Sermon: Don’t accept injustice (Part 3)

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
28th of October, 2018

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Today is the fourth and last week that we’ll spend with Job. So, a very quick recap: God and ha-satan, the accuser or adversary, have a bet over the righteous man, Job. Will he still be a ‘blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil’ if he is made to suffer? As a result of this conversation between God and Satan, Job loses everything he has and everything he is: wealth; household; children; health. He ends up sitting in the ashes, scraping at his boils with broken pottery. Then his three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, come to comfort him. For a week they sit silently with Job, but then they start to speak, and they tell Job that he must have done something wrong, because God is just, rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. If Job is being punished, it must be for a good reason.

Job does not agree. In between each of his friend’s speeches Job proclaims his innocence; curses the day he was born; and wishes that he could confront God, his accuser. The reading we heard in our second week with Job was him complaining that God was not answering him; Job was suffering unjustly and he couldn’t even find God to protest. Job still believes in a God of justice, he says that if only God appeared: ‘an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge’. But God was silent and God’s silence was even more painful to Job than all his sufferings.

God does not leave Job in silence. Last week we heard part of God’s reply to Job, and unexpectedly it wasn’t an explanation that Job was simply the subject of a bet between God and ha-satan. Instead, God asked Job whether he understood the mysteries of God’s creation. It starts: ‘Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me’ and then goes on with questions like, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ ‘Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?’ ‘Is the wild ox willing to serve you?’ ‘Do you give the horse its might?’ ‘Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?’  And there is my absolute favourite part, which is a description of the utter ridiculousness of the ostrich. There’s not even a question asked; instead God describes all its idiosyncrasies:

‘The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage.
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labour should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.
When it spreads its plumes aloft,
it laughs at the horse and its rider.’

The message seems to be that God’s creation of the ostrich is so bizarre that it is simply beyond human comprehension. We can only imagine what fun the author of the Book of Job would have had had they known of the platypus.

And so we come to today’s reading, the end of the story. God has spoken to Job out of the whirlwind, challenged him by asking whether Job is the Creator. Obviously Job is not. God is God, and Job is human, and so Job responds as we hear him today: ‘I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’. Today’s reading seems to be a dialogue. Job says, ‘‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ God then answers: ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ challenging Job as he did in last week’s reading. Job replies, ‘Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’. But God continues to offer Job the dialogue that Job had said he wanted; ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me,’ says God – exactly what Job had said he wanted when he bemoaned God’s absence. But now in response to this offer Job replies, ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes’. That last line is fascinating. It could mean that Job is repenting in dust and ashes, in utter humility. But it could also mean the Job repents of dust and ashes, of the grieving and complaining that he has been doing sitting in the ashes. Maybe Job now realises that it is time for him to once again stand upright.

What has happened? Why is God’s mere appearance and recitation of the wonders of creation satisfying to Job? How does that answer his questions? As one commentator writes: ‘it seems undeniable Yahweh badly misses the target. The lesson He teaches to the agonizing man appears to be: “Don’t ask questions! Suffer in silence! Who are you to speak to Me? Look around at the majesty of My creation and know once for all that you are incompetent. Your agony is trivial, your questions are meaningless, your quest is vain.”’[1] There is nothing comforting in that! And the ‘happy ending’ of the Book, with Job getting twice as much as he had before, including another ten children, doesn’t make things much better. Can we really imagine that having another ten children is going to make up to Job, or his wife, for the deaths of the first ten?

What has made the difference to Job? It can only be that God has appeared and has taken Job seriously. God hasn’t provided Job with simple answers, even though there was a simple answer that could be offered. God has instead engaged with Job; God has been present. The lectionary misses out an extremely important part of the story. After Job’s three friends have spent so much time and effort justifying the ways of God to Job, arguing that God is just and so Job must deserve his suffering, God condemns them. ‘The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”’ Job’s three friends have to make sacrifices in restitution and God tells them that ‘my servant Job shall pray for you, 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.’ God validates all of Job’s complaining; his certainty that he had done nothing to deserve the punishment he received. Job was right! Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were wrong! The Book of Job is absolutely anti-prosperity gospel. The good are not always rewarded; the bad are not always punished. When people suffer and cry out to God our best response is not to defend God and tell them that God has a plan. We are not to be Job’s comforters. And when we suffer, we are allowed to rebel and whinge and moan and complain, as Job does. God may not give us an explanation, but God will not reject us.

Then we have that final, tiny, fascinating note: ‘[Job] also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers.’ Over the course of the book Job has twenty children; we only know the name of three of them and those are his last three daughters. Their names apparently mean, ‘with Yahweh,’ ‘Yahweh’s fragrance,’ and ‘horn of antimony’. Antimony was used as eye makeup, so Keren-happuch’s name could be translated as ‘eye shadow’. I can’t make a theological point out of that. But that Job gives his daughters an inheritance like their brothers is a theological point. It could just be meant to indicate that Job was so wealthy at the end of his story that he could give his daughters wealth without depriving his sons.  But I think what it means is that Job, through his encounter with God, has realised that life is not about getting what we deserve, and balancing credits and debits. Life is about relationship; starting with our relationship with the Creator who has made a world so beyond our understanding and who yet has time to communicate with us. Job’s own experience of transformation, when God speaks to him and validates him, leads to him transforming the unjust social situation in which only sons inherit. In the new world that Job has discovered through his encounter with God, daughters and sons are equal and receive equal shares.

The end of the Book of Job does not simply return Job to the situation he was in at the beginning. He has been transformed by his experiences, and so have his friends, and so, hopefully, have we. Amen.

 

[1] André Lacocque, ‘Job or the Impotence of Religion and Philosophy’.

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