Saturday, October 24, 2015

Talking Back to God: Reflections on Job 42.1-6 (RCL Proper 30B, 25 October 2015)

Pentecost 22
RCL Proper 30B

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

         Whenever a non-religious person debates a religious person, one question almost always surfaces:  If you believe that God exists and that God is good, then why is there evil?  If religious people are honest, then we have to admit that the question is a valid one.  It’s a valid question because it is a question religious people have been asking since the first human intuited that there was something or someone beyond us.

         About the time I was ordained, a more experienced Jewish rabbi wrote of his own experience.  Rabbi Harold Kushner’s first child, Aaron, was diagnosed with progeria, a mysterious condition, that causes children to age rapidly.  Few survive beyond adolescent.  Rabbi Kushner wrote about his own struggle to understand why his son was afflicted and his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is still read by many, so popular that anyone can obtain it as an e-book.

         I remember well those first few years of ordained ministry and the many occasions when I asked this question myself.  Why was the mother of three young children struck by a mysterious disease that defied both diagnosis and treatment?  Why was an energetic teenager killed by a cancerous tumour that actually fed on the young man’s own growth hormones?  Why was the father of a young family hit by a flu-like disease that threatened to render him homebound for the rest of his life?

         But these questions were no more difficult than their opposites.  Why did cardiac surgeons discover that the man upon they were about to operate no longer needed a quadruple bypass, in fact, need no surgery at all?  And why was this discovered just two days after I had laid my hands on the man and prayed for God’s healing touch to be upon him?

         I am also certain that I am not alone.  No doubt you have confronted your own times of doubt and tragedy when someone you love or know, a good person, has suffered.  If God is good, if God is just, if God has a plan for us, then why do the evil prosper and the good suffer?

         More than twenty-five hundred years ago, someone took a popular fable that sought to answer our questions and re-worked it to describe the reality of the human condition.  The editor took a fable about a man who is put to the test by God, losing everyone and everything he has.  But this man, Job, in the original fable, refuses to blame God or even to question God, so God rewards Job by giving him more than he had before.  The moral of the story is, ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed is the name of the Lord.’

         But our writer was not satisfied with this convenient ending.  After all, the writer had seen the people of Israel defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile.  Even before the exile, the writer had witnessed that the rich get richer and the poor poorer.  So he re-worked the fable and added a series of dialogues between Job and some ‘friends’ who tried to convince Job that he must have done something to deserve the evils that had befallen him.  Job vigourously defends his life and even challenges God to defend the actions taken against Job.

         Finally God shows up.  Although God’s speeches are memorable and even majestic, there is just one small problem:  God never explains or apologizes for what has happened to Job.  Finally, in words that are frequently misinterpreted by people of faith, Job gives up:  “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . . Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand . . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” [i]

         Job’s words seem to be a surrender, an apology for failing to accept that God can do whatever God pleases and human beings must simply accept the mysterious and seemingly capricious actions of God.  But Job’s words can also be read as ‘I reject ever having been sorry; I regret the dust and ashes I have taken upon myself’. [ii]  Job’s final words are words of defiance and God cannot answer. 

         Far from being a simple parable of patient suffering that is eventually rewarded with the restoration of everything that has been lost, the book of Job seeks to answer questions of fundamental religious importance.

  • What is the motivation for religious piety?
  • What is the meaning of suffering?
  • What is the nature of God?
  • What is the place of justice in the world?
  • What is the relationship of order and chaos in God’s design of creation? [iii]

         Because of Saint Faith’s Day and Thanksgiving Sunday we have not heard several parts of this important biblical struggle.  But this biblical struggle is perhaps one of the most important for any person who claims to be a person of faith or any person seeking to become one.

         I decided long ago that I cannot explain God.  I cannot explain why the evil prosper and the good suffer.  I cannot explain why tyrants force thousands of people, millions of people, to flee their homes and risk their lives attempting to find places of refuge.  I cannot explain why one person is cured of her or his disease and another is not.  Nor do I think that this is my responsibility.  Like Job I know the silence of God.

         But this silence is neither absolute nor an obstacle to faith in the living God.  Even in the midst of suffering I have witnessed integrity and courage, selflessness and perseverance.  Whether they are people of faith or not, I have seen how good people refuse to allow evil, in whatever form it takes, to define them nor to turn them aside from doing what must be done so that all God’s children may be free and enjoy the fullness of life.

         Perhaps no one expresses our faith more clearly than Paul in his letter to the Romans:  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved.  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” [iv]

         But waiting in patience does not mean waiting in passivity.  Even as we await the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation, we persevere in resisting evil, we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.  And, in our prayers, we continue to hold God to account.  Like the wonderful widow of Luke’s gospel, who wears out a judge in demanding justice, we remind God, Sunday after Sunday, day after day, that promises have been made.

         Don’t worry.  God can handle it if we dare to talk back a little bit.  After all, religious people have been doing it for millennia.  And, dare I say, there are signs from time to time that our talking back has done some good.

[i] Job 42.2, 3b, 5-6.

[ii] Note on Job 42.1-6 in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003).

[iii] Carol A. Newsom, ‘The Book of Job’ in The New Interpreter’s Bible (1996) IV: 319.

[iv] Romans 8.19, 21-24a, 25.

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