“Miserable comforters.” (16:2) Those who speak “empty nothings,” (21:34) and who tell “proverbs of ashes,” (13:12). “Worthless physicians.” (13:4) These are some of the names that Job calls his friends after each of them try and speak to him in his suffering.
It’s been seven days and seven nights since we were last here together in this place, worshiping and reflecting on the troubles of Job. Plenty has happened, I’m sure, over the course of these days. School projects and activities, developments at work, meals, conversations, sleep, alarm clock, sleep alarm, clock, maybe some time to relax yesterday. Seven days and seven nights is also the length of time covered during the first period that Job’s friends are with him. It gets mentioned very briefly in the narrative, but it is a pretty expansive time. Three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, meet together, and come to see Job, and when they come to him he’s in such bad shape that they barely even recognize him. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” So whatever has happened this past week, imagine that rather than doing that, you sat in complete silence all week long. That’s the span of time covered in this initial encounter of Job and his friends.
This long silence, between Job and his friends, is at an important shift in the story. Before the friends’ arrival, before the silence, Job has taken more the path of the patient sufferer. When Job had lost all his wealth and his children, he had cried out to God in this humble, vulnerable voice saying, “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.” His initial response is to be brought to humility and release all these losses to God. But now that he is absolutely miserable and can find no comfort, he is emboldened. He gives up, at least temporarily, on crying out to God, and instead cries out against God. He says that he wishes he never would have come at all from his mother’s womb. That the day of his birth should be cursed. That God has basically tricked him by letting him live and is holding him hostage in this body racked with pain. From one side of this silence to the other, the patient Job has become the rebel Job, the renegade who has given up on divine justice and will voice his complaint freely to whoever will listen. Job is the first to break the silence, and what he has to say is not pretty.
It’s been said that sitting there in silence with Job was the best decision these friends made during the whole story. As soon as they open their mouths, things start to go downhill fast.
On one level, I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for these friends. Anyone who has ever tried to offer words of comfort knows that this is not an easy thing to do. Because what do you say? It’s great to be present and to spend time in silence together and recognize that there really aren’t words that can capture what’s going on here, but when it comes time to speak, what do you say? What do you write on that card? How does one express care through words? It’s not all that easy.
Eliphaz is the first friend to muster the courage to speak and he starts out almost apologetically, but soon moves into the lecturing kind of tone that will characterize the rest of these comments from there on out. After Job’s first tirade, Eliphaz says, “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?” He’s kind of wading in slowly to this conversation. He sticks his toe in the water, but then pretty soon just goes ahead and takes the plunge. “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking?” So he goes on and speaks for quite a while. He would like for Job to consider the wisdom that he feels is pretty well established. “Think, now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity, and sow trouble reap the same.” He uses this common metaphor of reaping what you sow and thinks that Job should consider what he has sown to reap such disaster. This would be one of those statements that Job now considers a proverb of ashes.
As it’s structured, this is a fairly orderly conversation that’s going on. Job speaks first, followed by Eliphaz, then Job gets a response, then Bildad chimes in, then Job has a response to him, then Zophar speaks and Job comes back to him, then the cycle starts over again. This pattern continues with each friend again speaking and Job responding. It cycles through three times, although Zophar does not speak on the third round. Whether he gave up on Job, or whether he decided silence might be the rest route after all, or whether part of the original manuscript has been lost, we can’t be sure.
The tensions do escalate as things go on. Job refuses to yield to his friend’s counsel, and his friends become more and more upset with his brazen defiance of conventional wisdom and his rejection of their image of God. They are essentially talking past each other. Eliphaz accuses Job of undermining the very basis of religion. In chapter 15 he says, “But you are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God.” Job says, “those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty. My companions are treacherous.” Plus they use very poetic statements to basically tell each other to shut up. Bildad says to Job, “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” And Job says a little bit later, “As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physicians. If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom.”
One thing that Job’s friends do so poorly, is that they are unable to really listen to Job. They bring their own understandings and explanations to Job without truly considering his experience and his authentic anguish of body and spirit.
The element of being heard, of having a witness to one’s sufferings is an important part of what is going on here. In a statement that is full of both excruciating pain, and some humor, Job cries out, “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever.” (19:23-24) The funny part is, of course, that Job’s words are written down. In the midst of his suffering, Job has a deep longing for his words, his thoughts, his experience, his pain, to be recorded permanently. For it to never to be forgotten. For it to be written in a book or engraved into the side of a granite mountain for everyone to see and remember. For people to see, to take note, to enter with him into this experience.
This desire to be heard and to share one’s experience has some interesting outlets these days with the onset of blogs. We had the opportunity to follow Jared Hess’ Caring Bridge blog and keep up with some of the medical things going on with him as well as his reflections on what was happening to him. I went to the front page of the blog this week and saw a tally on the right column that said it has received 62,437 visits to date. I’m sure each of those visits, and each of the comments that were left were a significant way for Jared’s experience to be shared, and for his voice to be heard and remembered, engraved somehow on our hearts.
And now Margaret Penner, another child of this congregation, another young adult with cancer, is sharing her experience through her blog – Getting Rid of Grazelda. I had some interaction with Margaret recently and I told her that I wanted to quote her blog in the sermon and that her entries sounded a lot different than those of Job, which was maybe a point in itself. I asked her if she had ever asked the question WWJB…What Would Job Blog? She seems to carry a lot less theological angst than Job, but the theme of companionship does show up throughout. This past week she blogged about getting a visit from a friend from St. Louis and making vegetable korma together; kids from a Sunday school class at Shalom Mennonite in Tucson gave her a sweet collection of cards, and another friend managed to have the Accordian Club of Tucson lend out a beginners accordion for Margaret to learn to play, which Margaret felt was very very cool. Because accordions, are, quote, “awesome.” In the About Me section of her blog, Margaret says this: “Grazelda is the accursed (and utterly doomed) ovarian cancer that I was diagnosed with in August 2009 – dude, I’m only 25! This is my chronicle of surgeries, chemo, and other fun cancer-y stuff, so people know how I’m doing and so I don’t go nutso.”
Jared and Margaret have had strong companionship. It’s hard to know how to be an electronic comforter from a distance through these blogs, but my guess is that even the very act of reading what is being written from time to time is a much appreciated act of companionship.
Job must voice his chaotic thoughts and have them written down so he doesn’t go nutso, and one of his major criticisms of his friends is that they aren’t really listening, not really looking at him. They are, according to Job, afraid. Job says, “You see my calamity, and are afraid.” (6:21) He says a little bit later, “Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth.” (21:5)
What would happen if Job’s friends were to actually look at him? To hold their gaze on him, and to tune their ears to him long enough to hear what is going on in front of them? My hunch is that they actually have good cause to be afraid. Job’s experience of suffering without cause poses a threat to their very way of making sense of the world. They have a particular notion of God and a particular notion of the way things are supposed to work and their friend Job doesn’t fit into any of those categories. And so rather than being able to comfort Job, what they are really trying to do is to comfort themselves. Whenever Job says things that challenge their certitude of how it all is supposed to go down, they come back a little more forceful and a little more convinced in their own minds that they must keep repeating what they hold to be true in order for their worlds not to also fall apart. They are miserable comforters, as Job calls them, in part, because they refuse to enter into the pain of another and be changed by that pain. They don’t quite know what to do with this (the chaos in the middle of the wall hanging). They are much more comfortable with this (the more orderly, predictable notion of God above).
And we can most likely sympathize with Job’s friends on this account also. Because it’s hard to know what to do with this. And when we see things we don’t understand happening to others, we often look for ways to console ourselves primarily.
Last week we noted that in the end God considers Job’s words to be more right than those of his friends, and the friends are to ask Job to pray for them. Job becomes the priest for his friends. Henri Nouwen would call this the wounded healer. The one who has experienced pain actually takes on the spiritual task of helping others work through their pain and mediating God’s presence to them. The book of Hebrews talks about Jesus as the great high priest in this way.
Job becomes a priest, but he also can become a rabbi, a teacher. Should Job’s friends choose to listen, Job and his experience are able to teach them something. Should they be able to hold their gaze long enough to look on Job, to let this reality soak in, they will be changed, softened perhaps. Humbled certainly. Taken into the same kind of journey on which Job himself has been traveling.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen