Why Do Bad Things Happen? The Book of Job
Homily: Yr B Proper 30, October 25 2015, St. Albans Church
Readings: The Book of Job
For the last four weeks our Old Testament readings have been from the Book of Job, one of the most challenging, profound and, I dare say, relevant books of the Bible. And so I want to spend some time this morning talking about the book of Job, though we will only scratch the surface.
I expect many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story. Once upon a time in a land far far away there was a man named Job, a very prosperous man with wealth and servants and many children. Now Job was a blameless and upright man who feared God, and God himself holds Job up as an example of righteousness. But Satan, not the devil, but an associate of God in God’s holy court, Satan suggests to God that the only reason that Job is so good and so religious is that he has been rewarded for it and is prosperous as a result. According to Satan, Job’s religion is nothing more than enlightened self-interest. But God disagrees and allows Satan to put Job to the test. And so Job is stripped of everything he has. His livestock are stolen; his servants are murdered; a house collapses and kills his children, and then Job himself is struck with painful and loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And so we find Job in misery, sitting in a heap of ashes, scraping his skin with a shard of pottery.
This initial prologue is intended to set up the main part of the story which is to follow. A couple of comments:
We know from the language that this is a fable or parable, and what we’ve heard so far is intended to set up what is to come. So we don’t really need to worry too much about the somewhat disturbing picture of God that we find in this introduction to the story, a God who is willing to ruin someone’s life in order to settle a dispute amongst the heavenly beings. That’s just the set-up needed to get us to Job on the ash heap. What we do need to know in order to continue with the story is, first, that Job is truly innocent, and second, that the suffering that has come upon him is, from Job’s perspective, extreme, undeserved and inexplicable.
The prologue also sets up the first question of the book of Job, and it might not be the one that you expect. The first question we encounter is this:
Does religion depend on a system of reward and punishment? Or to flip it around, if there was no system of reward and punishment, would humans still be faithful? Is religious behaviour no more than enlightened self-interest? Will Job, faced with his unjust suffering, curse God and die, as his wife suggests he should, or will he maintain his integrity and his faith in God?
We like systems of reward and punishment. Which of us has not cried out “that’s not fair” at some point in their life? An important theology of the Old Testament, the theology embraced by Job himself and by the friends that come to “comfort” him in his distress, is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. It is a theology of retributive justice, often associated with the book of Deuteronomy. Why do people suffer? According to this theology, suffering is due to sin.
But as Job found out, this theology of retributive justice doesn’t always fit the realities of life. Christianity has, mostly, but not completely, moved away from the idea of reward and punishment in this life. But systems of reward and punishment are persistent. And so, often the Christian tradition has replaced the notion of reward and punishment in this life with the notion of reward and punishment in the next life. Heaven and hell, with rules and requirements to determine which way you’re going. Baptism as an entry into heaven. Forgiveness dependent on confession and doing penance. Indulgences as a way of lessening time in purgatory. Or, more recently, the notion that you’re only going to get to heaven if “you accept Jesus as your personal saviour”.
Why are these systems of reward and punishment so persistent in our tradition? Why are they so attractive to so many of us? I think it’s because they’re very satisfying psychologically. They give us order. They give us power and control. If I know the rules and can comply with them, then I have power and control over my own destiny.
But there’s also a problem with this. Operating within a system of reward and punishment can lead to self-interest rather than authentic relationship. Do I truly love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength? Or is my faith nothing more than enlightened self-interest operating within a framework of reward and punishment?
Back to Job on the ash heap. When his world comes crashing down, when he suffers unjustly and his theology of reward and punishment is called into question what will he do? Will he curse God? No, despite all that has happened, Job maintains his faith in God. Tentative answer: yes there can be faith beyond reward and punishment. Yes, there is the possibility of authentic relationship with God.
But that’s not the question you’re most interested in, is it? The question that grabs most of us is the second question of the Book of Job: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all, to anyone? What do we do, what do we say about God in the midst of extreme, undeserved and unexplained suffering?
As Job is sitting on the ash heap, scraping his sores, he has three friends who come to visit him. And one by one, they start to explain what has happened to Job. They all operate out of this world view of retributive justice, that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. They tell Job that he must be responsible for his own downfall. They tell Job that he must have sinned and that he should examine himself and repent of his sin. And when Job insists that he is innocent, and that God is treating him unfairly, the friends take to defending God. In fact, the more that Job protests his innocence, the more his friends find that their own orderly worldview is threatened, and the more vicious become their attacks on Job. “Is not your wickedness great” his so-called friends tell him, in a desperate attempt to keep their own theology from falling into chaos.
Needless to say, Job’s friends are not very helpful. And so Job turns from talking about God with his companions to talking directly to God. We call this prayer. More specifically, we call this lament, the prayer of those who suffer, the prayer of those who scream out to God in anger, grief, pain and despair. It is as if Job is clinging to God with one hand and shaking his fist at him with the other. He holds onto God with a fierce faith, but refuses to let God off the hook for the inexplicable suffering that shadows our world.
And we learn something here: the better response to suffering is not theology but prayer. In the face of suffering, it is better to talk to God, than to talk about God.
Because we see that as Job laments, as he pours out his heart to God, there is movement. Job’s words change from wanting to die to crying out for justice. He wants to find God, to lay his case before him, and to prove to God that he is innocent.
And suddenly God answers Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know?
Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives
and make the ground put forth grass?
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook
or press down its tongue with a cord?
From its mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap out.
It is fascinating to me as a quantum physicist that there are two long sections in this poem about Behemoth and Leviathan, the two mythical monsters of ancient times that represented chaos and randomness. Because in recent times scientists have rediscovered just how important chaos and randomness are in our world. When you dig down deep to the sub-atomic level, there is no cause for individual events. Stuff happens randomly. Now, there are overall patterns and probabilities that make this world predictable in many ways. When I drop a pen, I can be confident that it will fall to the floor. But microscopic events, such as the genetic mutations that enabled the evolution of human beings but also generate cancer cells, these are random processes. For some reason that only God knows, God has created this universe as a world that is majestic and beautiful, a dynamic creation which allows for chaos and randomness within the limits set by God, enabling creation itself to be wild and free.
This is the world that God made and loves, a world that is beautiful and good and free and wild and grace-filled, a world much bigger than ourselves, a world that is not entirely safe for human beings, a world where good stuff happens and bad stuff happens.
When God speaks out of the whirlwind he does not answer Job’s questions. Instead he paints a picture and invites Job to live in this world.
And Job’s response is awe and wonder and he places his hand over his mouth.
Out of the whirlwind, God has broken Job’s world wide-open.
You see, Job used to feel that he was at the centre of the universe, prosperous, important, people sought him out, all of that stuff. But God has shown him that creation is not centred on Job, it’s not even centred on human beings, it’s much, much bigger.
And Job used to think he had everything figured out, that he knew the rules, that the righteous would be rewarded, the wicked would be punished and that if he could just play by the rules, he would remain in control of his own life. But God has shown him that the world is much wilder than that and that it is not nearly so safe and predictable as Job used to think.
But God showed Job one more thing as well. Even though Job is not as important as he thought he was and even though his life is not as safe and predictable as he thought it was and even though Job realizes that he comprehends much less than he thought he did, God has offered Job something much more valuable, and that is the possibility of living in authentic relationship with God.
Before, says Job, “I had heard about you” but now he says, “my eye sees you”.
And here, the transformation of Job is complete. His world has been broken open. He is still on the ash heap; he still has his sores, he still suffers. But he has moved from wanting to die, to crying out for justice, to being overwhelmed by awe and wonder, to the determination to live again.