Third Sunday after Trinity
20 June 2021
The reading from the Book of Job we have just heard is very difficult and almost impossible to understand out of its context. Unfortunately, unless you read the previous chapters, you won’t really understand why God is telling these things to Job. It is a bit like the experience of someone who is about to start watching a new series on Netflix, and one of his friends tells him a scene of the final episode and expect him to look surprise at the final turn of the event in the series. Obviously, he will not just be upset for the unrequested spoiler, but also puzzled because he did not understand what his friend said. He did not even give him time to watch the first episode! Same here. We heard a small part of the last chapter of the Book of Job without having the chance to read the previous chapters, and it is expected from us to clearly understand what it is talking about and what’s its true meaning.
Allow me to help you with that by giving you some context.
The Book of Job is a very fascinating one! It is worth reading it from the beginning to end, not just because it narrates the discussion between God and Job, the just man, a man of integrity, but also because it poses the most essential question of our human condition. Why innocent people suffer? Why bad people can get away with their evil actions, while the good and honest people too often end up badly?
These are the kind of questions asked by Job to God. Job talks from experience. He talks as a man who experienced suffering, pain and felt unjustly humiliated and deprived of his wealth. All his friends tried to convince him that he was wrong, because God would have always punished bad people and rewarded the good guys. But Job stubbornly affirms his innocence and demands to receive an answer directly from God. And God listens. First he lets him speak and then answers his questions in person. The reading we heard this morning is the final part of his answer to Job.
“Am I not the Lord, sovereign of history and creator of the whole world -says God to Job-? How dare you questioning my sovereignty and power?”
This answer silences Job, but leaves us dumbfounded. Perhaps this is because we understand the limits of the Book of Job’s philosophical reflection. After all it tries to comprehend something whose comprehension goes beyond its capacity, and our capacity. Suffering and human injustice are complex and somehow mysteriously embedded in our human condition. The Book of Job gives a hint of an answer, which is remarkable, but uncertain and certainly not conclusive. We understand that the Book of Job does not have the intention to solve the problem of injustice, the evil dynamic of the bad overcoming the good, but wishes to ask the question, to encourage the discussion without the pretention of giving a definitive answer.
Job remains silent before God who shows himself in all his power. Maybe this is what Job really wanted. He longed for meeting him personally, to feel his presence not much as a philosophical or theological explanation, but more like a mother who embraces her child, like the word and touch that warm our hearts, like the almost physical touch of God in the intimacy of our own souls. God indeed reveals himself in the intimacy of Job’s mind and soul, but he is not the God of Jesus. Not yet. His image is still the one we experience from the Old Testament.
The God of Jesus will be revealed in the narrative of the Christ in the storm as described in Mark’s Gospel. Was Mark inspired by the Book of Job when he wrote the scene of Jesus calming the storm? We don’t know, and it does not really matter. What matters is that we witness a marvellous scene. It is full of meaning. I’d like to reflect on this scene with the help of a splendid painting called Christ on the storm on the sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (See image of the painting below).
This painting is not just beautiful but also a fantastic visual meditation of the scene narrated by Mark’s Gospel. In this majestic oil on canvas, Rembrandt captures the ambivalence, or we may say the multivalence, of the water and the psychology of the various characters in the gospel scene.
Biblically, water is a multivalent image, at times lifesaving (‘As a deer longs for flowing streams’, Psalm 42:1) and at other times life-threatening (as in the story of the Flood, Genesis 6–9).
Rembrandt plays with its ambiguity and conveys it as our eyes move about the painting. At the first glance, we will immediately notice that on the right, the waves and sky are dark, brooding, threatening. But on the left, the clouds part, light comes in, and the bubbly-white waves are painted with delicate texture, more fluffy than frightful. Fascinating!
If we then move the spotlight of our attention to the characters of the scene, we will notice the disciples depicted as a group, but also realise that every figure in Rembrandt’s visual meditation adds detail to its narrative drama.
For example, you can see five disciples holding tight the sails, trying to keep the boat afloat, and not realizing the true source of their impending deliverance. One vomits overboard, too afflicted in body and scared to focus on his master.
If we then look at the characters’ gazes we will see that they also convey important dynamics of the scene. Only three look at Jesus, who appears serene, perhaps having just awoken from his nap. One disciple turns his back both to us and to Jesus: is he dozing through the storm, like Jonah? Or is he so trusting in God that he doesn’t feel the need to wake Jesus at all? The image leave plenty of room to our imagination and free interpretation. It engages with us and also urges us to go beyond the role of passive spectator of the scene.
The disciple next to him gazes directly at us. His staring eyes, coupled with the variety of responses catalogued in the painting, ask the viewer the same challenging questions the story asks the reader: ‘What sort of man is this?’; ‘Where is your faith?
Again the painting engages with us at a deeper level if we let us immerge into this impressive visual meditation. We are invited to take part.
In the storm of our lives with our preoccupation, concerns, obsessions, anxieties, waves of sadness that overwhelm us when we feel betrayed and also betrayed, when we let people down and felt disappointed by people, when everything seems to be lost and we feel like drowning in the sea of our depression and desperation, who are we in this boat? Are we the disciples who hold tight the sails, trying to keep the boat afloat? Or perhaps we feel more like that disciple vomits overboard, too afflicted in body and mind to focus on his master!? Or maybe we identify ourselves with the disciple who is dozing, unaware of the danger.
In the middle of our storm, perhaps at the centre of our spiritual and human storm, we meet Jesus. He stays still. He brings calm and peace to our lives. His peace is deeply rooted in our hearts, and the solid ground for what we may call external peace: the absence of violence and war, which can’t last for long without inner peace.
Today’s Gospel is an strong invitation to heal the root of evil by planting the seed of peace in our hearts and become multipliers of this peace in our familes, and our community.