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Law and Order: Biblical Victims Unit

I promised in my sermon last week that I would preach on Job this week, so I felt honor-bound to do it.  Job is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Bible, ever since I took an entire class in undergrad on it.  (The professor of which now lives in Ithaca, which means I really, definitely, needed to get all my exegesis correct, lest she find out somehow I mistranslated some Hebrew and come find me.) 

I am thankful, daily, for my decision at 18 to study Religious Studies in undergrad.  My college was a secular one, so my classes didn’t have a theology bent, so much as they approached religious traditions through the lenses of sociology, history, psychology, language, and anything else you could reasonably apply.  It was glorious–it felt like candy for my brain.  But I do recall receiving the advice from several well-meaning advisors at the time to never mention anything I learned in college from the pulpit “because it will just upset and confuse people.”  

But for me, learning all this helped my faith make sense in ways it hadn’t before.  It brought the Bible to life the way no amount of purely-faith based studying had, because for the first time, I could catch a glimpse of those before me who had heard these stories and been transformed by them, and perhaps even those who had told these stories before they even had language to write them.  For me, to paraphrase the very smart Rev. Winnie Varghese, biblical criticism brought me to a deeper faith.

So this week, I went headfirst into the book of Job as a whole, and also compared ha-satan to Sam Waterston, which is perhaps my proudest homiletical moment to date.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 14, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 23

Job 23

As I promised last week—look, Job is still here!  (and will be here through next week, too!) So—here it is, the long awaited explanation of What Is Up with Job?  Because sadly, I cannot address the issue of why we only discuss Esther for one week every three years, and Ruth one week every three years, but Job for three weeks every year.  Such mysteries are too high for me.

Job is, on its face, a simple story.  It starts out much like a folk tale.  Once upon a time!  There was a guy named Job! Job, we are told, was perfect.  Did nothing wrong.  And the way the narrative tells us this, it seems best to take this as a given, the way we assume that of course Snow White was the fairest in the land.  He just was.  

But right away in the story, this trait gets Job into trouble and lo, as God is hanging out with Satan one day, they decide to pick on Job because he is being so perfect.   That was the reading we got last week. 

Now, right away this seems bananas—why on earth are God and Satan friends now? 

So it might help you to know, for context, that in Jewish cosmology, during the time of the Babylonian exile—so, right around the time that anyone Jewish would have been writing stories taking place in Uz, heaven was thought to be a courtroom.  And we actually see this in a lot of the prophetic literature.  God was the judge, the angels are the jury, and there is a figure who argues the opposing side, called The Adversary, or in Hebrew—the Satan.  Ha-Satan was not evil personified—just a figure whose job it was to hold humanity accountable before God, and report on stuff.  

Now, over time, maybe a few centuries, and a Hellenistic culture with a Greek god of the underworld who does really adversarial things, then ha-Satan turns into the embodiment of all that rebels against God.  But right now?  In this story?  We’re no where near that.  

So, God, the judge, and ha-Satan (again, basically the Sam Waterston of heaven, here) 

decide to give Job a test of faith: take away all his riches, his cattle and even his family, and see whether he will still praise God and do the right thing.  

He does, so Satan proposes taking it one step further—why not attack Job himself, and make him ill?  Now, Job is really suffering, but still, he holds to his faith in God, and the text says—Job did not sin with his lips.

Up until this part, scholars are generally of the opinion that this is a standard folk tale.  But what follows after—the back and forth with his friends, and Job’s considerable ranting—that appears to have been inserted somewhat later.  If only because you can make a pretty good case that some of the things Job will later end up saying today DO sound pretty faithless.

The main part of the book is a long conversation wherein Job’s 4 friends attempt to explain to him why all his suffering is His Fault.  God is just, they explain, and so you must have done something to deserve these repeated tragedies that are occurring.  They take turns, and wax eloquent, but their point is the same; God is good, God is just, therefore, you must deserve this suffering.

Meanwhile—we (and Job) know that this isn’t true.  According to the ground rules of our Folk Tale World—Job is perfect.  Job hasn’t screwed up.  So besides being really awful pastoral care (really. Don’t do this.) it’s flatly untrue. And so each time his friends try to shame and guilt him into confessing to some supposed sin, Job gets more and more angry with God, at times sarcastic, at times petulant, at times furious—for making him to suffer like this. He parodies a psalm, and taunts God.  He mocks his friends.  And all the while, he demands, pleads, begs with God to appear and explain himself.  The famous verses “I know that my redeemer liveth” are a declaration from Job that even if he dies, and rots away in the earth, still somehow he will confront God to demand an accounting of what has happened to him.  

The question of Job is really about who God is, and what faith looks like.  What does it mean to say that God is good when bad things keep happening in our world?  What does it mean to say that God is just, when tragedy strikes?  How do faithful people act in the midst of all this uncertainty?  

Job’s friends—and I would posit that a lot of religious people through the ages—clearly think that the only way to be faithful to a good and just God in a world that also has tragedy, is to try to defend God.  This all must be our fault!  We deserve this suffering—God must be punishing us deservedly.  Because surely a good God would create an ordered universe where the good are rewarded, and the bad are punished.  So, to have faith in a good God means to defend the notion of a perfectly ordered universe as well.  But that is not the question Job is asking.  Job doesn’t care ultimately about whether the universe is just; that question, for him, is settled.  His question is where God is in an uncertain universe. 

After all, it should surprise no one that the world isn’t always fair.  People who do the right thing don’t always prosper, and people who do the wrong thing sometimes get away with it scot free.  The undeserving suffer all the time—this is the nature of the broken world we inhabit.  

And yet, still the voice of faith insists that God, the creator of all that is, is just, wills our good, and loves creation dearly.  And so, if we aren’t going to lecture those in the midst of tragedy about their many sins that brought this upon them, how do we hold these two ideas together? 

We haven’t talked about how Job ends.  At the end of the book, in the midst of all this passive-aggressive pastoral care from his friends, and his own frustration, Job gets his wish.  God himself appears.  He doesn’t quite explain himself, but God still shows up and wants to know WHO EXACTLY IS TALKING ABOUT HIM.  God gives this immense speech about creating the universe, harnessing the powers of chaos, channeling the sea monsters in the deeps.

Job’s friends disappear—we don’t hear from them again—, and Job confesses himself utterly overwhelmed, and humbled, to be faced with the Creator of the Cosmos.  And pronounces himself satisfied.  

For Job, faithfulness was not maintaining an ordered universe; what Job wanted was a relationship—an enduring relationship with the God whom he had promised to follow.  Even in an uncertain, and clearly, unfair! universe, Job is comforted that the God who teaches him right and wrong also cares enough about him personally to attend personally to his suffering.  When his friends would not.  Job just wanted that good, loving, and just God to show up and validate his suffering, affirm that indeed, he, Job, was loved, and worthy, and important, and recognized.  By the one who ordered the stars of night, and confined the chaos of the oceans.  

When we say that God is good, and just, and loving—all of that is true, and it is reflected in this moment here—where God shows up.  (NOT UNLIKE THE INCARNATION, REALLY).  Because here is a God, in all sublime overwhelming power and majesty, who is loving enough and just enough to be attentive to and care about the individual experiences and concerns and tragedies of us.  Even in an utterly chaotic and uncertain world.  We have a God that shows up.  Even when we humans can’t figure out how to do it.  

God shows up to be with us, in our moments of sadness and joy.  God shows up in our moments of triumph and despair.  God even shows up when we’ve been yelling at God in frustration and anger for the past 33 chapters. God shows up in the person of Jesus to show us how to show up for each other.  When we see suffering in the world, then, perhaps our question should not be “why is this happening to them?” but “how can we show up?” Because our God shows up for us, and so we are a people of showing up.

Amen.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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