Sermon: On not blaming the poor for their poverty

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
24th of October, 2021

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Today is the fourth and last Sunday that we will spend with the impoverished Job, his faithful wife, his three somewhat-silly friends, the Lord, and ha-satan. This past week has also been Anti-Poverty Week. One of the reasons that groups like the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and Berry Street, and Anglicare, and of course Uniting VicTas, combine to commemorate Anti-Poverty Week is because Australians who have not experienced poverty themselves frequently do not know what poverty looks like in Australia. Often the image in people’s minds is a man sleeping rough and asking for money outside supermarkets. But did you know that at least one in six Victorian children live in poverty; most people experiencing poverty live in families with children; family and domestic violence is the biggest cause of homelessness for women and children; and there are more women living in poverty in Victoria than men?

The message of this year’s Anti-Poverty Week has been that there are two things governments can do right now to address poverty: raise income support above the poverty line and invest in social housing. There have been numerous studies that tell us exactly how much help those two initiatives would be. For instance, ANU modelling has shown that a twenty per cent increase in payments like JobSeeker would reduce the poverty rates of single parent families by as much as seventy-five per cent. The Everybody’s Home campaign found that a Federal Government investment of $7.6 billion would build 16,800 additional social housing units for women and children escaping family violence, provide immediate economic benefits of $15.3 billion and create 47,000 new jobs. We know how to end most poverty in Australia.

Why, then, if we know how to end poverty, do governments not do it? I suspect the reason is that many politicians, those who have never lived it themselves, think that poverty is the fault of the people who experience it. This attitude was revealed in an article published this week in the Australian Financial Review titled ‘Why you shouldn’t underestimate the underclass’. It was written by Pru Goward, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 2007 to 2019. Goward might have thought that she was writing a positive article about the ‘proles,’ as she called them. She started her last paragraph by saying that ‘So long as we keep looking at the billions of dollars they cost us, we will continue to dislike them, reject them and write them off.’ I hope that as churchgoers who know that unemployment, divorce, illness, family violence mean that anyone might become hungry and homeless we would never write people off, or blame them for their own poverty as Goward does by describing those who are ‘the last to give up smoking, get their shots and eat two servings of vegetables a day.’ I hope that we would never call them ‘proles’ even if quoting from George Orwell, because we know that they are us.

Just in case those of us who are lucky enough not to need JobSeeker, to have stable housing, to be able to buy all the food we need rather than relying on a foodbank, were ever to be tempted to blame those who are unlucky for their own poverty, we have been given the Book of Job. Job was wealthy, healthy, happy, and virtuous until a series of accidents destroyed everything he had and everything he was. This was a challenge not only for Job’s faith but for the faith of Job’s three closest friends. They believed that good things came to good people, bad things to bad, and that if bad had come to Job he must have deserved it. They told him this, again and again. They did not actually say that if he gave up smoking and ate vegetables he would no longer live in poverty, but that was the tenor of their speeches. Just admit what you did wrong, Job, God will forgive you, and prosperity will again be yours!

Last week we heard God speak to Job out of the whirlwind, challenging him by asking him whether he was 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.’ In today’s reading Job quotes God’s questions to him: ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me,’ as Job acknowledges that God can do all things.Job’s final line in the entire book, after all his many speeches, is, ‘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. The Hebrew literally says: ‘Therefore I reject and/but I repent on dust and ashes’. This has been translated the way we heard, but it has also been translated as, ‘therefore I reject it (maybe what he has been told about God) and I am consoled for dust and ashes’. Possibly by seeing God face to face, Job is consoled for his misfortune. Or maybe Job is repenting of dust and ashes,’ of the time he has spent sitting in the ashes worrying that God was absent. Maybe Job feels that since God has appeared and vindicated him he can stand upright once again.

I like this last reading, that Job is repenting of dust and ashes, because of the section of the chapter that the lectionary leaves out. In those verses God is angry with the friends and vindicates Job. God undercuts all the friends’ linkage of sin and suffering, their commitment to blaming Job for his own misfortune. The friends are only spared punishment because of Job’s willingness to pray for them to God. If we are ever tempted to look at the ‘proles’ as responsible for their own poverty because they do not eat vegetables or give up smoking, we should remember God’s anger at 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 42:7) The Book of Job is absolutely anti-prosperity gospel.

But all this leaves us with a question. Is God’s mere appearance and recitation of the wonders of creation really satisfying to Job? As I said last week, God’s speeches defend God’s power, but God’s power was never in question. And the ‘happy ending’ of the Book, with Job getting twice as much as he had before, including another ten children, does not 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?

I suspect it is neither the wonders of creation, nor the wealth and health of Job’s latter days that have made a difference. It is the simple fact that God has turned up. In one of his first speeches Job said, ‘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) But Job did not need to wait until ‘the last’ for the Lord to appear. His eyes have now seen the Lord. Job’s greatest pain through his suffering was the absence of the God to whom he addressed his complaints; now he finds that God was not absent after all. As I have said before, the comfort the Book of Job offers us when we sit in dust and ashes is the assurance that we are not alone.

The Book of Job also tells us very clearly what we should do if we see someone else in pain or poverty. We should most definitely not try to justify or defend suffering as part of God’s plan or deserved, as Job’s three friends did through most of the book. We should instead imitate their actions at the very beginning when ‘they 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) We should also imitate the actions of everyone who had known Job at the end of the story, when they ‘ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring’. Most of the Book of Job is poetry pondering existential questions; the beginning and end are very practical advice.

At the very end of this book we have one last 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 mean dove, cinnamon, and eyeshadow, so they could represent the enhancement of life from animals, plants, and human manufacture. That Job gives his daughters an inheritance like their brothers may 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 suggest that Job’s own experience of transformation, when God spoke to him and validated 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.

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1 Response to Sermon: On not blaming the poor for their poverty

  1. Pingback: An other trait for faith in Jesus and his God – Some View on the World

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