Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31
No matter whether we are rich or we are poor, there comes a time for many of us when we awake to discover that we are without what matters most, we are without God.
If only I knew where to find God; if only I could go to his dwelling . . . But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.The rich young man who comes to Jesus in the story from Mark’s gospel is in many ways the same as Job. He is a wealthy man when it comes to lands and goods. But he, too, is wealthy in the ways of the moral law. ‘All these commandments I have kept since I was a boy’ he tells Jesus. Yet, despite his wealth in all these things, he comes to Jesus because he is aware that something is missing. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ he asks. The rich young man is different to Job in that he still, at the point we encounter him here, possesses his material wealth. Yet he is the same as Job in possessing his integrity, his moral uprightness. And he is the same as Job is what he does not, apparently, possess: God. For that is what ‘eternal life’ apparently meant for this young man. To possess all that God possesses. To ‘inherit’ the very life of God that can never be lost or stolen away. To possess such life as God possesses it: absolutely, and without any danger of loss or corruptibility.
So. Whether we are rich or poor, for many of us there comes a time when we awake to discover that we are without what matters most, we are without God. I say ‘for many of us’ because I am aware that there are a great many people today who never come to this awareness at all. That is not to say that there are not a great many existential crises out there. They are everywhere! It is simply to say that the emptiness a great many of us feel is rarely understood, anymore, to be about the lack of God. For most, their existential crises are about a seeping away of meaningfulness in what we do each day, but that is about as far as the analysis gets. That a loss of meaning may also signal a lack of God is something that Christians and Jews and Muslims can talk about, because we live inside a language and culture – a ‘house of being’ as Heidegger said – which names what human beings need more than anything else by the name of ‘God’. God is the name to which all names point, the desired which all desires ultimately allude to. God is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the one thing necessary to life in all its fullness.
So, for we Christians, the experience of awaking to God’s apparent absence can be a very scary thing indeed. If we do not feel God’s presence and experience God’s blessing, then what is life worth? If God seems to have disappeared from the stage, then what are we to conclude? That God doesn’t care for us, or that God is dead? Or perhaps Professors Freud and Dawkins are right: God does not exist, God is no more than a cultural construct, a product of our needy, infantile, imaginations? Well, in the face of the experience to which we refer, that is indeed one way to proceed. But it is somewhat reductionist, and it suffers from the precisely the kind of cultural captivity that it accuses the believer of having – in this case, a rather unquestioning acceptance of the culture of modernity. Furthermore, it is not my way. My way is interested in what the scriptures have to say about the matter.
What today’s scriptures have to say about the experience of God’s disappearance or absence can be summarised in two ways. First, that the experience of God’s absence is more apparent than real. For both Job and the rich young man had over-identified God with the world of things and of achievements, that is, with those dimensions of life one may possess or use or control. In both cases, it was the loss of the same that brought on the crisis: in the case of Job, an actual loss; for the rich young man, the fear of such loss. For when Jesus invites the young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, he turns away. Clearly he cannot see that possessing eternal life, possessing God, is something rather different to possessing or using or controlling things. For God cannot be possessed or used or controlled like material goods or brownie points can be possessed and used and controlled. The Jewish and Christian tradition about idolatry makes this clear. If we identify God with such things, then we have not identified God. We have created an idol instead – a false god which is not God but merely an extension of ourselves. And this is what Job and the rich young man had done. They had made their possessions and their achievements their god, and thus when these things were lost (or, in the case of the young man, when Jesus suggests that they ought to be lost) they also lose their god. Instant existential crisis ensues.
This loss of God is therefore more apparent than real. When we over-identify God with a comfortable, easy, life where things go pretty much the way we would like them to go, then the loss of such things can feel like the loss of God. But it is not. Indeed, for much of the Christian tradition, the loss or (more positively) the refusal of such things is, in fact, the precondition of really finding God. Or, to put it another way (and here we are moving into the second of our summaries) the de-identification of God with what we can possess or use or control becomes the first step in a path which realises that it is not God who is present to us, on our terms and according to our desires, but God who is present to us, under God’s terms and according to God’s desires.
Listen at what Job starts to understand in the wake of his losses: ‘But God knows the way that I take; when God has tested me, I shall come forth as gold’. And listen to what Jesus says to his disciples after the young man has turned away: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God . . . With humankind this is indeed impossible, but for God all things are possible’. What is being taught us, in both instances, is this: that God desires to find us, even when we have apparently lost God. In the love of God, it is God’s desire that through such losses we shall discover that it is not God whom we have lost, but only the idols that keep us from God; that God can do in us and for us what we could not, in a million years, do in and for ourselves: create in us the life that is only God’s to give, the life that is full of joy, and peace and healing, a spring that quenches our thirst and a bread that finally satisfies. So there is an indispensable passage that all of us must pass through if we are to find the life that God is always near to give, a passage that St John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’ and Mark’s gospel calls, simply, ‘taking up one’s cross’. It is about the putting away of idols and the surrendering of our need to possess and use and control every damned thing.
Lest this all seem too hard, remember that God himself has walked this way before us in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ the figure of Job as the innocent sufferer comes to its genuine fulfillment. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as one who became in every way like his human brothers and sisters, a high priest tempted in every way like us, and experiencing the apparent abandonment of God just as we do. The appearance of Psalm 22 in today’s lectionary is a reminder of this. But it reminds us, also, that Christ did not give up his faith in the one true God, any more than the Psalmist did. He continued to trust himself to the one who saves the wretched, finally surrendering himself into his Father’s hands and forging a path for we, as fellow human beings, to imitate and follow. So, in Christ, we know God as who knows the experience of the loss of ‘God’ from the inside. God is therefore a sympathetic God, a God who knows our weakness and encourages us to keep on walking by faith.
In fact, according to Mark there are consolations for the people of God who are able to surrender their idols to God. Listen to what Jesus says to those disciples who were willing to leave everything else in order to follow him:
Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age - houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions - and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.According to Mark, whomever has surrendered their false gods – whether material wealth or a certain kind of righteousness in the eyes of our families or peers – will receive them back again in an even greater measure. Not, this time, as a reward that necessarily follows from our righteousness or hard work. Not this time as those things that can be mistaken for God but which are really just extensions of our own desire. No, following the renunciations of the ‘dark night’ they can be finally received as the gifts of sheer grace that they really are. Gifts to enjoy and give thanks for. Not things to possess and use and control. Gifts to be held lightly and to share liberally with our neighbours in the spirit of the grace which they now represent. So take heart. God is not dead or departed. God is near to give us his very self. And that is everything, everything that God can give!