Who has known the mind of the Lord? (1 Cor 2; Epiphany 5A)

The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. This is the thesis that Paul and Sosthenes propose near the start of their lengthy letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2), and also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2).

As we have already noted, “the word of the cross” features prominently in the authentic letters of Paul. See

It also shapes the way that Sosthenes and Paul begin to work their way through the many issues that have been festering within the community in Corinth—issues which apparently have been brought to their attention by “Chloe’s people” (1:11) and which may well have been further developed in discussions in person with Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, when they came to Ephesus (16:17). We have explored this initial argument (in 1:18–31) at

The thesis concerning “the word of the cross” continues to be advanced in the following section of the letter (2:1–16), which is offered by the lectionary as the Epistle for this coming Sunday. It is worth reading right through to the end of the chapter in v.16, rather than stopping at v.13, as the lectionary suggests, since (in my view) v.16 provides the capstone of the argument of the whole two chapters, with its citation of yet another scriptural text, from the prophet Isaiah (1 Cor 2:16, citing Isa 40:13).

It is, after all, only “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), which is at the heart of the preaching undertaken by Paul, who “did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom” (2:1), who preached not trusting in his own strength, but “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4). Paul is concerned to ensure that the faith of the Corinthians “might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:5).

It is “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” who provides the foundation, also, for the letter which Paul writes in association with Sosthenes, in which they set out “the message of the cross” (1:18). The two authors expound this central message through a sequence of clearly-shaped sections (1:18–31; 2:1–12; 3:1–20). The part of the argument as presented by Sosthenes and Paul in this chapter (2:1–12) both continues in the rhetorically-shaped form that we have seen in 1:18–31, and follows the rabbinic pattern of drawing from scripture in the argument (2:9, citing Isa 64:4), finishing with a climactic quotation that “proves” the point (Isa 40:13 at 2:16).

The rhetorical shaping is evident particularly in the oppositions that are proposed in the letter in a sequence of antithetical parallelisms. First, the Corinthians hear the declaration, “I did not come to you … in lofty words or wisdom … [rather] I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (2:1, 3). Then follows, “my speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4).

The writers declare that they speak wisdom, “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age … [but rather] God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:6–7). They continue, “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God” (2:12), and then, “we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (2:13).

Finally, the argument draws towards its conclusion with this striking application to the Corinthian situation: “those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit … [rather] those who are spiritual discern all things” (2:14–15). The antithetical parallelisms (not … but …, regularly repeated) have functioned throughout to throw the emphasis always on the second half of the pairing, for that is the point of each statement.

So the first half of each anthesis sets up the expectation with an offering that is negated, before the second half affirms what is actually being proposed by the letter-writers: they bring a demonstration of the Spirit, God’s wisdom, being taught by the Spirit, the Spirit from God, and able to discern all things through the Spirit. That’s really the short-hand summary of what the argument is, stripped of its rhetorical finesse.

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Sosthenes, we presume, was one of the leaders of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17). Paul had been well-trained in understanding Torah (Phil 3:5) and was known for being “advanced in Judaism” and “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14). So it should be no surprise that in this letter, they make regular use of scriptures drawn from their Jewish traditions—and follow traditional rabbinic patterns in the way they use these passages.

The two prophetic citations they make in this chapter were spoken by prophets whose names we do not know. Their oracles were included in the scroll that bears the name of the eighth century BCE prophet, Isaiah, who provided advice to kings in Judah in the decades prior to the people being taken into exile in Babylon. These later oracles may well have been shaped by prophets who traced their allegiance to Isaiah, who may well have been trained within an ongoing “school of Isaiah”. Such a school is hypothesised on the basis of Isaiah’s instructions to “bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples” (Isa 8:4).

The first oracle cited in 1 Corinthians 2 comes from the time when Israel had been in exile in Babylon for some time, and was looking with hope to the promised return to the land (Isaiah 40–55). The second oracle cited was from an earlier time, when Israel was seeking to re-establish itself as a functioning nation in a land and city that had been devastated by the destruction of invasion some decades earlier (Isaiah 55–66).

The first text, cited earlier in the argument as the subsidiary passage, is “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (Isa 64:4). These words were spoken during a prayer of petition in which the unknown prophet at the time of restoration urges God to act: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down … to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isa 64:1–2).

This prophet confesses that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” and pleads, “do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever” (Isa 64:8–9), observing that “your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation” (Isa 64:10). The prophet’s faith is expressed in the final phrase of the cited text, in that the Lord “works for those who wait for him” (Isa 64:4). It is this faith which is referenced during the argument of 1 Corinthians 2.

The second text, which provides the climax to the argument to the Corinthians, comes from the other unknown prophet, still in exile, who offers his people words of comfort, asking God to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2).

As the voice cries out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway” 40:3) and to “lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear” (40:9), he prepares his people to receive the restorative presence of God, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (40:29).

The oracle identifies the mystery of the way that the Lord works, pondering: “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (40:13–14).

This is the part of the text that Sosthenes and Paul deploy as their concluding “proof text”, as they remind the Corinthians that any claim to have access to “the depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10), to comprehend “what is truly God’s” (2:11), needs to be measured by “the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12), the “things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (2:10), which is what is communicated through “the message about the cross” (1:18), the proclamation of “Christ crucified” (1:23; 2:2).

So the argument in this section strengthens the polemic that was already present in the critique of “the world” in 1:18-31. In that section, the criticism was levelled against “the wisdom of the world” (1:20-21, 25, 27) and also against worldly power (1:24-25). In this section, the positive contribution of the Spirit to God’s wisdom is set forth; and the way that the Spirit operates is through the foolishness of the cross, which is indeed a clear insight into “the mind of the Lord”.

In this way, the letter writers articulate “the message of the cross”, consistent with Paul’s decision to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”.

The paradox of “the word of the cross” in Corinth (1 Cor 1; Epiphany 4A)

The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. This is the thesis that Paul and Sosthenes propose near the start of their lengthy letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2), and also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). And as we have already noted, “the word of the cross” features prominently in the authentic letters of Paul.

The thesis is stated in a rhetorically balanced, theologically incisive two-part statement, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1:18). The claim is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear this week (1 Cor 1:18–31) and then next week (2:1–12). It then serves as the basis for much of the ethical and theological discussion that follows in later chapters of the letter.

In the two passages currently in view, Sosthenes and Paul remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that they “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

The rhetorical structuring of this paradoxical argument is evident throughout the whole of the passage that the lectionary offers for this Sunday (1:18–31). There is a neat symmetry of clauses in each verse of the passage, with frequent use of balancing subsidiary phrases continuing the symmetrical structure. I’ve attempted to show this schematically as follows:

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To begin, Sosthenes and Paul ground their argument in prophetic declarations drawn from the Hebrew scriptures—in fact, explicit citations bookmark their argument at 1:19 (quoting Isaiah) and 1:31 (quoting Jeremiah). This is typical of rabbinic literature, where an initial citation (a subsidiary text) begins an argument, and then the primary text for the matter being addressed concludes the argument. This was the fourth of Rabbi Hillel’s seven principles for scripture interpretation (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 37).

So there should be no surprise that we find such a technique employed in a letter written by Sosthenes, a leader of the synagogue (the place where scripture interpretation was taught and debates about scripture flourished), and Paul, trained as a Pharisee (at the feet of Gamaliel, if Acts 22:3 reflects historical reality) and well-versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Phil 3:5; Rom 7:12, 22). As Jews immersed in the knowledge of Torah and the application of scripture to daily life, this way of speaking and writing was second nature to them.

After stating their thesis (1:18), Sosthenes and Paul cited the prophet Isaiah in support (Isa 29:14). In the typical rabbinic fashion of arguing a point, this first quotation is the subsidiary text for their argument. The words come from an oracle that the prophet delivers when Israel and Judah had been invaded by the Assyrian power to the north (2 Kings 17–19). This invasion of 721 BCE is characterised by Isaiah as an expression of God’s judgement (Isa 28:21–22). The northern kingdom had been conquered (2 Kings 17) and the southern kingdom was invaded (2 Kings 18). Two decades later, under Sennacherib, the city of Jerusalem itself was under siege (Isa 29:1–3). Ultimately Sennacherib withdrew his army back to Nineveh and was killed by his sons (2 Kings 19:36–37).

Whilst the experience of the people in the besieged city of Jerusalem was one of “moaning and lamentation” (Isa 29:2), the prophet presses the claim that this is brought about by God himself: “the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers” (Isa 29:10). This, the prophet insists, “comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom” (Isa 28:29).

Because the people claim allegiance to God but fail to live according to the covenant they have made with God—“their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isa 29:13)–God’s intervention through the Assyrian encirclement of Jerusalem will mean that “the wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (Isa 29:14). Eventually, through this intense hardship, “those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction” (Isa 29:24).

It is this message of the paradoxical inversion of the widely-accepted wisdom by divine intervention that the apostle and his co-author draw on, when they remind the Corinthians of God’s way: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19, quoting Isa 29:14b).

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In developing their argument in the following verses, Sosthenes and Paul explain this inversion to the Corinthians in three compact sequences. First, they pose a series of three rhetorical questions ending with a fourth question that expounds the paradoxical nature of how God acts:

The implied answer, of course, is “yes”.

Then follows a doublet with matching halves (wisdom of God, wisdom of the world; foolishness, salvation):

The pattern of wisdom-wisdom, folly-?? is broken with the declaration of salvation for believers; this is what “God decided”.

The third sequence contrasts Jews with Greeks (that is, Gentiles) but then places both of them in contrast to the proclamation of “Christ crucified”. The word of the cross functions as the definitive marker; this is the pivot on which the section turns.

The word of the cross—the proclamation of “Christ crucified”—might be understood as a stumbling block and a folly, but is actually a demonstration of divine power and wisdom. It is in the cross that the age-old dynamic of how God works is seen: it is an upheaval, a reversal, an overturning of received wisdom—just as Isaiah had been proclaiming to his fellow Judahites eight centuries earlier.

The conclusion is made clear in a punchy doublet in parallel paradox:

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In what follows next, attention turns to the actual community of believers in Corinth. The letter writers invite the believers in Corinth to “consider your own call, brothers and sisters”, followed by two triplets of rhetorically powerful statements:

That few were wise, powerful, or born as nobles in Corinth should come as no surprise. Certainly, a number of high-status names are mentioned in the letter (Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Acaicus at 16:17; and perhaps Chloe, if “Chloe’s people” at 1:11 are her servants), and other letters demonstrate a similar presence of high-status people, such as those who host “the church in the house of” Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3), as well as a number of those mentioned in the string of names in Rom 16:3–16.

However, later in the letter we learn that when the community of believers comes together, some enjoy a rich meal and get drunk, while others starve (1 Cor 11:21). The condemnation is on those who “humiliate those who have nothing” (11:22); they are instructed, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33). Here, as in a number of other places in the letter, the teaching is given that all members of the community are to be regarded as equal, for “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).

Indeed, in the second century, Pliny would describe Christians as being “of every age, of every rank, of both sexes” and “not only in the towns, but also in the villages and farms” (Pliny, Epist. 10.96.9). And social-scientific commentators on the early Jesus movement have published careful analyses that support the notion that early Christian communities contained a cross-section of society (see Gerd Thiessen, The First Followers of Jesus, on the rural origins of the movement, and Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, on its consolidation in the cities of the Roman Empire).

So in the rhetorically powerful argument of 1:18–31, God’s paradoxical choice is emphasised; God chose fools, weaklings, and lowly despised people, not wise, powerful, noble-born. In the second triplet, the final affirmation is extended with another rhetorical intensifier, reinforcing “the wisdom from God” with three additional theological claims (righteousness, sanctification, and redemption).

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At the end of the argument, in typical rabbinic style, a closing citation clinches the case, with words from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 9:23–24): “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). This is the primary scripture passage which undergirds the argument that commenced in 1 Cor 1:19 with the citation of the subsidiary passage from Isaiah.

Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kings 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile. He was sent into exile in Egypt (Jer 43:1–8), even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. That is certainly the case for the long oracle from which the one-line quotation at 1 Cor 1:31 is drawn.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”, the prophet laments (Jer 8:18), posing a question that has come into popular speech in later times: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer 8:22).

Jeremiah warns of the coming devastation that the Babylonians will bring, framing it as God’s righteous judgement: “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals; and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 9:11). Accordingly, the prophet poses the question, “who is wise enough to understand this?” (Jer 9:12), calls for the people to mourn (Jer 9:17–23), and advises them that the Lord declares, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jer 9:23–24).

This is the declaration from which Sosthenes and Paul take the one line to draw the argument to a close, pressing the paradoxical way by which God overturns the power of the world and inverts the wisdom of the world. There can be no boasting in human wisdom. Trust can only be placed in the wisdom of God, which has its own logic and distinctive purpose. Boasting is feasible only in this context: “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). That is what “the word of the cross” is, to the believers in Corinth–and to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

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The ‘word of truth’, according to Colossians 1 (Pentecost 5C)

This coming Sunday, we turn from a letter written in the name of Paul, which few interpreters doubt is an authentic letter of Paul, to a slightly shorter letter which also claims to be written by Paul—but about which there is quite some debate as to whether Paul did write it. We will hear the opening section of the letter this Sunday (Col 1:1–14).

The letter begins with a clear claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2). Despite this claim, there are signs that Paul may not be the author.

A more complex grammatical structure at some points, and some unusual vocabulary when compared with the vocabulary of the authentic letters of Paul, suggest a different hand in the creation of this letter. Some theological motifs are developed further than is found in the authentic letters of Paul, while the situation addressed appears to be different from—and probably later than—any situation envisaged in the lifetime of Paul.

(On the authorship of the various letters attributed to Paul, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/)

It is typical of Paul’s letters that the opening “prayer of thanksgiving” sets out some of the key contenders which will be addressed in the body of the letter. (This is the case in many other letters from the time that survive to today; whether Christian, or Jewish, or pagan, letters invariably flag key issues in the opening sentences.) Here, the key concerns seem to be about “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” which will enable the readers and hearers of this letter to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “be prepared to endure everything with patience”.

The letter refers to Onesimus (Col 4:9), the slave about whom Paul wrote to Philemon (Phlm 10), as well as one of the addressees of that letter, Archippus (Col 4:17; Phlm 1). The greetings at the end of the letter contain a number of names also found in the greetings of Philemon 23–24: Epaphras (Col 4:12), Mark and Aristarchus (Col 4:10), and Demas and Luke (Col 4:14).

This suggests that the two letters might have originated at the same time in the ministry of Paul—when he was in prison (Col 4:3, 8; Phlm 10, 13), perhaps in Rome towards the end of his life. However, there is little else to connect Colossians with Philemon. The content of each letter is quite different.

Alternatively, the Colossian references to Paul’s imprisonment might link the letter with Philippians, written similarly during an imprisonment (Phil 1:7, 12– 14, 17). This would be so if Epaphroditus in Philippians (2:25; 4:18) was the same person as Paul’s associate, Epaphras, noted in Colossians (1:7–8; 4:12– 13). That possibility suggests a common origin; but no further links between these letters are evident.

A more fruitful connection is found between Colossians and Ephesians, where there are a number of similarities in theological development as well as a significant overlap of text. Eph 6:21b–22 replicates almost exactly the underlined phrases in Col 4:7–9. The most persuasive theory is that Ephesians, written well after the death of Paul by a follower of Paul’s teachings, drew on that section of Colossians, believing it to be the words of Paul.

Returning to Colossians itself, we note that it follows the traditional form of a letter, with opening greetings (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–8) leading into a further prayer for the Colossians (1:9–14) before the body of the letter (1:15–2:23) and a series of exhortations (3:1–4:6). The closing greetings (4:7–17) and grace (4:18) bring the letter to a close in conventional fashion.

There are a number of indications of the distinctive situation to which the letter is addressed, although these insights are mediated through the perspective of the writer of the letter. The Colossians, although believers in Christ, continue to recognise the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8, 20). They are “deceived with plausible arguments” (2:4) and thus are captive to a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) which is contradictory to Christian belief. They take part in “festivals … new moons … sabbaths” (2:16), engage in “self-abasement and worship of angels” (2:18) and adhere to strict regulations (2:20–22).

These terms seem to be describing people who are Gentiles (elemental spirits) who have adopted some Jewish practices (new moons, sabbaths, worship of angels) yet have an ascetic flavour (self-a basement) with rhetorical interests (plausible arguments) mediated through their philosophical interests. That’s quite a thick description of the presumed recipients, and not like others who received authentic letters from Paul.

Along with clear evidence for syncretism amongst the Colossians, there is a thought that the believers in Colossae were proto-Gnostics—that is, precursors of the kind of Christianity that emerged fully in the second century onwards, and which we know about most directly through the documents collected in the Nag Hammadi library (discovered in Egypt in 1945). See http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html

Over against this cluster of beliefs, the letter-writer advocates the gospel, which is described as “the word of truth” (1:5) and “the faith” (1:23; 2:7), and exhorts the readers to be “mature in Christ” (1:28; 4:12). The opening thanksgiving (1:9–10) contains key terms which express the writer’s hopes for the readers: understanding (2:2) and growth (2:19), and especially wisdom (1:28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5) and knowledge (2:2, 3; 3:10). These last terms, particularly, point in the direction of the developing Gnostic movement which held sway in some parts of the developing Jesus movement.

Some of these terms do appear in Paul’s authentic letters; some others appear less frequently, if at all. They do appear, however, in the Pastoral Epistles (written “in the name of Paul” some decades after his death) and then in various documents, not part of the New Testament, which demonstrate the growing Gnostic and speculative-philosophical tendencies in some parts of Christianity in the late first century and on into the second and third centuries.

The positive qualities which are highlighted in this letter, noted above, are especially related to Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells” (2:9–10), a doctrine which sits at the core of a distinctive hymn in which Christ is portrayed as an all-encompassing cosmic figure (1:15–20). This is one key point where the letter moves beyond what is found in Paul’s authentic letters to the formulation of a post-Pauline doctrine. This, it seems, is central to “the word of truth” that is highlighted from the start of the letter.

My own conclusion is that Colossians was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part Two (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: why is this happening?

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us? Or, to be more theological about it: why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

The question is acute for us each personally, during this time of restrictions because of a global pandemic. After all, we had nothing to do with the cause of the pandemic. Why should we suffer the frustrations of lockdowns, if we are innocent of causing the virus to spread? Why should we endure the hardships of reduced interpersonal interactions, if we have been behaving with due care? Why should we not be able to gather for worship, since we have not been in places where infections have been found?

The question is also pertinent and pressing in our current global context. For a start, the pandemic has inflicted suffering and death on millions of people around the world—suffering far more invasive than what we are experiencing in the current lockdown. How many millions of people have died? And how many millions of family members have suffered the grief and despair of not being able to say farewell to their loved ones as they die in hospital wards? And how many medical and nursing professionals have been stressed beyond limit by the incessant demands they have faced during the pandemic? And how fair is all of this?

The question also presses in terms of the climate. We have long known that the climate is changing, the high temperature averages are claiming, the arctic glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events are climbing—and people around the globe are suffering. All of this presents a challenge to the way we live. We may even think that we are suffering unfairly in such a scenario.

It is clear that the science has come to a conclusive decision: we human beings have been contributing in a major way to the changes in the climate for over two centuries, now. We actually can’t lament that we are suffering unfairly, since our comfortable lifestyles in the well-to-do Western world undoubtedly mean that our carbon footprints are much larger than they should be. We are contributing to climate change, so can’t expect to be exempt from its ravages.

But what of those whose carbon footprint is minuscule, in comparison to our own? There are 16 African countries whose CO2 emissions per year are 0.15 tons per person or less. As you trace the names of countries as the figure rises, there are many more African and Asian countries, long before any European countries are noted.

By contrast, the figure is 17.10 tons per person for Australia, 15.52 for the USA, and 18.58 for Canada. That is a completely inequitable output. Should we not be suffering more deeply, in the western world, than people in Africa and Asia are? And yet the reality is that the comfortable, even extravagant, lifestyle of the western world is what is driving the incessant rate of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. And the whole world—humans, animals, fish and bird, and vegetation—suffers as a result. The questions raised by Job are acutely relevant to this issue.

(The figures come from https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-per-capita/)

And the question remains hanging as we reflect on levels of malnutrition and access to food in the current world. The World Food Programme of the United Nations estimates that one in three people around the world. Even before the current pandemic, each and every day of the year, 820 million people were seriously underfed and hungry.

Children bear the brunt of this inequity. 149 million children under 5 are estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million are estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million are overweight or obese. That is a situation that is utterly unjust. The questions press even harder on us.

(See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition)

We have the means, we are told, to distribute food equitably around the world. And yet up to one third of food is dumped everyday in the USA—a shocking waste of resources and a completely inequitable state of affairs. So those who happen to have been born in certain areas of the world where circumstances beyond their control mean that they are suffering far more than is warranted. Injustice abounds. The questions from Job resonate—how is that fair?

And then, there are survivors of domestic violence, and—still—survivors of child sexual abuse, and those suddenly facing homelessness, and those in the long enduring grip of mental illness, and those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, seeking refuge and asylum in a welcoming place … and many other situations where the innocent are suffering unjustly. The list could be very long, indeed, if we give careful thought to it.

So, reflecting on these matters, in the light of the discussions that are recorded in the story of Job, we have much pause for thought. How do we reconcile our faith in God—God who is loving, God who is just, God who is overseeing all that takes place—given these terrible realities? Is the image of God that we have accurate? If God can act to change any of these terrible situations that we are facing, why does God not so act? Is God uncaring? Is God unable to act? Is God not concerned with justice?

These are the questions that Job explores. It is a book which provides us with deep resources for thinking about such matters. It is a tale that resonates with so much in the experience of contemporary people. It is a take for our times.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part One (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:20–23). Why? is the question that Job asks incessantly, as he ruminates on what fate has befallen him.

Job, the righteous, upright person, struck with tragedy and blighted with grief, laments his situation. His story provides a good tale for us to consider during this time of global pandemic. It is a tale that explores the questions that we may be pondering.

As the story begins, we learn that Job had a good, prosperous life; but through no fault of his own, his life is turned upside down; he lost stock—500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7,000 sheep, and 3,000 camels—and all of his children—seven sons and three daughters (1:13–19). His life, once blessed and enjoyable, was utterly destroyed.

Yet “in all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Indeed, after each round of festivities enjoyed by his children, his practice was to sanctify all his family. He would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). He was indeed “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).

Job came under attack, he felt. Through no fault of his own, his life was turned upside down. He was deeply distressed. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”, he cried (3:11). “Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?” (3:12). “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:16). The joy at the prosperity which he had enjoyed had crumbled, his very being was pierced with deep grief and despair.

He turns, in his anguish, to God, whom he accuses of having brought this suffering upon him. “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20–21) “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave”, he laments (10:17–18).

Job berates God, whom he sees as being negligent in not intervening to save him from his fate. “Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (13:24), he asks. Then, some time later, he presses the point: “Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.” (21:4–6). He lays the blame at God’s feet: “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1)

Why? Why?? Why??? is Job’s constant question.

Job reflects on the quest for Wisdom, which is what is advocated in Proverbs (Prov 1:2–7; 2:1–5; 3:13–18; 4:5–9; 9:10; 15:32–33; 16:16; 17:24; 19:20; etc) and sought by The Teacher (Eccles 1:13; 7:25). Yet the search for Wisdom, who is more precious than jewels (Prov 3:15; 8:10–11), is much more difficult than mining for those precious jewels (Job 28:1–11).

Where shall Wisdom be found? Job asks (28:12). “Where does Wisdom come form?” (28:20). The answer is, “it is hidden from the eyes of all and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). Job despairs of ever finding Wisdom. God knows the way to Wisdom (28:23–27), but direct access to Wisdom remains elusive. All that is offered is “the fear of the Lord” (28:28–a verse attributed to Job, but which many scholars consider to be an authorial gloss on the whole speech).

Elihu rebukes Job, turning his incessant questioning back on him: “God is greater than any mortal. Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.” (33:12–14). “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong”, Elihu contends (34:10). “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it”, he maintains (35:13).

The claim that God is not just is an outrage to Elihu. He turns to the inscrutable nature of God: “Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable” (36:26). “The Almighty—we cannot find him”, Elihu maintains; “he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate” (37:23).

Yet Job will not budge. Finally, after a blistering speech from the Lord himself, out of the whirlwind (38:1–41:34), in which the deity makes it clear that Job cannot pretend to have any comprehension of the ways that God operates, Job backs down. He responds, sarcastically: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2), and then delivers his coup-de-grace: “therefore I despise myself, and repent of dust and ashes” (42:6).

It should be noted that the common rendering of these final words of Job in so many translations have inevitably mistranslated a crucial word. The Hebrew here clearly states, “I repent OF dust and ashes”. The twist to repenting IN dust and ashes, found in most translations, portrays Job as meekly withdrawing his complaint and submitting to the inscrutable mysteries of God.

But he does not. In fact, his final word is another sarcastic barb, aimed directly at God: “I will give up on playing the meek-and-humble supplicant”. He has not had his questions of Why? Why?? Why???answered in any satisfactory way. So he remains defiant. He repents of repenting. He will not be sorry.

It should also be noted that the “happy ever after” ending we have in 42:7–17, in which Job is vindicated and his fortunes are restored twofold, is widely recognised as a later ending which was not part of the original saga. In the original story, Job’s probing questions remain relentlessly unresolved.

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: Why is this happening? That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us?

Or, to be more theological about it: Why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? Do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? Why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

I’ll explore these questions further in part II of this reflection in the next blogpost.

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See also this series of sermons on Job by Elizabeth:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Come to me, take my yoke, I will give you rest (Matt 11; Pentecost 6A)

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The book of origins, the first of four accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (known to us as the Gospel according to Matthew), locates Jesus firmly within his historical context, as a teacher and prophet within Israel. He is the one who has come to renew the covenant, to restore Israel, to instruct them in the ways of righteous-justice. He is the one who brings the Law to fulfilment and establishes the way into the kingdom.

This book has a high view of Jesus within that Jewish context. It positions Jesus as the most authoritative teacher in his community, the one who guides, directs, and inspires those who listen to him.

It is to the words of Jesus that believers are to look for guidance in their lives (7:24–27). In this Gospel, Jesus is the one and only teacher (23:8), the one and only instructor (23:10). Whilst “heaven and earth will pass away”, the words spoken by Jesus will endure (24:35). The last words of Jesus reported in this book are the instructions from Jesus, to his disciples, to go to the nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). His teachings stand supreme.

In the lectionary for this coming Sunday, we find a striking passage from Matthew’s Gospel (11:25–30) which depends this understanding of Jesus the Teacher. In this passage, Jesus offers a prayer to God in which he lays claim to this distinct, even unique, place.

The first part of this passage (11:25-27) is often nicknamed “the Johannine Thunderbolt from a Synoptic Sky”, because it seems so out of place in this Gospel; the language used (“Father” and “Son”, amongst other things) invites comparison with the Fourth Gospel, as does the insistence on Jesus as the one who “knows the will of the Father” and thus reveals “the gracious will” of the Father (11:26-27). How these verses found there way into this particular Gospel is an intriguing question. (If you have a compelling answer to this question, I would love to hear it!)

As this prayer continues (11:28-30), Jesus is depicted as laying claim to be the authoritative teacher; his words claim an absolute authority to interpret the Law, which is here portrayed as “the yoke”, a term for the Law which is found in rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Aboth 3:5, Berakoth 2:5; see also 2 Enoch 34:1 and 2 Baruch 41:3).

Jesus here is portrayed as claiming this high authority for himself; his yoke provides a sure understanding of the Law. His language is filled with scriptural words; he speaks in a way that is strongly evocative of certain passages in Sirach concerning Wisdom (Sirach 6:18–33; 24:19–22; 51:23–28). In this book (dating from around 200-250 years before the time of Jesus), Wisdom commands attention (“draw near to me”, “come to me”), offers instruction, commands submission to the yoke of her teaching, and offers rest.

A hymn on the values of Wisdom concludes that book, with the invitation to “acquire wisdom for yourself … put your neck under her yoke and let your souls receive instruction” (Sir 51:25-26). Earlier in the book, this invitation to learn from Wisdom had been issued by Wisdom herself: “come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” (Sir 24:19).

And in the opening chapters of this book, an extended poem in praise of wisdom includes the invitation to “come to her like one who plots and sows … put your feet into her fetter and your neck into her collar, bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds … come to her with all your soul … search out and seek … when you get hold of her, do not let her go, for at last you will find the rest she gives, and you will be changed into joy for you” (Sir 6:19, 24-28).

The poem continues, “then her fetters will become for you a strong defence and her collar a glorious robe; her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord; you will wear her like a glorious robe and put her on like a splendid crown” (Sir 6:29-31).

So many of these phrases resonate in the words attributed to Jesus in the book of origins (Matt 11:28-30). As he speaks, he claims the authority of Wisdom. His words provide insight, guidance, direction, as do the words of Wisdom in earlier Jewish traditions. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, the voice of Wisdom has been invoked by Jesus as he reflects on the criticisms he has received, as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). The proof of the pudding is in the eating—“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, is what Jesus responds.

Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of “good advice and sound wisdom” who offers insight and strength (Prov 8:14), leading people along “the way of righteousness, the paths of justice” (8:20). She is also portrayed as the one who worked beside God to bring the created world into being (8:22-31).

Wisdom then appears in later Jewish literature, including Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), always as the teacher, instructing people in God’s ways, instructing and guiding people of faith through their journeys in life.

We have noted in earlier blogs that this Gospel, the book of origins, came into being in a community which found itself in competition with regard to other streams of Judaism. (See the blog posts listed below.) This Gospel, it would seem, seeks to validate the interpretation of scripture promoted by the followers of Jesus over and above other understandings and interpretations of the Law.

Who better to call upon for such validating support than the master exegete, the authoritative teacher, Jesus, the one to whom “all things have been revealed by the heavenly Father”, the one who speaks with the voice of Wisdom herself?

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/