I touched a little on Job two weeks ago, and I don’t think i did a good job of it (pun not intended). Nicholas came up to me quite puzzled – that part in the sermon about Job was, in a way, out of place.
Lisa Davison, Professor of Old Testament from Lexington Theological Seminary writes in the introduction to Job in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “The book of Job is considered by most scholars to be the finest wisdom text of the Jewish and Christian canons. Perhaps best known by Christians and secular society for the phrase “the patience of Job”, it has been favorite reading and a text for interpretation for laity, clergy, and biblical scholars alike. No other biblical texts addresses the question of divine justice (“why do bad things happen to bad people”) in such a confrontational and artistic way. It is a story that speaks to every generation and to every individual who has known undeserved suffering.”
She continues in the introduction further down, pointing out that, “What is frustrating for some readers of Job, but liberating for others, is the book’s refusal to offer an answer (a theodicy) for the issue of human suffering and divine justice.”
We must be aware, that the text of Job is a composite work, and there are many things in the book of Job that points to editorial rearrangements, additions, and changes that were introduced for theological reasons.
Let me quickly give you some basic information – and if you are interested, and I hope I do get you interested – go and read up more on Job and find out more for yourself.
Prologue – 1:1-2:13
Dialogue – 3:1-31:40
– First cycle 3:1-14:22
– Second cycle 15:1- 21:34
– Third cycle 22:1-31:40
– Prologue 32:1-5
– Speech 32:6-37:24
– Divine Summons 38:1-3
– God speaks 38:4-40:2
– Job responds 40:3-5
– God speaks 40:6-41:34
– Job responds 42:1-6
Epilogue – 42:7-17
The prologue and epilogue is a tale about a man, Job, who is at the heart of a heavenly wager / competition. He refuses to curse God despite his circumstances, and at the end of the story, he is ultimately vindicated and restored to greater fortunes.
What is in the heart of the book of Job are the arguments about divine justice between Job and his friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu, and God’s response.
Read on its own, the prologue and epilogue gives us the idea that human suffering is a divine test of their faithfulness. However, the dialogue at the core of Job challenges such a simple answer.
Some evidences for editions and changes – In Job 2:11, Job’s three friends are introduced, not four – and Elihu only appears in Job 32, much later in the text. The Dialogue between the three friends and Job, going from Eliphaz-Job-Bildad-Job-Zophar-Job repeats three times, but in the last cycle, Zophar says nothing, and Bildad’s speech is short, while Job seem to contradict what he says, leading many scholars to believe that later copyists rearranged some of the material and placed Bildad’s and Zophar’s words in Job’s mouth.
With that Bible trivia bit out of the way, how do we relate to the book of Job? What does it have to teach us?
A key to the Book of Job is the challenge by hasatan (don’t mix up here with our ideas Satan with the capital “S” that has been shaped by literature, pop culture and almost 2000 years of evolution of the figure of Satan. Here, hasatan, is one of the heavenly council whose role is to be the “adversary,” “the accuser”. It is a title or descriptor not a proper name.)
The challenge or the wager is this- Job is not God-fearing for nothing. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to the face.”
The question here is the role of reward that plays in Job’s faith in God. All that he has is taken away, and will he curse God? Or will he remain faithful?
Of course, Job the righteous, just and God-fearing person he is, did not curse God, but said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there, The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
Job didn’t suffer because he did something wrong. Even God admits that in the text that Job is right that he is innocent. But Job’s friends insist somehow that his misfortune and what he is going through must be because of some wrongdoing.
Job’s friends were really empathetic – all the way till they opened their mouth. They sat with him seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was great. That is how we are called to be with those who suffer. But what happened thereafter is what we should not be doing – the friends basically told Job that his suffering was because of some wrongdoing or transgression on Job’s part.
Imagine this – somebody is going through some difficult times. What are we called to do? To be with that person in his/her suffering in silence, and offering our loving presence? Or are we to tell this person “What you are going through is entirely your own fault.”
Here I want to highlight something – let’s not confuse consequences with retribution.
Take for example – someone drinks and drives, and gets into an accident. It is not because he or she is getting punished, and it is some divine retribution, but it is the consequence of his or her action. Drinking impairs your judgement, and your reaction time. Getting into an accident is a consequence of that. Most of the time, most people who drink and drive get away with it. It is not because they have some special protection from God, but it is the luck of the draw.
There are many things that are consequences – having unprotected sex exposes one to the risk of STDs. It is not punishment – it is a consequence. I have encountered man HIV+ persons who think it is a punishment for their sins. It is not. It is a consequence of their actions – not divine retribution.
LGBT people are even more susceptible to the view of a retributive God. We ask ourselves, why are we still single, why don’t our relationships work out, why, why, why? Somewhere in the back of our minds, there is a voice that says “Because you are sinful.” Somehow, this voice that we have heard over, and over, seeped deep into our being, and it creeps out in moments when we are down, and we are in doubt.
We need to understand that our brokennes is not because of who we are, and because of divine retribution, but because of how broken we are as we struggle through life as LGBT persons. Why are LGBT persons more prone to suicide? Because it is a consequence of what we go through life – very often we have to deny ourselves, pretend to be who we are not, lie about our very own being, and taught how to hate ourselves. That self-hatred, self-loathing is not retribution for who we are, but a consequence of the social and cultural situations we grew up in and what we have been taught about ourselves.
Back to Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. We all have something to learn here. And when we read carefully, we realize that there is a deeper motivation in Job’s friends. They know Job is blameless, upright, feared God and turned away from evil. They heard Job’s protest that he has done nothing wrong.
As they repeat themselves (3 cycles!), we realize that actually they are not trying to convince Job, but convince themselves. After all, if Job, who is blameless and righteous, is suffering so much, what about them? Won’t they suffer a even worse fate? So, in their minds, surely, Job must have done something wrong!
But God says to Eliphaz “My wrath has kindled against you and your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
We all, like Job’s friends, want to believe in a system where good is rewarded, and evil punished. But this is what we want, and not how things are. We want to believe in this transactional system because we have to make sense of life – it cannot be that random right? It cannot be chaos right? It has to make sense right?
We want the security of a system where we understand the rules – good is rewarded, and evil punished – so we can determine how we are to behave. But that is not what the wager is about – the wager between God and the Adversary is that Job has faith in God and not curse God despite and in spite of his circumstances. That in a world where as Jesus puts it, “the sun rises on the evil and the good, and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” we remain faithful to God. Our faith in God isn’t about the rewards or punishment – whether rewards or punishment in this world or the next.
God’s love and God’s grace is not transactional. It is not dependent on our own human effort. As Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation theologian, puts it this way, “God’s love, like all true love, operates not in a world of cause and effect but of freedom and gratuitousness. This is how persons successfully encounter one another in a complete and unconditional way: without payment of any kind of charges and without externally imposed obligations that pressure them into meeting the expectations of the other.”
Our love for God, then should be like God’s love for us – not dependent and contingent on the circumstances in our lives. Our lives following Jesus doing what we are commanded to do is not contingent on some reward here, or in the life hereafter. Rather it is a response to the love that we experience. That is loving God.
Faith in God does not mean that we do not doubt. Rather we should be like Job and acknowledge God’s place in our lives yet remain open to questioning. Faith and doubt are not extreme opposites that are mutually exclusive – we need to move away from the either-or thinking and move into both-and thinking. We can be faithful and doubt at the same time – just like Job did.
The book of Job, in essence, is the anti-prosperity Gospel. Our faith should not be contingent on the rewards or blessings we expect from God. It challenges the basic assumption that the good and the just get rewarded, and the evil and the unjust gets punished.
Pay attention here – the God of the prosperity Gospel is the same God of retributive justice. Justice in the context of the retributive God of the prosperity Gospel isn’t a God of grace – but the God who barters with you – “Do this, and I will reward you, do that and I will punish you.” Grace isn’t about how much you put into the offering bag, and being blessed tenfold in return. That is not grace.
We need to reclaim what we understand as grace.
Grace isn’t about blessings. It isn’t about how successful we are, it isn’t about how much we have. That is the human way of defining worth. That is not God’s way of defining our worth. When all that we have is taken away, when we lose everything – does that change our worth in God’s eyes? No! We are God’s beloved regardless, we are worthy regardless of what we have, what we own, what we do.
The Gospel – good news – of Jesus Christ, the one that turns everything upside down, the one that says the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the one that embraces the Prodigal child, the one that says the workers who started work in the afternoon gets paid the same amount as the ones who started work in the morning, the one that ministers to those amongst the least, the rejected, the unwanted, the outcasts and the marginalized, is the one that says, “You are God’s beloved.” That is grace.
The grace of God, and love of God does not mean we are protected or shielded from misfortune, nor does it guarantee that everything will work out for us in life, nor does it mean we will be blessed with what we desire. We need to understand that God is not some cosmic vending machine or, as Father James Martin describes it, the Great Problem Solver. Neither is God the Divine Disciplinarian who punishes us for our transgressions. Rather, it is in ‘in God we live and move and have our being.’
The God we believe in is the Incarnational God – Divinity enfleshed – and this God continues to incarnate in us as we live out our lives as the resurrected people – the body of Christ. Jared invited us to put our hands on the shoulders of the person next to us. In that moment – what did you feel? Did you feel the physicality of the warmth? Did you feel connected to someone else in an unexplainable way? And when the hand was lifted away – did you feel a lingering sensation of that warmth, as if something deeper and greater has touched you? This is God made flesh again and again as we incarnate love in our lives.
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
38:1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
38:2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
38:3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
38:4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
38:5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?
38:6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
38:7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
38:34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?
38:35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
38:36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?
38:37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38:38 when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?
38:39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
38:40 when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?
38:41 Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
Blessed, always, be the name of the Lord. Amen.