This Sunday is one of the very few times in the lectionary that we read from the Book of Job which is, perhaps, the oldest book in the Bible. No one knows who wrote it. Some say it was written by Moses, and perhaps it could have been. But one thing is certain: this book was given to us by the Holy Spirit. It is profound and touches upon some difficult themes more deeply than any other book of the Bible. Most of it is written in verse using majestic, glorious language.
Some commentators have the opinion that Job was a real person, not a mythological or allegorical figure. He came from the land of Uz, somewhere to the East of Israel, and was well known for his prosperity and for his love for his family. If, as has been suggested, Job was a contemporary of Abraham, then this story goes back to the very beginnings of biblical history.
The first chapters of the Book of Job are unsettling as one of the most graphic descriptions of an innocent person suffering. Through no fault of his own Job loses everything that is precious to him. First to go are his fortune, represented by his many servants and livestock, then his family as his sons and daughters are killed when a sudden wind destroyed their house. In response to those losses the Bible says that ‘Job ‘tore his cloak and cut off his hair. He fell to the ground and worshiped.” (Job 1:30).
His grieving, though profound, does not set him apart from society.
In the next and final calamity Job’s good health is taken away and he breaks out in boils. With this Job seems to lose his very sense of identity. He sits among the ashes, separated from the community, from family, friends, and his occupation. He is stricken in his body and in his spirit. Because we are both body and spirit, illness in one part of our being- physical, psychological or spiritual-affects all parts.
In the time of sickness, we need the grace of God for the restoration of health and strength in our body and in our spirit.
Three friends come to comfort Job. They spend a week in silence, a ministry of being present. Then they begin offering advice on how Job can and should understand these terrible losses. Job, for his part, wants none of their advice, but he does cry out to God. Who among us can not relate to his lament of sleepless night and empty days:
If in bed I say, “When shall I arise?” then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
Job’s lament shows us that there are times when life’s disappointments and sufferings must be truthfully and frankly acknowledged. Job gives us permission to face reality with a complaint that insists that things are not always right and lovelybut also that God is in charge and, as the creator of the universe, God really does know best.
Job’s hope consists of putting everything in the hands of God.
The experience of suffering and struggle can either lead the stricken one nearer to God or send them fleeing from God in disappointment and despair. The book of Job teaches us that God does not abandon the sufferer. God listens to every human cry, even to the anger and dismay of the lament. There is no struggle so great, no suffering so intense that it cannot be relinquished with confidence to God.
Today’s Gospel also tells the story of an illness. In just a few words it confirms the lessons of Old Testament Job and reinterprets them in more glorious New Testament terms. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick, sick enough that she had to take to her bed, unable to carry on with her normal daily activities. We do not know exactly what was wrong with her, but she had a fever. A fever is a symptom of an illness, and as we know, illness in one part of our being always affects all parts. While we do not understand her diagnosis, we do know that her sickness was one that separated her from the community, from family, friends, and her occupation. She’salive but not really living, certainly not to the fullness she wants.
Simon and Andrew, James and John “immediately told Jesus about her”. Jesus approaches, grasps her by the hand and bids her to rise. It sounds a bit like a rising from the dead, a birth to new life. That is what the Mark the Evangelist wants us to hear. Mark is making a direct association with the Resurrection of Jesus. The woman has been saved from death and despair and brought into a new form of life that is defined by her service to Jesus and the others. ‘The fever left her, and she waited on them’. Restored, she was able to serve the Lord. Peter’s mother-in-law ‘s work, the work that we all share, is to serve the Lord.
The encounter of Peter’s mother-in-law with her Lord proclaimed the reign of God as a present reality and prophesied about the future. It points ahead to the moment wherein all those who had been prostrate beneath the power of sin would be healed and raised up by Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection.
In this time of pandemic, many of us either have been stricken with a fever or know someone who has. As did the apostles, we should immediately tell Jesus by lifting the sick one up in prayer. And we should carefully watch ourselves and those around us for signs of a fever- fever from COVID yes, but just as importantly for signs of ill health in our spiritual lives. The first symptom is often a separation from the community, the community of believers, from family, and friends. Just as fever is a symptom of bodily illness, pulling away from others is a symptom of separation from God, who calls us to be one body. When we begin to isolate ourselves, then we are surely drifting away from God. Living with social distancing and masksmakes this syndrome both more common and more difficult to discern; we risk becoming a society that values separation more than togetherness. Be it in ourselves or in others, bring the afflicted to the attention of Jesus. Prayer connects us with God. And as we saw in the Gospel today Jesus heals all his people’s illnesses, bodyand spirit.
Ultimately, the challenge for us this Sunday is to reflect on those times when we have experienced profound suffering and sorrow like Job—illness, depression, addiction, loneliness—and to recognize the Lord’s power to lift us out of that darkness. There is no easy answer to Job’s problems. Things are not always right and lovely. God is in charge and really does know best. Old Testament Job had this hope and we of the New Testament have seen that hope fulfilled.
Our hope is fulfilled in Jesus, who takes away our infirmities and bears our diseases.
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.
May we be healed of all that afflicts us. May we give testimony to the saving power of God at work in our lives, bringing us healing and peace.