Proper 24B: October 17, 2021



On November 1st, 1755, the capital city of Portugal, Lisbon, was struck by a massive and catastrophic earthquake, estimated to have been somewhere between an 8.5 and a 9 by modern measurements.  Many in the city responded to the earthquake by fleeing to the docks, the closest available open space. Those on the docks would have then seen the water rush out of the harbor. Should you ever be on the coast and see something similar, I hope you can quickly get to high ground, because about 40 minutes later, the water returned in a devastating tsunami. Unfortunately, the tsunami waters, despite causing plenty of destruction, neither stopped nor prevented the fire, which was triggered in part by the candles traditionally burned on All Saint’s Day in memory of those who died in the prior year.

Between the earthquake, the tsunami, and the fire, 85% of the city was destroyed and somewhere between ¼ and ½ of the population died.

In the age of the Enlightenment, this earthquake posed a philosophical problem. In 1710, Leibniz, perhaps better known for independently inventing calculus around the same time as Isaac Newton, wrote a treatise in which he coined the term “Theodicy,” based on Greek roots which roughly mean “The Justification of God.” In this book, Leibniz argued that God has provided us with “the best possible world,” and that evil and suffering exist because of human freedom, and that any divine measure to further limit evil and suffering would create the greater evil of the destruction of human freedom.

The Lisbon earthquake caused many, including such notable figures as Voltaire and Kant, to reject Leibniz and his claim that this was the “best possible world.”

The Lisbon earthquake brought a level of destruction that the best minds of the time struggled to comprehend, one that could not be justified by blaming the residents of Lisbon, or Cadiz, in Spain, where 1/3rd of the city was destroyed, or by the residents of Cornwall, in England, Galway, in Ireland, or the Caribbean Islands, each of which was also affected by the tsunami.

Even in a Christian Europe still recovering from the wars of the Reformation, still struggling with conflict between Protestants and Catholics, it was too much. Even with their knowledge of Scripture, and the routine descriptions in the Hebrew Bible of setbacks to the Hebrew people, the nation of Israel, and even to individuals as acts of divine retribution, beginning in Genesis when Adam and Eve are cast from the Garden, carrying through the destruction of the Flood and the exile into Egypt in which sibling-rivalry led to the enslavement of an entire people. Leviticus and Deuteronomy lay out penal codes based in no small part on the need for the community to punish individuals so that God does not punish the community, it was too much to continue holding on to the traditional theodicy that insisted such destruction could only be divine punishment.

I think, when people get too comfortable, they like to forget about Job, and it takes a significant shock to break people out of the habit of assuming that wealth is a divine reward and poverty a divine punishment, to stop us from thinking as Job’s friends do, of assuming that Job’s suffering must be punishment, and that their role, as Job’s friends, is to help him figure out what he did wrong so he can properly repent, assuming we think they are true friends and not fair-weather friends who use the pretense of friendship to cover the fact that they are really only concerned with whether Job has become a threat to their comfort, to their wealth, to their status. We think that we deserve the things we have, and by the same measure, we think that anyone who does not have something deserves not to.

Today, the lectionary gives us an answer outside the Book of Job. Consider our Gospel text, which presents much the same question, but in a softer, more positive light. In today’s passage from Mark, two disciples, James and John, here identified as the sons of Zebedee, though elsewhere they are identified as “sons of thunder” in reference to their powerful preaching and/or their forceful mother, ask Jesus to sit with him in glory. Jesus’ reply, “’You do not know what you are asking.’” is just a softer, gentler version of what God tells Job. Both are versions of “You are asking the wrong question.”

Job’s friends have been asking “what did Job do to deserve this.” Job has been asking “when will God restore what I have lost?” In this context, God’s response to Job and the friends, which begins “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and progresses to “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”  is not just asking “who are you to question me” but asks “what have you done?” Job, God points out, has been happy to enjoy the benefits of all that God has made, but has not worked to share them. Even in Job’s tragedy, Job only points to wider injustices to strengthen his own claim and not to do anything to help others.

This is also the heart of Jesus accusation against James and John when Jesus continues, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus knows what is coming. Jesus here is not speaking about his cup at the table, but about the crucifixion, about the very same cup Jesus will soon pray that God will take away.

I cannot help but think of the ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After Indy has figured out all the traps and puzzles to reach the room where the Holy Grail, the cup from the Last Supper is kept, the Nazis follow him there. The guardian tells them to “choose wisely” as they see a table full of cups. The Nazi thinks it must be the cup made of gold and covered in jewels, because surely this is an important cup, a status cup, a wealth cup, a cup that will help them “lord it over” people, to borrow more language from our gospel text. I imagine that this is something like the cup that James and John were imagining as well.

The guardian in the movie explains that the Nazi “choose poorly.”  Jesus explains to the gathered disciples: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The question that should occupy our time is not the question of Job’s friends, “who can we blame?” nor is it the question of Job, “when will God fix this” nor that of James and John, “how can we become more important? but “who can we serve?” and “how can we help?” As we face countless new tragedies, some great, some small, God asks us not for contemplation, but for action. Thanks be to God.