“Therefore I retract my words, and repent of dust and ashes”

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25), Year B.

Track I

Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

‘Hear, and I will speak;

I will question you, and you declare to me.’

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.”

And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived for one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:46-52

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This question in the phrasing we know it comes from the 1910 book Physics by Charles Mann and George Twiss. But its origins go back much further, harkening back to one of the great, albeit strange, minds of our Anglican tradition: Bishop Berkeley. You see, Bishop Berkeley wanted to solve a problem. A fairly straightforward problem that really all of us confront at one point or another. The good bishop was merely trying to prove the existence of the entire universe purely from reason, without relying on all-too-fallible human senses.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Oh God, he’s going to start talking about how chairs aren’t real again.” And let me assure you that though it still has not been mathematically proved that chairs are real, this time is completely different: we’re talking about trees. In his 1710 book A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Bishop Berkeley argued that “The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden…[only] while there is somebody by to perceive them.” It’s this line, and a few others like it, where our famous question of trees making sounds in the forest comes from. Now while the jury is still out on the trees making sound in an empty forest, if you listen closely right now, you can hear the quiet resignation and disappointment from all the scientists in the congregation.

As strange as the project of proving the universe without relying on our senses sounds, in Berkeley’s lifetime it was a project that the entire European intellectual scene was preoccupied with. After all, how well can we really trust our senses? How often have we been tricked by optical illusions, remembering things that never happened, or hearing things that aren’t there. How often after watching a horror film do we convince ourselves that there is something lurking in every shadow, or something spooky just out of the corner of our eye? This is why Bishop Berkeley and others wanted to get rid of the variable human senses and prove the universe only from reason. The world is so much simpler, ordered, cleaner, when we wash away any sense of humanity. Only trouble is, no one can do it.

It seems that no matter how much we try, no matter how much simpler and comforting it would all be, we cannot prove the universe without relying without on some kind of sensory experience. This was Berkeley’s great realization, while other intellectuals were relying on circular logic about ontological necessity and other ten-dollar words, Berkeley realized that nothing really existed without someone observing it. But humanity is frail and fallible, how could the universe be so wonderfully ordered and sustained when we are so unreliable and our senses are so limited? Who could see all, hear all, and bear witness to everything all at once to prevent it from slipping back into the void of nothingness? It was here at this crucial juncture that the bishop saw it, ever-present before his very eyes: It’s God of course! That’s how we know that the universe exists even with our fallible senses, because God sees it, even when we look away, that tree still exists.

Though that slight dramatization and simplification of Berkeley’s argument may sound like the musings of an out-of-touch intellectual, and my need to justify my choice of philosophy as a major, it cannot be overstated how important it is to be seen and heard. As strange as it may sound, there is a great comfort in remembering that God sees us, even when our grief is so overwhelming that we mistakenly believe we are left hopelessly alone.

Being seen and heard is the heart of our lessons today. After a whirlwind tour of gambling, grief, existential dread, and the framework of the cosmos, we finally reach the end of Job’s story. After all the tedious dialog and speculation from Job and his friends about the reason for Job’s suffering, we finally got what we were all waiting for: God’s answer. Only, its not what we expected, and frankly, it’s rather disappointing. God comes in a whirlwind and doesn’t explain to Job why he has suffered so, He only reminds Job of his place in the universe. And to us this is extremely disappointing, it sounds like God is merely boasting and showing how much more powerful He is compared to Job. After all that, all that suffering, God just shows up, shows Job and his friends how large and terrifying the universe is, and Job today simply relents. It sounds like he surrenders! After all Job’s arguments and eloquence, demanding his day in court with God. Job finally can make his case to God and get that Justice that he so much deserves, and all we get is this?

“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

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.”

Is that all we get? Do we just throw our hands up and surrender when God flexes at us without answering these important questions?

No, to come to that conclusion, that we should mindlessly follow those who have the most power, even God, is actually the exact opposite of what Job’s story teaches us.

In his final speech to God, Job is not relenting or giving up. He is satisfied, he got what he wanted all along. As you may recall, all throughout the long and winding dialog theorizing why Job was suffering, Job never cursed or rejected God. He curses all kinds of things, such as the day of his birth, but over and over again, Job declares all he wants is to have his day in court with God, so he can make his case that he is righteous. More than anything, he wanted God to see and hear him, to know his arguments and restore their relationship. And this is why in this final speech, even though God doesn’t give us an answer that we want, Job recognizes that God gave him what he wanted all along: God showed that He was listening all along.

Job did get his day in God’s court, God’s speech reminds Job that God is in control of the universe, that there is justice. So even though it sounds like God is dodging our questions about Job’s suffering, God gives Job the answer that he so desperately needed. God heard his arguments, and judged Job righteous.

This final statement that Job makes “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” is actually a rather tricky phrase to translate from Hebrew. It’s one of those deliberately obscure wordings where the author is inviting us the readers to participate in Job’s story and speculate on our own responses to such a divine encounter. There are no fewer than four legitimate ways to translate this passage, but the one that has made the most sense to me is this:

“Therefore I retract my words, and repent of dust and ashes”

Here Job withdraws his argument that God isn’t listening, that God has no justice or love for His servant. God proved to Job that He has always seen and heard Job, thus Job withdraws his argument, and now satisfied, puts away the dust and ashes of his grief.

Now it may sound cold to say that Job was satisfied simply by being seen and heard by God, especially considering all those people who died at the beginning there. It can sound even more disturbing that Job was granted a replacement family by God after this whole ordeal. At this point it’s worth noting that we are not literalists, and its very likely that the prose ending was added much later to sort of wrap up the story in a neat package. Job’s story is a thought experiment, morality tale, one of those stories that is only real when we see, hear, and ponder it in our hearts.

But where is our comfort, our day in God’s court, our happy ending with 14,000 sheep? Where’s our whirlwind and cosmic scolding when we are suffering and cry for our day in God’s court? One thing Job and other stories in the Bible consistently teach us is that we are never expected to be mindless followers. We can rage, argue, and shake our fist at God as much as we want, and He never holds it against us. You can argue with God as much as you want, just don’t expect to win. Yet more than that we are reminded that God always sees and hears us, especially in our grief and suffering.

Especially in grief, we are tempted to believe that we are forgotten, alone, unseen. We isolate ourselves from those who love us and believe that we must face our troubles alone, as if it were somehow a weakness to cry out for help. But we are not alone, nor forgotten. Despite all the marketing and politicking  about bootstraps and self-reliance, we are not fully ourselves without our loved ones and our community. In a very real sense, we are only fully real when we are seen and heard, especially by those around us. If we fall alone in a forest we may make vibrations in the air when we cry out, but we make no sound unless we are heard. Thankfully, no matter what, God always hears us. God always speaks to us, in the clarity after a whirlwind, in the strength and courage mustered within us, in the will to carry on, and in the love of those around us.

Because we are not fully real without God and each other, it is all the more important to see those who society would rather not see. To not silence Bartimaeus as he calls out to the teacher. You see, in one way or another we are all Bartimaeus crying out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Now that you have seen and been seen, let your faith make you well, and follow Him on the way. Amen.

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