5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B) February 7, 2021

Job 7: 1-4;6-7; Psalm; 147; I Cor. 9: 16-19; 22-23; Mark 1: 29-39

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

The selection from Job certainly contradicts the familiar expression, "as patient as Job," we use to describe someone of long suffering. Turns out, Job is not patient at all. The popular wisdom of the time would have attributed suffering to punishment for wrongs. However, Job feels he has done nothing wrong to deserve such misery. He is not meekly accepting his lot in life, he is vocal, even eloquent, in his protest. His prayer lament loosens our tongues and encourages those of us who feel life has become too burdensome, especially through this long pandemic, to pray in a similar way. Some people don’t think this is a "proper way to speak to God." They feel God is either the source of their misery or that, though they have led good lives and deserve better, God is standing by doing nothing while they are going through distress. Rather than enter into a "shouting match" with God, they keep silent. But this kind of respectful silence harbors resentment and can create a chill in our relationship with God. There is plenty of witness in the Hebrew texts, especially in the psalms, to encourage a more honest expression of our feelings. A complaint to God puts aside false pieties, formalism and "proper etiquette," to express honest feelings to the One who has the power to change things, but seems uninterested, or even impotent.

There certainly are times in our lives when life seems out of control, as if someone with an evil intent is running the show. We ask, "Who’s in charge here?" The evils or hardships we experience can’t possibly be coming from the One who created us, we reason. Job expresses this feeling of being under a harsh sentence when he says he feels like a "hireling," someone working for a hard taskmaster. His days are a "drudgery," he is, he says, a slave working in the hot sun who "longs for the shade." What is troubling is that Job is not being punished for any wrong he has committed. If he were, we would feel less fragile as we read this, we would feel less susceptible to a similar fate. If this misery he so eloquently describes could happen to an innocent person, who would be exempt from something similar? Hearing Job might cause us to feel we are walking on thin ice and any moment we might break through and be overwhelmed by the killing waters beneath.

Even living a good life doesn’t seem to spare us from what looks like the perfidy of the gods. When we hear this Job reading we are tempted to put our hands over our ears and shout at the top of our lungs, as we did when we were kids and didn’t want to hear something. Of course now we behave in a more adult fashion when the unpleasant enters. We change the subject if the conversation is about the divorce of close friends, or a serious sickness that strikes down someone our age. We avoid thinking about the future dire consequences of our present actions. We change the channel when the faces of starving innocent children or weeping victims of war appear.

Let’s not get morose, let’s talk about youth and physical beauty, the athletic and the latest technologies. But it is hard to get Job’s words out of our heads as we hear them at this liturgy. For anyone of us might speak them someday, no matter how prosperous or successful our lives – or good. "I have been assigned months of misery," sound like words from a hospital ward. Is it the intensive care unit separated from loved ones, or the grieving spouse who might say, "troubled nights have been told off for me?"

I look for the grace in this passage; it ends so dismally! – "I shall not see happiness again." Perhaps the somber word of Job, who once prospered but is now in dire straits, is a wake up call to encourage me to keep my eyes and attention fixed on God, and not to trust in the externals of life that can be taken away overnight. I might also learn from Job that when life takes a hard turn I can express myself without inhibition to God and know that God will not strike me dead!

One word of Job’s does stir up hope. He addresses God and says, "REMEMBER that my life is like the wind...." It is spoken by person who realizes that he is not the source of his own being, that he is totally dependent on the One who created him. He is telling the Creator, "Remember what you made when you made me, I am vulnerable, impermanent and can blow away and disappear as easily as the wind. Remember I am nothing, insubstantial and need you for my very existence." It is a word of faith, a word to remind God of the bond God has with the people. Not that God needs reminding – but I do! Job is saying, "You know how I am, so do something about it!" He is challenging God to remember humans are mere wind. Bold speech indeed!

The word for wind used here is "ruah" and it has another possible reference. Ruah also refers to the life force that comes from God. Job may be reminding God how ephemeral his life is (ruah); but at the same time admitting that God is the source of the life breath (ruah) in him. So God can bring life to this frail human and sustain it. Has God forgotten? Of course not and by "reminding" God, Job is actually reminding himself; God remembers what God made and knows it cannot live unless God keeps renewing life in the creature, especially when misery had made that life burdensome.

In today’s gospel Jesus has just left the synagogue where he has driven an unclean spirit from a man and enters the house of Simon and Andrew. He is told that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Notice how succinctly Mark tells the story: Jesus is told about the woman’s condition, he goes over to her, "grasped her hand and helped her up and the fever left her. She immediately began to wait on them." Mark uses rich New Testament expressions to describe the cure, though it sounds ordinary on first hearing. Jesus "helped her up" – this is the same expression in the New Testament that is often used in the resurrection stories. Mark is implying that this person is being given a new life, a life that only the risen Jesus can give.

What does this new life look like? Well, we are told when she was healed the woman "began to wait on them." It sounds like she is doing household chores, "woman’s work." But the word Mark uses is "diakoneo," the word for "church work," or Christian ministry. Thus, Mark is implying that she "waits" on the community and does the work of the community. When people experience new life from Jesus, they are willing and able to serve others. What one receives one wants to share. The mother-in-law is quick in her response, her "work" isn’t taken on grudgingly. The best ministers among us do their work with a sense of joy that seems to come from their own experience of Jesus "raising them up." In fact, believers who do "deaconal" work say they get more out of what they do than they put into it. It is as if, in the midst of their ministry to others, Jesus is taking them by their hand and "raising them up."

There is no easy answer to Job’s problems. He is the innocent sufferer. There is no "solution" to the mystery of suffering. But we do hear today’s gospel showing Jesus’ power over suffering. We know that unlike the fictitious and innocent Job, Jesus is very real, the sinless one who takes on our suffering; who suffers so others can be set free. Not an easy answer either, but a truth to be engaged and celebrated in our liturgy today. What Jesus did for Simon’s mother-in-law he does for us, individually and as a community. He extends a hand to us, raising us up from sin and death to a new life. His new life gives us the power to see the needs of others and respond with energy and joy.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: