28 August 2011
The 11th Sunday After Pentecost
When our society was more Bible literate, people would often say of someone who was calm, long-suffering and uncomplaining that they had “the patience of Job.” While society might have been more Bible literate then, if you read the full text it would be hard to think of Job as patient by our standards.
Job was wrestling with the classic theological problem of evil.
If God is for us and if God is good, why does he allow good people to suffer ? Why does he allow evil to exist ? Why doesn’t he intervene to stop it ?
We readers know the reason given in this particular story. Satan – the accuser – bets that if good fortune leaves Job, then Job will curse God. He wagers that Job’s worship of God is shallow and self-interested. So God allows Satan to test Job to prove Satan wrong.
In the face of his dreadful suffering, the loss of children, wealth and property, Job is left with his wife, who is unsympathetic
and even mocks Job’s loyalty to God. Clearly her faith is shallow.
Although Job does not curse or turn away from God, he is clearly puzzled and unhappy with God. Job knows that God had and has the power to prevent these evils, so when his friends come supposedly to comfort him, they believe and try to convince Job
that despite his piety and charity, he must have done something very wrong that provoked God to punish him; Job ends up complaining about God to his somewhat unsympathetic and critical friends. Job protests again and again that he has been nothing but virtuous and there is no justification for God to inflict such pain upon him. If only Job could understand why.
God clearly tires of Job’s complaining and his self-righteous protestations. So he appears to Job to set him straight, and us too.
It is not a rational or satisfying answer that God gives Job. The short and simple version of God’s answer is that “I know what I am doing and you don’t…and cannot.” God makes a big impression on Job, and Job shuts up, accepting God’s radical righteousness.
What is there for us 21st century sophisticates to learn from this story? God gives us no better reasons than he gave Job, and believing people still wrestle with the problem of evil, and unbelievers still use it against God.
I remember many years ago reading in the column “Dear Abby” her response to this question: “Some sin more than they suffer,
so some must suffer more than they sin.”
It is hard for human minds to come to grips with the real consequences of the free will God has given us and with the bad choices that human beings make which cause suffering not only to themselves but to many other innocent people. God does not cause these evils, does not directly will them, but allows the consequences that we may learn to choose better and learn to consider and care for others in all our choices.
Just think of all the consequences of those choices which constituted the Industrial Revolution, some good, some bad.
Humanity has fixed many of the bad consequences, such as child labor and dangerous working conditions, but now we wrestle with global warming, environmental degradation and the extinction of many species.
We wrestle with moral choices everyday. How to do the most good possible while doing the least evil possible ? It is an affront to many Americans, who are so enamored of their freedom, to be told that we must consider the good of others in our choices.
We cope with disasters, sometimes big and sometimes small, every day, some self-caused and others happening at the causal intersections of our lives and our choices with those of others.
We cannot blame God for the evil we experience. But there is something remarkable we can learn from Job’s experience.
Job was a righteous man and pious, as were the Pharisees, fulfilling all his obligations to God, to his family and going beyond to his neighbors. He thought well of himself, as did his family and friends. Yet he never had a heart to heart, face to face conversation with God. That is, UNTIL he experienced disaster, until all he had left was his radical created humanity naked to God.
Job never experienced God until he had nothing else left, not his pride, not his property, not his health, not even his reputation.
Human beings look for God in all the wrong places. But by human logic God shows up in all the wrong places, at all the wrong times.
This happened with Jacob, when he sent all his family and property across the river, and he waited alone in the wilderness to confront his brother Esau, who had good reason to kill him. Then God appeared, wrestled with Jacob and blessed him.
Moses lost his princely status and property, and was a fugitive among the rustic shepherds of Midian. God confronts him in the burning bush and gives him a mission.
The prophet Elijah experienced God in a whispering breeze high up in the mountains where he was a fugitive hiding from King Ahab.
And so it is that God comes close to us, is most accessible to us when we are at our lowest, most humiliated, most confused and most alone and most empty. This is the self-emptying of Jesus Christ, the God who gave up being God to become a mere man, a fugitive among us. He lived a troubled human life, misunderstood and with no home. God never intervened, until Jesus had given it all up in death. For this faithfulness God raised him to glory.
That is our destination too, a glorious union with God and all humanity. Here in this world we come face to face with God undisguised, deep within ourselves, in our own weakness, emptiness and sorrow.
For most of us, and most of the time, we come face to face with God, disguised in the persons most emptied of the trophies of this world, who silently invite us to empty ourselves by helping them. God wants mercy, not sacrifice. Mercy, not empty words and rituals. Gamaliel realized this when he intervened to save Peter and John. Buddhists realize this as they cultivate compassion. Muslims and Hindus realize this as they cultivate the virtue of Mercy and name their God “The Merciful One.”
The evil of this world, the evil suffered by others, gives us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate and generous with our time, our talents and our riches.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans:
“The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will. We know that all things work for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:26-28)
All things, even evil things, are powerless to thwart God’s will for goodness.