There is apparently a saying of Sri Lankan origin that declares: Conversation is a ladder for a journey. And for the last few weeks we have been on a journey as, through the pages of this text we now know as The Book of Job, we have explored three different conversations: one between God and the Satan; another between Job and his friends; and, finally, one between God and Job. And through each of those conversations, we have learned something different: we have learned that God is not who we often think God is; we have learned that wisdom is not what it often purports to be; and we have learned that the life of faith is most certainly not what that wisdom often tells us it is. In other words, nothing is what we think it is: for beyond the trite and superficial, beyond the security of simplistic answers, lies an entire universe of complexity and depth. Part of that complexity involves an element of danger; but part of it is also the richness and fullness of being that comes from encounter, from the transformative possibilities of relationship.
In today’s reading, we come to the conclusion of the transformative journey on which Job himself has been engaged. He started out as one who was sure of his understanding, established in the dictates of the received wisdom by which his worldview was informed. Through tragedy, he has the foundations of that worldview not merely shaken, but swept away altogether. This is followed by his entanglement in a long, tragi-comic dialogue of mutual misunderstanding with his friends, through which Job is engulfed by both despair and an overwhelming sense of his own victimhood. Finally, God reveals to Job the paucity of his understanding, the fact that his so-called wisdom is simply a tissue of untested assumptions that fall apart at the first shock.
But where does that leave him? We might think in a position of abject surrender to the power and majesty of God; but that would be a misunderstanding. Last week we discussed how Job’s reaction to God’s revelation was not a fearful grovelling before an overwhelming deity, but a realisation that revelation is not the same as having all our questions answered or all our demands met. On the contrary, revelation is that form of encounter with God that changes the whole basis of our being, so that we ask different questions and come to know different demands on and through life.
All of which is a roundabout way of cautioning that when we read Job declaring therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes, we need to be aware that things are not what they seem. Job was written in a scholarly form of ancient Hebrew that is extremely difficult to translate; many of its passages are not only obscure, they are actually untranslatable. Thus, for example, in the famous passage in Chapter 19 in which Job declares I know that my Redeemer lives, not only is the “Redeemer” to whom Job refers not God but the fact of his innocence, it is quite possible that this passage actually reads I would rather be redeemed while still alive. And so in the same vein, many scholars believe that in today’s passage what Job actually says is something like I despise my complaints and repent of dust and ashes.
In other words, Job has come to not only understand the paucity of the retribution theology that formerly underpinned his world view, and which formed the basis of his complaint against God, he has also come to repudiate it. And the basis of his repudiation is that he has come to realise how inhuman that theology is, how utterly unjust it is. In Job’s obsession with his own innocence, in his demand for his own vindication, he has become utterly self-obsessed. But by the end of his encounter with God, he has come to realise that, in the days of his so-called wisdom, he has behaved toward others exactly as his friends have behaved toward him: perhaps with the best of intentions, but also convinced of other people’s guilt and their need to repent. In just the same way that Job’s human dignity was violated by the assumptions of his friends, so he now understands that he has violated the dignity of others in the midst of their suffering. For if we understand that the notion of the “innocent sufferer” is in truth a form of retribution theology (inasmuch as it implies the notion of the “deserving sufferer” and our secret delight in their suffering), so we understand that justice is not a matter of vindicating the innocence or otherwise of the sufferer – especially when it is we who are suffering. We understand instead that justice is an issue of whether or not we honour the humanity which suffers, whether or not we journey and companion people in their suffering, rather than trying to fix that suffering through spurious advice or dramatic intervention. Which is not to say we ought not offer help or render aid; rather, that help and aid must be part of our journeying with others, part of our relational companioning – not an exercise of our own righteousness, or of our presumption of knowing the answers to life’s problems.
Which brings us to the final revelation of all: the one revelation about Job that so many people misunderstand: namely, that Job is not “about” suffering, it does not seek to answer the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Rather, Job asks: How do all our theologies and philosophies and worldviews, how do all our understandings about creation and our relationship with God and with one another – how do these frameworks respond to the reality of suffering? Do they honour the humanity that suffers? Or do they inflict more suffering? Do they cause injustice by adding to the pain of the one who suffers?
And it is this which ultimately Job repudiates: a theological framework that adds to human suffering. And it is in this vein that we must also repudiate any suggestion that the conclusion of Job represents a fairy-tale ending: that Job, having suffered, gets everything put back the way it was before and lives happily ever after. And the reason we must repudiate this interpretation of the text is that it is profoundly inhuman, just like the retribution theology upon which Job had previously based his entire moral reasoning. Job does not get back everything he had before; he is not rewarded for his piety or compensated for his suffering. His dead children and servants are not restored to life; his lost wealth is not returned to him. The memory of his suffering is not removed from his mind as though it never happened.
Because what happens is that Job is restored to life and abundance. And restoration is not compensation or “making up for” what has gone before. Restoration is a return to hope, a return to the abundance of life. It is a return of the sense that life has possibilities beyond the context of our immediate experience. To suggest that Job is compensated for his suffering is monstrous: it implies that suffering is a mere test, a pass grade for which will open the doors to all our heart’s desires. But what restoration implies is an honouring of the humanity that suffers: it acknowledges the truth and the reality of our lived experience; but it also says that experience is not the be all and end all of our humanity. It says there is more to being human than the mere sum of our parts.
Job’s decision to repudiate his inhuman retribution theology and the misery into which it has led him, restores him to life, and to the hope which life contains. The text depicts that restoration in material terms; but we need not read this in a strictly literal sense. What is being imaged here is the fullness and abundance of life, not of material privilege and comfort. Job’s repudiation of retribution theology, and its attendant self-obsessive fixation on vindication, opens him up to relationship, opens him up to the possibility of life’s fullness through engagement with others. And, ultimately, to that absolute fullness that is available through relationship with God.
The magnitude of the restoration depicted in Job is an expression of the possibilities available through relationship with God. These are possibilities which do not promise us an easy ride through life; they do not promise us an absence of suffering or sorrow. They do not promise that all our questions will be answered or that all our demands will be fulfilled – despite the fact that the way Christians often present themselves to the world indicates this will, in fact, occur!
On the contrary, in many ways faith will simply make our lives more difficult, precisely because the possibility of God in human life raises more questions than it answers. But faith will also make our lives richer, because in that complexity and uncertainty and danger there lurks the very presence of God, companioning us, journeying with us, offering us a compassion and a love that do not come with strings attached, that are not an expression of hubris or self-righteous conceit.
But if we are to access this possibility, this presence, then we must pay attention. Not to the demands of our wish fulfilment, nor to the assumption that we know or understand. Rather, we have to pay attention to the demands of faith itself, because faith is not merely a matter of believing certain things or attending a certain church or thinking that what we learned in Sunday School is sufficient to get us through the rest of life. Rather, faith is a life-long process with which we must be continually engaged; and the moment we stop that engagement, the moment we think we know or understand, that is the moment our faith dies; that is the moment the possibilities dry up, when the hope of restoration fades.
Conversation is a ladder for a journey. And in that sense, faith is a conversation that takes us on a journey over the whole course of life. And it has many “Job moments” when we are confronted, not by inexplicable mysteries, but by the limitations which our own assumptions impose upon us. It has many “Job moments” when we are confronted, not by the question of why do we suffer, but the question of how do we respond to suffering? It has many “Job moments” when we are called upon to repudiate some of our most treasured convictions for the sake of new hope and new possibilities. These are all moments of potentially painful transition: but beyond this lies the possibility, not of getting what we want as a pay-off for suffering, but of entering into the fullness of life that exists notwithstanding the reality of suffering.
And so we have come to the end of a journey: our exploration of Job. But like all journeys with God and Scripture, this one never really ends. For there will be times when we have to go back to this difficult, frustrating, elusive, but ultimately insightful and illuminating text. There will be times when we have to go back and re-learn its lessons, or look upon those lessons with fresh eyes and changed perspectives. There will be times when, like Job, we will need to argue with God; and there will be times when, perhaps, God will need to come to us out of some whirlwind of our experience to teach us anew and change us anew. Regardless of how or under what circumstances our future exploration occurs, we will need to remember that Job is the story of a journey, from closed certainty to an openness to transformation. And it is this openness to transformation that ultimately fills Job’s life with the abundance and hope of renewal; and this is an abundance and a hope we, too, can embrace, provided we are open to change, provided we are prepared to let God speaks God’s transformative word to our hearts.
Campbell SJ, Antony F., God and Bible: Exploring Stories From Genesis to Job. New York: Paulist Press, 2008.
Coogan, Michael D. (ed.), The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version With Apocrypha. Fourth Revised Edition. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
Crystal, David (ed.), As They Say In Zanzibar: Proverbial Wisdom From Around The World. London: HarperCollins, 2006.
Kushner, Harold S., When Bad Things Happen To Good People. London: Pan Books, 1981.
Wallace, Howard, “Year B: Pentecost – Job 42: 1-6, 10-17”, located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryB/PentecostBJob42.html
 Job 19:25
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