Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part Two (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: why is this happening?

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us? Or, to be more theological about it: why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

The question is acute for us each personally, during this time of restrictions because of a global pandemic. After all, we had nothing to do with the cause of the pandemic. Why should we suffer the frustrations of lockdowns, if we are innocent of causing the virus to spread? Why should we endure the hardships of reduced interpersonal interactions, if we have been behaving with due care? Why should we not be able to gather for worship, since we have not been in places where infections have been found?

The question is also pertinent and pressing in our current global context. For a start, the pandemic has inflicted suffering and death on millions of people around the world—suffering far more invasive than what we are experiencing in the current lockdown. How many millions of people have died? And how many millions of family members have suffered the grief and despair of not being able to say farewell to their loved ones as they die in hospital wards? And how many medical and nursing professionals have been stressed beyond limit by the incessant demands they have faced during the pandemic? And how fair is all of this?

The question also presses in terms of the climate. We have long known that the climate is changing, the high temperature averages are claiming, the arctic glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events are climbing—and people around the globe are suffering. All of this presents a challenge to the way we live. We may even think that we are suffering unfairly in such a scenario.

It is clear that the science has come to a conclusive decision: we human beings have been contributing in a major way to the changes in the climate for over two centuries, now. We actually can’t lament that we are suffering unfairly, since our comfortable lifestyles in the well-to-do Western world undoubtedly mean that our carbon footprints are much larger than they should be. We are contributing to climate change, so can’t expect to be exempt from its ravages.

But what of those whose carbon footprint is minuscule, in comparison to our own? There are 16 African countries whose CO2 emissions per year are 0.15 tons per person or less. As you trace the names of countries as the figure rises, there are many more African and Asian countries, long before any European countries are noted.

By contrast, the figure is 17.10 tons per person for Australia, 15.52 for the USA, and 18.58 for Canada. That is a completely inequitable output. Should we not be suffering more deeply, in the western world, than people in Africa and Asia are? And yet the reality is that the comfortable, even extravagant, lifestyle of the western world is what is driving the incessant rate of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. And the whole world—humans, animals, fish and bird, and vegetation—suffers as a result. The questions raised by Job are acutely relevant to this issue.

(The figures come from https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-per-capita/)

And the question remains hanging as we reflect on levels of malnutrition and access to food in the current world. The World Food Programme of the United Nations estimates that one in three people around the world. Even before the current pandemic, each and every day of the year, 820 million people were seriously underfed and hungry.

Children bear the brunt of this inequity. 149 million children under 5 are estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million are estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million are overweight or obese. That is a situation that is utterly unjust. The questions press even harder on us.

(See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition)

We have the means, we are told, to distribute food equitably around the world. And yet up to one third of food is dumped everyday in the USA—a shocking waste of resources and a completely inequitable state of affairs. So those who happen to have been born in certain areas of the world where circumstances beyond their control mean that they are suffering far more than is warranted. Injustice abounds. The questions from Job resonate—how is that fair?

And then, there are survivors of domestic violence, and—still—survivors of child sexual abuse, and those suddenly facing homelessness, and those in the long enduring grip of mental illness, and those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, seeking refuge and asylum in a welcoming place … and many other situations where the innocent are suffering unjustly. The list could be very long, indeed, if we give careful thought to it.

So, reflecting on these matters, in the light of the discussions that are recorded in the story of Job, we have much pause for thought. How do we reconcile our faith in God—God who is loving, God who is just, God who is overseeing all that takes place—given these terrible realities? Is the image of God that we have accurate? If God can act to change any of these terrible situations that we are facing, why does God not so act? Is God uncaring? Is God unable to act? Is God not concerned with justice?

These are the questions that Job explores. It is a book which provides us with deep resources for thinking about such matters. It is a tale that resonates with so much in the experience of contemporary people. It is a take for our times.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part One (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:20–23). Why? is the question that Job asks incessantly, as he ruminates on what fate has befallen him.

Job, the righteous, upright person, struck with tragedy and blighted with grief, laments his situation. His story provides a good tale for us to consider during this time of global pandemic. It is a tale that explores the questions that we may be pondering.

As the story begins, we learn that Job had a good, prosperous life; but through no fault of his own, his life is turned upside down; he lost stock—500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7,000 sheep, and 3,000 camels—and all of his children—seven sons and three daughters (1:13–19). His life, once blessed and enjoyable, was utterly destroyed.

Yet “in all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Indeed, after each round of festivities enjoyed by his children, his practice was to sanctify all his family. He would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). He was indeed “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).

Job came under attack, he felt. Through no fault of his own, his life was turned upside down. He was deeply distressed. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”, he cried (3:11). “Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?” (3:12). “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:16). The joy at the prosperity which he had enjoyed had crumbled, his very being was pierced with deep grief and despair.

He turns, in his anguish, to God, whom he accuses of having brought this suffering upon him. “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20–21) “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave”, he laments (10:17–18).

Job berates God, whom he sees as being negligent in not intervening to save him from his fate. “Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (13:24), he asks. Then, some time later, he presses the point: “Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.” (21:4–6). He lays the blame at God’s feet: “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1)

Why? Why?? Why??? is Job’s constant question.

Job reflects on the quest for Wisdom, which is what is advocated in Proverbs (Prov 1:2–7; 2:1–5; 3:13–18; 4:5–9; 9:10; 15:32–33; 16:16; 17:24; 19:20; etc) and sought by The Teacher (Eccles 1:13; 7:25). Yet the search for Wisdom, who is more precious than jewels (Prov 3:15; 8:10–11), is much more difficult than mining for those precious jewels (Job 28:1–11).

Where shall Wisdom be found? Job asks (28:12). “Where does Wisdom come form?” (28:20). The answer is, “it is hidden from the eyes of all and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). Job despairs of ever finding Wisdom. God knows the way to Wisdom (28:23–27), but direct access to Wisdom remains elusive. All that is offered is “the fear of the Lord” (28:28–a verse attributed to Job, but which many scholars consider to be an authorial gloss on the whole speech).

Elihu rebukes Job, turning his incessant questioning back on him: “God is greater than any mortal. Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.” (33:12–14). “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong”, Elihu contends (34:10). “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it”, he maintains (35:13).

The claim that God is not just is an outrage to Elihu. He turns to the inscrutable nature of God: “Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable” (36:26). “The Almighty—we cannot find him”, Elihu maintains; “he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate” (37:23).

Yet Job will not budge. Finally, after a blistering speech from the Lord himself, out of the whirlwind (38:1–41:34), in which the deity makes it clear that Job cannot pretend to have any comprehension of the ways that God operates, Job backs down. He responds, sarcastically: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2), and then delivers his coup-de-grace: “therefore I despise myself, and repent of dust and ashes” (42:6).

It should be noted that the common rendering of these final words of Job in so many translations have inevitably mistranslated a crucial word. The Hebrew here clearly states, “I repent OF dust and ashes”. The twist to repenting IN dust and ashes, found in most translations, portrays Job as meekly withdrawing his complaint and submitting to the inscrutable mysteries of God.

But he does not. In fact, his final word is another sarcastic barb, aimed directly at God: “I will give up on playing the meek-and-humble supplicant”. He has not had his questions of Why? Why?? Why???answered in any satisfactory way. So he remains defiant. He repents of repenting. He will not be sorry.

It should also be noted that the “happy ever after” ending we have in 42:7–17, in which Job is vindicated and his fortunes are restored twofold, is widely recognised as a later ending which was not part of the original saga. In the original story, Job’s probing questions remain relentlessly unresolved.

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: Why is this happening? That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us?

Or, to be more theological about it: Why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? Do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? Why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

I’ll explore these questions further in part II of this reflection in the next blogpost.

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See also this series of sermons on Job by Elizabeth:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

The second in a series of sermons on the book of Job, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine; Tuggeranong Uniting Church, 10 October 2021

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Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:

To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.

When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this spirited debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.

The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are convinced that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we readers know is correct.

This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks.

His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him.

So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”

Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.

Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all and many of us may have experienced in tragic circumstances.

All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, warsand natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, does come to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.

Spill the Beans this week suggests that Job’s anger, like that of the author of Psalm 44 (“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?”), raises important questions about what is and is not permissible to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?

Surely it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. There is an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and there is a freedom here that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, toapologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.

Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.

The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.

We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.

And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.

So from the paradox of faith, we remember:

from silence, comes the song of praise;

from darkness, shines forth the light;

from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.

It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.

For other sermons on Job, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

For other sermons on Wisdom, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ on Lady Wisdom, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/17/in-order-that-all-the-peoples-of-earth-may-know-your-name-1-kings-8-pentecost-13b/ on the wisdom of Solomon