October 7, 2018
We are going to be spending four weeks in the book of Job. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out why I might have seen Job in the lectionary readings and thought, “That’s what we need, four weeks about the most notorious sufferer in scripture.”
Most people are familiar with the basic plot of Job: Satan and God are hanging out and God says, “Hey, Satan, check out Job down there. He is good and righteous and loves me ever so much.” To which Satan replies, “Of course he loves you, you give him everything he could possibly want. He’s rich and healthy and has no reason to go against you.” And so a deal is made. A divine experiment. God allows Satan to take away Job’s stuff, and Job still remains faithful to God. Then God allows Satan to make Job sick, and Job still remains faithful. So God wins the divine bet and Job’s health and fortunes are restored.
This basic story of Job is found in chapters 1-2 and the last part of chapter 42. It is told in prose and reads like a common folktale: protagonist, antagonist, repeated speech patterns, and a simplistic moral summed up by Job in 1:21: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I’ll be preaching this week and the last week of the series on this folk tale; on the prose elements.
The intervening chapters, the majority of the book of Job, are written in poetry. Steve and Joe get to preach about this part of the book. Hebrew scholars will tell you that the poetry of Job is beautiful and linguistically sophisticated. Even reading the English translations you can tell the poetry takes us into a different realm from the prose. The Job of the poetry is not quite so resigned to his fate; the moral of the situation is not quite so simplistic; God’s character is complex and Satan never shows up again after chapter 2.
Satan is not even a proper noun in ancient Hebrew. “The satan” could be translated as “the adversary” or “the accuser” or “the obstacle.” In Job, Satan is simply a character that serves as an adversary and accuser against God. He is a plot device. Satan is not a character for his own sake; he is a mere tool for the author’s theological musings.
And these theological musings revolve around the age-old human question: Why do bad things happen to good people?
In the movie 50/50, when Adam, who is in his 20’s, is told he has cancer, he says: “That doesn’t make any sense though. I mean… I don’t smoke, I don’t drink… I recycle…”.
That’s it in a nutshell, right? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does a good and all powerful God let bad things happen to good people? This is theodicy—the question of suffering.
The generally accepted answer in Job’s culture was that bad things don’t happen to good people. If something bad happens to you, you can’t possibly be as good as you seem. This is the position Job’s friends take in their poetic speeches.
Obviously, this answer is problematic. Because if you believe that people only suffer as a consequence of their own personal sin, then there is no obligation to ease suffering. We simply heap guilt on top of their pain. We still see this perspective today.
A young black man is shot by police and people say:
- Why was he in that neighborhood anyway?
- He should have just done what the cop said.
- I heard he had gotten in trouble for drugs before.
A woman is sexually harassed or assaulted and people say:
- She was wearing a pretty skimpy outfit.
- How much had she been drinking?
- What was a nice girl like her doing at a party like that anyway?
Why do people suffer? One answer is that suffering is a result of the victim’s own personal sin. It’s a problematic answer, but oh so tempting. Because if suffering is a direct consequence of bad personal choices, then maybe I can avoid suffering myself. Maybe my good choices and righteous life will keep me safe from the evils of the world.
But of course they can’t. Even in Job’s day, when people said suffering was a result of personal sin, they knew it wasn’t always true. They knew that sometimes good people did suffer—despite their goodness.
Which is where Job comes in. The folktale prose of it—the beginning and end of the book—is not so much an answer to “Why do good people suffer?” as it is a condemnation for asking the question in the first place. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The complex poetic middle of the book, however, relishes the questions. The friends question Job. God questions humanity. Job questions God. No clear answer to the problem of suffering emerges, but it is clear that suffering is not always the result of personal sin. Sometimes bad things do, in fact, happen to good people.
While the question of why people suffer is at the heart of Job, there is another question I’ve been thinking about as I read these first two chapters this week.
I’ve been thinking about this question because our political system has systemically dismissed the voices of Christine Blassey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick. I’ve been thinking about this question because many public figures are expressing deep sympathy for an alleged sex offender and disdain for those who claim to be survivors of sexual assault. I’ve been thinking about this question when I hear about how scary it is to be a man these days. (And let’s face it, they mean “white man” because men of color have always been in danger of getting killed—by mobs or law enforcement, of being taken by ICE, of being screened and detained at airports.) White men are supposedly afraid of being falsely accused of sexual assault—which, to be fair, happens every once in a great great while. The true fear, I think, is the fear of being held accountable for sexual harassment and assault the men have actually done. The rate of unreported assault is much higher than the rate of false accusations. So there are a lot of white men suffering from fear right now, apparently, and it has made me think about this question.
And the biblical text itself makes me think of this question. The part of Job 1 we didn’t read is where Job loses everything: his children and servants are killed; his oxen and sheep and camels are destroyed or stolen. Then, at the end of this morning’s reading, we hear—for the first and last time—from a nameless woman: Job’s wife. A woman who has also lost her children, her servants, and her livestock. A woman who is quickly dismissed and belittled.
The question I’ve been thinking about is this: Whose suffering do we pay attention to?
The writers of Job, who were almost certainly men, paid attention to Job’s suffering, treating his wife as an expendable plot device. A foil allowing Job an opportunity for a pious speech: “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
The members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are also overwhelmingly men (19 of 22 of them), and many of these men paid a great deal of attention to Brett Kavanaugh’s suffering: how hard this all must be for him, how his life was being ruined. The suffering of his accusers was categorically dismissed by people on the committee and beyond—sometimes by claiming the accusations were false, and also by claiming that “it wasn’t that bad,” and “it was so long ago,” and “these things just happen.”
Whose suffering do we pay attention to?
When men—and people invested in men’s power—write the narrative, it is the suffering of men that matters. Powerful, wealthy men, of course. Not the children and certainly not the servants. But the Jobs of the world. Good men, rich men, who suffer unjustly and deserve our attention and pity.
Whose suffering do we pay attention to? Yesterday, tens of thousands of sexual assault survivors heard an answer loud and clear: not yours.
I should say, though, that I don’t think Congress is alone in neglecting the suffering of many who should be cared for. I think we are all inclined to pay attention to the suffering of people we identify with. Sometimes I turn on the radio mid-story and hear about a bombing or natural disaster. I note that my concern relaxes a bit if I learn that it is in another country. I’m not saying I like that about myself, but I notice it. It is, in many ways, natural to pay more attention to the suffering of people who are like us. And it is natural to attend to the suffering of those in power, because they have the resources to demand and reward such attention.
The book of Job reflects that natural tendency—we are instructed to care deeply for the suffering of Job while dismissing the suffering of his wife. But in this privileging of the rich man’s suffering, I think the writers of Job miss the mark.
It may seem strange for a preacher to stand here and tell you that a biblical writer got it wrong. But here is where I love being an Anabaptist. Because as Anabaptists, we have a Christo-centric view of scripture. That means that we believe Jesus is the most full and complete revelation of God that we have. Which means that all other scriptural teachings are held up against the life and teachings of Jesus.
So regarding the question I’ve been asking—Whose suffering do we pay attention to?—while Job suggests one thing, Jesus, in the Gospels, suggests something quite different. Because Jesus paid attention to women, to the poor, to foreigners, to outcasts. Jesus’ ministry was dedicated to paying attention to the suffering that those in power systemically ignored and belittled.
- Jesus heals servants, who are mere props for Job’s suffering.
- Jesus responds to the suffering of mothers, he doesn’t mock their pain.
- Jesus challenges the laws around divorce and adultery that disempower women. (O.K. Spoiler alert. Job does this a little bit at the end of the book.)
- Jesus heals the woman with the flow of blood and calls her “daughter.”
Jesus does not answer the question of why people suffer any more clearly than Job does. But Jesus does provide us with a different answer to the question of whose suffering we should pay attention to.
The ministry of Jesus challenges the human tendency to attend only to the suffering of those like us and to privilege the suffering of the powerful. Jesus recognizes, honors, and addresses the suffering of all people—particularly those most often neglected and dismissed.
From Jesus’ perspective, the suffering of Job’s wife matters. The suffering of people who have been sexually assaulted matters. If you are suffering in this political moment—feeling re-traumatized, angry, depressed, hopeless—your suffering matters.
We may never be able to adequately answer the question of why good people suffer. But Jesus gives an answer to what is, perhaps, the more important question: Whose suffering does God pay attention to?
The answer is: the suffering of the vulnerable, the outcast, the oppressed, the weak.
The answer is: Go not only pays attention to our suffering, but is present with us in our suffering.
Thanks be to God.