Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Thoughts on the Reading

There is Hope for a Tree

 If a man die shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait
till my release should come.

Job 14:14

Near the end of their national existence Philo of Alexandria (BC 15–50AD) wrote treatises on philosophic topics in the way of Hellenistic Greek philosophers, but for most of their history Jewish thinkers avoided abstract questions about how we know the world and what its basic elements might be.  Jewish literary culture did however have a kind of writing called Wisdom literature that took up existential theological and ethical topics such as the situation of man in the world God had created and the meaning of finite existence.  The classic of the genre is the Book of Job, which goes beyond the usual terrain of Wisdom to be a kind of Gospel before the Gospels, recounting the conversion of the just man so that he becomes the man of humble and believing heart, but there were other books belonging to the genre, including the Book of Wisdom and Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, and along the way books such as Job and Ecclesiastes delve deep into the situation of man in whose heart God has put eternity yet not so that he can find out the beginning and the end (Ecclesiastes 3:1). (For more on Wisdom literature see Peter Kreeft’s Three Philosophies: Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs.)    

The fourth chapter of the book that bears his name finds Job world-weary because his days march on leading to nowhere, to nowhere but death, Sheol, that place of existence without hope.   Job is with the permission of God much afflicted in his body (Job 2:4–6). He is condemned to hear his three theological friends present version after version of the proto-Pharisaic claim that the righteous do not suffer, which by the lights of Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar meant that suffering Job has sinned and is stubbornly refusing to confess his faults.  This unhappy condition provides background of Job’s complaint, an episodic outbreak of a frustration bordering on despair.  

Has not man hard service upon earth,
And are not his days like the days of a hireling who looks for his wage, 
So I am allotted months of emptiness,

And nights of misery are apportioned me (7:1–3).
In chapter seven Job believes that God has destined him for death.   
Why doest thou not pardon my transgression 
and take away my iniquity? 
For now I shall lie in the earth;  
thou wilt seek me but I shall not be (7:21).

So the wearisome toil of man, who cannot be pleasing to his Maker, ends in death.   This is the tone of Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.   

          Job 14:1-20 reiterates much of the despairing language of chapter seven, but with a great difference.  Here Jobs reflects on the rain-refreshed green sprout, growing from the dry dead stump, which he sees as an image pointing toward a hope that transcends the promise to Abraham.  Meditating on the stump, Job reflects that although it looks dead, when spring comes it may flourish again.     “For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that its shoots will not cease.  At the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant” (14:9).  But Job goes on to remember that such renewal of life will not be his destiny.  “But man dies and is laid low.  He breathes his last and where is he? . . .  Man lies down and rises not again, till the heavens are no more he will not awake” (14:12).         

Yet, yet, 
If a man die, shall he live again? 
All the days of my life I should wait,
till my release should come.
 Thou wouldst call, and I would answer thee;
thou wouldst long for the work of thy hands.
For then thou wouldest number my steps, 
thou wouldest not keep watch over my sin; 
my transgression thou wouldst seal up in a bag, 
and thou wouldst cover my iniquity (14–16).

Job expects this great hope of life to be disappointed, for he has not yet been given the vision of God that will come at the end of his story, and he sees  across the horizon of time that the waters will continue to wear away the stones and the torrents to wash away the soil of the earth, insensible to the hope of man; that if his sons should come to honor he could not know it, feeling only the pain in his own body and mourning only for himself (19–22).   But Job’s glimpse of a better ending, of sin-freed life in the presence of God who calls his name and seals up his sins in a bag, is the philosophic hope that the great prophets confirmed when in the Spirit they foretold a new, pacified, and perfected creation in which would dwell those given new hearts and purified of sin. And this prophecy would be accomplished by the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, bringing with them the fulfillment of Job’s hope.

          The unfolding of the doctrine of the resurrection during the period after the return from captivity in Babylon, when the temple was rebuilt, when the promise of life with God came to be seen as a gift greater than the gift of progeny and the land of Canaan to Abraham, is one of the great themes of a time when Israel lacked national greatness and suffered repeatedly at the hands of her powerful neighbors, Syria and Egypt, until in 63 her national life ended with the Roman occupation.

The stages of the apprehension of this greater hope left traces, not only in Job, but in such texts as Psalm 16:11:

Thou dost show me the path of life;  
in thy presence is fullness of joy 
In thy right had are pleasures for evermore.

And Psalm 17:15:
 As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness, 
 When I awake I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form;

Again Baruch reminds Israel, “Take courage my children, for he who brought these calamities upon you will bring you everlasting joy with your salvation” (4:37–39); and in Daniel: “At that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book.  And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting glory, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). In II Maccabees, Judas sent sin-offerings to Jerusalem on behalf of the souls of those fallen in battle:  “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (12; 43–44). When  Jesus prefaced his great miracle, his calling forth to life of Lazarus, already four-days dead, with “Your brother will rise again,” Martha, unaware of what Jesus was about to do, replied that belief in the resurrection was common doctrine in the Jerusalem suburb Bethany:  “I know that he will rise on the last day” (John 11:24).

When John the Baptist announced the Messiah, the forgiveness which he would bring, and his promise of life with Him not only now but forever, belief in the resurrection had passed from Job’s reflection on the stump and the shoot, through Isaiah’s promise that the righteous would stand before God forever         (66:22-23) into apocalyptic texts such as Daniel 12 and thence into the heart-blood of many of the Jewish people, only the Sadducees dissenting.  When Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb, belief in the resurrection was a staple of the most important religious parties in Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the Hasidim or pious ones.   The resurrection was by then a widely-shared hope and a settled expectation that would see fulfilment in a garden on the first Easter, just days after the miracle at Bethany.  As Job had hoped, life then had a new ending, a new fruition, which would be an eternal beginning.         

 

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