Sermon for the Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
This is the fourth and final week in which we’re reading from the Book of Job, and after hearing last Sunday’s selection from the long answer God gives to Job in his suffering—fully four chapters in which God speaks to Job of both the wonder of creation and also of its wildness and danger—we’ve come to the book’s close. The very last sentence in the book is, “And Job died, old and full of days,” and it might be tempting to cross our collective fingers and say, “you see, it all worked out just fine… Amen.” And yet in spite of the fact that Job’s life seems to finish well, we’re still left with some real questions.
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Most obvious is the fact that while God does reply to Job’s prayers of lament and protest, his questions as to why he is suffering and of what he has done wrong are never answered. What Job gets instead is an experience of the power and the glory, to which he responds, “I have uttered what I did not understand / things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” It would seem that having been confronted by the powerful presence of God, Job no longer needs an explanation.
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, at least, is the way it is translated in the New Revised Standard Version. The translation of the Jewish Publication Society suggests a slightly different angle. Not “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes, but “Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” What the Jewish translation suggests is that what Job is acknowledging here is not his sinfulness, but rather his humanity… and specifically the short-sightedness of his human vision. Now that he has moved from merely hearing of God to actually seeing something of the divine presence, Job acknowledges how little he can truly know and so relents of his drive to get clear answers.
It is at this point that the book moves back from poetic verse to prose. Chapters one and two of the book are in prose, and then from chapter three right up through verse six of chapter forty-two it has all been poetry. Now as it returns to prose form, we get something closer to a resolution. If not quite “he lived happily ever after,” we do get a sense that his suffering is over, and that he will grow “old and full of days” before dying what appears to be a good death.
But there is much more going on here than just that. As soon as Job has confessed his human short-sightedness, God speaks to one of Job’s friends, saying, “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 friends, remember, are the ones who had come to him with a very neat and ordered theological system to explain his suffering; a respectably orthodox theological account, in fact. Now God’s wrath is kindled against them, because they have not spoken rightly of God? And Job, who has been blown off his feet by an encounter with God and has just recanted of the smallness of his understanding, is the one who has spoken rightly? And then we’re told that the three friends are to make sacrifices for their error, and to have Job pray for them… “and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.”
Job’s speaking rightly of God has nothing to do with his getting his theology right. Job’s speaking rightly of God has everything to do with his being prepared to speak to God, and to bring to God even the rawest of complaints and the hardest of words. The three friends, on the other hand, are never once shown speaking or praying to God, but always engaged in dispassionate theologizing, urging Job to line up his doctrinal and spiritual ducks in order to make his suffering go away.
The theological writer Charles Williams quite famously teased C.S. Lewis for coming dangerously close to being that sort of a theological “comforter” in his book, The Problem of Pain. And maybe Lewis took Williams’ teasing to heart, when late in his life he wrote A Grief Observed, a very Job-like response to the suffering and death of his own wife. Part of what we must hear in the Book of Job is this sense that God does not need or even want us to play the role of theological defenders and apologetical advocates in the face of pain, suffering or tragedy, but would so much rather we just spoke the hardest of our thoughts and emotions to God.
But the one real remaining problem is that along with his new wealth, Job is also given seven sons and three daughters. In the first chapter of the book, we were told that he started out with seven sons and three daughters, all of whom died when their house collapsed in a great wind. Is there a parent alive who would imagine for a minute that a new set of children could possibly make up for the deep pain of having lost your own children in the first place?
But it may be that what is in view here is the basic willingness of Job and his wife to again have children. The theologian Ellen Davis writes, “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?” “The real question,” she suggests, “is how much it costs Job to become a father again.” To this, the Old Testament scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker adds,
Like a Holocaust survivor whose greatest act of courage is to bear children after the cataclysm, Job chooses against all odds to live again. Job (and his wife) choose to bear children into a world full of heart-rending beauty and heart-breaking pain. Job chooses to love again, even when he knows the cost of such love.
And the love Job shows is actually a radically freeing one for his children, particularly for his three daughters. In the book’s opening chapter we were told that, “he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt-offerings” on behalf of his children, “for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’” Talk about being unwilling to let them grow up and take responsibility for their own lives! In stark contrast, in the book’s closing chapters the three daughters are noted for their beauty, given quite frankly sensual names (Dove, Cinnamon, and a word perhaps best translated as Rouge, as in red-coloured make-up), and then it is noted that Job, “gave his three daughters an inheritance along with their brothers;” something unheard of in that world. In other words, rather than trying to protect his children by way of religious micro-management, this suggests that Job was prepared to view his daughters as being women—sensual and beautiful at that!—and deserving of the dignity and freedom that comes with an inheritance. He was able, in other words, to love without controlling them.
It may be that the power of this great biblical book is that it evades straightforward answers; that there is no single meaning or “moral of the story” with which I can conclude. The book asks as many questions as it answers; or more accurately, even as it provides answers, it raises new questions and new challenges. And it asks them of us.
Yet here’s one more thing to consider. Job’s great epiphany is that while he had formerly “heard of [God] by the hearing of the ear… now my eye sees you.” In our gospel reading for tonight (Mark 10:46-52) it is the blind man Bartimaeus who can in a real sense see Jesus, and so call out to him for mercy. Meanwhile the otherwise sighted people “sternly ordered the blind man to be quiet,” unveiling the degree to which they were actually blind to who Jesus is. Perhaps the claim placed upon us as we stand before such texts is to pray that we will be pressed beyond belief systems based on the mere hearing about God, to a faith that comes from seeing like the blind man… And out of that our words may be as truthful as Job’s in what we’re prepared to say to God, and to each other.