October 28, 2018 The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

Job 42:1–6, 10–17, Psalm 34:1–8, Hebrews 7:23–28, Mark 10:46–52

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Some weeks ago, I was listening to a story on the radio about the new American embassy in Jerusalem. The story particularly focused on the new embassy’s fame as a tourist destination, especially among American Evangelical Christians. At first, this seems rather odd. Why would the American embassy in Israel be a tourist destination for Christians when there is so much to see and experience in the Holy Land, particularly for Christians, those sites associated with the life and ministry of Jesus? One does not have to drill down too far to discover why Evangelicals might be flocking to the embassy. Many Evangelical Christians have been avid supporters of the state of Israel, not because they wish to stand in solidarity with God’s chosen people (Evangelicals tend to believe that followers of Christ have superseded the Jews as the chosen ones of God). No, their reasons are much more self-serving. Many support Israel because according to their interpretation of certain biblical texts, the second coming of Christ will not happen until the temple has been rebuilt on its original site in Jerusalem, a site now occupied by a mosque, one of the holiest shrines of Islam. The support of the United States for the state of Israel makes the fulfillment of this “prophesy” possible, in their minds. But listening to some who were interviewed for the story also revealed a certain strain of theological thought that, while certainly present in the biblical witness, is not consistent with Christian theology. It is a “cause and effect” structure of thought—if this, then that. One woman summed her support of Israel up succinctly: We are commanded by God to support Israel. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is an act of obedience to God’s command, and the economic prosperity we are currently experiencing in this country is a reward for our obedience. Cause and effect. (And I’m accused of commingling theology and politics!)

Many theological problems are inherent in this point of view, but the most obvious is the twisted understanding of God that emerges. In this theological view, God is a puppet God who hands out rewards to the righteous and punishment to the unrighteous automatically based on the deeds of everyone. Such an understanding could well be corroborated in our Hebrew text from Job. Our text comes from the end of the book after Job suffers great loss on a bet between God and Satan, only to remain steadfast in his faith through all the spurious theological explanations of his friends and encouragements to “curse God and die” from his family. Still, Job doesn’t understand his suffering but believes himself to be innocent and takes his case to God, who dismisses Job’s complaint by appealing to God’s position as the Creator of the universe. God essentially tells Job that his understanding is limited because God is God and Job is not but is rather a creature of the Creator God. In our text for today, following God’s reprimand, Job confesses his complete and utter ignorance to God and repents, humbling himself before the great Creator of the universe. Then the text tells us that “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before,” blessing “the latter days of Job more than his beginnings.” It is tempting to attribute Job’s restored wealth to his righteousness and innocence before God, but that is not the overall picture given. Instead, the book of Job makes it clear that God acts independently (some might even say arbitrarily) toward people. God showers good on some and bad on others seemingly without any attention to the righteousness or unrighteousness of the recipient. Further, God is not obligated to restore fortunes lost once one repents. God could just as easily have allowed Job to continue in his suffering as to restore his wealth, and it seems the only reason God chose the latter was because, despite his sufferings, Job prayed for the well-being of his friends, that is, he reached outside himself out of concern for others.

In the end, we don’t know why some suffer, and some don’t, why some are rewarded, and some aren’t. These things are held in the mystery of God. We are only asked to trust God completely, through both the joys and sorrows of life, believing that God holds us in love whether our suffering ceases or not, or whether we have joys seemingly without end. This was the hard lesson that James and John had to learn in our Gospel reading for last week when they were asked by Jesus to follow him, a path that would lead through the cross rather than to positions of honor in some reconstituted world order with Jesus at the helm. And this is the hard lesson that Peter had to learn in the Gospel reading from the week before when he bragged to Jesus that they had left all for Jesus’ sake and were now looking for their reward. Again, the way of Jesus goes through the cross with no promise of riches or rewards, only a guarantee that abundant life comes through the loss of one’s life for the sake of God and others, and with a further guarantee that even when we have given our all, the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed still rank higher in the kingdom of God than we good religious folk.

Today we encounter blind Bartimaeus. In Jesus’ day, blindness, like other physical maladies, was considered a sign of one’s sinfulness before God; so, Bartimaeus was considered one of the marginal and dispossessed ones, reduced to begging and at the mercy of anyone who would have pity on him. But he hears that Jesus is passing by and he calls out to him in the hope that Jesus would heal him. Now, here it’s important to note that he doesn’t use just any old title for Jesus, but calls him “Son of David,” a particularly political title in which Bartimaeus is asserting the dangerous claim that Jesus is the rightful king in Israel, above Herod and above even Caesar. No wonder the crowd “sternly ordered him to be quiet.” They didn’t want trouble. But he ignores them and cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So, Jesus stops and calls for him. Relieved I suppose that Bartimaeus’ pleading has stopped, the crowd hurries him to Jesus, who asks him what he wants. “My teacher,” he says, “let me see again.” And Jesus grants him his sight, telling him, as he told others, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Now here, “faith” takes on a special meaning. Bartimaeus in his pleading was acknowledging faith in a God whose power and authority far surpasses that of the rulers of the earth. And why shouldn’t he make such an acknowledgement? As one of the “little ones” on the margins of religious life and society, those with power consistently ignore him. His only hope is in God, and he places that hope on full display when Jesus walks by. So, the faith that healed him is not merely belief that Jesus could restore his sight, but trust in a God bigger than the created world, on whom he has relied even amid his blindness. He knows he is one of the little ones, and he knows God is on his side. But notice what happens once he receives his sight. He does not go and take a new place in society. He does not go and show himself to the religious leaders to declare him well and clean in God’s eyes. No, the text says he follows Jesus on the way. As it was before he received his sight, so it will be after he received his sight. He will continue a life of obedient trust in his joy as he did in his sorrow; and he will do so on a path that leads right through the cross, giving up his life for the sake of others as one who has been “an other” and whose life was already hidden in God. In this, he is aligned with Job who trusted God in both the joys and sorrows of life, and who, even amid his suffering, was concerned for others. And in this, blind Bartimaeus becomes an example to the disciples too “blinded” by their own arrogance, misunderstanding, and lust for power to understand fully the ramifications of walking in the way of the cross. So often, it takes the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed to teach us a thing or two about the all-encompassing nature of faith and trust. But do we listen? Can we listen? Amen.

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