“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me and seem so far from me.” These are the words that begin the lament of the 22nd psalm, and these are among the final words of Christ from the cross. And it seems they should be the words spewing forth from Job’s mouth at the end of today’s Old Testament reading.
After all, only one short chapter prior to our reading we are told that Job was a very wealthy man by ancient world standards. He was the head of a large family with ten children; he owned large herds of live stock, and he had his health. But in a matter of hours, his livestock and children are wiped out. Without livestock and children, both Job and his wife are now penniless and with no one to care for them in old age. To add insult to injury, by the end of chapter two, Job’s health is taken from him and he is left sitting in an ash heap using potsherds to sooth his itching skin. And yet, despite the entire calamity that Job has endured, somehow he is still able to proclaim praise to God.
WHAT STRENGTH!!!!! WHAT FAITH!!! This is our immediate reaction, as Job defends his loyalty to God before his wife. And, at the first pass through these opening chapters, this may be what the writer wants us to focus on. But this is only half the passage, the second of two scenes that seem to run parallel in the story. This is the scene we can relate to, emulate and accept. It is the inspirational story of an individual living through great adversity. In today’s world, Job would have co-authored his story and then traveled the country signing books and pitching his work on national television.
It is, however, the other story, the underlying story, the story of God’s conversation with ha-Satan that leaves us scratching our heads, as the foundation of our faith is rattled. Our first reaction to this story is to feel indignant. “How could God permit, ha-Satan, the adversary, to do such harm to such a righteous and loyal man?” Our feelings are justified, Job has done nothing wrong, nothing that could in anyway be perceived as something against God. It is true, Job had done nothing to deserve the hardships created for him by ha-Satan.
As we swirl in our feelings of confusion, indignity and self-righteousness on Job’s behalf, most of us realize, our reactions have little to do with Job but come from our own sense of the divine betrayals we feel we have suffered in the course of our lives.
After all, none of us have had perfect lives, free of pain or grief. In the nine years I have been here, I have journeyed through some hardship with most of you, whether it was divorce, loss of job, cancer, or the untimely death of a loved one. And yes, as a community, in the nine years I have been with you, you have journeyed and supported Maureen and me through times of our own hardships and grief.
I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with someone diagnosed with a terminal illness or experiencing a loss when somewhere in conversation the question. . . why me, what have I done so bad to deserve this. . does not come up. Last year, as my father lain near death, my mother, on countless occasions, turned to me and asked over and over what they had done to deserve his suffering. “Why”, she asked, “is God punishing them?” And, to this, I would constantly assure her, they have done nothing to deserve his illness and suffering. Human suffering is not the result of divine punishment.
That is one of the timeless question the story of Job is designed to answer. The first moral lesson of Job is that human suffering is not the result of divine punishment. This is why the writer is clear in telling us that Job was a righteous man. This is why ha-Satan, the adversary, picks Job to challenge God, to prove to God that none of God’s creation is truly righteous, that the human heart is fickle, and that even Job’s praise only comes as a result of having lived an easy and a blessed life.
The conversation between God and ha-Satan also begins to answer the second question, if human suffering is not the result of divine punishment, then why is there suffering. If we look back to the story of Genesis, suffering is part of the human condition; suffering is part of living outside the gates of Eden. And, as the first chapters of Job tell us, human suffering is random. Job’s suffering is random, Job was the first righteous and loyal man ha-Satan found. Yes, Job stood out from the crowd, but I suspect had ha-Satan continued looking he would have found others equally as righteous.
It is this part of the story that dispels the myth that faith equals a life of prosperity and ease. In Matthew, Jesus states, “For he (God) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” A reminder, that unlike Staples, the church is unable to give out easy buttons at Baptism. And even though I have wished it were different, at ordination, bishops hand out Bibles, not the magic wands clergy often feel they need to take away the pain of their suffering flocks.
So what is the point of faith if not to guard us against the perils of human suffering?
For me, it is more about assurance and hope. As Christians, we are blessed with the knowledge that we are loved by a God who has experienced human frailty and suffering. We are assured through the history of salvation that the world we live in is not the world God intended at the time of creation. And, as people of the risen Christ, we know life will be transformed.
John Dominick Crosson teaches that the appeal of the Christian message during ancient times was the vision of the Kingdom Jesus offered those who followed him. The vision Jesus offered the earliest followers assured them that there was an alternative to Roman oppression, a world where justice and righteousness was available to the masses and not just the few.
For us today, we live with the knowledge even if we may feel as if our lives were frozen at Good Friday, or stuck in the tomb of Holy Saturday, a new life, a new normal will soon burst forth. For we are an Easter people. We are a people of resurrection. We are not a people who believe God uses suffering to bring about grace. Instead, we know God transforms our suffering into something good. It is what allowed me to declare with confidence last year during my father’s illness to tell my brothers whether dad lived or died it would all be good. Our faith allows us, even at death, to sing alleluia and like Job to continue offering praise to God.
It is unfortunate, as the story of Job attests, faith in God does not provide access to the easy button of life, nor provide us a free pass from the suffering of this earth. Instead, we are assured that our pain and suffering is shared with a compassionate God, and the hope that our pain can be transformed and that a new life, a new normal, is just a day or two past the tomb.