Last week, we left our exploration of The Book of Job having learned two things.
The first thing we learned is that Job is a dissenting text that challenges the wisdom of received tradition, which declares that the relationship between God and humanity is a kind of contract; one in which, in return for being good and obeying the rules, human beings are guaranteed protection and a happy life. By way of contrast, Job declares that God and creation exist in a state of covenant that is nothing like a contract; and that this covenant involves a relationship in which an element of risk is decidedly present.
The second thing we learned is that Job portrays God, not as a cosmic tinkerer prepared to let human beings suffer in pursuit of some unfathomable purpose or end; rather, that God is as vulnerable and at risk as we are, precisely because God is prepared to place faith in humanity in order to make the covenant effective. In short, God is prepared to make God’s-self vulnerable to human nature, precisely because it is a relationship in which the risks run both ways.
Having had our attention drawn to these two important leitmotifs, both of which recur through the text, we come now to today’s reading from Job. But in order to explore this passage, we need to take account of what has gone before, because the Lectionary has left a large gap between this week’s and last week’s readings.
When we left off, Job had suffered a series a calamities, from the deaths of his children and servants, through the loss of all his wealth and property, to himself being inflicted with a horrible disease. In this state of extreme distress, three of Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – come to comfort him. For seven days, the three friends sit with Job in silence, doing nothing more than sharing his distress; and then, overwhelmed by his suffering, they begin at last to offer comfort and counsel.
Unfortunately, the words they speak, far from bringing relief to Job, only aggravate his torment. And that’s because the three friends share a retribution theology very much in keeping with the received wisdom which The Book of Job challenges. God, the friends counsel Job, does not punish or afflict the innocent and righteous; therefore, Job must have committed some sin in order to elicit these terrible outcomes. Let Job only confess his sin, put himself right with God, and all will be well again.
Now, this counsel, which is meant to comfort Job, is in fact, extremely galling. And that’s because Job agrees with his friends, he shares the same retribution theology they do. Job’s view of the relationship between God and humanity is that it is a contract, one in which God rewards righteousness with prosperity and happiness. And, by the same token, God does not punish the innocent, only the evil. The problem, however, is that Job knows that he is innocent, that he has done nothing wrong. By the terms of the retribution theology which Job shares with his friends, he should not be suffering all the calamities which he is experiencing.
And it is precisely because he shares the retribution theology of his friends that Job feels doubly afflicted: by the terrible suffering that he knows he has done nothing to deserve; and by the mistaken presumption of his friends, who assume he is guilty, when Job himself knows that he is not.
And so in the passages leading up to today’s reading, we have a long cycle of dialogues between Job and his friends, in which they insist with increasing stridency that he is guilty and needs to make amends; and in which he insists with growing bitterness that he is innocent and wrongly oppressed. Though they share the same theology and the same view of God’s relationship with humanity, Job and his friends end up talking past one another to their mutual confusion and frustration.
And it is in this absurd situation that we encounter one of the least understood aspects of Job: that, for much of its length, it is, in fact, a comedy. To be sure, it is dark, ironic, grim comedy, the kind of comedy that is summed up in the phrase “gallows humour”. But it is the very “comedy of misunderstanding” that we often find in many of the plays of the ancient world, in Shakespeare – and even in modernity.
Anyone who has seen the classic Abbott and Costello sketch Who’s On First? will know exactly what I’m talking about. In this sketch, these two great comedians do exactly what Job and his friends do: speaking the same language, the end up in a situation of mutual incomprehensibility. And, if you want to understand what is happening in much of Job, Who’s On First? is recommended viewing!
So – having reached this impasse, Job launches into the bitter lament that is the subject of today’s reading. And this lament consists in equal parts of Job complaining about the weight of God’s oppressive presence and of God’s terrifying absence. On the one hand, Job complains that God’s hand rests heavily upon him; a “hand” that might usefully be thought of as the burden of faith itself, of the difficulties which entering into relationship with God places in the path of human life. Job simply cannot do as he pleases; mindful of God – who is mindful of him – Job can only live within the constraints that relationship with God places upon him.
On the other hand, however, in the midst of his troubles, Job experiences the profound absence of God. It feels to Job that not only is God is not present to the fact of his innocence, God is neither before nor behind, neither to the left nor the right. God is nowhere to be found, just when Job needs God the most.
And yet, despite this, Job insists on his innocence; and insists that if only God could be presented with the facts, God would vindicate Job against the allegations of his friends. This rather judicial image of evidence being presented to God, and God weighing up that evidence and pronouncing judgement upon it, fits with the judicial setting established in last week’s reading. Just as the Satan challenged God in the heavenly court, so now Job is challenging what he regards as God’s violation of their relationship in the earthly court. This is entirely in keeping with the retribution theology that depicts God in judicial terms. Moreover, the “scandal” of Job daring to challenge God reflects the scandalous nature of Job as a dissenting text: the assumed authority of conventional wisdom was such that any questioning of its dictates was considered reprehensible. Job the character and Job the text both do the unthinkable: they question that which is believed to be beyond questioning.
So here we are presented with another comedic irony: Job the rebel is also Job the conventional thinker. Put another way, Job’s challenge to God is conducted from within the framework of conventional wisdom, from within his own understanding of God as one who only punishes the bad and the disobedient. Job is prepared to rebel against God precisely because he thinks that those who rebel against God ought to be punished; his sense of his own innocence, of one who has been obedient to God, pushes him into the position of being a rebel – if only to prove that he isn’t rebellious and isn’t therefore deserving of punishment!
But what does this irony point us to: what does it reveal about the nature of our relationship with God, or some of the assumptions we load upon that relationship?
The first is that when we speak with a confidence that is also a mask for ignorance, we invariably do an enormous amount of damage. And nowhere is this more true than in the realm of pastoral care. So often when confronted by the grief of others, we complain about not knowing what to say. But that not knowing is exactly the point: it directs us to the truth that, insofar as others’ suffering is concerned, often the best thing we can do is to say nothing. Job’s friends sit in solidarity with his grief for seven days without speaking a word; and in that seven days, they offer more solace than in all the discourse that follows.
Indeed, trouble only starts once they open their mouths. Job’s friends genuinely care for him; they genuinely want to help him overcome his suffering. But their good intentions are exactly the problem: because they come to Job with nothing more than good intentions, the theological assumptions that colour their good intentions only add to Job’s suffering; and part of the critique of conventional wisdom which Job makes is that it re-victimises people by making the “problem of suffering” a question of guilt or innocence. But what happens when the prosperity we are promised if we are good and obedient doesn’t arise? What happens if we are prosperous and happy one moment, and struck down by hardship and suffering the next? Does this mean that we are really wicked and sinful and deserve to be punished? What do we do when we know that we are not?
In other words, the comfort that Job’s friends seek to offer assumes that the experience of suffering indicates retribution for human sinfulness. But this assumption is an ignorant one; and it does more harm than good.
The second reality today’s reading reveals is the dark side of the notion of the “suffering innocent” – and what this says about our own assumptions when confronted by the suffering of others. Job knows that he has done nothing to warrant the calamities that have befallen him; indeed, the whole basis of his complaint to God is that were God to give him a fair hearing, God would have no option except to vindicate Job. But this knowledge of innocence, coupled with the experience of suffering, does not cause Job to re-visit his theology or revise his understanding of the relationship between God and creation; it only entrenches him in his stubborn insistence that he be found “not guilty”. In other words, Job’s declaration that he is a “suffering innocent” is a declaration, not of his righteousness, but of his self-righteousness.
That may seem like a harsh thing to say, but here’s the point: the notion of the “innocent” sufferer implies a notion of the “deserving” sufferer. In other words, every time we ask the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” what we are really asking is: “Why don’t bad things happen to bad people – why don’t bad things happen to the people who deserve to have bad things happen to them?”
Afterall, how often, when confronted by another’s misfortune, have we said or thought: Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person? How often have we said or thought: Well, they got their comeuppance, or They got their just deserts? The notion of the “innocent” sufferer springs from the same retribution theology that says God visits the wicked with death and destruction; and despite our denials to the contrary, every time we indulge in thoughts or words about “just deserts”, we reveal that retribution theology is as much a part of our understanding of God today as it was for the ancient Hebrews. It also reveals the unsettling truth that when many of us speak about justice, what we are really talking about is revenge.
But today’s reading from Job tells us that there is no such thing as the “innocent” or the “guilty” sufferer – there is only suffering. And it is to suffering that we must respond, not the assumed guilt or innocence of the one who suffers.
And so here we pause again, with these two confronting and perhaps disturbing insights. The first being that so often when we think we’re doing good, we’re doing harm; and the second being that we are more aligned to the retribution theology shared by Job and his friends than we perhaps think we are.
These are both insights that give us pause for thought, because they alert us to the uncritical and unchallenged assumptions that underpin much of our thinking and daily living. But inasmuch as they disturb us they also call us to action: to re-think all the things we take as a given or as obvious; and to proceed with our relationship with God and with one another on a basis that does a lot less assuming and a lot more listening and a lot more paying attention.
Wallace, Howard “Year B: Pentecost – Job 23: 1-9, 16-17”, located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryB/PentecostBJob23.html
©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.