Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bartlett's Jobian Rant

Rolf Rendtorff, The Old Testament: An Introduction, page 252:

…God no longer observes the right: he destroys innocent and guilty ([Job] 9.22f; 10.14-17 etc.). Therefore Job challenges him to stand trial.

I watched a West Wing episode from the second season this week, the one entitled “The Two Cathedrals.” Among other problems President Bartlett is having, his long-time friend and his personal secretary, Mrs. Landingham, was killed by a drunk driver, right after she got a new car. Here is Bartlett’s prayer to God after her funeral:

What is Bartlett saying in Latin? According to this, Bartlett is saying the following:

gratias tibi ago, domine.
Thank you, Lord.
haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?
Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?
cruciatus in crucem
To hell with your punishments! (literally “(put/send) punishments onto a cross”)
tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci.
I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.
cruciatus in crucem — (with a dismissive wave of the hand) eas in crucem
To hell with your punishments! And to hell with you! (literally, “may you go to a cross”)”

Near the end of the episode, the ghost of Mrs. Landingham exhorts the President not to use her death as an excuse to get out of the game. God doesn’t cause car crashes, she says, and there remains so much for the President to do.

But, in this prayer at the cathedral, Bartlett is basically saying that bad things shouldn’t happen to him and those he loves, because he has served God and helped others as President.

I thought about this West Wing episode at one of the masses that I attended this morning. The priest told us a nineteenth century Hasidic tale about a crooked rich man who gets his hands dirty by helping a man get his wagon out of the mud. After this rich man’s death, that act inclined the scales in the direction of merit, despite his crooked dealings, and so he entered the good afterlife.

There’s a notion out there that we can buy God’s favor by doing good. Evangelicals would say that we can never buy God’s favor, which is why we need grace. And yet, such a belief persists, maybe because the Bible talks a lot about God rewarding good and punishing evil.

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