12th July, 6th Sunday after Trinity, evening
Job 4:1, 5:6-end
Revd Kate Tuckett
We don’t seem to hear much in church about Job, and yet he remains one of the most compelling figures in the Old Testament. You can read about Moses splitting the Red Sea and never once think about your own life, but once Job climbs on his dung heap and starts cursing the day he was born, it’s hard not to relate in some way or other.
Job was the man who did everything right and was repaid with suffering every wrong. He was blameless and upright, the Bible tells us. He feared God and turned away from evil. He had a loving wife, ten children, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pairs of oxen, five hundred donkeys and enough servants to look after the lot of them. And it all comes tumbling down, through no fault of his own.
Job has three friends, who when they hear the hard times that have befallen Job, come to offer him sympathy and consolation, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, and we hear the advice offered from Eliphaz today. He tells Job to pray to God for help, because God always answers prayers. God rewards the just and punishes the wicked and so if we get right with God, he will straighten out our life. Bildad will go on to reinforce this by saying that since Job is suffering, he must have done something to deserve it. What Job has to do is to confess his sinfulness to God and everything will be OK. Zophar finishes the argument with the idea that there is a definite cause and effect relationship between and person’s action and God;s response. God’s justice would not let Job suffer unless there were some reason for it.
These are all good religious answers. These men would be outstanding members of their church’s prayer group. They are trying to do the right thing. They are trying to point out to Job where he has gone wrong. They are trying to help him understand what secret sin is causing him this misery. And Job tries. He honestly tries. He tries to look at things their way. He tries to figure where he went wrong so he can sete it straight. But he cannot find the sin which his traditional religion tells him has to be there.
The neat religious system represented by these three comforters is breaking down. The writer of the book has Job has written a timeless fable. God’s chosen people had been run out of the Promised Land and were living as exiles in Babylon. And they were struggling with some of the same questions that we do, because the questions are timeless. Why do good people suffer? Why isn’t life fair? How could God allow the Holocaust to happen? We want to know why bad things happen to good people.
Then there are the more specific, personal questions: why am I suffering? Why is that evil person prospering while I am barely making it? Why isn’t my life turning out the way I planned when I’ve tried so hard? Why am I sick? Why can’t I find a job? Why am I lonely? Why can’t I fix this?
And perhaps the cruellest, saddest, most haunting question for all, the one we all ask in various forms at different times: what did I do wrong? For what am I being punished? This was the question Job’s so-called friends are wanting him to answer.
We like to identify with Job, since he is the main protagonist of the story and there is much about his story that many of us will be able to identify with. But really, we’ve all acted like Job’s three friends. We’ve retreated into our neat definitions that tell us right from wrong, and we’ve come up with some pious theories to explain what we do not understand. The more Job suffers the more platitudes they dish up. We might think about the people whose suffering we do our best to explain away today. The asylum seeker. The single mum who had too many children. The teenager who dropped out of school too early. So often we too become these self-appointed messengers, trying to solve problems, appeal to tradition and law and systems of who deserves what, producing victims and shame and scapegoating. So often we will provide answers while refusing the struggle with the complexities of the questions.
But what the book of Job doesn’t give us is answers. Job will go on to rail against God. Sitting on the dungheap, covered in boils, he will yell at God with his fists in the air. And God will not give him answers, certainly not cheap platitudes. But God will gives him the assurance that he knows everything, absolutely everything in the world – not only the good, but also the evil. Even when the wickedness is monstrous, even when we cannot understand it, God is there. Job gets neither answers nor control. Instead he will gets poetry, awe, glory, wonder, a reminder of who God is, and the assurance of God’s presence. In the end the book of Job says less about why we suffer than how to found meaning in a world of suffering. It saves us from taking the easy way out. It strips us to some of our most enduring illusions that there are answers to some of life’s most difficult questions and that we can discover them if we are good enough. Nothing can explain why some people suffer more than others and why good people have to ensure their share of pain and hardship.
The Book of Job debunks the pat and facile answers which are offered as explanations to these problems. In the end it says that God does not give answers, but God gives meaning, and in that God gives power. In the end God prefers Job’s outrage to the piety of his friends. It tells us that the only answer to life’s ultimate challenges come from reframing the questions and then working them out in the presence of the holy, in the transformative power of the relationship with God.
In the end, Job will accepot who he is --- a child of God, -- and in this realisation experiences the meaning of his existence and of his life.
The Bible doesn’t give us answers to suffering, and like Job’s friends, this is often frustrating for us, because answers are often what we want. Instead, we receive a promise of a God who will not leave us, and who promises us meaning and wholeness whatever happens to us. This meaning will of course find its fulfilment in God who will enter our pain and loss and death so deeply and take it into his very being that we will find him on another rubbish dump, pleading to be saved.
So what does the Bible teach us about suffering? It tells us that we don’t know exactly why suffering happens in every situation, and we shouldn’t claim to. That we are to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. That when God wrapped himself in flesh and walked among us, God suffered too. We’ll see the equivalent to Job’s friends, the ones who respond to tragedy by blaming the victim later in the gospels. The disciples will ask Jesus whether a blind man’s plight was as a result of his sin or that of his parents. Jesus, incredulously will respond neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so thtat the works of God might be displayed in him.’
It wasn’t Job’s fault he lost his family, possessions or health. It wasn’t the blind man’s fault he couldn’t see. And it is supreme arrogance to respond to the pain of our neighbours the way that Job’s friends respond to his --- will elaborate theological explanation, with blame, and calls for repentance. In fact I’d go further to say that it is theology that is abusive.
So if you have heard this theology before, or whether you are here having received bad news, or whether you are trying to make sense of something dreadful that has happened, take away this: you do not deserve to suffer. You are not disposable. You are never the object of God’s wrath.
You are profoundly and intimately and wonderfully made. You are valuable. You are known. You are precious. You matter.
God loves the world, enough to become a part of it, enough to suffer along with it, enough to weep with it, enough to work with is. And this love of God requires no perverted or twisted redefinition. It is what we long for it to be, what we know love to be.
Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy or boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrong. Love always trusts, always protects always hopes, always endures. Love never fails.
And when – as we all do – we speak eloquently and claim to fathom all mysteries and knowledge but do not know this kind of love, we are not speaking of God. We are clanging cymbals, distracting us from the gentle whisper that affirms what we already know deep down inside: we are known, we are loved, we are worth living and dying for.
This sermon uses materials from:
Brown Taylor, B. (2011), Home By Another Way, London: SPCK
Rohr, R. (1987), The Great Themes of Scripture: Old Testament,
Cincinatti: St Anthony Messenger Press