05 February 2006

What Purpose do you serve?

5th Sunday OT: Job 7.1-4, 6-7; 1 Cor 9.16-19, 22-23; Mark 1.29-39
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas
Hear it!

Everything is lost. Nothing really lives here. There is no light, no life, no hope of being found. There is work with no purpose. Movement toward no end. Day, then night, then day again. No meaning. Pointless striving. Unraveling hours of nothing at all. Sleep brings no rest. Work never tires. It won’t end soon enough. Or, too soon. Like an exhausted wind weakly blowing dust. Sigh. Job is not a happy man. He’s learned that his life of blessing and prosperity is very easily washed away. Troubled nights. Restlessness ‘til dawn. His life like a wind. Never to see happiness again. Job has lost his faith. And with it his humility and his gratitude. Self-pity and anger are not the seeds of blessing. So, he will be hopeless, restless, and sleepless until he finds again a purpose bigger than his small dreams, his little dramas of success.

We read tonight that Jesus and Paul know their purpose. And they know happiness in knowing their purpose. What makes you happy? What Purpose do you serve?

Isn’t it easier getting out of bed in the morning knowing you have a purpose, knowing you have a goal to achieve, a To Do List for your life that needs some work? Isn't it easier making it to work or class or the next thing on the list knowing that your attention, energy, labor, and time will be focused on completing a mission, on getting something done? With the time we have and the talents given to us, don’t we prefer to see constructive and profitable outcomes? Even when we’re being a bit lazy, wasting a little time doing much of nothing, we have it in the back of our mind to get busy, to get going on something, checking that next thing on the list and moving toward a goal. It’s how we are made. It’s how we live in the world.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation have been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” Paul has been given an end, a goal, a purpose beyond mere survival, beyond merely getting along. Having been smacked around by the Lord for persecuting the Church, Paul finds himself ordered to a regime of holiness, a kingdom of righteousness, that demands more than rule-following, more than simply showing up and breathing the temple air. Paul must preach. He must travel city to city, province to province, publicly witnessing to his repentance, to the power of Christ’s mercy.

Paul’s sleep is restful. His work exhausts him. He is a slave whose labor is never drudgery, never pointless. His end, his purpose is Jesus Christ, the telling again and again of his story, his bruising encounter with the man of love. And offering to anyone who will open their eyes to see and their ears to hear, offering to them the same restfulness, the same pleasing exhaustion, the same intense focus of a purpose driven by the need to proclaim Christ.

Jesus, doing his best to find a little time away from the crowds, responds responsibly when Simon and other disciples find him and say, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus, pursued, literally, by his purpose says, “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” Soon he will look out over the vast crowd and, moved by compassion, teach them many things. Now, nearly exhausted himself, he takes his students out again to preach and teach the Good News. It is his purpose—to show those hungry for God that God does indeed rule, that He holds dominion here, over all creation—heaven and earth, human and devil—and that healing flows from faith, light always overcomes darkness, and that evil, no matter how much ahead in the race, has already lost.

Job has lost his purpose and dwells in an anxious darkness. Paul is driven by his need to witness. Jesus reveals His Father’s kingdom—healing, driving out demons, preaching. Job recovers his purpose when the Lord dramatically reminds him who is God and who is creature, Who Is Purpose Himself and who has a purpose. Paul runs his preaching into every town he crosses, proclaiming the Word, setting up houses of prayer, and leaving behind men and women strong in the faith. Jesus moves inexorably toward the Cross, his work for the Way along the way reveals again and again the always, already present victory of Life over Death, freedom over slavery, final success over endless failure.

What goals do you serve? Why do you get up in the morning? What meaning does your work, your play have for you? Who are you in light of what you have promised to be and do? What makes you happy? Where do you find joy? Lots of questions! But all of these are really just one question: what is your purpose?

You have a given purpose and a chosen purpose. Your given purpose is dyed into your flesh, pressed through into your bones; it is a God-placed hook in your heart, a hook that tugs you relentlessly back to God, back to His perfecting goodness. Your chosen purpose is how you choose to live out day-to-day your given purpose, how you have figured out how to make it back to God. Student, mother, professor, virgin, priest, monk, artist, poet, engineer, athlete, clerk, scientist, father, nurse, dentist. When your chosen purpose best reveals your given purpose, when what you have chosen to do helps who you are given to be flourish, your anxiety finds trust, your sleeplessness finds rest, your despair finds joy. And you can say with Paul: “All this I do for the sake of the gospel,”—heal, study, pray, minister, write, research, teach, drive, build, all this I do for the gospel—“so that I too may have a share in it.”

What Purpose do you serve? I mean, when you work, when you study and teach and play, toward what end do you reach? What goal seduces you forward, pulls you to the finish line? Surely for us, all of us here tonight, that purpose is Jesus Christ. Our goal is his friendship, his love. And our goal is his witness, our telling of his Good News. We can waddle around in the darkness of sin, bumping around blind, reaching for what’s never there. We can wail into the wind like Job, moaning about the meaninglessness of life, the pointlessness of our daily striving. We can even refuse happiness, refuse to see that we have a given purpose. But you will find your release and your license, your freedom and your choice when you make yourself a slave to all, when you make yourself all things to all, to save at least some.

Like Paul, a trusted steward, a faithful child, preach the gospel. Live it right where you are. Make it your reason for getting out of bed, for going to work, for making it to class. Make it who you are, what you do, and everything you ever will become.

Everyone is looking for you. For what purpose do you live?


  1. Father Mark Daniel Kirby, O.Cist.8:11 PM

    Father Philip,
    Don't feel absolutely obliged to post this. I merely want to share it with you — O.Cist. to O.P. Saint Dominic was, of course, called in to do a job that Cistercian preachers couldn't quite get right! That being said, here's mine for today:
    Job 7:1-4, 6-7
    Psalm 146: 12, 3-4, 5-6
    1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23
    Mark 1:29-39

    February 5, 2006
    Monastery of the Glorious Cross, O.S.B.
    Branford, Connecticut

    “I am allotted months of emptiness and nights of misery are apportioned to me” (Jb 7:3), says Job: the utterance of a man for whom life has lost all meaning. Job was a prosperous citizen, a man content with himself: comfortable in his religion, secure in his possessions, happy with his family. In a single day, he lost everything (Jb 1:14-16). A tornado struck the house where all his children were gathered for a dinner party, and all perished (Jb 1:18-19). Later he was stricken with a terrible illness; he was covered with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Jb 2:7). His wife (hardly sympathetic and encouraging) tells him to curse God, and die (Jb 2:9). His friends come for visits, but their conversation brings no comfort and their company no solace.
    In only six verses, today's first reading reveals the bleakness and intensity of Job's suffering. His torment is more interior than exterior: restlessness, sleepless nights, and the total eclipse of hope. God is conspicuously absent from the text. God is not even mentioned. Listening to the reading, I was moved by the images of despondency that, one after the other, bare for us the depths of Job's pain. “Months of emptiness and nights of misery” (Jb 7:3). “The night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn” (Jb 7:4). Job has the fearful experience of seeing his life rush past him into an impenetrable obscurity. “My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end without hope” (Jb 7:6). The last line of the reading leaves one with the impression of an indefinable and tragic emptiness. “My eye will never again see good” (Jb 7:7) or, in the lectionary translation, “I shall not see happiness again.”

    Job finds an extraordinarily poignant echo in a poem by W. H. Auden.

    Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
    Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
    Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
    Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

    Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
    Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
    Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
    Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

    He was my North, my South, my East and West,
    My working week and my Sunday rest,
    My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
    I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
    The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
    Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
    Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
    For nothing now can ever come to any good.

    “For nothing now can ever come to any good.” Auden is quoting Job. How do we leap from this into the responsorial psalm, “Praise the Lord, who heals the broken-hearted” (Ps 147:3). I'm not even sure that a leap is appropriate. The reality of human suffering, of the gnawing sense of hopelessness cannot, and should not, be treated dismissively. The pain of the human heart deserves the respect that only a speechless and attentive presence can offer. In any case, the leap into the responsorial psalm, however long it is respectfully delayed, cannot be attempted alone. We respond together to the glimmers of light that it holds out. God, conspicuously absent from the text of Job, comes out of hiding in the psalm to “gather the outcasts of Israel, to heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds, to lift up the downtrodden” (Ps 147:2-3, 6).
    As a rule, the second reading is not related to the other texts of the Sunday liturgy. Today, however, Saint Paul says something that brings him close to Job, and to us. “To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Cor 9:22). Here, Paul reflects his Lord and Master, the Suffering Servant. Before Paul, Christ himself, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3), became as weak to the weak, that he might win the weak. (Isaiah's portrait of the suffering Servant will, in fact, be our first reading in Saturday's Mass for the World Day of the Sick.) The weak Christ - like the weak Job, and the weak Paul - speaks, I think, to the weakness in all of us, drawing us to himself humbly and gently. Virtue that causes the righteous to seem distant, and holiness unattainable, is no virtue at all.
    Job and Paul, in their weakness, conduct us to the gospel of the compassionate Christ. In the gospel, the God of the responsorial psalm has a human face, human hands, a human heart, and a healing, human touch. Look at the Christ of the gospel? What do we see him doing? He stretches forth his hand (Mk 1:31) to raise up, to set free, to heal. What Jesus does in the gospel for the mother-in-law of Peter (Mk 1:30), and for the whole city gathered together about the door (Mk 1:33), he wants to do for us.
    Come to him, present in the mysteries of the Bread and of the Cup. He will take you by the hand and lift you up (Mk 1:31). If, scorched by the heat of the day, you long for the shadow (Jb 7:2), he will “hide you in the shelter of his wings” (Ps 17:8). If months of emptiness have been your lot (Jb 7:3), he comes to “crown the year with bounty” (Ps 65:11). If nights of misery have been your portion (Jb 7:3), he rises before you as the dawn of mercy (cf. Lk 1:78-79).
    If you say, “When shall I arise” (Jb 7:4), he stretches forth his hand to raise you up (cf. Mk 1:31). If you say, “the night is long” (Jb 7:4), he says, “You will not fear the terror of the night” (Ps 91:5). If the night is “full of tossing till the dawn” (Jb 7:4), he says, “Come to me . . . And you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28 29). If the days of your life are rushing past, “swifter than a weaver's shuttle” (Jb 7:6), leaving things unresolved, questions unanswered, and your heart without hope, he comes to calm and quiet your soul, “like a child quieted at its mother's breast” (Ps 131:2).
    If you fear that never again your eye will see good (Jb 7:7), draw near today to the Holy Table saying with Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . and in my flesh I shall see my God . . . . This, my hope, is laid up in my heart” (Jb 19:25-27, Vulg).

  2. Father,

    Have you ever read Peter Kreeft's Three Philosophies of Life? He argues that, at bottom, all true philosophies (meaning all philosophies that have an end) in the World come down to one of three, each of which was set down in an Old Testament Book of wisdom literature. Ecclesiastes: the philosophy of vanity; Job: the philosophy of suffering; Song of Songs: the philosophy of love. It really sheds light on how Job fits in to the Christian experience.

  3. Anonymous8:08 PM

    Wow. That's really inspiring, and slightly weird, since today I just learned that I was made by God to be a musician and inspire people through song.

  4. My purpose has been fulfilled and now pigeon-holed as mentally unstable and live at the whim of governmental expedience to ensure my son has a chance to find and fulfill his purpose. It won't be long before that excuse to exist becomes pointless or even intrusive. When I run or ride the trails it strikes me that there are no 'old' animals. Nature shows wisdom that lays waste to vanity, love and suffering while the purpose of man is to invest in them.

    Is a purpose really necessary? What do you do when you have none, nor any hope of one?

    Joseph & Job were old mean god. Jesus is new nice/good god. God is whatever people who find purpose in religion need it to be.

    So my question back to you: what is the purpose of questioning mine?