sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B), October 10, 2021
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
People talk about the patience of Job, but I don’t think they’ve read his book. Job is not patient, and how could anyone even ask that of him? No, with Job, it’s about unrelenting honesty. Job is an honest character, and the Book of Job is a deeply honest book.
We heard last week that God and Satan make a bet together: can Satan inflict so much suffering that Job will curse God and thus come to deserve divine punishment? God takes Satan up on the bet. If God is really like that, then we’re all in trouble.
Thankfully, I don’t believe that God is really like that. Let’s get clear right away that the Book of Job is a fable. We don’t need Sherlock Holmes to be a literal character for him to affect our lives, or Scout Finch, or the Little Prince, or Jean Valjean, or Scarlett O’Hara. No more should we need Job to be a historical figure, or God to be as sketchy a character as we’ve just heard.
The Book of Job is designed to overturn our assumptions about the reasons that human beings suffer. Today’s passage comes from the middle of the book, a long stretch of poetry in which Job’s three friends demonstrate their complete inability to be comforting. At this point, Job is at his lowest. He decides that all he really needs is a direct audience with God in court—a chance to come before the divine judge and lay out his case. Surely, since God is good, there would be justice for Job in such a situation! But when Job speaks to God, he hears … only silence.
When Job speaks to God, he hears only silence.
Job is not the first, nor is he the last person to seek God diligently and come away with nothing. This is not the end of Job’s story, but it is honesty. Don’t try to solve it. Just hold it.
We also find honesty today in Psalm 22, and most Christians cannot hear these words without immediately remembering that Jesus cried them out from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even Jesus experienced God’s seeming absence in the midst of his suffering, such that he relied on an already ancient psalm to give him the words he needed. Human beings have always wondered where God is when everything is wrong. And no, I don’t have a definitive answer, and neither does the Church. What we do have here are people who can help hold and honor your questions.
We’ll continue to hear Job’s story unfold for two more Sundays, so we’ll leave him for now and turn to the gospel, where we find … more brutal, unrelenting honesty, this time from Jesus.
A man asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
First, Jesus answers the question with a question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
What makes a person a “good person”? Jesus appears to be suspicious of such attempts to label people. After all, if some are “good people,” then others are … not. And didn’t God declare the creation of humankind in the beginning to be “very good”? How can there be a clear division between “good people” and everyone else?
Yet we rely on such labels to this day—often in Job-like situations. Many of us have read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It feels unjust to us, as it did to Job, that a “good person” should ever have to suffer horribly. “Bad people” should be the ones suffering.
When Jesus replies to his questioner, “No one is good but God alone,” he seems to say, “Better not to assume that anyone can be described as good, or bad. The whole concept of goodness comes from God, not from our good intentions or our good deeds. We are derivative. Keep your focus where it belongs.”
And then Jesus asks another question of this man who, no doubt, believes that he himself is good. “Have you kept the commandments?”
“Oh, yes! I keep all the commandments! Look at the daily list of checkboxes that I’ve been keeping since I was seven years old. Not once have I broken any of God’s rules.”
Jesus, looking at him … loved him. “Oh, my child,” we might imagine him thinking, shaking his head. “Oh, my child, you have worked so hard. And you have so much to learn. My wonderful, lovely child.”
Then Jesus goes from gentle parent to spiritual coach. “You have come to me because you really want an honest answer, right? Look: Moses did his best with all his ‘Thou shalt nots.’ But you can’t avoid your way into goodness. The purpose of life is not to keep your hands clean, but to get your feet dirty with all the muck of life. So take off your well-tailored shoes and wade into the mud with the rest of us. In other words … stop allowing your money to shield you from all that really happens in the world!”
Maybe the man would have preferred God’s silence to Jesus’ honesty. We hear that the man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” We don’t know what he did after that. We are never told.
Jesus left the man with a choice, and it’s a choice that falls to everyone who is not starving. You have some money … now what will you do with it? You could (1) use it to build an ivory tower … (2) give some of it away from time to time to help relieve your conscience … or (3) really put it all in the service of those who have nothing.
The option I have chosen most of my life is the middle one, number two—to give money away to good, well-screened causes when the spirit moves me to do so. It makes me feel better about myself to give to those in need. That’s not to say it doesn’t also help those in need, but I am giving away money that I won’t miss. Someday, when I’m feeling better about my financial situation, I’ll give more away.
This middle option is not selfish, and it’s not sacrificial. It’s a hedge. It allows me to remain secure and in control. I’m a good person, darn it, and I’m not especially wealthy! Don’t hold me accountable for more than that!
Often when I hear people talk about this gospel passage, they’re quick to say, “Surely Jesus didn’t mean the man should sell all his possessions! That would just be foolish.” Well, what a fine time to stop taking Jesus literally—right when it makes us personally uncomfortable to do otherwise! What if Jesus did mean it literally? Let’s write the sequel!
The man goes away grieving, but he gets right to work on that grief. It lessens a little bit every time he sells something and gives the money away. Before long he has sold everything, and then he joins Jesus’ band of disciples, and they take care of one another. Together they rely on the kindness of strangers as they wander around Galilee, and they all grow together as a big, unorthodox family. The man never knew he could have such friends—such friends as you can only have when you really need your friends.
Then, on a Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested, and this formerly rich man is there. The next day he witnesses the crucifixion and hears his savior cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is in the upper room with the disciples when the resurrected Christ appears among them and says, “I’m hungry!” He is on that hillside to see Christ ascend in mystery. He is with his dear friends at Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit sets him on fire. He spends the rest of his life—his saved life, his eternal life—building the Church. He writes the fifth gospel in our Bibles. And then he dies a martyr’s death at the hands of Nero. His life is fulfilled, because ever since his encounter with Jesus, he has lived a life of gratitude. And it all started with honesty.
Nope. None of that for this man. It’s too risky. He’ll go back to his comfortable home and eat a delicious meal. He’ll be good to his family and friends and neighbors. He’ll give his share at the temple, because that’s one of the checkboxes. And Jesus will never stop loving him, this dear, frightened child.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword … before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” When it comes to God, there’s no point avoiding honesty.
And so we begin our annual pledge campaign! What a set of readings to begin with. They’re all about honesty. Have you ever experienced God as conspicuously absent in your suffering? Let the Church share in your confusion and sorrow and help carry your many questions.
When witnessing the suffering of others, have you ever experienced God as demanding more of you? Let the Church help get you a little more outside of yourself.
We all make our choices, and sometimes we play it very safe, and at other times the Holy Spirit inspires us truly to dare greatly. Maybe we can’t imagine daring greatly until we bring everything about ourselves, in all our honesty, and deposit it at the altar with all the rest of our stuff, and with everyone else’s stuff, so God can do something new with it all.
It’s time to make a pledge to the Church, and I will give ten percent, not just because that’s a good checkbox, but because others need it more … and because I will miss that much. Letting go of that first ten percent will help me grow. And if it doesn’t, maybe that means I have even more to give, not just to the church, but to people in my life. I can look again at how I spend my time, my energy, my attention.
But that’s just me. What about you? I don’t know what God is asking of you. Only you can discern that. When you pray, do you only talk, or do you listen through the silence? How is the Holy Spirit tugging at your heart? What brutal honesty lies in that silence? And how might that honesty be a first step toward new ways of living your gratitude?