If one were to look at the very beginning and ending of Job and squeeze out the middle, one could get the sense that this is a fairly simple and tidy story about a righteous individual who went through great suffering and came out triumphant on the other side. It would go something like this: There once was a man, named Job, who lived in a far off land. He was righteous, blameless, and wealthy. God tested him by allowing him to suffer. Job lost all his children, all his wealth, and spent weeks lying on his bed in physical agony, crying out to God and against God, surrounded by friends who made things even worse. But Job passed the test and ended up with his health and his wealth fully restored, with children as well. It’s a hard story, with a happy ending, so it’s all good.
But I don’t buy it, and neither should you. That Job survives and is able to re-accumulate riches and have another child for each of the children he lost before is not the point of the story. That God always rescues those who offer the right prayers for healing is definitely not the point of the story.
Job is one of those books of the Bible that can be called a counter-text. The biblical tradition can be understood as a sustained conversation over time about humanity’s relationship with God, and within this conversation, differences of thought and experience are given a place. In this case one of the voices in the conversation, present especially in Deuteronomy and parts of the wisdom literature, taught that if you do right, if you follow God’s commands, if you seek wisdom, that you will be blessed. Do good, and it will go well with you. Live a righteous life and you will fulfill the Vulcan salute of Spock, you will live long and prosper.
But Job, among other writings, Ecclesiastes, some of the Psalms, is a counter-text to this prevailing theology. Job, the ideal man of righteousness and prosperity (…which really go together…), undergoes great suffering, great agony, without cause. It doesn’t line up at all with standard wisdom. Job is sometimes called the Old Testament Jesus because he suffers unjustly to the point of it appearing that he has been abandoned even by God.
Job is high stakes. At stake is not only the question ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’, but also the question of survival itself. And not just Job’s survival, but God’s survival. If God is one who we depend on to keep us safe in life, to protect us from all harm, to carry out punishment against the wicked and to reward the righteous, then can this image of God survive such an ordeal of suffering experienced by Job, or any of us? After the battle with cancer, after the great war, after the holocaust, after Job, can we still believe in such a God? And if this image of God doesn’t survive, then what do we have left? Those are the questions that are addressed in between the beginning and the ending of the story.
For the next three weeks we’re going to be looking at Job, each week from a different perspective within the story. Today we’ll consider the perspective of Job himself. Next week we’ll look at his three friends, who come in and offer their thoughts to Job. “Friends” here should really be in quotes because they are pretty lousy friends. And then we’ll look at the way that God enters the picture.
So as we consider this story you are invited to be asking yourself what is your own understanding of suffering. How do you hold together faith in God with the reality of suffering and injustice that you see? What continuing questions do you have about this?
I’m really pleased that we have been able to get this wall hanging that we’ll be able to look at these three weeks. This was made by a friend of mine, Myrna Miller Dyck, who is now pastor of Steinman Mennonite Church in Ontario, Canada. And she calls this piece Job and his God. And it basically tells the story of Job’s experience with God and how this develops over time. Myrna made this after an intensive study of Job during seminary. Rather than assigning a lengthy research paper on Job, the professor allowed students to make some kind of visual representation of the studies, so after some thought, Myrna made this wall hanging. Myrna wrote this about her choice of colors: “Black was chosen to signify Job’s understanding of God as his enemy. I decided to use heavy, textured black fabrics rather than simple cottons to show some of the heaviness and chaos that Job felt. I chose yellow and gold to depict God as (trustworthy)… I needed to begin with yellow and gold fabric to show Job’s original understanding of God. These blocks would be neatly squared away, in straight lines, to depict Job’s understanding that Yahweh was a predictable God.” So Job’s story goes from top to bottom, with most of the picture being filled with these conflicted squares, and then reaching some kind of transformation at the end, but nothing quite like what he began with.
The readers gave a nice taste of some of the ways that Job is crying out. If anyone ever thought that their prayers should be filtered or self-censored or edited to conform to theological orthodoxy, then Job is the shocking news, hopefully good news, that this need not be the case. Job voices despair, cynicism, thoughts of suicide, satire, and utter disgust with God. Here’s some more of what is on Job’s mind.
Here is a Job prayer (6:8,9,11-13): “O that I might have my request, and that God would grant my desire; that it would please God to crush me, that he would loose his hand and cut me off! What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient? In truth I have no help in me, and any resource is driven from me.” Please God, end my life. I’m done.
Here is a response to a friend who is trying to comfort him: Job’s friend Bildad is speaking poetically about the glory and majesty of God and how Job really can’t be righteous like he claims since no mortal can be pure before God. So, Job shouldn’t feel like he is exempt from suffering. This summarizes a lot of what Job’s friends have to say. Job is claiming that he has done nothing to deserve this, and Job’s friends keep spouting this understanding, text and counter-text, that God will protect those who do right so surely Job messed up somewhere along the way, and surely Job shouldn’t speak so rudely to God. Bildad, who’s not all that skilled of a comforter, says that we mortals are like maggots and worms compared to God’s righteousness. So Job says, “How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength! How you have counseled one who has no wisdom, and given much good advice. With whose help have you uttered words, and whose spirit has come forth from you.” You know, you’re freakin’ brilliant Bildad. I’m so glad you’re my friend. You are the voice of divine inspiration. I don’t know what I would do without you, you lousy excuse for a friend. This is how Job responds to his friends, who have taken lots of time off of work to be by his side.
Here is Job’s meditation on scripture. Psalm 8 is this psalm about looking up into the night sky and being in awe at the vastness of the universe and that God cares for us small human beings. It says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet, you have made them just a little lower than the gods, and crowned them with glory and honor.” It’s a beautiful Psalm. So Job, who apparently is aware of this Psalm, you know, he’s doing his daily Bible study. It was a really small Bible at that point. And he says, “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target?” Sounds like a nice morning devotion with his Bible.
One of the other aspects of this wall hanging is that Myrna has tied in images that are present in Job’s outcries. So Job calls God this watcher of humanity, and she has made some pieces with these two triangles like God’s eyes watching. And Job feels like he is God’s target, that he has a big bull’s eye on his back and God is using him for target practice for sickness and pain, so there is this square with the target. Often the hands of God are understood as being a place of safety and comfort, but Job talks about feeling like he is under the hand of God and no one can get him out of it, so there are these squares with five lines which are like the hand of God on Job. These are troubling images.
This past week Job on his bed came in the form of Jan Abel in her closing days of living with cervical cancer. I had several chances to be with Jan this week as well as her husband Stan who has worshiped with us from time to time these last couple years. Jan didn’t have a whole lot to say this last week, she was in and out of consciousness. But I remember the first time I ever met Jan, a couple years ago, before we knew she had cancer. I had seen her around the church collecting cans around the neighborhood and she came into my office and told me a condensed version of her life story. She had been through a lot. Her life had its share of agony before this final stretch. Sometimes we get to be in this priestly roll and standing in for God and hearing somebody’s pain poured out in front of us. And we get to witness those unorthodox and unpolished prayers of frustration and desire for healing.
A remarkable thing happens at the end of Job, and it has nothing to do with Job getting his stuff back. After Job has said all he has to say, God speaks to his friends who have been trying all along to keep Job on the straight and narrow and convince him that his prayers should fit a little more nicely into the theological paradigm of the day. God tells Job’s friends that they should go to Job, and take with them seven bulls and seven rams for a burnt offering so that Job can pray for them. Usually it’s the ones who are well who are supposed to be praying for the one who is ill, but God tells Job’s healthy friends to go have Job pray for them. God says, “for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”
Job’s prayers, his words of frustration and cynicism and agony and even accusation toward God for being unjust, are considered to be more right in God’s eyes than those of his friends. Job ends up being the priest for his friends.
I don’t know about you, but I find this to be very freeing. Because it means that when it comes to our relationship with God, our prayers, our desires, our deepest longings, that nothing is out of bounds. There are no thoughts, no words, no outcries of spirit that are unwelcome or muted or rejected. Because they’re real. They’re genuine. They come from a place that can’t be accessed except through some experience of pain and they put us in a place where all of our pretenses and sense of having it together are so stripped away that we encounter the divine in this raw, mysterious way.
So if your prayers ever look something like this (the middle part of the wall hanging), or your thoughts toward God become this dark or angry, or conflicted, then that’s alright. There’s a place for that. You may very well have a good case to make and those who try to polish over pain too quickly may be missing something key in the spiritual journey.
Job survives and God survives, but because of this, things look different and will never be quite the same.
The night before Jesus was to enter into his suffering, he gathered together his friends all in one place, and he shared a meal with them. And during the meal he lifted up the bread and he compared it to his body that was soon to be broken. Unjustly, wrongly, with no right cause accused and injured and crucified. And he also took the cup, the wine, and spoke of it like it was his blood, his very life, and his death, that would soon be poured out. And around this table, their unofficial priest who had mediated God’s presence to them so many times, Jesus, called into being a community, a new covenant, that was to be all about to the bread and the cup. The suffering, and the joyous life of table fellowship. They were to share in this bread and cup often and it was to be a sign of their communion. A community at the same time celebrating the feast of the kingdom, God’s party where are all invited, and remembering, being attentive to the presence of suffering. A family where all are priests for one another and where the hurting are recognized as having an open pathway to the ear of God. That God is not only aware of the suffering, but that God is somehow, mysteriously, present within the suffering, somehow within that image of the cross, there with Job.
So on this World Communion Sunday, let us come to the meal with great hope. Let us bring our doubts, our fears, our frustrations, our cynicism, and maybe even our outrage toward God, and let us receive this gift. The bread of life, the cup of life, the feast that sustains our body and spirit and keeps inviting us back for more.