A reflection on the readings for Sunday, June 20, 2021 — the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There are few experiences in the world that can match the intensity, the violence, and the sheer drama of a midwestern storm. Growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, shielded by the gently rolling Appalachian mountains, I never fully grasped these awesome manifestations of God’s power. Blizzards? Sure. Floods? Absolutely. Thunderstorms? That’s kid’s stuff, who’s afraid of a little lightning?
It wasn’t until spending a summer at Omaha, Nebraska’s Institute for Priestly Formation during my seminary years that I first encountered the strength of a storm that is uninterrupted by other geographical features. Thunderstorms in the Midwest offer no quarter, nothing to hold on to. With no mountains to provide a sense of security, stability, or safety one is left to stand alone before the immense open plain, feeling small and helpless amid the raging winds and peeling thunder.
Now, perhaps my description is a bit exaggerated, but this theatrical image of a raging storm is precisely what the authors of both the Book of Job and the Gospel of Mark have in mind as they set their scenes in today’s readings. The whirlwind, the storm, the impressive display of nature’s power is a common place of theophany throughout scripture. The storm provides an opportunity for one to fully grasp the power of God who subdues the chaos and exercises dominion over nature. The story of Job’s encounter with God in the storm and the disciples recognition of Jesus as God in the storm together offer insight into the gap between the answers we want and the answers we are capable of receiving, between the clear explanations we think will lead us to spiritual enlightenment and the humility that actually will.
The Book of Job is the tale of a just man who is undeservedly beset with great suffering. Trapped by the contemporary view that suffering is the result of evil, his friends are unable to provide proper counsel. A back and forth between Job and his interlocutors ensues, but each theological response offered fails because it is either inapplicable or plain unsatisfactory. His friends, for their part, are unable to comfort Job but find solace themselves in the flawed tropes of traditional early Jewish theology. In their own way everyone to this point of the story believes comfort will come with safety, with surety, with predictable steady mountains in the form of easy theological answers that can shield them from the chaos and suffering around them.
Job cries out in his distress, demanding the clear, substantive answer that he believes he is owed. Then, in one of the most theatrical moments in the Old Testament God speaks to Job out of a storm, finally responding to the pleas of his just servant. What Job receives, however, isn’t the answer he expected. In God’s entire response to Job he does not offer a single affirmative statement, but rather a series of questions. God does not in this moment seek to intimidate Job or to stifle his desire to better understand God’s ways, but to remind him of his smallness, to remind him of his dependence, to remind him that the Lord and the Lord alone is God. It is not clarity that Job receives, it is humility before the grand power and mystery of God.
In Mark’s Gospel God again reveals himself in the midst of a storm, this time in the person of Jesus Christ. While the winds once again whip across the sea, representing the power of chaos and evil, Jesus displays his mastery. In commanding the water to be still he claims for himself the power that God describes in his response to Job, demonstrating his divinity. Just as Job and his friends are initially unable to conceive of God who would allow a just servant to suffer and prefer the safety of their own false but dependable vision of God, Jesus’ disciples are struck with fear at the storm and question whether Jesus is concerned at all with their safety.
At face value the situation and response of the disciples may appear unrelated to that of Job, but upon closer inspection the stories deal with the same response to the self-manifestation of God. In Jesus the disciples are presented with a God who differs from their preconceived notions; they are faced with the uncertainty of evil, suffering, and chaos; they seek clear answers and expected solutions, but do not exhibit real faith. Jesus does provide clarity in a sense, he is clearly showing himself to be divine, but he is also asking the disciples to have confidence in his power even when surrounded by the chaos and the storm. Even when they are unable to wrap their heads around the situation that is unfolding, they are asked to trust in God’s mastery.
The method in which God presents himself to both Job and the disciples and the lesson those self-revelations are meant to impart are uniquely relevant in today’s Church. One of the most common critiques one hears regarding Pope Francis is his lack of “clarity.” Some Catholics routinely grow frustrated that the Holy Father responds to theological questions with more questions or that, if he does provide answers, they appear overly ambiguous or nuanced. Of course this phenomenon is not limited to Francis, similar critiques are leveled against anything from a document of the Second Vatican Council to a Sunday homily from a parish priest.
It is easy to understand why Catholics desire definitive answers to every question. Easily digestible answers provide security, safety, and certainty in a chaotic and tumultuous world. The problem, of course, is that this is not how the God of Job and the God of Jesus Christ responds to such situations. God does not offer the believer clarity in every moment, he invites the believer to trust. In his moments of theophany God calls us to recognize our smallness, to accept our inability to fully comprehend the mysteries of the divine, and to surrender our perceived control. The faith that God calls us to does not require or offer certainty and clarity in every moment—quite the contrary. The God of Job and the God of Jesus Christ, the God who speaks to his people in the chaos, in the storm, is not the God of safe and secure answers, he is the God who asks us to stand before the storm and trust in his power.