Proper 23: Job 23.1-9, 16-end; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4.12-end; Mark 10.17-31
O God, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE English version of the collect for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, which Archbishop Cranmer adopted for the 1549 Prayer Book, is not a precise translation of its Latin source. Where the original began with a petition for the direction of the Holy Spirit — because without God, we cannot please God — its English adaptation begins with relationship, and only then prays for the Holy Spirit’s help in making our acknowledgement of God into something life-shaping.
The prayer’s focus on our relationship with God finds ready counterparts in the passages set for this Sunday. Job speaks in reply to the first delivery in a third round of speeches by the three people known traditionally as his comforters. Eliphaz has just ascribed Job’s misfortunes to his moral failings, and has suggested that Job does not think that God has much to do with human beings (Job 22.1-21).
Job’s response absolutely denies this allegation. Rather than disregard God, he longs to find him, so that he can plead his cause. He longs for God to listen to him (Job 23.3-7), and yet God cannot be found. Here, as in other places of this book, a skilful piece of parody follows.
The God of Psalm 139, who is always there, no matter how hard his creatures try to distance themselves from him (Psalm 139.6-11), seems to have vanished (Job 23.8-9).
Job’s terror at this state of affairs is better grasped by reading the verses that the lectionary omits (Job 23.10-15). He knows that he has kept God’s commandments but, at the same time, he knows that this may have nothing to do with God’s purpose for him (Job 23.11-14). It would be much less frightening to meet this God face to face in judgement than to live by guesswork.
The writer to the Hebrews has considered this matter from a very different angle. In a world perhaps 500 years away, he presents a God who is not radically absent, but radically present. The letter begins by insisting that God has always related to humanity by speaking, once through prophets, but now through his Son (Hebrews 1.1-3).
Earlier generations hardened their hearts against this word, but the present audience has a new opportunity to be part of the “rest”, the culmination of all God’s saving work in the Kingdom, where the Son who suffered is glorified (Hebrews 4.1-7).
There will be no hiding places for anyone with insincere intentions, because the God who speaks also sees and judges. This judgement is not just external, because, as the collect has already suggested, God works from the inside, dissecting us so that nothing is uninspected (Hebrews 4.12-13).
This would be utterly terrifying (and there is certainly no room for complacency), were it not for the key difference, which puts the audience in a position entirely unlike that of their ancestors: “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Hebrews 4.14).
Just as there is nothing that God does not know about us, so there is no part of our weakness that the incarnate Jesus has not inhabited, no test that he has not faced (Hebrews 2.14-18). With such powerful advocacy, the followers of Jesus can be brave in coming to God in the expectation of grace and mercy (Hebrews 4.16).
The Gospel reading adds a further element to this gracious gaze of God. The rich young man who wants to share in the good news (Mark 10.17) can assert in good conscience that he has kept the commandments — that his life stands up to inspection (Mark 10.19-20). He, however, cannot stand being looked at with a love that wants nothing from him except the growth into a deep relationship with God which appears to entail the loss of all material security (Mark 10.21-22).
Following a now familiar pattern, Jesus explains the meaning of this encounter privately to the disciples, who wonder whether they have all been duped, and whether there may be nothing at the end of this journey after all (Mark 10.28). Jesus’s answer is comforting, stern, and mysterious. What is certain is this: the future embarked on by all who have turned all their priorities upside down in response to the “good news” will be in the company of the God who is both Jesus’s Father and theirs (Mark 10.29-30).