Tuesday, October 13, 2015


At the Icon of the Savior - Boris Kustodiev (1910)

This week, somewhat unusually, the Continuous and Thematic lectionary readings have a common resonance. Both culminate in a Gospel passage from Mark, and the thread that runs through all of them is the relation between personal suffering and faith in God. The Book of Job poses the question – why do good people suffer terrible things? It is in this third extract (rather than in next week’s ‘happy ending’) that we find the answer. In response to Job’s cries, and in contrast to all the possible explanations that his human comforters have offered him, God finally answers him. The 'answer' turns out to be a series of questions in fact: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” Though the phrase ‘surely you know’ seems to have an element of ridicule about it, it underlines something important. We owe to God our ‘creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’ (as the General Thanksgiving expresses it), so when the Lord takes away what He has given, he does us no wrong. Still, in our pain and loss we can curse Him, or we can continue to bless Him. That is the very hard choice we face, as Job does. The Psalm that accompanies this reading expressly invites us to choose the second option – ‘Bless the Lord O my soul!’

The Apostles James and John,
 Museum of Santiago Compostela

But the New Testament does not leave the matter there. The Epistle echoes Isaiah’s powerful description (in the Thematic OT reading) of the ‘suffering servant’ ‘wounded for our transgressions’. Building on the idea that we are healed by his bruises, it points to the crucial importance of God’s suffering in Jesus. ‘Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’. The Gospel recounts that somewhat embarrassing occasion when James and John push themselves forward for special treatment in heaven, and thereby reveal how drastically they misunderstand what discipleship means. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ Jesus asks, and to do so without any special promise of glory. ‘We are’ they proudly reply. And so indeed James ultimately proved to be since (Acts tells us) he became the first Apostle to be killed, in a brutal persecution. But by that time, of course, he had a different assurance – Christ’s Resurrection.

The terrible sufferings we see in this world, and sometimes experience for ourselves, constitute a human problem that will not go away. For the Christian, though, suffering is not merely something inexplicable, an unfortunate by-product of evolution. There is meaning to be found in it, if we treat it as a spiritual mystery. In Jesus, God chose suffering for Himself as the way to our salvation. This is a mystery, but the Resurrection is not the happy ending that the Book of Job will offer us next week. It signals the power of love to defeat evil, not by eliminating it, or compensating us for it, but by transcending it.

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