Today, two of the readings for the Daily Office, Job 12:1-6, 13-25 and the Gospel according to John 8:21-32, inform each other. Job was right all along. And haven’t we all had to put up with helpful friends with their pop-psychology, unwanted and unneeded interventions, and false assumptions? They insisted he was delusional. He was secretly a sinner. They would root it out and he could reach out to God for mercy and reconciliation. But he stood strong. Even in the tragic loss of his sons and daughters and a terrible skin condition. Satan held to his vow and he didn’t kill him. But Job periodically begged for that death, in misery and confusion. Why me, he moaned? What did I do? I was a good man, obedient to my God. How could that happen to me?
The reading for this morning spells it out, somewhat bitterly but never disrespectfully: God is God. Job describes his world, and ours, by the way, as one where the robbers and blasphemers are rewarded. That tears into his heart as he proclaims his acceptance of it. A quick look at cable news or the NY Times or WaPo should bring us to cry that same lamentation.
What Job ultimately discovers is that God is indeed God, and before God’s voice lists the wonders God as creator had wrought, Job has discovered that for himself. And the final answer is that the Creation is dynamic. We now know that galaxies crash into one another, stars are destroyed, and God only knows, literally, how many planet’s lives are destroyed in the dance of the universe. In a like manner, humankind acts against itself, and sometimes the powerful, cruel, selfish, and ungodly will win. And God does not step in. Not yet. That time had not come. Ultimately, Job falls on his face before God in sackcloth and ashes and confesses, not that he was wrong and a sinner, but that in the face of God none of that matters. We belong to God, body and soul, and God disposes. If it is ofGod, it is Good and True. Job surrenders to God in obedience, fear, and love. Job submits to the Presence of the Holy One. He confesses his error, but not quite the one which his helpful friends insist he confess. He confesses a deeper error. Until he submits to the Holy One, nothing matters. All else is, as Thomas Aquinas said, straw.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a Eucharist with a small fellowship group. We do a joint sermon. What did we hear? What can we share? What can we learn for one another? The lection was Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard who receive equal pay for unequal work hours (Mt 20:1-16). It quickly became an issue of fairness, with a lot of Marxian dialectic thrown in. That is where a lot of our social justice movement has gone, and without doubt it is good. But it is also a distraction. I suggested the meaning was that the generous landowner was God, and it teaches that a late convert is as redeemed as a cradle Christian. All that really counts is what the landlord gives. God’s mind is above ours and we can only submit with gratitude and obey the will of God. When I said that I got a lot of push back. “I don’t believe God owns me.” “Overthrow the unfair landowner.” But the owner of the land is God. This is about salvation, not about fair wages. We live in a very materialistic world. We honor fairness, and fairness amongst people is fair enough. But God created and owns us. God is King, Lord, Master. In the U.S. we have a particular knee jerk reaction to the word “slave,” but slavery in 1st century was very different. It wasn’t race, although it could be nationality. In Rome, the Empire was being run by freemen and freewomen, who had bought their freedom and gained full Roman citizenship. So to be a slave to the Holy One was not the same as being a slave to Massa in the South in 1860. And we are having a hard time separating ourselves from that terrible historical time and place. And we hate the loss of our independence. Surrender is off the table. But this is a lesson Job learns, a hard one brought on by this odd pact between God and Satan. This is a lesson of profound spiritual Grace. Surrender to God, for God alone is blameless. We must remember, this is just a teaching tale, and like a good fairytale, some people die. The lesson is not about fairness, but about salvation.
The irony is that submission to the Holy One is the solution to all human inequality: class, race, gender, economic and academic status. It is the quintessential expression of the meekness, the spiritual simplicity, the childlike humility which Jesus repeatedly teaches is the Way to salvation. It crushes pride, self-aggrandizement, and the notion that we can bootstrap ourselves to perfection and earn God’s love.
In the Gospel passage from John, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is going to where they cannot go. Jesus explains that they are confused because, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” (Jn 8: 23) And we are taught in the Great Priestly Prayer to be in the world and not of it. Jesus goes on to say:
When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him . . .If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (Jn 8: 28-29, 31-32)
What is this freedom? If we search around the Gospels and Epistles we find the irony that we find freedom if we submit and become slaves, and then children of the Father in Christ. This is a complex teaching about obedience and submission. One where the Great and the Good, those who believe they are following the law are, like Job, called to task in the face of a greater good.
Submission is not easy nor is it the call for everyone. It is a state of being as totally in the Holy One as one can be in our incarnate life. But it is the Way to whatever degree we can. I see more and more identity theology, and that is “all about me,” not all about Jesus Christ. The fine line is that we, as the Body of Christ, are called to yield our egos, our good works, and our passions unless they come from true compassion and love. St. Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospels you believe in, but yourself.” And following Jesus is not all unicorns and rainbows. It is hard. It calls for sacrifice. And submission to the will of God. Job learned that. Jesus always knew that. In this commercialized, competitive, and angry generation, it is now our time to buck the trend of false human-centered freedom and turn back to God’s truth and true freedom.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California