Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament book of Job. Here Job rails against life as “nothing more than pressed service.” He bitterly complained about darkness and finished this reading by saying: “Remember that my life is but a breath, and that my eyes will never again see joy.” Mark’s Gospel continues from last week’s reading where Jesus cured Peter’s mother in law from a fever. After sunset everyone who was sick came to Jesus for healing; he cured the ill and cast out many devils (and commanded them not to speak as they knew who he was). The next morning he went off to pray. But when his followers found him and told him the everyone “is looking for you” Jesus decided to go elsewhere and preach “because that is why I came.”
If you ask your Christian friends which book of the Bible troubles them the most I suspect of them will choose the book of Revelation. It speaks of beasts with multiple horns and multiple heads who do all sorts of evil things. With all due respect to Revelation, I’m most troubled by the book of Job.
And if you ask most Jews or Christians about the book of Job, many will talk about patience without knowing much more about the book. But here’s the thing: it begins with a dialogue between God and “a satan.” We think this “satan” wasn’t the Evil One we think of, but instead as a spy for God. When God brags to to satan about Job’s virtues, God is told that Job is only virtuous because he has been blessed. God then essentially places a bet with this satan. The satan claims that if Job’s wealth is taken away, Job will curse God. God then gives the satan permission to take away everything from Job except his life.
Job then loses his children, his wealth, and his health. Eventually he finds himself sitting on a dung heap, covered with sores, and he is met with three friends who insist that Job must be suffering because he has sinned.
Here we begin our first reading. In response to his friends’ claim, Job proclaimed that his life was meaningless and he would never find joy again. And if our readings stopped here, we would walk away with a pretty dark view of our lives.
But Mark gives us a view that reminds me of an episode of Oprah. First Jesus cures the fever of Peter’s mother in law, then after sunset he “cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; he also cast out many devils.” That’s right: “You get healed! And you get healed! Yes, everyone gets healed!”
When I read this I think it’s too bad that Job was not in the audience. In fairness, at the end of the book of Job his health and wealth were restored but Jesus’ words came long after Job.
I think this happens to all of us. Our lives consist of good things that happen to us and bad things that happen to us and that’s fine but we’re not given a playbook for when these things happen. When many good things happen to us in a row we’re happy with that and don’t think much about them. But when the bad things pile up we tend to wonder why God is punishing us. Volumes of dark humor have been written about how we’re the target of God’s wrath and why it’s happening to us (My favorite: Lou Gehrig, on his deathbed, saying: “Lou Gerhig’s disease. I probably should have seen this coming.”).
But we’re obsessed with the problem of suffering. Like Job, we have no idea why bad things are happening to us, and it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to think that we somehow caused our suffering. Job’s “friends” (in air quotes) spent most of the book of Job insisting that Job’s suffering was somehow his fault. Again and again they claimed that he must have done something wrong, and even if it was unintentional, it was his doing. Job, to his credit, refused to condemn God while claiming that he was not at fault.
If we can find anything valuable in the book of Job it’s this: bad things happen to us for reasons that we don’t understand. We don’t necessarily suffer because of our sins and our suffering doesn’t always have a reason. And so what are we to do with suffering?
I’m going out on a limb here but I think we can find our answer in today’s Gospel. Last week I spoke about how Jesus’ casting out of evil spirits translates into our breaking of bad patterns of behavior. Today I wish to speak about the difference between optimism and hope.
Both hope and optimism are good things and we like to think of ourselves as being both hopeful and optimistic. But they are different and I suspect these readings show us the role they play in our lives. Job was hardly optimistic: no optimist says that “my eyes will never again see joy.” We see optimism in terms of the evidence: the future will be good because we see how the things around us point upward. We can be optimistic about the stock market because the last several productivity reports show an increase. Conversely we can be pessimistic if productivity is down.
Both optimism and pessimism are evidence based. And if we’re Job we can see nothing but bad things ahead. From the moment of the bet between God and the satan, nothing good happened to Job and there was no reason to think anything good was ever going to happen to him.
Job was not optimistic, but he was hopeful. If optimism relies on evidence, hope relies on belief. Simply put, hope is a decision that we make from our belief in God. As much as Job complained, and as much as his “friends” implicated him in his suffering, Job never lost his faith in God and he never condemned God. Job reminds us that no matter how bad things get for us and no matter what we suffer, there is still hope that God is present in our lives. In today’s Gospel we don’t know the cause of the fever or illnesses that Jesus healed. We know nothing of those people and why they were sick, and if they felt (or were told) that they were at fault. All we know is that their suffering ended when Jesus cured them.
I like to think that in the midst of our suffering we can look to these readings. Suffering and pain appear to land on us randomly. While we can pay the price for our mistakes and bad behavior, it’s been my experience that most of the really bad things that happen to us come out of nowhere. Trying to understand why these things happen is both silly and counterproductive. Perhaps we live our best lives as followers of Jesus when we choose hope. We live out best lives when we don’t try to find the cause of suffering but instead put our faith in a God who will deliver us, even if we don’t understand why we need to be delivered.