I have a confession to make. When I was a child, I was not always the best little boy in the world. In fact, sometimes some of my mother’s friends would look her in the eye and say, “You must have the patience of Job!” That’s one of the ways people sometimes think about Job: that he’s a man of great patience. But this misses the point.
Others say his trials and tribulations, his suffering, shows god to be a judgmental patriarchal figure who punishes people for their faults. In this theological View, something bad happens God is punishing you. So if you lose your job it’s because you send. If you get cancer it’s because you did not live according to God’s law. If your car breaks down it’s because you didn’t go to church on Sunday, or did something else that this please God.
This theological view of a judgmental patriarchal God is in my view flat-out wrong. God is not an angry father figure who sits in heaven tallying up every mistake that we make, judging us, and then condemning us to cancer or heartbreak or the loss of a loved one. That’s not who our God is. And it’s not the god that Jesus that’s about in the Christian Bible.
Today we start a three-part series of discussions focused on the book of Job. Let’s start by recognizing that this is a book of design to teach us wisdom. It is not a history book. It does not depict the real-life experiences of a man named Job. Instead, it is a story that looks at some very difficult theological questions. Like why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil in the world? Why doesn’t God fix everything so there’s no more suffering, no more pain, no more heartbreak? That’s pretty heavy duty theology.
As so often happens with our schedule of readings, or lectionary, we only get to hear the high points of the Book of Job our Sunday readings. There’s a lot of the story we miss. So let’s try to fill in some of the gaps. At the start of this book, Job is described as a blameless and upright man who ”fears God and turns away from evil.” but we should understand that the kind of fear described here is not the servile fear of child cowering in fear of a bully. Instead, this is the kind of fear that reflects respect and reverence for God.
Satan is not yet the enemy of God. Instead, Satan seems to be more of a prosecutor, of a questioner, of someone who god thought-provoking questions. in this role, Satan suggests that if his life took a turn for the worse this righteous man would walk turn from his beliefs and curse God. With God’s permission, Satan precedes to destroy job’s life. Job losses all the signs of his wealth: His home, his livestock, his family. He ends up being covered with painful sores sitting in the dust. But Job does not abandon his righteous nature and curse God.
Job’s wife argues with her husband. But Job answers her with a question: “shall we received the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Once again, Job does not abandon his righteous nature and curse God.
Three of Job’s friends and try and convince Job that this is all his fault: The God must be punishing job for a great sin. Their argument goes back and forth and back and forth. But Job does not abandon his righteous nature and curse God.
Finally, Job does demand that God god’s self. God answers out of a whirlwind and job is satisfied. He is then rewarded with even more proper children and wealth than before. Talking whirlwinds: now do you see why I said this is a wisdom story and not a history? So now that we’ve agreed that this is a wisdom story and not the real-life story of the life of Job, what can we say about suffering? Although that’s the central issue here, we need to be be more clear about the kind of suffering that is under discussion.
First, we can wonder if this is a debate about the origins of suffering; are we wondering why suffering exists, or why this particular person is suffering? Perhaps, but there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer to any of those questions in this book of the Hebrew Bible.
We do learn that suffering is sometimes justified by bad behavior; that sometimes it may be a warning against committing future sins; and – most importantly – that sometimes good and innocent people suffer. After all, that’s exactly what’s happening to Job. Yet in the final analysis, this book does not teach us a single reason why people suffer. It does, however, undermine the belief that all suffering is a judgment from God, and it does so by presenting Job as proof positive that bad things do happen to good people.
Another question considered in this wisdom story is whether there is any such thing as innocent suffering. While this text does not deny that sometimes suffering is richly deserved, it presents a convincing case that this is not always the case. For here we meet Job, the archetypical innocent victim, the person whose and righteousness is argued by both the narrator and by God. There’s no point to this book if Job is not the stereotypical innocent victim.
There’s a third aspect of suffering considered in Job, and it may be the most important one in terms of our daily life. The third question are we are supposed to act while we are suffering. Are we supposed to suffer like Job did in the first part of the book when he quietly accepted suffering? Or are we to be like Job later in the book, when he demanded answers from God?
I think the answer is both and: sometimes we are called to accept suffering quietly and sometimes we are called to speak out about it. For if nothing else, Job teaches us that sometimes it’s okay to be angry with God.
Alright to be angry with God? Yes, angry with God! A wise Rabbi once told me to work as a priest or as a chaplain, and see deep human suffering without becoming angry at God, then I simply would not be paying enough attention for those who are deeply suffering. And above all, God wants us to pay attention.
Let’s be clear: God seeks a relationship with us, us to walk humbly with our God. God knows that sometimes will get angry, and God welcomes that because it shows we are paying attention and it shows we care enough about God to share what’s really hurting us. That is the kind of relationship God wants with each and every one of us.
So what is this mean to us here today in 21st century San Francisco? It suggests that sometimes in this political climate, we are called to suffer quietly, to bear our burden without complaint, to focus not on our own discomfort but rather on the needs of those whose needs are greater than our own.
And it suggests that there are times Christians are called to speak out opposition to the evil the cause of suffering around us. It reminds us that sometimes we are called to preach truth to power. For in the Book of Job we are given permission to get angry with our God. And if we can get angry at our God, surely we can get angry at those who hold the reins of power in Washington DC, and Sacramento California, or city hall.
Job gives us permission to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, to protect those who have no power, to safeguard those who are in danger, to befriend those who are friendless, to comfort the afflicted, and to bind up the broken-hearted.
If Job could gather the courage to speak clearly to God, how can we not speak up to mere mortals who are momentarily in charge of our government? This is the first message has for us today in San Francisco. May we ponder this in our heart as we walk through the rest of Job’s story in the weeks ahead.
Let us pray.
you make us for each other,
to live in loving community
as friends, sons and daughters,
sisters and brothers, wives and husband,
partners and companions.
Teach us to choose love
that is committed and devoted;
teach us like little children
to wonder and to trust,
that our loving may reflect the image of Christ. Amen.