Joseph the Carpenter, Georges de La Tour
Job 7:1-7, Mark 1:29-39
We have a word that seems very relevant for the time we are living through in this pandemic. Job vocalises, in our reading today, the experience of the futility of life, something that could have just as well come from Sartre. He complains that all of life is ‘pressed’ or rather ‘military service’, nothing better than hired drudgery. I’m sure we have all felt like that at one point or another. Is there any meaning to anything we do? Does anything I do make any difference at all?
‘Like a workman with no thought but his wages…’ Anyone familiar with that? Sometimes work becomes weary and loses meaning. It becomes mechanical, depressing; many times we are too scared or unsure to do something about it. The only exciting thing become, the wages at the end of the month. Job goes on: ‘Lying in bed, I wonder, when will it be day?’. We all know what that is like, lying in bed, unable to sleep. It is horrible because you know you are losing valuable time you need for sleep; it is made worse by your feeling of helplessness. You are completely passive. And it sums up a lot of Job’s protest. But it goes further. You finally get up, but can’t wait for nightfall, because the day is equally insipid. At the end he sums it up – ‘my eyes will never again see joy’. When joy disappears, life becomes unbearable. We can experience this kind of existential crisis in different ways, even if not with the intensity of Job’s plight. A relationship breakdown, loss of health or work, a bitter work environment, even this experience of lockdown, being so isolated. It brings to the surface, questions which we don’t bother with during times of success.
In contrast to the helplessness of Job, the gospel shows Jesus, along with his disciples buzzing with activity. He has no time to go away even to pray by himself. Everyone is crowding around, trying to get healed, be taught, be freed. Maybe we don’t want to be so busy – but nevertheless, he is healing people, making a difference in people’s lives. Everything that he does, bringing about lasting change – or at least seems so. Everybody loves him. Wouldn’t it be great if life and our work was like that? If we knew that we were making a difference, difference that we could see, making the world a better place. We could be highly motivated doing it, there would be no time to waste. Yet, we know that this gospel doesn’t end there. Even as Jesus is making a difference in people’s lives, he cannot stay to heal everyone – he has to go elsewhere to preach. He has to leave some behind without being healed. And of course, as the gospel progresses, the healings will stop at some point. Even the people who have seen his miracles will turn against him. He will be crucified. Was there any use in all the good he had done? Did it make any difference? His own people have turned against him. But it will be in that most meaningless event of his life, the Cross, that God’s will and salvation will be accomplished.
In this pandemic, we’ve all been cut off from life as we knew it. It has left some of us passive, unable to do much. Maybe it has raised in us, Job’s questions. Or maybe you’ve been working at an intense pace, much like Jesus in the gospels. Sometimes, we can continue like that, even for years, only for it to stop and leave us wondering if it was all worth it.
The question of the futility of our work haunts all of us because it is as old as Adam itself. Work was always part of God’s plan for our lives. God commanded Adam to till the earth, to transform the world through his work, even before the Fall. This desire, to make a difference in the world, is there in all of us. We want to do something good, leave behind something that lasts. With the Fall, however, in Adam’s separation from God, work became laborious and seemingly meaningless. The world’s solution to this become the common temptations – you need to be rich, or powerful or popular to be able to do anything of value. And we work hard to achieve that. Except it’s a lie. Celebrities are popular, but we know how quickly they can fall. Many are rich. They are not always the ones who have made a difference, if we look at history. Politicians are powerful. How many will we remember, though, fifty years from now, as having made a lasting difference? Even Hitler wanted to make the world, I would think, into a better place. His understanding of what would bring that about was fallen and perverse, but beneath that, the desire was the same.
This is where the gospel makes a difference. If Jesus had only healed people, taught them, and left, he might still be regarded a great teacher in the likes of Buddha or Confucius. He wouldn’t, however, have saved us from Adam’s fate to which we had been consigned. But Jesus entered into all of our condition. He entered into it, but always being united with the Father. Everything he did was in union with the Father, whether he was healing people or being scourged at the pillar. His food was to do the Father’s will (Jn 4:33). It was the will of God that gave meaning to his life, even when the events itself did not do so. When we follow the way of the world and separate ourselves from God’s will, everything becomes futile, nothing lasts. At best it can be drudgery. At worst, we can use our power and riches to destroy, much like Hitler and Stalin.
As Christians, we have been given an incredible gift. We have been baptised. In our baptism, we have been taken into the life of the Holy Trinity itself. It is God’s life which gives life to the world, gives it meaning. And we have been given this life. With it comes our baptismal mission. To bring life and meaning to the world – through our work. Adam’s commission is our commission too. But for that, we need to ask, ‘Father, what is your will for my life?’. We all spend a lot of time thinking about our careers, what courses we should do in university, which job we would like to take. That is necessary. But how much time do we spend consulting God on the same? We should think about these things, but they should be part of the larger question of God’s plan for our lives. We can dare to ask that of God, if we believe that God has a good plan for us – to make us prosper, not to destroy us! (Jer 29:11).
This is what Christ’s work– not necessarily his success, but the most meaningless event of the Cross – makes possible. At the Eucharist, everything we do can be taken up into God’s own life. God wants to work with us, to change the world. In union with God’s will, the smallest things become as meaningful as the greatest things one can accomplish. We will not be fazed by the littleness of our work or left worn out and disillusioned by incessant activity. We could say, with Mother Teresa (paraphrased), “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But without it, the ocean would be one drop less.”