At one of the stores where I shop, there was a product display with the slogan “Life without limits.” The product was some brand of headphones; the idea was that the sound quality is so good that it gives consumers the power to hear beyond the usual human ability.
“Life without limits” seems to go a bit beyond what anyone should promise, even the manufacturers of really high-quality headphones. But we’d certainly like not to be hemmed in by our natural limitations, to have powers beyond the usual human ability. And sometimes, in some ways, we actually can and do achieve that. As I write these words, for instance, I am on an airplane winging its way over the Atlantic Ocean. We humans don’t have wings, but we’ve managed to build winged machines that let us soar far above our natural limitations.
More than any other book of the Bible, the book of Job brings us quickly back down to the ground. Job 14 in particular is an honest and heartrending reflection on human limitations. One commentator named these verses “the courage of absolute vulnerability.” “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,” Job declares, “comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last” (Job 14:1-2). Job says these things toward the end of the first round of dialogue with his friends. He has endured unspeakable loss of family and fortune, and his friends have tried in various ways to explain and even justify his suffering. They have given not-so-helpful tips on how he might take control of his circumstances.
But Job knows better. At a fundamental level, control is the very thing he lacks. He simply does not have the power to go beyond the confines of mortality. He doesn’t plaster over the truth but faces it head-on: God has set certain limits for human beings that cannot be crossed. “Their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass” (Job 14:5, NRSV).
If there is any more to the story than this, Job is not able to see it. For a brief moment, he engages in a fanciful thought experiment. What if a corpse could come to life again? He would wait patiently in the underworld as long as it took for that to happen. But alas, as far ahead as he can see, that’s just wishful thinking. “As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again” (Job 14:11, NRSV). As far ahead as he can see, even until the heavens are no more, death is final. So much for life without limits.
For their part and in their own way, the gospel Passion narratives are also concerned with human limits. In fact, they rub our noses in our limits. They are straightforward with us about Jesus’ mortality. When Jesus’ body is removed from the cross, it is a corpse, and it has just as much power and control as any other corpse does: none. The Roman government has custody of Jesus’ body, and upon request, Pilate orders a transfer of custody to Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph takes the body, wraps it, and lays it in a tomb.
Jesus’ body is passed to and fro. With no life left in it, with no power of its own, it is acted upon—in indifference or in love—by others. And then even more limits are imposed. Joseph rolls a large stone in front of the tomb, and if that weren’t enough, guards arrive and seal the stone. The notion of life without limits was a mockery to Job; it was a mockery to Jesus sealed into the tomb, too.
We know the rest of the story, of course. We know the gospel writers are only rubbing our noses in human limitations because they are setting us up to watch God blow those limitations out of the water. They are about to show us that yes, God did know the number of Jesus’ days and months, and they were few and full of trouble. God knows the number of our days and months too, and has indeed set bounds that we, no matter how hard we try, cannot pass.
But the gospel writers also are about to show us that the God who set those natural limits took Jesus by the hand and drew him beyond those limits into an entirely new life. Like Job, as far as we have the power to see, there is nothing beyond those God-given limitations, even until the heavens are no more. But in the resurrection of Christ we come to understand that there is life on the other side of those limitations, beyond what we have the power to see from here. We live in the faith and in the hope that when our bodies have been closed up in the tomb, God will take us by the hand too. God will draw us, like Jesus, to life beyond our natural limits.
During Easter Vigil, even as we live in the hope that Easter morning brings, we would do well to sit with the closed-up tomb for just a little while. We would do well to notice and to name, as Job and the gospel writers did, our natural human limitations. We would do well to stop long enough to let the full import of what happened here settle over us: that God freely and willingly took on the limitations of a mortal human being.
The Son of God lived within the same bounds that we all do, and he had a limited life span as we all do. Jesus fully embraced the limits that come with being human so that we might have the courage to do so too. You might call it the courage of absolute vulnerability. We need such courage because it is only through the absolute vulnerability of death that we can enter into an entirely new life. That’s how it was for Jesus, and that’s how it will be for us too. Knowing that, may we have the courage to embrace our limits until the day God takes us by the hand and leads us into the life that is beyond limits.
- How does the longing for “life without limits” resonate with you? Give an example, if you can.
- Think of a situation where you experienced a loss of control and were totally vulnerable. How did you feel?
- Identify some of our human limitations, and consider how God, in Jesus, willingly took on those limitations.
- How do we remind and encourage ourselves to embrace “the courage of absolute vulnerability” in light of God’s resurrection promise?