Getting Mouthy with God
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
How mouthy are we allowed to get with God? In the case of Bartimaeus with Jesus in today’s Gospel, speaking up seems to pay off. He keeps shouting over a crowd that orders him to be quiet. Jesus calls him over, asks him what he wants and gives it to him immediately. He’s not punished for being presumptuous; in fact, he’s seemingly rewarded for his faith. This all sounds great, until you consider how this might sound to Job in today’s first reading. Speaking up didn’t exactly pay off for Job, at least not in the ways he anticipated. After losing his property, his children and his health for no good reason, he gets exquisitely mouthy with God. He questions God’s justice more eloquently than perhaps anyone ever has – but it’s only after he backs down that the tide of good fortune turns again. Which is it – do we shout or keep silent when we’re suffering? Is it even possible to steer God’s mercy and healing our way?
We might say that it depends on the God we’re dealing with – the compassionate God revealed in Jesus or the uncontainable God depicted in Job. Personally, I prefer a non-binary approach. We get a fuller picture of God when we look at all of it and see how these stories speak to each other.
You could say that the Gospel is about Bartimaeus and his good choices. He’s never seen Jesus, but he’s heard enough to believe that mercy’s a reasonable ask. He knows what he’s blind to and has the courage to say simply what he needs. He trusts in the consistency of Jesus’ character, and in case we needed proof that his faith is legit, he doesn’t leave when he gets the healing he came for. He uses his sight to follow Jesus on the way. We could make Bartimaeus the hero of this story, but I’m not sure that’s really good news for us. It’s Jesus we’re asked to trust. How does he fare here?
Well, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has just told the disciples for the third time that he’s about to be executed - just days from now, in fact. And how does his inner circle respond? They ignore him completely and start jockeying for position. He could have centered in on his own pain and isolation at this point, but he doesn’t. He has mercy and healing to give, so he offers it. And while he’s at it, he lifts up something positive in Bartimaeus and names it out loud. He’s not about rewarding Bartimaeus’ good behavior any more than he’s about punishing the disciples for their failures; he offers healing because that’s who Jesus is.
If the folktale and poetry of Job have been successful at anything over the centuries, it’s been dismantling the whole edifice we’ve constructed around divine reward and punishment. We might not know what to build in its place, but we do know it’s not that simple. We can’t force God’s hand with our obedience any more than we can make God reject us with our disobedience. God is not bound to any of our rules. That’s part of Job’s problem.
It’s tricky to track the first part of our reading today, in part because Job uses some of his air time to quote God back to him. He’s finally having his day in court, sort of. He’s been begging God to show up and make the case against him. He knows he hasn’t done anything to deserve these losses. After railing against God and his friends for chapter upon chapter, Job at last encounters God in a whirlwind. But instead of getting answers, he gets more questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?...Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” Today we have Job’s final response. He readily admits God’s power and his own ignorance, but it’s his last line I want to focus on.
Unfortunately, our translation gets it wrong. Normally I don’t get into the tall weeds like this in a sermon, but this is too important. We read, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Do we really need to despise ourselves in order to reconcile with God? I don’t question Job’s repentance, his turning from his own constructs of right and wrong to the God who cannot be contained by our limited sense of justice. Nor do I question his acknowledgment of his own mortality. Compared to God, we are all dust and ashes. That’s not self-abasement; it’s realistic.
It’s the first part of the line I can’t accept. The phrase “I despise myself” – there are lots of ways to translate it. The verb could mean “to despise or reject,” but it could also mean to yield or recant. And no direct object is given in the Hebrew. We’re not told what he’s despising or rejecting. The fact that our translators chose “self” as the object perhaps says more about them than it does about the text. Job has just been talking about his own ignorant words; maybe that’s what he’s rejecting. Or maybe he’s simply yielding to God’s power and hanging up the gloves for a while. I don’t see how anyone who encounters the incalculable beauty of creation as Job does here, who’s told repeatedly by God that he is part of that stunning picture, who finally sees whatever is to be seen of God - could then despise himself as a result with God’s apparent approval. Job learns something far more profound and freeing here than self-hatred. As biblical scholar Samuel Terrien once put it, Job learns that he can’t turn “his morality into a lever for securing ultimate autonomy.” In other words, we can’t argue our way out of our dependence on God, nor can we use our own behavior to force God’s hand.
Of course, God leaves many of our questions about divine justice on the table. We don’t get many answers. I like how Robert Frost phrases it in “A Masque of Reason,” his “midrash” on Job. In the poem, Job tells God: “We don’t know where we are, or who we are. We don’t know one another; don’t know You; Don’t know what time it is…Oh, we know well enough to go ahead with. I mean we seem to know enough to act on.” He wants more than that, of course – but I wonder this morning if that might be enough.
In Job’s case, what does he do with his newfound knowledge? He starts by taking himself out of his own spotlight. He prays for his friends, the very ones who gave him bad advice chapters before. If, as Geoffrey says, an antidote to anxiety is giving and an antidote to anger is serving, then perhaps an antidote to self-pity could be prayer – prayer for those in our lives who don’t know what God’s doing either. But Job doesn’t stop there. He welcomes the brothers and sisters who have seemingly been absent up to now, and he lets them comfort him. He even lets them give to him, when I’m guessing pride might have stopped him before. And then - you knew I was going to point this out – he gives his new daughters an inheritance along with his new sons. That wasn’t done at the time; back then, daughters would only inherit if there were no sons. But perhaps his own experience of random injustice made him more sensitive to when others were getting a raw deal.
But let’s be clear - Job doesn’t pray, serve or give here to earn a reward; he does it out of gratitude for the God who refuses to play that game, who’s just fine with us being mouthy, and who ends up offering mercy and healing because that’s who God is. In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider what you know enough about today to act upon. Who needs your prayers, your service, your generosity? How might they help you step out of your own spotlight? In the Name of the One who’s both compassionate and uncontainable, Amen.