Words on the Word
5. Sunday B
Homily at the 6 p.m. Mass for students.
Job 7:1-7: Man’s time, no better than hired drudgery.
1 Cor 9:16-23: Had I chosen this work, I might have been paid for it.
Mark 1:29-39: Let us go elsewhere, that is why I came.
We might be tempted to try a Marxist reading of our passage from Job, and say, ‘Haha! Here is proof of alienation from life-activity even in Biblical times, proof of man reduced to a cog in the wheel of a structure that exceeds and exploits him — long live the Revolution!’ We would miss the point. What Job longs for is not emancipation from a structure of unjust labour. He longs for sense. And we can safely affirm that then (some 4,000 years ago) as now, bestowal of sense lies beyond the scope of most party-political manifestos. How can we find it?
You remember the general setting of the Book of Job. Job was an upright man. Satan, whose name means ‘The Accuser’, couldn’t bear the sight of one who lived on earth as a friend of God. He set about to test Job, taking from him all that was dear to him: his children, possessions, health, security. Satan hoped to see Job take a u-turn and turn against God, to see himself confirmed in his status as ‘lord of this world’ (cf. John 16.11). Job does nothing of the kind. He says: ‘The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1.21). He refuses to follow the counsel of his wife, who thought Job a fool and said: ‘Curse God, and die!’ (Job 2.9). Job replied: ‘Shall we receive the good at God’s hand, and not the bad?’ (2.10. He did not sin with his lips. He did not lose his integrity. This is not to say that he was above what happened to him. No! This book, a searingly honest account of the human condition, is a single long confession of pain. What pained Job still more than his losses, though, was their apparent senselessness. He couldn’t see what his pain was for. This blindness was terrible to him.
Job’s is an extreme case. Let’s not forget: we are dealing with a work of literature. The story is a parable, not a biography. In terms of genre, it is linked to the classics of Greek tragedy. The stories of Antigone and Oedipus, Orestes and Medea are likewise accounts of the human condition writ large, in terms of massive trauma; not to detach us from what goes on on stage; but in order that representative drama may help us recognise similar dynamics, on a more modest scale, in ourselves, to enable us to deal with them honestly and realistically.
And let’s face it: who among us has not had moments of rebellion, when we’re tempted to think: What’s it all for? Is life mere drudgery? Is existence a meaningless sequence of one darned 24-hour cycle after another till the final twilight falls? If we have such thoughts, we must put into practice a principle defined by St Paul: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight!’ (2 Cor 5.7).
Above all, by affirming that our world is not a chaos-universe, that God’s creative Word is at work in it; that the Spirit, still, hovers above the water. Even if I cannot see the point of what is happening how, I’ll discover it later; and I’ll see that my perception has grown in the process. That’s what happened to Job.
So that’s a first, intellectual response. A second response is more practical. It consists in saying ‘Yes’ to things as they are, even when they don’t correspond to my plans. To regard myself as the victim of circumstances may spell moral victory for a while; but it is a cop-out over time. It effectively turns me into the object of circumstances, a leaf swept away by the wind. If by contrast I embrace what comes to me, I remain the subject. That way I may, by courage and grace, transform what is hurtful, even evil, into something good. Think of Nelson Mandela or Élie Wiesel, people who suffered outrageous injustice, but refused to be diminished or embittered by it, instead letting their hearts and minds expand in compassion. What would I choose: bitterness or growth? At some point in life, most of us will be face this kind of choice. It is well to be prepared for it.
A third kind of response, even more practical: Do you feel that others don’t see your true worth, that you don’t get given tasks that let you shine the way you could? That may be the case. But while you wait for golden opportunities, make use of what you have; perform whatever is yours to do now supremely well, with commitment and devotion. That way you may be secretly readied for great tasks; or you may slowly discover the greatness of what you are doing. A box-office hit at the cinema this winter is Wim Wender’s Perfect Days, a film about a Tokyo toilet cleaner who chooses not to see himself submitted to humiliating drudgery; who instead performs his humble task as an act of service and self-transcendence, and thereby becomes strangely alert to beauty round about him. I’m touched by this drama. I’ve been cleaning toilets for others pretty much all my adult life. A good thing about monastic life is that it explodes notions of a hierarchy of tasks, where some things (such as giving a prestigious lecture) are regarded as intrinsically better than other things (such as cleaning loos). I did learn to find satisfaction in simple tasks of service for service’s and charity’s sake.
These are some lessons we may draw from our readings. Perhaps you don’t find them very spiritual? Think again. We read in our Gospel of Jesus driving out demons, the progeny of Satan, ‘The Accuser’. The demons’ staple ploy is to fill us with dissatisfaction as they whisper in our ear: ‘You’re no good the way you are; there’s no hope for you’. Or: ‘What you’ve got is not good enough, life’s cheating you’. If we listen to these voices, all our energy will be absorbed by resentment. We’ll have no eyes for other things. If by contrast we own what is ours now and stop rebelling, we are free to look up and around, to make choices. Then, all of a sudden, we may perceive that our future is beckoning to us freely, graciously, with a promise of fruitfulness and beauty. So be it!
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Koji Yakusho as contemplative janitor in Perfect Days: ‘Another time is another time. Now is now.’