the Old Testament texts, and given his running commentary of his translations, he makes serious reading of the Old Testament much more accessible to those entering the Hebrew Scripture for the first time.
I had always been of the belief that the Wisdom literature of the Bible [including the Garden narrative of Genesis 3] owed something of its origins to the minds that produced Greek tragedy, which at its heart struggles with the contradictions of human living. Alter argues that this type of literature was not uncommon throughout the Middle East in late Biblical days. What is evident is that Jews of the post-exilic era wrestled with the same questions as their non-Jewish neighbors. Alter observes that the Jewish Wisdom literature contains very little, if any, reference to Jewish history or law other than the existence of a monotheistic God.
What appears to have happened in the last few centuries before Christ is the emergence of a profound division among the Jews themselves. If we look at the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, written in the century after the return of from the Babylonian Exile in 539 B.C., it is evident that considerable work went into restoring the religious practices and mores of the Jewish people, including the restoration of the Temple and the enshrinement of the Law. But it is also true that recent history had led many Jews to the same questions of their neighbors, as well as to critique of their traditional theology.
One issue taking front and center stage was death: was it final? When God had made the original contract with Israel through Abraham, the rewards were entirely material and earthly: Abraham would live long enough to see his descendants grow and prosper. There is no promise of reward beyond the grave; for most of the Old Testament life ended with earthly death; rewards for good deeds would be granted in this lifetime. This understanding of life and death was sufficient when things were going well; but the Exile and other events, such as the Syrian takeover of Jerusalem (c. 175 B.C.) proved too many examples of young and noble observers of the Law who were killed or martyred without any earthly reward.
The puzzlement and pessimism expressed in Wisdom literature—and certainly in Sunday’s first reading—seem almost scandalous. But Jews included such texts in their sacred canon, as does Christianity today, partly the avoidance of magic and idolatry. Judaism wrestled with its own brand of quid pro quo: do what the law commands and success will be yours. This is a thinking man’s magic. In the Christian era Luther decried the idea that man is saved by works alone. In the story of Job, the hero/victim is a noble man of good works; in the Old Testament idiom he would have been rewarded much like Abraham. The irony of Job is that, at the pinnacle of his good life, calamities of the worst sort overtake him.
Many readers and even scholars are troubled that God would act “unfairly” toward Job; the “restoration” at the very end of the book seems focused upon making things right with the reader as much as with Job. The very best of scholars will admit that the Book of Job does not really answer the issues of evil and unfairness, and the question remains today the most disquieting of doubts for thoughtful people of all persuasions. In this sense Job is the most “ecumenical” of all the Bible books [along with Qoheleth] in putting the finger on the heart of human unrest.
Job 7 is paired with the Gospel reading from Mark 1 in which Jesus heals the sick and expels the demons believed to cause illness. Mark is not quite the philosopher that the author of Job manifests, but on the other hand Mark can be brutally graphic. In his depiction of the Crucifixion [this year’s Palm Sunday proclamation] Mark quotes Jesus—a man consecrated and anointed to do good--as crying from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” in the last moments of his unjust capital punishment. To paraphrase New Testament teaching, we have a Savior who is not unfamiliar with the sufferings and doubts of the human lot. In his humanity Jesus did not have the answer to the Job questions, but he did have a master plan—an action plan-- to penetrate the darkness, to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, to live the Beatitudes with open-ended energy.
This is faith—the surviving confidence that there is something beyond what we cannot comprehend. The absence of faith—expectation of reward and fairness in a zero-sum game—is magic and idolatry
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