October 2, 2021
Job is a difficult book. It’s a difficult book with a difficult lesson, and that’s why I think it’s important that we spend time with it for the next few weeks that it shows up in the week’s readings. The Spirit has occasionally done some odd things with what books were included in the Bible, and since Job is in it, it means God has something important for us to hear in its pages. But before anything, I think we should address this opening narrative, and just how uncomfortable it makes us all feel about how God is portrayed.
We hear about a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz, who was “blameless.” Not included in our reading today is all of his stupendous wealth in herds and servants. Then, as the book continues, we get this strange behind-the-scenes look at the heavenly court. And it is confusing. God is there, but so is Satan? And it seems like God and Satan make a wager that treats Job like a pawn in some game he had no idea he was playing. And all these terrible things that happen to Job apparently happen with the explicit consent of God—very disturbing. Very confusing.
But let’s step back a minute and see how putting this book in its context helps us understand this opening a bit better. First and foremost, the book of Job is a parable, a story told to teach a lesson, just like Jesus’ parables. The opening lines are literally the Ancient Near Eastern version of “once upon a time,” and like our stories with that kind of opening, you go in knowing there’s a lesson to be learned. It’s not meant to be an accurate description of a historical event, complete with precise retellings of the inner workings of the heavenly court. Instead, it’s trying to get us to think differently about how God works in the world. And that’s the other important thing to consider.
Job was written in a world where most people agreed that God would always reward people who were righteous, and punish people who were unrighteous. Sin was met with punishment, and good works were met with health, wealth, and happiness. Interestingly, a lot of the books of the Bible speak from this viewpoint. But for anyone that’s paying attention, that’s not how the world actually works. Bad things happen to good people. Good things even happen to bad people. The book of Job, purposely inserted into the Bible by the Spirit, takes that tension, cranks it up to eleven, and asks us to sit with the uncomfortableness of it all.
And the first question it asks us to consider is the question the Accuser proposes to God in the illustrative scene of the heavenly court. Job is a righteous man, he concedes, but why? Is he loyal to God because he’s good, or is he loyal to God because he gets everything he wants? If he had all his blessings taken away, if the entire framework of this “the righteous are blessed and the sinful are cursed” proved false, would a righteous man like Job still cling to God? In short, will Job stay loyal if he doesn’t get something out of it?
My sister had a “friend” back in elementary school, when we lived in Virginia. This girl was a little older than Katherine, and throughout their friendship she would act very charming and cordial in front of others, but would bully and demean my sister any time no one was there to witness it. She loved the power that she had, the ability to boss my sister around and put her down without Katherine hitting back. That is, until my sister finally did stand up for herself. Very quickly this girl decided she no longer wanted to be friends with my sister—as soon as she wasn’t getting what she wanted.
I think we all know, or know of, someone like that. Friendship isn’t a mutual support or source of camaraderie or community, but a transaction based on what can be gotten. The kind of friendship that’s built on what we can get out of the other person is a building with foundations of sand. The longest lasting friendships are the ones that don’t expect anything from one another except for the kind of love that wants community with each other. The kind of friendships that weather storms are the ones that don’t get weighed down with conditions, ultimatums, and false expectations. It’s why Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, said our ultimate goal is be to become friends with God.
So we come to this scene of Job, and the question the Accuser proposes has to sit with us. Are the blessings the only reason Job is loyal to God? If those were taken away, would he still keep his relationship with God? Is our relationship with God based on what we’ll get out of it? If God doesn’t reward righteousness, will we still want to be righteous for God? Is friendship with God enough?
Now, in the parable of Job, his loss is orders of magnitude bigger than anything we’re likely to experience. In the first chapter he has everything but his wife and three servants taken from him—his thousands of camels, donkeys, and sheep; his army of servants; even his ten children are gone in the blink of an eye. We may not experience that kind of loss, but we will all experience suffering at some point. What this opening to Job wants to make abundantly clear to us is that, regardless of the accuracy of the illustration of heaven, suffering is not punishment for sin. Your pain is not deserved.
The point of the story is to throw the deepest contrast possible on the idea that the righteous are always blessed, and the sinful are always cursed. The impossibly righteous Job, literally blameless, suffered more deeply than just about anyone ever. This parable is taking our lived experience, where we know good people have bad things happen to them, and laser-focusing on the problem that presents. But it’s in Job’s refusal to see all this disaster and give up on God that we understand how he really sees his relationship with God—it was never about the blessings. It was about that friendship. It was always about God.
So we’re invited into the uncomfortable space that Job will draw us into for the next few weeks. This book is difficult, and it tackles a very difficult subject. It may not answer your questions—in fact, it may give you more questions to ask. But what this opening is meant to do is to ground us in the reality that God is not a bean counter, keeping close track of our merits and our sins, ready to dispense blessings and curses like some deified accounting machine.
Instead, it invites us to reimagine our friendship with God. It asks us to go to the tough place of suffering, when we’re most likely to wonder where God is, what God is doing, and why this is happening to us. It calls us to see disaster, and trust that God is still present with us, that God still loves us, that God is still our friend. And this book gives us the space to wrestle with what faithfulness and friendship with God look like when life gets really, unbearably hard.
Thanks be to God. Amen.