3rd Sunday before Advent

31 October 2019

Job 19.23-27a; Psalm 17.1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-end; Luke 20.27-38

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THE context of Job’s “act of confidence” in the first reading is one of “bitter pain and protest” (Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-talk and the suffering of the innocent). Job has just rejected the arguments of his friends, who say that misfortune and wickedness go together (cf. Job 18). The intensity of his suffering bears no relation to his deserts.

Paradoxically, Job’s cry expresses great confidence in God as his vindicator. As Gutierrez writes, “Job does not cease to hope in God, and this very confidence is one more element in the heartbreak he is experiencing.” Earlier in the book, Job has asserted both the impossibility of finding an arbiter in his suit against God, and at the same time its necessity (9.33-35). In this passage, he declares his confidence that God himself will be his “Redeemer” (go’el). “It might almost be said that Job splits God in two,” for he both “experiences God as an enemy” and yet “knows him at the same time to be truly a friend”.

Instead of providing us with a comprehensive explanation of the reasons that an all-powerful God tolerates such extensive and sometimes soul-destroying suffering, the biblical authors cry out in protest against unjust suffering — in psalmody, prophecy, and prayer. Job is one of many who lament the gap between God’s loving purposes for his children and the suffering and oppression that they endure.

Job declares “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and that “at the last” he will stand before him. In Gutierrez’s words, Job believes that “God’s will that human beings should live is stronger than anything else, and represents God’s final word.” This hope stands at the heart of the Christian observance of Remembrance Sunday. It is the hope that Jesus vindicates in our Gospel reading.

The Sadducees were among the most prosperous people — and the most closely aligned with their Roman occupiers — in Jewish society (Judith Lieu, Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke). They, therefore, felt less keenly the gap between the justice of God and the injustice of the world. This may explain their failure to recognise the need for any eschatological resolution.

The scenario that they present to Jesus, intended as a reductio ad absurdum of resurrection faith, in fact reveals the limitations of their earth-bound world-view. In response, Jesus rejects the leaden literalism with which they imagine the life to come. The new creation cannot be fully conceived from within the confines of the old (1 Corinthians 2.9).

As Pope Benedict XVI explains, the reply of Jesus to the Sadducees draws out the implications of God’s self-revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that is “both exciting and wonderfully simple”. Jesus points out that “those who have been called by God are themselves part of the concept of God. It would turn God into a God of the dead, and thus stand the Old Testament on its head, if one declared that those who belong to him who is Life are themselves dead” (Eschatology: Death and eternal life).

In the face of intense and unjust suffering, scripture invites us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5.7). We are to trust that God has taken that suffering upon himself in Jesus Christ, and that his loving purposes will have the “final word”. But the New Testament also warns against the temptation to excessive speculation about the timing of this final consummation (e.g. Matthew 24.36; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-3).

In our epistle, Paul does not want the Thessalonians to be “shaken or alarmed” by false rumours that Jesus had already returned. Commenting on this passage, St Augustine links it with Paul’s earlier warnings against speculation about the date of Jesus’s return in glory. His concern is that the Thessalonians should continue to witness faithfully, instead of either becoming “alarmed” that Jesus has already returned, or ceasing to live in the lively hope of his return. The day of Jesus’s return is kept secret, so that each generation of Christians learns “to await the coming of their Lord fully prepared and ready for the journey, with lamps burning”.

In a world with so much unjust suffering, our lections are a summons to faithful endurance and witness. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have the assurance that God is indeed “the Saviour of all those who seek refuge [at his] right hand” (Psalm 17.7).

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