Scripture and the Liturgy

Is Life a Drudgery? 5th Sun. of OT

I went to a public high school in Hawaii back in the late 1980s, and the social group I hung out with had more than its share of young cynics. For some reason, it was cool to be morose, and one of my buddies was fond of responding to anyone’s account of some problem or difficulty that they were facing with the lovely couplet, “Well, life s**ks, then you die.” At the time, we thought it was amusing, a kind of gallows humor. But in hindsight, I regret showing any approval for such expressions of pessimism.

Life is difficult, but it is neither helpful nor virtuous to utter expressions of stoic fatalism. The true virtue, the true courage, is to maintain hope (and also love and joy) in the face of what can sometimes look and feel like an ocean of darkness.

This Sunday’s readings raise the problem of the great sorrows of life, the reverses, difficulties, and especially illnesses that can seem to sap life of all joy. Yet in the Gospel, Jesus travels through Galilee relieving the ills and oppressions which have reduced so many to a life of “drudgery.” The readings leave us to ponder, how is it that even today, Jesus still comes to us to heal our brokenheartedness, restoring joy and hope?

First Reading | Job 7:1–4, 6–7

Is not life on earth a drudgery,
its days like those of a hireling?

Like a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for wages,

So I have been assigned months of futility,
and troubled nights have been counted off for me.

When I lie down I say, “When shall I arise?”
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.

My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;
they come to an end without hope.

Remember that my life is like the wind;
my eye will not see happiness again.

This Sunday is one of only two occasions (the other being the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B) that we hear the Book of Job proclaimed on a Lord’s Day or Feast Day, so it seems fitting to discuss a little bit more about this book, which is somewhat neglected in the contemporary Lectionary.

In dramatic format, the book of Job recounts the life and sufferings of a righteous Gentile of ancient times as he undergoes prosperity, disaster, depression, and—finally—restoration during a period of painful testing by YHWH. The book is a masterpiece of world literature and the Old Testament’s most direct treatment of the problem of evil and theodicy—that is, the justice of God.

Unlike some of the poetical books, Job is considered canonical in all traditions. Indeed, from ancient times right up to today, it remains one of the most popular and widely read books in the Old Testament. It takes its name from the main character: “Job” (Hebrew, ’iyyob; Greek, Iōb; Latin, Liber Iob). The meaning of Job’s name is uncertain, but it may be derived from a Semitic root meaning “enmity” or “adversity.”

The text of the book is relatively stable, and most ancient versions read similarly to the Hebrew. The exception is the original Septuagint, which preserved a somewhat shorter form of the book that is apparently condensed from the longer Hebrew. Origen replaced the verses missing from the Septuagint with verses from another Greek translation (that of Theodotion) to produce the form of the text widely used in the early Church.

In the Jewish tradition, Job falls in the third canonical division, the “Writings” (Hebrew, ketuvim), and is usually placed immediately after the Psalms. In the Christian tradition, Job ordinarily appears as the first of the poetic books, or wisdom literature. The reason for this appears to be based on the traditional identification of Job with “Jobab, the son of Zerah,” one of the ancient kings of Edom (see Gen 36:33), a land that, though Gentile, was known for its wisdom (see Obad 8–9). From this point of view, Job would be set either in the patriarchal or pre-patriarchal age and thus in an earlier time period than that presumed by any of the other books of poetry, which are largely associated with the Davidic and Solomonic eras. It may also be the case that the prose prologue and epilogue of the book (Job 1–2; 42:7–16) function as a kind of generic bridge between the historical books and the wisdom literature.

The book of Job is structured like a drama or play—in fact, it can and has been dramatized on the stage. The literary structure is extremely clear: a “narrator” delivers a prose prologue (Job 1–2) and epilogue (Job 42:7–16) that surround the “action” (Job 3:1–42:6), which consists of spoken parts for six characters: Job; his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar; a young man named Elihu; and God himself.

In addition to the typological value of the figure of Job, the book was also cherished for the significant contribution it makes to the doctrine of providence—that is, the way in which we understand God’s sovereignty over creation and history and how he guides all things to a good end: namely, himself. For example, in the Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas chose the book of Job as the object of one of his most detailed scriptural commentaries and has this to say about its role in the canon:

This opinion [that all things are governed by chance] . . . is found to be especially harmful to the human race, for if divine providence is taken away, no reverence for or fear of God based on truth will remain among men. Anyone can discern easily enough how great an apathy toward virtue and a proneness to vice follow from this condition. . . . For this reason, the first and most important concern of those who pursued wisdom in a divine spirit for the instruction of others was to remove this belief from the hearts of men. Therefore, after the giving of the Law and the Prophets, the Book of Job is placed first in the number of the Hagiographa, that is, the books written wisely through the Spirit of God for the instruction of men, the whole intention of which turns on showing through plausible arguments that human affairs are ruled by divine providence.[1]

This is a remarkable insight into the canonical function of Job. Aquinas rightly recognizes that before people can be led to the praise of God and the pursuit of wisdom found in the Psalter and Solomonic literature, one must first deal with the question of why there is suffering and whether a God who permits such suffering is indeed just and worthy of praise. In modern times, in which the doctrine of providence has been very much eclipsed by a secular worldview that attributes all things to chance, the book of Job continues to have a key role to play in the living tradition.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the question of how suffering relates to sin. Indeed, one of the most pressing and universal issues that arises in the course of human life is the question: “Why am I suffering so much? Is God punishing me for my sins?”

In his teaching on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Pope Saint John Paul II used the book of Job as an inspired example of the fact that not all suffering is the direct result of a person’s sins. Like Job before them, the innocent can and do experience suffering:

A judgement that views suffering exclusively as a punishment for sin runs counter to love for man. This had appeared already in the case of Job’s “comforters” who accuse him with arguments based on a conception of justice devoid of any opening to love (cf. Job 4ff.). One sees it still better in the case of the man born blind: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). It is like pointing the finger against someone. It is a judgement which passes from suffering seen as a physical torment, to that understood as a punishment for sin: someone must have sinned, either the man in question or his parents. It is a moral imputation: he suffers, therefore he must be guilty.

To put an end to this petty and unjust way of thinking, it was necessary to reveal in its essential profundity the mystery of the suffering of the Innocent One, the Holy One, the “Man of Sorrows!” Ever since Christ chose the Cross and died on Golgotha, all who suffer, especially those who suffer without fault, can come face-to-face with the “Holy One who suffers” and find in his passion the complete truth about suffering, its full meaning and its importance.”

In the light of this truth, all those who suffer can feel called to share in the work of Redemption accomplished by means of the Cross.[2]

Perhaps more than any other aspect of Job, it is the insistent message of the book that sin and suffering do not always have a direct causal relationship that has the power to speak to every human being who has ever experienced the feeling of being abandoned or punished by God in the midst of suffering.[3][MC1] 

Responsorial Psalm | Psalm 147:1–2, 3–4, 5–6

R. (cf. 3a) Sing praise to our God, [who heals] the brokenhearted.

How good to sing praise to our God;

how pleasant to give fitting praise.

The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem,

and gathers the dispersed of Israel,

R. Sing praise to our God, [who heals] the brokenhearted.

Healing the brokenhearted,

and binding up their wounds.

He numbers the stars,

and gives to all of them their names.

R. Sing praise to our God, [who heals] the brokenhearted.

Great is our Lord, vast in power,

with wisdom beyond measure.

The Lord gives aid to the poor,

but casts the wicked to the ground.

R. Sing praise to our God, [who heals] the brokenhearted.

Psalm 147 is one of the five great “Hallelujah” psalms that conclude the Book of Psalms. Psalms 146–150 all begin with the Hebrew phrase “Hallelu-Yah,” which means “Praise the Lord!” These psalms were either composed specifically or else edited and arranged to be a fivefold conclusion to the entire book. Psalm 147 focuses on thankfulness to God for a miracle that he worked: against all expectation, he restored the people of Judah to their land (after exile to Babylon) and allowed them to rebuild their spiritual capital (Jerusalem) and the Temple.

This psalm compares the wonders that God works in nature with the wonders he has worked for his people in salvation history. In this, the psalm emphasizes a theme also characteristic of the Book of Job, namely, that the God of Creation is also the God of Redemption, that the God who established the laws of physics also established the moral law. Psalm 147 looks at both orders, the order of creation and the order of redemption, and observes in both reasons to give praise to God. In nature, we see God’s kindness in providing food for wild animals; in salvation history, we see God’s kindness in restoring the exiled Judeans to their land. Thus, there are signs in all of reality that God lifts up the brokenhearted.

Second Reading | 1 Corinthians 9:16–19, 22–23

If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.

The Second Readings at this time of year are marching through 1 Corinthians in order, so we do not find a close integration of them with the other readings. Nonetheless, we do find St. Paul speaking of experiencing suffering, becoming a “slave” of all and experiencing weakness with the “weak.” This gives us a different perspective on the reality of suffering: we find that the desire to spread the Gospel can give us the desire and the strength to endure the hardships of this life and even to go beyond, to share the hardships of others, for the sake of the Good News. St. Paul wishes that he “too may have a share in it.” What is this “share”? It is participation in heaven, in the eternal communion with God that Jesus has made possible for us. This is a happy future that Job did not clearly see, although he had a strong yet vague sense that God would vindicate him in the life to come.

Gospel | Mark 1:29–39

On leaving the synagogue [Jesus] entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them. When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Here we see Jesus traveling throughout Galilee, relieving the sufferings that people experience in this fallen world: illnesses, demonic possession, various diseases. These are evils that entered the world due to the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Jesus’s presence “takes us back to Eden,” to before sin entered the world. He restores health and wholeness and delivers people from the bondage to Satan to which Adam and Eve voluntarily submitted themselves and their descendants. In this way, Jesus fulfils prophecies that the Messiah would restore Eden:

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;

The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them. (Isa 11:6)

I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the country of wild beasts so they will dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the forests. I will settle them around my hill and send rain in its season, the blessing of abundant rain. (Ezek 34:25–26)

Jesus shows himself to be compassionate, wanting to alleviate all the undeserved suffering of innocent and powerless people, who, like Job, suffer through no fault of their own but because of the sins of others and the wiles of the devil.

And so the Church, following in her Lord’s footsteps, has always seen it as a priority to alleviate suffering however possible. The Church prays for healing and provides sacraments for the sick; she is also the mother of the hospital, the modern medical profession, the nursing profession, and the idea of “health care.” At various times, the Church is blessed with persons who have the charism of supernatural healing.

However, in the context of this Mass, we are invited to remember that the worst kind of suffering and sickness is soul sickness, which is the result of sin. And Jesus still goes around touching us, even physically, through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation, both of which have healing power. If we are willing to let go our tight grasp of our sins, Jesus will take them away and return us to “Eden,” a state of sinlessness and freedom from the domination of Satan. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is especially powerful in that regard. Let’s get to confession this weekend and then receive the Eucharist in a state of grace so that we can experience the healing power of Jesus in our lives today.

We also observe our Lord giving an importance lesson on the necessity of prayer. Although he was the son of God and in constant communion with his Father, he still found it necessary to seek out solitude in order to converse with his Father in prayer. The text implies that it was through prayer that Jesus discerned the next step in his vocation: to go on to other villages, since that was his mission. If the incarnate son of God needed to seek solitude to commune with the Father, how much more so do we? Yet we are full of excuses and rationalizations to avoid spending that time in prayer. Whenever we sit down or kneel to pray, we remember all those things we “have to do.” Yet strangely, these things never come to mind when we are watching “the game” or cute cat videos on YouTube. It’s almost as if the evil one reminds us of loose ends and obligations to distract us from the prayer he knows we need in order to discern God’s will for our lives. Yet “we are not unaware of the devil’s designs” (2 Cor 2:11), and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can fight through the battle of distracting thoughts to commune with God. It is good to use natural means: a set time, a quite place, a prayer journal to jot thoughts and interior locutions, perhaps a book to prompt us in our conversation with God—but ultimately it is the Spirit within us who prays (Rom 8:26-27), even when we don’t know what to say. Sometimes our prayer “goes well” and sometimes it seems “dry,” but if we offer our time to God with sincerity we can be assured that God has worked on our soul and the fruit will come at the right time (Mark 4:26-28).

[1] Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition on Job: A Scriptural Commentary concerning Divine Providence, trans. Anthony Damico and Martin D. Yaffe, Classics in Religious Studies 7 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 68, quoted in John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2018), 555.

[2] John Paul II, “The Meaning of Suffering in the Light of Christ’s Passion,” nos. 6–7, General Audience of November 9, 1988, in L’Osservatore Romano, November 14, 1988, p. 23, quoted in Bergsma and Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible, 556.

[3] John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2018), 555–56.

 [MC1]This is from Catholic Introduction to the Bible

Leave a Reply