God’s Answer to Job: Shut up! A sermon for Proper 24, Year B

 

Have you ever tried to cut a deal with God? Have you ever been in a situation where things looked grim and you said to yourself (and to God), If you get me out of this, or if you heal my loved one, then I’ll (fill in the blank). How did that work out for you? Did God come through for you? If so, did you follow through with your side of the bargain? Continue reading

Consider your servant Job: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 22, Year B

This week’s readings are here.

One of the great problems with the lectionary is that its editors had to pick and choose texts and inevitably were able to include only portions of important works. That was a problem with last week’s reading drawn from the book of Esther. The same is true this week as we move into another book from the Hebrew Bible, Job. We will have a total of four readings from the book: this one, from the first and second chapter that sets up the problem. Later readings will introduce us to Job’s challenge of God; essentially Job puts God on trial. Later we will hear God’s response to Job’s case for the prosecution and finally we will hear how it all ends up (Job is richer than ever). Omitted are lengthy speeches from Job and Job’s friends that raise questions about divine justice and theodicy (why bad things happen to good people) as well as the initial tragedies that befall Job’s family.

This brief introduction to the book fails to do justice either to its literary genius or its theological depth. A careful reading of the whole book is most rewarding and brings a profound challenge to the complacency of our faith. It also helps to overcome the image of Job in popular culture—the patience of Job is a trope, but in fact the Job of scripture is not patient at all, nor does he suffer silently. He demands that God explains why suffering has come upon him.

In this week’s reading, we have the second of two encounters of God with “The Satan.” The portrayal of the Satan in the text is curious. In chapter 1, he seems to be a member of God’s heavenly court and it’s almost as if God and Satan have made a bet (“Have you considered my servant Job?”). God draws Satan’s attention to Job as a righteous man, and Satan responds by saying that Job is righteous only because he’s had it easy. So God responds to the challenge by allowing Satan to test Job, giving him power to take away all that Job has, and in chapter 2, to afflict Job himself, but forbidding him to take his life. Job is left with nothing, riddled with disease, and still he does not curse God.

The book’s answers, such as they are, will come later, in God’s response to Job. In fact, the book’s fundamental question remains unanswered and remains one of humanity’s most basic questions, asked every time there is a natural disaster, or when illness or death comes to a loved one. We want life to make sense, we want the world to make sense, but too often, it all seems meaningless. But as the Burial Office says,

“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Making Meaning out of Mayhem

It’s been a few weeks since the tragedy in Tucson and the initial frenzy to place blame has given way to some more sober reflection and thoughtful attempts to place the events that Saturday in a larger context.

I came across this essay today by Rochelle Gurstein. Riffing off of the coincidence that Christina Green was born on 9/11, Gurstein puzzles over various attempts to make sense of it all.

The horrific mass shooting, I am supposed to tell myself, was nothing more than the act of a lunatic, signifying nothing, utterly absurd. And this is how Representative Giffords’s forum with its homey name, “Congress on Your Corner,” that terror-filled Saturday morning is starting to feel, now that providence, fate, and finally, cause-and-effect relationships have lost their powers of elucidation. All we are left with is the standard, all-service, therapeutic explanation of mental illness…

Gurstein resists the attempts to make some connection between the coincidence of Christina’s birth, observing that had she grown up and gone into politics, that might have provided an context or explanation for her life choices. She also is critical of efforts on left and right to connect the events in Tucson with political rhetoric or violence in the media. At the end of the article, she even opposes the desire of Christina’s father to grasp some larger meaning from the donation of her organs.

Gurstein’s ruminations are challenging, especially in light of the universal human effort to make meaning out of life and out of events. And it offers an interesting perspective from which to examine another exchange, this one between Mark Ralls and Melinda Hellenberg. Hellenberg, writing in Politics Daily, argues that Christians should not label mental illness as evil:

Yet it’s the Christian underpinnings of my view of evil, in a world in which we do have free will, and sin, which in all cases involves a choice, that makes it impossible for me to ever see those who suffer from schizophrenia as an embodiment of moral evil. We don’t know for sure that Loughner has schizophrenia, though his paranoia and references to “mind control” are classic markers. But those who are so afflicted haven’t chosen their delusions and hallucinations; a stand-out even in the pantheon of dreadful diseases, theirs is an illness no one would choose.

I found her analysis somehow wrong, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I read Mark Ralls. Building on the Augustinian notion of evil as a privation of the good, Ralls articulates the conception of evil as a “tear in the fabric of creation.” He goes on to point out that in Loughner’s fascination with nihilism. Then he shifts to an observation about our culture’s embrace of nothingness:

Consider something as silly – and seemingly harmless — as “Reality TV.” Shows like “The Jersey Shore” not only make light of terrible life choices. They glorify the wasted life. They propagate the cultural myth that our lives lack purpose. As Christians fail to counter this myth with prophetic utterance and interceding prayer, we are complicit in the cultivation of troubled young hearts and minds.

With Ralls, I agree that naming evil is among the most important tasks of Christian theologians and communities; to name it, not only in the choices of individuals, but in structures and institutions like inadequate mental health. He concludes:

Melinda Henneberger is right. We must not personify evil and casually ascribe it to someone else. Yet Barack Obama is more right. We must dare to speak of evil when we encounter it. Otherwise, we have no chance of recognizing it when it comes to “sleep in our bed, to eat at our table.”

Reading the three essays together is an instructive lesson in theodicy.

More on God and Haiti

It’s inevitable that questions of theodicy arise when natural disasters occur. The problem of suffering may be one of the oldest and most intractable problems in all of human thought. It certainly is a concern in Christian theology (and all monotheistic religions; polytheism tends to come up with better answers to the problem). The Book of Job and Ecclesiastes both struggle with suffering, although in different ways.

Theological pronouncements on why this or that happened are inevitable. Seldom are they as crass as that of Pat Robertson’s, but to be satisfied with “It’s God’s will” is no better. Philosophers distinguish between natural evil, such as earthquakes, and moral evil, that brought on by human activity or human will. We can explain an earthquake scientifically; what we can’t explain is why now, and why such devastation. Yet the human spirit wants to make sense of such events, to claim that life and natural events have meaning, especially in the face of what seems like meaninglessness.

I’m intrigued by the way people use such tragedies, to reinforce their own religious or political ideas, their own world views. It’s as if the desire to make meaning becomes even stronger at times like this.

But I’m also beginning to become rather annoyed with the inevitable “Where’s God in all this?” that comes from more progressive religious voices. They too want such events to have meaning, or at least, to be teachable moments. I’m just not sure such answers are more satisfactory in the end than the simple, “It’s God’s will.” Sometimes I think the least productive thing we can do is try to make sense of natural disasters like Haiti. Sometimes, the answer might be, like Candide’s was “let’s cultivate our own garden;” or in this case, let’s raise some money for Haiti relief.