Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
10th of October, 2021
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
I have been feeling awful this week. I try to remind myself how lucky I am: to be able to continue most of my work through this pandemic and to be paid for it; to live in Melbourne’s east, with access to beautiful parks if not to the sea; to not be frightened for anyone I love because they have all been vaccinated and are able to socially distance; to live in a country with a public health system and only fifty-one covid19 deaths per million people. I am extremely and undeservedly lucky and I know that. But this week, when Victoria set a record of 1,763 new covid cases in one day, followed by eleven deaths in a single day, my gratitude has been swamped by sadness and frustration. And in this darkness I am joined by Job.
Last week, we began to read the Book of Job, a poetic book written sometime between the seventh and fourth centuries BC, with a prose introduction and conclusion that might have come from a traditional folk tale. Last week, you will remember, God and ha-satan, the accuser or adversary, made a wager 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 bet, Job lost everything he had and everything he was. He lost his wealth. He lost his household. He lost his children. Job responded: ‘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,’ and ‘in all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing’. Then Job lost his health; he was inflicted with loathsome sores. His faithful and sensible wife told him to curse God and die, but Job replied, ‘Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’
Job is sitting in the ashes, scraping himself with a potsherd, when his three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, approach. We are told that Job was so changed that from a distance they did not recognise him, and that when they did they ‘raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads’. (Job 2:12) They then ‘sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’. (Job 2:13) The phrase ‘Job’s comforter’ is used for someone who aggravates distress under the guise of giving comfort but in the beginning, at least, Job’s friends get things right. They minister to Job by their presence and their silence. It is just a pity that they then open their mouths.
When they do speak, Job’s friends reveal that they are adherents of the prosperity gospel. Good things come to the good and bad to the bad; if bad things are happening to Job he must have done something to deserve them. So Eliphaz says, ‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.’ (Job 4:7) He even suggests that Job should welcome what is happening to him, ‘How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty’. (Job 5:17)
Bildad agrees, asking Job: ‘Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place’. (Job 8:3-6)
And finally Zophar tells Job that all his protestations of innocence just make his situation worse: ‘For you say, “My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight.” But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.’ (Job 11: 4-6).
In between each of their speeches Job proclaims his innocence; curses the day he was born; wishes that he could confront God, his accuser; but is aware that God ‘is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both.’ (Job 9:32-33) And yet still Job wishes he could justify himself before God: ‘If he would take his rod away from me, and not let dread of him terrify me, then I would speak without fear of him, for I know I am not what I am thought to be.’ (Job 9:34-35) The conversation repeats; each of Job’s friends denouncing him for what he says, and Job insisting that he is innocent and that if only he could confront God, he would be justified. Job’s complaints contain some beautiful words of faith in God that we often hear out of their complaining context: ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.’ (Job 19:25-27) When we listen to ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ in Handel’s Messiah, do we remember poor Job sitting in the ashes scraping away at his boils?
It is in this context that we come to today’s reading. Job is desperate to confront the God who is punishing him unjustly. No matter what his friends say, Job knows that he is innocent. But God is silent; Job cannot find him. In today’s reading we hear: ‘If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him’. It’s an ironic echo of psalm 139:
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:5-12)
Job is in darkness, the light around him has become night, and yet God is absent.
We have come a long way from the Job who reproved his wife: ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ Job may be receiving the bad from God, but he is mightily aggrieved about it. Some of his journey from patient acceptance to bitter rebellion might be a result of his friends’ attempts to comfort him. Job’s comforters are an awful warning to us never to suggest to people in distress that ‘these things are sent to try us’ or that ‘God has a plan’. If only they’d continued to do what they did in that first week and simply sat with Job in the ashes.
Job may not actually be ‘patient Job,’ but he is faithful. Job complains and accuses God of wrongdoing, but he does that because he believes in a God of justice. Job does not believe in a God who is indifferent to human suffering. If he did, there would be no reason for him to demand a confrontation with God in which, ‘an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge’. Today’s psalm, Psalm 22, gives the same message: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’. It is an act of faith, when things go wrong, to cry out to God and demand that God answer for our suffering. In the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark, we’re told that Jesus quoted that opening verse of psalm 22 on the cross: ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ Faith in God does not mean simply accepting suffering and remaining silent under it.
To respond to suffering and loss with Job’s first words: ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ is often understood to be the response of faith, appropriate for Jews and Christians experiencing suffering. But for us, currently locked down, watching case numbers rise, full of sympathetic pain for those whose loved ones have died, such acceptance is not necessary. The Book of Job tells us that when people are in undeserved pain, anger and complaint is just as faithful a response as gratitude for all the good God has done. We believe that God is a God of justice, and so we know that injustice cannot be God’s desire for us. When we experience injustice, it is faithful and right to rebel. Thanks be to God. Amen.