10/10/21 – Beyond the Blues


October 10, 2021
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-17; Ps. 22; Heb. 4:12-16; Mk. 10:17-31
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Here are some of the lyrics of an old jazz tune from the 1930’s that Job could have sung:
I gotta right to sing the blues
I gotta right to feel low-down
I gotta right to hang around All I see, for me is – misery
I gotta right to sing the blues
I gotta right to moan and sigh
I gotta right to sit and cryDown around the river

We’ve all felt like that at some time in our lives. For the past 20 chapters, Job has been singing the blues. He has suffered the catastrophic loss of all of his children, all of his possessions, and his health. Job’s situation is the one we fear most — when we lose the control, we thought we had over our lives. It might be a loss in our finances, our health, our hopes for the future, or the loss of someone we never imagined living without. It is that out-of-the-blue, life-changing event that brings us to our knees. In this theological work of historical fiction, we are challenged with the question that has plagued humanity in all times and places: Why do bad things happen to us? What or who do we blame?

The story of Job is set up as a test of Job’s faith, which was devised by God’s quality control expert and chief prosecutor in the heavenly realm. His role, not his name, was in Hebrew, “satan,” meaning “accuser.” The Hebrew word, “satan,” is not to be confused with the Satan of the New Testament, who is the personification of evil. This satan is looking out for God’s interest in the heavenly realm and has suggested to God that Job may not be so faithful were he not so blessed with such good gifts of life. God reluctantly agrees to the test, as long as Job’s life is spared. One of the most salient theological statements made in Job is that it was not God who causes our afflictions.

We enter the story again after three friends have sat Shiva with Job in the ash heap. Sitting shiva is the Jewish custom of spending a week of mourning in the home of the mourner, with a community of family and friends visiting to maintain a constant presence of support. These three friends of Job sat with him for seven days before anyone said anything. Have you ever sat with someone looking together at inexplicable loss? It’s not easy to do. Looking into the face of grief, we want to rush in and fix it or try to explain the inexplicable. Sometimes we need to vent — to be given permission to express our sorrow, our fears, our pain aloud without someone trying to tidy up the mess. Unfortunately for Job, his friends break their silence to do just that. Each of the three friends have explained his suffering from the age-old theology that says: if you have misfortune, it is because you have sinned, and God is punishing you. Repent and your fortunes will be restored. But Job isn’t buying their explanations.

Job contends he has the right to sing the blues. He is angry and bitter towards God, maintaining he has done nothing that should warrant the pain and suffering he is experiencing. His anger bears witness that arguing with God demonstrates great faith, not a lack of faith. Job’s complaint is not that there is no God, but that God is absent from him. God is just not paying attention. Job believes so strongly in the omnipotence and goodness of God that he is convinced if God will just show up, Job will be able to present his case before God and win. The whole book of Job reads like a court procedural. In the next 20 chapters, Job puts God on trial for being asleep at the wheel and causing an accident. The stage is set for the book of Job’s second major theological point: sickness and poverty are not, necessarily, the result of the victim’s actions.

The psalm that accompanies our passage from Job is a familiar Good Friday reading. The psalmist, having experienced a tragic loss cries out: “1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” We recognize those words as Jesus’s cry of anguish on the cross in Matthew’s gospel. The psalms are the only book of the bible in which the author/speaker is an individual or a congregation addressing God.  Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament, as are nearly one-third of the psalms; yet we rarely hear them outside the season of Lent. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann explains:

“The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds.” 1 (The Message of the Psalms, p.52)

Like Job, the psalmist interrupts his cries of lamentation by affirming trust in God’s goodness. Like Job, the psalmist has experienced loss and has sought God to come to the rescue; but feels like God has left the building. Until God’s presence is felt again, the psalmist relies on the memory of God’s past liberating actions, which sustains the faith that God hears the complaints and will, once again, act.

In our gospel reading from Mark, we have a man who, like Job at the beginning of his story, is wealthy and tries to be faithful to God. Matthew adds that the man is young, and Luke describes him as a ruler, hence the conflagration that this is a story of the rich young ruler. Mark merely identifies him as a man. Obviously, he has heard that Jesus knows the way of eternal life. In the gospels, eternal life is a term for God’s kingdom. For Mark eternal life is an expression of God’s inbreaking into the world through Jesus. Eternal life is not confined to life after death but has already entered the world with Jesus’ birth. Jesus’ ministry is to show people how to live in God’s kingdom in the present time, not the hereafter.

The man ingratiates himself before Jesus by kneeling and then flatters with the address, “Good Teacher.” He knows the protocol for success in dealing with people to get what you want. It might work in the wealthy man’s business transactions, but Jesus quickly sets him straight that he isn’t falling for that approach. Jesus refers the man to the last five of the Ten Commandments, all of which address how one is to treat one’s neighbors. Is there something about this wealthy man that Jesus appears to necessitate remembering those commandments? Perhaps a clue is that Jesus lists six  rules to follow, one of which is not one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not defraud.” Perhaps the man has acquired his wealth by fraud and other means of exploiting others for financial gain. If Jesus is giving the man a hint, he doesn’t catch it. He replies with the very bold and immodest claim that he has kept all the laws since childhood. Not even Moses claimed that!

It appears that the man was so sure of his own worthiness before God, that he was banking on Jesus reassuring him he had received his reward based on his own merit. Well, perhaps, Jesus might ask for just a minor adjustment. But Jesus shocked him with the requirement that he make a complete transformation of his life. Jesus responds: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark tells us the man went away “grieving for he had many possessions. (v.22) Jesus was offering the man the opportunity to become one of his disciples that went with him everywhere. But his possessions had such a hold on his life, he could not give them up to follow the One who would guide him to the Kingdom of God. In essence, Jesus was telling us, to quote a Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Jesus knew what the rich man needed. The grace in this passage is that Mark writes: “21Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is the only time in Mark’s gospel we read that Jesus loved an individual. That he “looked at him” is also significant because the words “look” and “see” have particular importance in Mark. These words have the connotation: “I understand.” Jesus understood the man’s weakness and loved him anyway.

Jesus then turns to address his disciples and makes one of the most dreaded statements in the gospels: How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (v.25) There have been many different interpretations that soften the blow of Jesus’ remarks, but none hold water. Though Jesus was using hyperbole with the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle, the intended message is clear. I recall another hyperbolic statement Jesus made with the image of something large entering a small space. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matt. 7:3)

We can always think of people who are richer than we are, can’t we? We can point our fingers at the low-hanging fruit of wealthy politicians refusing to vote for legislation that benefits the poor while supporting legislation that benefits their own bank accounts and those of their major donors. We can look at corporations and their owners who do not pay taxes and take government assistance money to buy more of their own shares, then send jobs overseas to poor countries, which allow very low wages, to further augment their profits. Yet these super-wealthy politicians, who receive large donations from corporations expecting legislative favors, are elected by us. We can always find people richer than we are, but by the same token there are far more people in the world, even in our own communities, who live in poverty. Jesus tells us that when we put our trust in possessions or the status and privilege wealth gives us, we become slaves to it, devoting our lives to keeping what we have and stockpiling more.

The disciples were shocked by Jesus’ statement because they held to the theological assertion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Incredulously they argued: “Then who can be saved?” What the book of Job and our gospel reading for today teach us is that prosperity is not a reward for faithfulness and bad things, like disease and poverty, are not caused by faithlessness. We know that people who do good sometimes suffer and die young and people who do evil sometimes live long and comfortable lives. If prosperity were the consequence of hard work, we would not have single mothers working three jobs, yet still can’t supply their children’s basic needs. We can point to people who inherited wealth and treat the hardworking poor with contempt.

Jesus provides a substitute theology of salvation: “27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Jesus was telling them that they, like the wealthy man, were asking the wrong question. The man wanted to know what he could do to enter the kingdom of God and Jesus had been explaining all along that the kingdom of God is not a prize to be earned. We can’t check off a to-do list of a list of salvific chores. The kingdom of God is revealed in the world when we are transformed from our worldly perspective to see the opportunities to operate in the world with kingdom values. Even that requires God’s enabling power working through us.

The rich man seems to have come to a halt in his journey to the kingdom of God and turned around to return to his original place in the world. Job decided to continue his quest to encounter God. Even though he was angry with God, he still sought God’s presence in his life. Each day we make decisions about how far to go on our faith journey. The Apostle Paul tells us the journey isn’t over until we meet Christ face to face after we have left this world.

We all come to a point where we must decide how far on the journey we can go, with the understanding that as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we aren’t likely to see the outcome. The truth that was so difficult for Job and the rich man to bear is that we can’t manipulate, analyze or predict God. Perhaps the message today is a phrase I have often heard: ‘If we feel abandoned by God, we should abandon ourselves to God.’ We are not to try, like the rich young man, to hold some things in reserve in case God does not come through in the way we want. God held nothing back in Jesus. God gave up everything to live among us, and Jesus gave up everything to save us. Spoiler alert! In the end, this is what Job learns to do, to let God be God and trust in God’s steadfast love and goodness.

Amen. May it be so for us!


1.      Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg Publishing House. Minneapolis, MN. 1984.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
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