Job 23 (Proper 23B)
In this part of our lectionary cycle of Scripture to be read in Sunday services our Old Testament readings for a while have been from that part of the Old Testament sometimes called books of “Wisdom.” We’ve had readings from Proverbs and Esther—and last week we began what will be several weeks in the Book of Job, then to be followed by Ruth. Although these all fall under the umbrella of “Wisdom” books, they are obviously quite different. Esther and Ruth tell the stories of people who were part of the historical memory and imagination and identity of the Jewish people. Proverbs is an anthology of maxims and other sayings reflecting the values of character and patterns of conduct that emerge in a life that reflects the faith of God’s people. Which approaches the definition of Biblical “Wisdom.” Not simply intelligence or learning, though those are sometimes aspects of Wisdom. Not simply common sense or the kind of mature perspective that comes through age and experience. Though again, these can be a part of the bigger picture. Biblical Wisdom is about the complete transformation of life, mind, body, spirit, that is accomplished through faith.
In what is sometimes called the Wisdom Book of the New Testament, the Epistle of James, James in the first chapter talks about the power of the “implanted word.” Using a natural image. God’s Word and Presence is “planted” in the heart and soul of the person through faith, and then growing within, absorbing and transforming what was there before, until the whole person is now an expression of that Word, the Divine Presence and character. Thoughts and actions, as we pray, that we would show forth “not only with our lips but in our lives.”
And so this morning, Job. There is a little bit of a story, as we heard introduced in the Old Testament reading last Sunday. Dan had a few words to say about it in his sermon. In form the book is a kind of extended parable, or perhaps what we might call a “thought experiment.” The setting is somewhat similar to the Books of Esther or Daniel, as we are told that Job lives in the “Land of Uz.” Not the “Land of Oz,” of course, but historically this is an obscure reference. The author of the book might be saying, “long ago and far away.” Some early interpreters located Uz in the region beyond the Euphrates, roughly in the sphere of ancient Babylon, modern day Iraq. Others thought that Uz was more to the south—perhaps modern day Jordan or even Saudi Arabia. A distant place, anyway. Like Joseph in Egypt at the end of Genesis, like Esther in Persia and Daniel in Babylon, Job is in foreign territory, without King and Temple. A man who like all exiles will need to learn to look within for a clarity about his true identity, for the strength to remain faithful.
The set-up we remember from Chapter 1, last Sunday, that Job is a successful and religiously observant Jewish rancher, exceptionally prosperous and with a large family. There is this dialogue in heaven between God and Satan, initiated by Satan, about whether Job’s faith is really all that deep, or whether it depends on sunny skies and fair winds. Satan’s implication is that the loyalty of God’s people isn’t deep and genuine, but that it is superficial. That under stress it will disappear. Satan issues a challenge, really a bet, and God agrees to let Job’s faith be tested. Satan then unleashes a series of devastating events to upset the tranquility of Job’s life. They fall one after another. His flocks and fields are ruined, his children carried off in death, his physical health is challenged and destroyed. Job is left sitting on an ash heap scratching his sores in abject misery. His life is in ruins.
And this is the opening, the setting, for the largest part of the book, which is a series of exchanges between Job in his abject state and three friends, who turn up on the scene and seek to comfort him by offering their opinions about why this has happened and what he should do about it. (Not a very helpful pastoral strategy, I’ve found, but it makes for interesting reading here.) And in the midst of it all we hear Job’s continuing dialogue in prayer with God. All just fascinating.
It is, we might say, a sophisticated literary version of Rabbi Kushner’s 1978 best seller, which perhaps many of us have read, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” We follow Job through these exchanges with his “friends” and with God in an existential journey about suffering and loss, about where meaning and value and purpose come from—which is a journey perhaps we have all taken on our own a time or two.
Job’s friends make several fairly sophisticated arguments, but basically it boils down to the offering of two perspectives. One is the perspective of what we might call Karma, that there is in the universe a pattern of moral symmetry. What goes around comes around. Sooner or later, people get what they deserve. And so, Job, if things aren’t going well, examine your life. See where you have sinned. Confess your sin, amend your life, and then things will certainly get better. Good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. If you think you’re a good person, and bad things are happening—well, you just don’t know yourself as well as you think you do.
The other perspective is that the universe is simply morally incoherent. Good things, bad things—they all just happen for no reason, God is either an illusion, a figment of the imagination—or some kind of horrible monster, a sadist. It’s all just random, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Curse God and die, they tell him. Life is meaningless.
Not to give away the whole story, of course, as we have these readings for a few more weeks, but let’s say that Job ultimately rejects both of these perspectives—sees them as oversimplifications, and dangerous oversimplifications, of deeper truths about the relationship between God and his creation and about the nature of humanity.
Chapter 23 this morning gives us one glimpse of Job’s process. He begins in verses 1-7 by resisting the idea that he is somehow being punished for some crime or failure. He pictures a courthouse scene where he could make an effective defense of his innocence. “I would lay out my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.” You are simply wrong in saying that all this has happened because I deserve it.
But then in the second half of the chapter, verses 8-17, he faces the hard reality that no such opportunity exists. There is no courtroom. Job has his defense worked out in detail, proving his innocence beyond question, but the judge is absent. There is no one to listen. The argument disappears into the air.
Yet Job refuses to confuse God’s absence with God’s non-existence or his powerlessness or his malevolence. “He is unchangeable and who can turn him? What he desire, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind.” For Job this is terrifying, that he is unable to defend himself, that God’s power and purpose are beyond our comprehension. But even so, even terrified, he does not give up his trust, his faith in God. Even in the darkness and the silence that comes when his prayer seems to disappear into the wind.
We’re going to move along with Job over the next few weeks in our readings, as Job’s drama is drawn out in greater and greater detail. The book seems very modern to us, I think. Like listening to a round table conversation including Jean Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Philosophers, humanists, moralists, scientific materialists. Each of them doing their best to talk Job out of his faith, to push him off course. As perhaps many of us feel challenged as well as the arguments of the friends are repeated again and again.
We all have these debates rolling around inside. Recalling how the diaries of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have revealed her own dark night of the soul, her own doubts and fears. Very tender to read these. How she struggled daily to see the face of Jesus reflected in the lives of the poorest of the poor as they lay dying in the streets. Knowing that face was there, and would reveal itself to her. Yet in sleepless nights, wondering, as she was so often left with a feeling of emptiness and absence. How Pope John XXIII spoke about praying his way through a time of darkness and a sense of the disappearance of God that lasted not years but decades. Again, a daily struggle. Hard for a person of faith in any era not to hold the Book of Job up and find that he or she is looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of our own turbulence.
And hard not to be inspired, reading our way through this very difficult book—and it is a book of scripture that I would encourage every Christian to read slowly and carefully, and not just once, but to re-read, perhaps at different times and seasons of our lives, in youth and middle age and old age. In times when the going seems good, and when the storm winds blow and nobody seems to be listening when we try to say our prayers. Again, not an easy book, but one that doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t pretend that the questions aren’t out there, and in here, in our hearts and minds. Read the Archibald MacLeish poem “J.B.” A contemporary poetic meditation on the story. There’s a very interesting though somewhat obscure modern Coen Brothers’ film, “Joe,” starring Will Smith, that takes an angle on the story. In Genesis there is the story of Jacob wrestling with God through the night by the River Jabbok, and perhaps that is an image to hold in our minds. Job says, “the Almighty has terrified me.” The Almighty has terrified me--and perhaps to say that if we can’t say that too, if we don’t know what that is like, maybe we haven’t been paying attention. The transformation of faith, the implanted Word shaping a life of Wisdom.
Thinking about Job’s spiritual odyssey reminds me of a saying by the 20th century theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who talked about a kind of popular, superficial view of Christianity, an easy Christianity—and so in the end a false Christianity, which fails to take the full story into account. “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” It is ultimately and in the deepest way the purpose of every word and book of the Bible to lead us to Christ and his Cross as the unique gateway to a life in God here and in the world to come. And so also for Job: darkness and suffering, painful loss, existential silence, confronting the realities of sin, death, and judgment. And yet as we hear this story unfold over the next couple of weeks we would remember that it is in Job, of all places, Job, Chapter 19, that we draw that affirmation that lives in our long Anglican prayer book tradition in the Burial Office and so triumphantly in Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah the theme song of Easter, which is the end of the old story and the beginning of the new: “for I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”
We wouldn’t wish Job’s sufferings on anyone. But we know with honesty that we can’t imagine any of our lives that have not shared at least in some of them. What we would pray for is Job’s Wisdom. That the love of God and the Word of God would be so firmly planted in our hearts and our lives, that we would be securely anchored in him, and show in our lives his faithfulness.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.