October 3, 2021
Weekly Prayer Recording
Sermon audio from October 3, 2021
The Rev. Mark R. Sutherland
The Wisdom genre of writing in the O.T comprises the book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, and the book of Job. On the whole, the book of Wisdom presents a conventional view of: do good and you will be rewarded, do bad and you will be punished. Ecclesiastes has a more complex and nuanced view which challenges the book of Wisdom’s more simplistic conclusions. Ecclesiastes views the universe as unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people just as good things happen to bad people, and there is no clear explanation for why this is so. This more nuanced perspective raises a core conundrum: can we rely on God to be both wise, and just? It’s this conundrum that the book of Job addresses.
The author of Job is an Israelite writing at a date that is difficult to determine. However, the point here is that he is drawing on a much older non-Israelite story about a man called Job who lived in Ur – city of the Chaldeans, which in today’s topography is located somewhere between Damascus and the Euphrates. The book’s prologue and epilogue seem to hang together, both written in Hebrew prose and at first sight offer a simplistic morality more in keeping with the Book of Wisdom. The core of the book between prologue and epilogue is written in the most exquisite Hebrew poetry; the complexity and obscurity of which has posed a serious challenge for any translator.
Job’s story begins in mythical time in the realms of the heavenly conference involving God and the more important angels. In this conference, God boasts about his servant Job, praising him for his faithfulness. The angel known as the Satan which means accuser, questions God’s assessment of Job. Satan basically says let me test Job and you will find out that he’s not as faithful as he pretends because once his prosperity is challenged he will curse God. God gives the Satan his wish. He can visit any disaster upon Job so long as he stops short of taking his life.
The prologue presents Job as an ancient embodiment of today’s 1%. He is rich beyond imagining. He’s a successful market trader – having made prudent investments including making regular propitious sacrifices to God. Suddenly, his whole livelihood is devastated by a huge earthquake which not only destroys all his property but kills livestock, servants and his children. Only Job and his wife are spared. This calamity is followed by a series of physical afflictions, reducing Job to a whimpering heap of festering sores.
At first, Job continues to praise God, and even though eventually he laments the day of his birth, he refuses to believe that God has abandoned him.
From left stage there now enter a couple of Job’s good friends. They tell Job that God is just, and the world is ordered by divine justice, ergo Job must have done something wrong to be so punished by God. His friends faithfully visit Job and try to comfort him in his afflictions.
We can get a sense of how Job’s friends felt when we consider our own experience of supporting a close friend through a period of suffering. After a while, the burden of witnessing pain we are powerless to alleviate plays on our own fears. We find ourselves subtly distancing ourselves from our friend’s suffering by finding an causal explanation for their suffering. This way we can convince ourselves that because our situation is different then their plight won’t befall us. We may even resort to: after all so-and-so has only themselves to blame, they should have exercised more, drank less and eaten more healthily.
Despite continuing to feel sympathy, it’s comforting if we can assign agency for suffering to something our friend may or may not have done. We might also need to distance ourselves from their experience for the opposite reason – that we fear that this is indeed something that could easily befall us. The reminder of this can be so frightening that we may sever all contact with a once dear friend.
Job’s friends need to find an explanation for Job’s life falling apart. The most obvious one for them is provided by their conventional morality of divine justice – God does not punish the innocent, only the guilty They work hard to get Job to admit his sin. Job vehemently protests his innocence, not only to his friends but also to the Almighty.
As the first two friends are about to give up on Job as a lost cause a new friend arrives. He’s a younger man, full of the untested confidence of youth. He advances a new and novel idea. God is not punishing Job for sin but testing his faithfulness by purging him of ego – God does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.
He continues to persuade Job for the next several chapters and finally, not only has Job had enough, but it seems, God has as well. Dismissing the arguments of the young friend God demands: Who is this who darkens counsel without words of knowledge?
Now, God finally addresses Job directly. Job’s complaint all along has been -how can a just God act so unjustly towards him? God counters with shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty, pushing Job back on the defensive.
God now addresses Job from within a whirlwind saying: gird up your loins like a man for I now wish to question you.
God takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe asking him: were you present at the birth of creation? Did you bring order to the universe, have you seen this, been there, done that, and do you know how it all works? Do you claim to understand the complexity of the universe as if you are able to keep it all in good working order?
It’s curious that God does not defend the idea of divine justice but asserts divine sovereignty in the face of Job’s accusations.
The upshot of God’s response to Job is that Job cannot claim to understand anything God does, including the inexplicability of suffering. What may look like an injustice to Job, is from God’s wider perspective simply part of a larger and richer whole encompassed within divine wisdom, something beyond Job’s capacity to understand. And thus, we arrive at the final chapter of the book with Job acknowledging the foolishness of his demands to know all that God knows.
When we are faced with something beyond our understanding, we have alternative choices to make. we can pull back, stay safe, and simply resign ourselves to the inexplicability of God’s will. Or we can reject such a God who would do this thing abandoning ourselves to the meaninglessness of the universe. Or we can treat that which is presently beyond our understanding as an invitation to arouse our curiosity and allow ourselves to be subtly changed not by the answers we receive but by the questions we ask.
Something has shifted for Job and he now embraces that which seems beyond his understanding with curiosity. A new perspective opens for Job from which to view his experience of suffering. Throughout this whole terrible experience, Job has been so fixated on protesting his innocence and calling God to account, he has failed to notice that the experience of suffering has been slowly changing him. Having his whole world blown to smithereens transforms Job so that faced with God’s sovereignty he is able to now confess:
I had heard of you by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you: therefore, I recant – give up my demand – for I am only a creature that lives among dust and ashes.
Job’s experience is now reframed by his knowing that he is both at the center of God’s concern, yet, at the same time, only one speck of dust within the enormous complexity of God’s perspective. He may be no wiser as to why he has had to suffer but he knows that God has never abandoned him.
For Job, and for us also, this is both a thrilling and terrifying discovery. Like Job, it’s hard for us to sit in the tension between knowing that God loves us, utterly, and the recognition that we are powerless to control so much that happens in our lives and our world. The book of Job raises many theological and existential questions to which God in the end gives no where near an adequate account. In the Tanakh – the Jewish canon of scripture equivalent to the Christian Old Testament, God’s address to Job is the last time God speaks. In the books that follow Job, God is forever silent. The rabbis conclude that it is not God who has silenced Job, but after eliciting God’s blazing self-defense it is Job who has finally silenced God.
We now come to what appears to be a happy-ever-after ending as God restores all Job’s losses tenfold. This is a jarring conclusion to what otherwise is the most profound exploration of the relationship between human suffering and God’s justice. It’s seeming simplistic message and the return to the prose style of the prologue has led commentators to see this as an ending tacked on to the original story because, after all, don’t we all like happy endings?
Literary analysis shows that the prose style of the opening and closing scenes in the book of Job belong to a separate more simplistic story. The core of the book – written not in prose style but complex Hebrew poetry is a later insertion – an attempt to deal in a more complex way with the meaning of suffering.
That being so, what appears to be a happy ending gloss-over nevertheless raises some profound questions. It strikes me rather like a reboot of the story. Using the analogy of downloads on our computers, the more significant downloads, the ones that reconfigure aspects of the operating system require a complete machine reboot to take effect.
This traumatic destruction of Job’s whole life and all he thought he could take for granted has changed him and now requires a reboot to take effect. Job is newly restored to even more good fortune. But Job in the epilogue is not the same as Job in the prologue. He is a man who now understands the nature of abundance as a the generosity of God and not simply his reward for good behavior and the offering of propitious sacrifices.
It’s a common human experience that only after we lose something do we come to understand its true value. In short, for the first time Job now understands that God’s generosity is given not earned. If we apply this insight to our own lives we can appreciate the significant shift in self-understanding involved.
This takeaway has a particular meaning for us on the day we are also gathering to give thanks for the success of our recent capital campaign. It’s also a reminder as we look ahead to the launch of our annual stewardship drive in two week’s time. God’s renewal of Job’s prosperity is an unearned gift, for which Job feels a new intensity of gratitude towards God. In response, Job commits to live with greater generosity in the way he uses his wealth. So also must we.
In his reboot, Job now comes to mirror God’s expression of generosity. He gives his three new daughters evocative names which translate roughly as Dove, Cinnamon, and Rouge-Pot. He settles on them the same inheritance as he settles on his sons; something completely unheard of in ancient Israel.
The central question that arises for us today from the book of Job is this: Can you love what you do not control and still risk living with a spirit of generosity? It is a question worth pondering. Perhaps you have only to think about your children to know what your answer is.