Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Concerning Dust and Ashes

October 28, 2018 | By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Job 42: 1-6 and Mark 10:46-52

Question 1: What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

Answer: That I am not my own, but I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ. (The Heidelberg Catechism, 1583)

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher,[a] let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Job humbles himself before the Lord. He admits he has demanded answers from God to things that are beyond his understanding. Those answers he has sought? The whys and wherefores of his personal suffering, and the purpose of suffering in general. He realizes that the answers he seeks are unknowable for humans. And therefore, he says, he repents….

Of what? 

That’s the translation question that troubles Biblical scholars in this, the final chapter of the Book of Job. Our NRSV translation renders it that Job “repents in dust and ashes” of the questions he has asked. But for Job to repent of asking questions would quite frankly be shameful. What human having experienced the suffering he has would not have asked those questions—would not have demanded answers from heaven? Is it a lack of faith to ask those questions? That’s absurd. The entire Book of Job is a celebration of the human instinct to ask these questions of theodicy, the “why God?” questions. 

But most scholars say this NRSV translation is inaccurate. Very inaccurate. Janzen renders the verse instead as “Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes.” That changes the whole meaning. It doesn’t mean that he repents asking the question. It means that he has come, albeit reluctantly, to accept that he is dust and ashes, a mere mortal, and that God is God. He won’t get the answers to all questions. He won’t be privy to all knowledge. There are things he can’t know and can’t understand. He is human. 

But that doesn’t mean he can’t stand up. That doesn’t mean he can’t ask his questions and express his frustrations. As Janzen notes, 

Humankind is not painted into the picture as one creature among many, but is addressed by the Creator in a series of questions, the response to which will disclose the human decision for self-understanding in such a world: solely as a creature; or as a creature (“dust and ashes”) challenged to take up the divine image through engagement with the partly determinate, partly indeterminate character of the world. (Janzen, p. 257)

In other words, do we understand ourselves as made in the Divine Image and therefore as much as possible, within our frail, mortal, human, understanding, responsible for addressing the difficult question of suffering ourselves? That as creatures made in the image of God, part of our job is to do what we can to ease and end the suffering of the world?

It is really in that sense a question of maturity. There is a still too common religious understanding that humans shouldn’t try too hard to understand or question or “fix” the world in which they live because by doing so they’re messing with God’s handiwork. That sort of thinking has restricted and punished scientists and philosophers for centuries for seeking knowledge that should only be God’s. It still goes on today. No, Job says. We humans, made in the divine image, have to do the best we can to fix a broken world. We are made in the divine image, which means that to the extent we can make the world a better place we are doing God’s work in the world. We are providing at least part of the solution to the problem of suffering. That is our role as creatures made in the image of God. So to the extent we can heal disease and ease suffering, understand the human genome, alleviate poverty, limit global warming and the effects of natural or human-made disaster, explore space and understand the universe in which we live, we must do so—it is part of our divinely-inspired imperative. There are people who think we can’t know those things or shouldn’t know them because they are part of the unknowable knowledge of God and we are ‘dust and ashes,’ flawed humanity. They are wrong. We must understand what we can, we must do what we can, because dust and ashes though we are, we are also made in the Image of God. 

Job nonetheless affirms that, strive as we might to solve all the problems that beset humanity and the world, and ask and demand the answers to life’s difficult questions, we will never have the knowledge we seek. We are dust and ashes. There are things we can’t know. We should accept that. That’s one point of the Book of Job. 

But honestly, there has to be more to it than that. Because accepting what we can’t know doesn’t answer the deepest questions that plagues us all: What is the nature of the universe? What is the ultimate purpose of humanity? What is the ultimate purpose of everything? 

These are questions of meaning and finding out all the facts of the universe will never really answer them. Those are the real questions that Job is asking. At some level, if we can find the meaning of suffering, then we can find the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. That’s what Job wants and doesn’t get—the clear explanation, what it all means, how it all fits together, why everything is the way it is. He won’t get that –at least, he won’t get that as knowledge, as a clear provable statement of fact from an irreproachable source. Something we can prove indisputably. No, we have to discover meaning some other way.

That is where faith comes in. Our Gospel story is about that faith, the faith of Bartimaeus, a blind man. In our story, Bartimaeus is contrasted to the disciples, who are blind to who Jesus really is even though they follow him. He’s contrasted to a rich man who is too blind to give up all he has to follow Jesus. He’s contrasted to religious leaders who believe that they know it all but can’t see that Jesus is the Son of David, the way that Blind Bartimaeus can. 

He is contrasted to people like you and me, who need to see how good God is before we’ll believe that God is good. Bartimaeus believes that Jesus will heal him even before Jesus does anything for him: he believes it before he even meets Jesus, much less before he “sees” him. 

The book of Hebrews says that faith “is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen.” Faith is something we believe often without visible evidence, often without any proof at all. Now obviously, that can be a bad thing. There are people in the world who refuse to see doctors because they “have faith” Jesus will cure their disease and will likely die because of this misplaced faith. That’s not the faith we’re talking about here. 

The faith we’re talking about is confidence that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is good, and in the end, all things will work for good. It is faith that while there is so much that we cannot know and will never know, we can nonetheless have confidence that the universe rests in the hands of an all-powerful God who loves us, who has a purpose for us and the universe, a God of goodness and mercy and love. And strikingly important, a God who wants to be in relationship with us: A God who dignifies us the way Jesus dignified the blind man, asking him, “What do you want of me?” singling him out from all the people who crowded him, crowning Blind Bartimaeus with glory and honor. 

The same God met Job in person, speaking to him out of the whirlwind, challenging Job to debate him mano a mano, as it were. God treats Job with respect and speaks to him out of relationship. Though God humbles Job, God does not humiliate Job. The very fact that God chooses to engage with this angry, troubled man, tells us that God respects our ability to stand before the divine, to express in God’s presence the godhood in which we are made. 

That’s what happens to Bartimaeus in our story. He throws off his cloak and springs up, we are told. He stands before Jesus and with boldness makes his request. That boldness is this man’s expression of his own divinity, his own dignity. Other people may view him as a blind beggar, a drain on society, less than human—but Bartimaeus knows himself to be made in the image of God, someone who has inherent dignity—and he also knows that Jesus will respect that dignity, that Jesus will hold him in honor, that Jesus will do him good. These are things that aren’t provable by knowledge or science: they are discovered by faith—faith in the goodness of God, faith in the healing power of Jesus, faith in the goodness of God’s plan and in the mercy and love inherent in God’s nature, faith in the sacred nature of our relationship with the Divine, who values and loves each of us and all of us. None of that is provable. We can “know” it, to the extent that word even applies, only by faith. And Bartimaeus has that faith. 

As does Job. Even demanding that God answer his angry questions is an act of faith, a belief that God won’t just strike him down for asking. Most striking is Job’s refusal not to do what other people tell him to do, which is to curse God and die. Renounce a God who is so unjust as to treat you this way! He is told by so many. But he refuses. His very refusal to renounce God is proof that he still has faith that God is good.

Faith is a tricky thing. Faith has the dubious role in our lives of filling in the holes in the things we don’t understand. Faith is not certainty, and so inevitably we have doubts. As St. Stephen’s former pastor, the Rev. R.W. Jablonowski, used to say from the pulpit, “If you don’t have doubt, you don’t have faith!” 

But faith is how we know the things that matter—the things that drive our lives—the things that give us purpose. Faith empowers us to transcend the mundane facts of our lives and to see ourselves with God’s eyes. We are more than dust and ashes—we are made in the image of God. Faith assures us that though life is finite and we ourselves have mortal limits, nonetheless our lives have a great purpose—that God is good—that life is filled with meaning. We can know things, we can fill our heads with facts, but those facts don’t give our lives meaning. It is the invisible, the unprovable, that gives life its meaning—that opens our eyes to see that we are made to be divine creatures, and that God loves us, and that somehow, some way, all things will by God’s grace work for good. 

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