Written by Wesley Walker
I’ve given all I can
It’s not enough
I’ve given all I can
But we’re still on the payroll
This is what you’ll get
This is what you’ll get
This is what you’ll get
When you mess with us
-“Karma Police” by Radiohead
This morning’s Daily Office readings are Job 3 and Matthew 21:28-46. In the Job reading, the title character curses the day of his birth. Matthew features two stories: the story about two sons who are forgiven followed by the parable of the wicked tenants.
The book of Job is a tale of loss, angst, and our proclivity toward self-justification making it a viscerally appropriate book for Lent. By the time we catch up with Job in chapter three, his children have been killed and his wealth eviscerated. Job’s life has taken such a wretched turn that his own wife recommends he blaspheme God so he might get struck dead and put out of his misery. Yet things only get worse for Job as Satan requests the Lord allow him to afflict Job with a series of physical ailments in addition to his emotional trauma.
Job 3 marks Job’s first time talking after spending a week in silence with three of his friends. “Let the day perish wherein I was born,” he helplessly cries out to a seemingly indifferent universe (3:3a; RSV). The reason Job’s grief is so great, and the reason his friends will become less supportive of his plight over the course of the book, is that they all operate on the singularly faulty assumption that living a good life consistently brings material blessings while living a wicked life consistently brings curses. So, to Job’s friends, the problem is clear: Job must have sinned and needs to repent before more evil befalls him. Yet Job, knowing that he has done nothing wrong, indignantly insists that there is a mistake in the cosmic record keeping department. The false accusations of his friends merely add a veneer of insult to injury. Such a position is why Job curses the day of his birth: he is highlighting his wretched status of getting treated unjustly based on his karmic worldview. “For my sighing comes as my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water,” he laments as even the signs of sacramental hope become emblems of his suffering (3:24). One of the major contributions of Job to the larger bigger corpus is in its rebuttal of retribution theology; things are rarely so simple as Job and his friends assume.
Just as Job’s one-dimensional retributive expectations are upset by his experiences, Jesus offers a similarly radical in Matthew 21:28-32. According to Jesus, a son who at first rejects his father’s request to work the vineyard only to repent and obey later is following through on the father’s will more than another son who verbally assents to the father’s bidding while ignoring it in his actions. The lesson for Jesus’ Pharisaical listeners is that, much like Job, their expectations are going to be reversed: “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (21:31b). Far from the rigid karma expected by Job and his associates, grace savagely upends expectancies in ways that rarely make sense to our natural minds.
The second half of Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees (21:33-46) further explains how grace will upend what the Jews expected. The parable is about a householder who builds up his property and gives it to tenants so they may tend it. When the time for the harvest comes, he sends his servants to collect the dividends from his investment, but they are beaten, killed, and stoned. Perhaps to prevent escalation, the landowner sends another set of servants who receive the same fate as their predecessors. Finally, the landowner decides to send his own son to accomplish his business, but the wicked tenants put him to death to usurp his inheritance for themselves. The expectation, then, is that the owner will return to his property and exact vengeance against those tenants who so clearly disrespected him and find more faithful replacements. The meaning of this parable is summarized by Jesus in verses 42-43, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘the very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” The parable is looking forward to a time when the Gospel would reach Gentile people while being rejected by the Jews, another radical reversal that is difficult for us to even comprehend. The benefits of the Passion of our Lord are not locked into static ethnic identity but are expanded to include anyone from anywhere.
What do these lessons have to do with Lent? According to the wonderful poet Malcolm Guite, Lent is “not about giving up and going without for its own sake; it is about making room for something wonderful.” It is a time to prepare for Easter, the height of the Church’s year, where we celebrate Christ’s death which took away the sting of death while buying us life. The reality conveyed to us by our baptism continues God’s pattern of breaking our natural expectations. Paul expounds on this reality in Romans 6:3-5:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
There are two important takeaways from this. First, even though Lent is a time for repentance, reflection, and self-discipline, we do so with God’s grace in mind. Even in spite of our failures, he is faithful to us with what Brennan Manning calls “a furious tenderness.” Much of the time, we perceive God as distant, particularly if we are not doing. Such a picture constrains a God too infinite for our meager mental perceptions. As St. Augustine claimed, “He is closer to us than we are to ourselves,” even when we are at our worst.
Building off of the faithfulness of God, Christians should follow Martin Luther’s advice to “remember your baptism.” As we deconstruct our self-perception through reflection and meditation during Lent, it should lead us to ground-zero of our identity: our baptism. In baptism, we were brought from death to life and darkness to light. Baptism is the moment at which we were incorporated into Christ and should be the basis on which we move forward to seek ways of “walking in the newness of life.”
The rest of Lent, remember the radical reversal embedded within the DNA of the Christian story and always expect for God to reverse your expectations.