Daily homilies at the Arundel and Brighton Clergy Retreat: 27/9

Daily homilies by the Prior of Pluscarden at the Arundel and Brighton Clergy Retreat, 27-30 September 2016

Tuesday Week 26 Year II; 27 September 2016: Job 3:1-3,11-17,20-23. Luke 9:51-56

This week the liturgy gives us a few small selections to read from the Book of Job. Quite apart from its status as a book in Holy Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Book of Job must surely be reckoned as one of the great poetic masterpieces in all world literature. In the figure of Job, the author confronts the problem of evil, and especially of innocent suffering. He writes as an intensely religious man, entirely within the framework of Old Testament Judaism. Yet he resolutely refuses to accept the easy answers offered by conventional Jewish piety. What answer does he offer instead? Only a determined refusal to abandon trust in God. Only the conviction that since God is all good, and all powerful, there must somehow be an answer somewhere. If we are not yet given to understand that answer, perhaps that is because our understanding is too limited. Or perhaps God will make known his answer later on.

We Christians of course understand that in the suffering and the victory of Christ, we are given the ultimate answer to Job’s moral and religious problem. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we know that innocent suffering will indeed one day be vindicated, not just in fiction, or in fairy tale, but in fact. We know also that the person who suffers will be drawn into union with Christ in a privileged way. These are good and true answers to the questions raised by the author of Job.

But in the meantime, what about those whose life remains, nevertheless, an experience of extreme suffering?

Today we hear Job express, as it were from the inside, this experience. He does so in poetry, marked by Hebrew conventions of parallelism, and rhetorical inventiveness. Our passage today really only gives a flavour of the whole poem, which it severely abbreviates. Still, today we hear Job curse: fluently, nobly, beautifully. We note at once that Job never comes near to cursing God. No foul or angry word passes his lips. If he seems to express despair, he nevertheless never approaches a suggestion of suicide. So Job remains always the religious man, the moral man, the upright and innocent man. But he suffers, to an extreme degree, and he does not understand why.

In the first place, then, Job curses the day of his birth, and the night on which he was conceived. And he asks questions. Why be born at all, if it’s only to endure so much suffering? Why exist, if non-existence would seem so preferable? Why carry on living, if escape into death seems so desirable?

Surely we all know people in our time who would willingly echo these sentiments. They too ask where is God, when he seems to be so absent? Why should the innocent have to suffer so much? Some people who are terribly afflicted ask indeed with Job: is the gift of our existence a blessing from God, or is it rather a curse?

Paradoxically, the beginnings of an answer to these questions is hinted at by the sheer beauty of the poetry in the book of Job. If such anguish can produce such sublime movements of thought and language, then certainly human life is more than meaningless passivity; more than a mere cry into the void. The longing for justice, for meaning, for ultimate purpose in life is common to all peoples in all cultures. It’s innate in us: we cannot get rid of it even if we try. We Christians believe that that longing is indeed given us by God, and is met, or answered, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus shows us that trust in God actually is still possible, no matter how terrible our circumstances or state of mind. Jesus proves that God does indeed love us; and that this love is invincible. Nothing whatever can take it away from us. And in that love our life - any human life - finds its true meaning, its purpose, its authentic flourishing.

Like Job, Jesus experienced suffering from the inside. But he showed, in a way Job could not, that this suffering was not merely pointless. On the contrary, it was his supreme way of expressing his love for his Father, and for all of us.

Today’s Gospel marks the turning point in St. Luke’s narrative, when Jesus decisively turns his face towards Jerusalem. And he immediately encounters - in a small way, that nevertheless anticipates his passion - the wilful rejection of men. So James and John suggest that fire be called down from heaven to consume those dreadful Samaritans. This is the alternative temptation to that of Job. Instead of meeting suffering with despair, and abandonment of hope, we can react to those who cause our pain with anger and violence.

But Jesus rejects both temptations. St. Luke tells us that he turned and rebuked James and John. His face must have been a terrible sight to those Apostles at that moment. No: Jesus carried on, on his way to Jerusalem. There he accomplished his death and resurrection. And in that, every human life is in principle touched by invincible blessing. In Jesus all our darkness is turned into light; all our despair into hope, all our wretchedness into glory, all our death into eternal life.