Job and his friends

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Here’s one of those readings again; the ones that can make it feel a bit incongruous to blithely say “The Word of the Lord” and “Thanks be to God.” I’m talking, of course, about our first reading for the evening taken from the Book of Job, which concluded, “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face.” “If only I could vanish in darkness,” which is another way for Job to say that he’d be better off dead. And we just left him hanging there in his despair. “Thanks be to God”

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This is the second of four Sundays in which the lectionary will have us working in Job, and if you were here last Sunday night you will be aware that Job seems to have had a rather dramatic change in attitude. Last week we heard the back-story, in which having lost pretty much everything, and now “inflicted [with] loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,” he has taken “a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.” His wife—who has also lost a good deal here—comes to him and says, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die,” to which he answers, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Oh, the proverbial patience of Job… yet in this evening’s reading he’s sounding less than patient: “Today also my complaint is bitter; [God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning.” What’s happened here?

The story of Job is an ancient one. In fact, the back-story is considerably older than the “Book of Job,” whose anonymous author took an ancient story as the starting point for a much longer work on the issues of evil and suffering. Whereas the ancient story speaks of the legendary patience of Job—“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”—the book as a whole actually speaks to the character’s impatience, or at least to his dogged stubbornness; his willingness to lament, to voice complaint, and to wrestle with God.

In the ancient story, Job’s suffering is presented as the work of the satan, who hits him with every loss imaginable in order to try to break his righteousness. The figure of the satan is shown as very much present in the heavens, serving as something of a prosecuting attorney or—if you’ll pardon the play on words—a “devil’s advocate.” In Hebrew, the name “satan” means literally “accuser” or “adversary,” and that’s the role the character plays. “Have you considered my servant Job?” God says to the satan, “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Oh sure, the accuser, replies, “You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But… touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

And after this set-up, in which poor Job is stripped of everything he has, the satan character evaporates for the remainder of the book’s forty-two chapters. The ancient story continues with the arrival of three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—who “sat with Job 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.”

And then suddenly it all shifts. The story to this point is written in prose, but now for close to forty chapters it is a work of poetic verse. And the patient Job who had refused to “curse God and die” hits a point where he “opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth,” saying
“Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’” (3:3)

And so it begins. Job curses the day he was born, and though he never curses God, he sure questions Him. Job can make no sense of what has happened to him—he can see no moral order at work—and he lives with a deep fear that he will never receive an answer. “Oh, that I knew where I might find God, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” “There an upright person could reason with God, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.” And yet, Job says, “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.”

“But I cannot see him.” His three friends, however, are pretty clear that they can see God, or at least they can see what God is doing. In chapter 3 Job curses the day of his birth and offers an agonizing expression of sorrow and loss. In chapter 4 one of his friends offers a carefully constructed theological explanation for what has happened to Job, saying basically that a) we know that God rewards righteousness and punishes sin; b) you are clearly suffering; c) therefore you are being punished for something; d) thus the solution is to repent from your sin.

Job’s response is to essentially say, “show me.” Show me where I have sinned, and I will repent; but until I see what I have done to deserve this, I am lost.

This pattern repeats again and again, chapter after chapter. The friends lay out their neat, logical theology of reward and punishment, and Job responds with an increasingly urgent “show me.” “Show me!” And then, as the biblical scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker notes, at chapter seven Job begins to make a critical shift in his speech: he makes the “move from speaking only about God to speaking directly to God.” This is a “move from theologizing to lament.” And, she observes, “It is a move that Job’s companions never make.”

Not that he suddenly stops arguing with his friends—that actually keeps going for chapter after chapter after chapter—but he keeps breaking out of the language of theology into the lament. Lament is prayer… and not particularly polite prayer, either. Yes, he keeps speaking of his fear of God, but his deepest fear is of the silence of God. Answer me! “I know that my Redeemer lives,” he will cry midway through the book, but it is through clenched teeth. (19:25)

I don’t want to push us toward anything close to resolution; not this week. Rather I want to offer two observations. Firstly, just take note of the willingness of Job to speak the truth of his experience in prayer, never backing down from the hardest of emotions. He laments, despairs, complains, even rages… and is God to whom he addresses all of this. We need not imagine, in other words, that the posture for our own prayers necessarily be nice, ordered, and meek. Job teaches us the reality of raw, honest, even confrontational prayer.

And those friends, with their airtight theological systems? They should make us shudder, not because they’re so offensive but because they are doing the sort of thing that we so easily do. They’re accounting for Job’s pain, not helping him to bear it. They’re giving answers, when what he needed most was their presence. One of my professors in theological college once told us that whenever we went to visit with a family dealing with a death, all we should say is “I am so very, very sorry for your loss.” Just that, and then sit down and shut up. Let them speak, let them lament, but don’t attempt to account for what they’re experiencing. Even at the point when it makes sense to offer prayer with them, he told us to watch our language very, very carefully, because it is so easy to say too much; to make things too tidy.

So we will leave Job there for this week. To rush to a resolution would be to fail to really hear the deep struggle of this book, of this character. And the reality is that many, many people do live with pain and sorrow for long, long stretches of life; to push for easy resolution is to fail to recognize that reality, and to risk sounding an awful lot like Job’s three friends…

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