The Complaint Department is Open (for a Limited Time): Lessons from Job of the Bible (sermon)

preached today at Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsfield, MA

Reading One: Excerpts from Messengers of God by Elie Wiesel, chapter on Job

Once upon a time…When? Nobody knows. His name is mentioned by Ezekiel in passing, along witImageh those of Noah and Daniel – was he a contemporary of one or the other? Possibly. Other legends link him alternately to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Ahasuerus and…the Babylonian exile. He would thus have lived not just two hundred and ten years but more than eight hundred.

Strange, he who knew no other land but his own – that of legend – seems to have lived in all of them; he who perhaps was never born, seems to have achieved immortality….Records of his birth seem to proliferate. Though stateless, he belonged to more than one nation, to more than one era. He defies geography and chronology. Was he Jewish – the first world citizen? Possibly, though it is far from certain. More than likely he was not; many texts stress his character traits, his good deeds which make him into a Just Man or a prophet “among the Gentiles.”…

Whenever we attempt to tell our own story, we transmit his. The opposite is true also: those of his legends we presumed invented, we lived through; those of his words we though illusory, proved to be true;…In him we find the solitary conscience of Abraham, the fearful conscience of Isaac, the torn conscience of Jacob. Whever the Midrash runs short of examples, it quotes Job, no matter the topic – and it is always pertinent.

 

 Reading Two from Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch AlbomImage

Remember the Book of Job?

“From the Bible?”

Right. Job is a good man, but God makes him suffer. To test his faith.

“I remember.”

Takes away everything he has, his house, his money, his family…

“His health.”

Makes him sick.

“To test his faith.”

Right. To test his faith. So I’m wondering…

“What are you wondering?”

What you think about that?

Morrie coughs violently. His hands quiver as he drops them by his side.

“I think,” he says, smiling, “God overdid it.”

 

Sermon

I spend a lot of time thinking about suffering. It used to be that I spent a fair amount of time thinking about my own personal suffering, but thankfully, that level of self-referentiality has diminished. I do think pretty constantly about others’ suffering, about suffering of my friends – a fellow seminarian, my age, three children, the youngest five years old, dead from breast cancer found while she was breastfeeding her youngest; a 17-year-old friend of my daughter, diagnosed with permanent and full vision loss in one eye — and the sufferings of those unknown to me – those in battle-torn Syria and fear-infused Ukraine; gay people – men, mostly – being actively persecuted in Nigeria, killed in Uganda; the immigrant DREAMERS waiting, waiting, waiting to give back fully to the nation they call home.

Since I have been thinking about suffering, and about undeserved suffering, I have been thinking about Job of the Bible.

I thought I knew the story of Job. It turns out, there are many stories of Job. The Book of Job is in the Hebrew Scriptures, which means it is also part of the Christian Bible. Job is also part of the Qu’ran, though not in the narrative form familiar to most of us. The Book of Job lends itself to so many interpretations and that is the reason why Elie Wiesel describes it as “always pertinent” no matter what topic that rabbis are commenting on when writing their midrash. There’s something in Job for everyone.

Just to make sure that we are all on the same page with regards to these stories of Job, I offer my summary:

God wagers with the Adversary (called Satan in many Christian traditions, but in the original Hebrew, it’s “ha’satan” which means “the” satan, which was more of a role –like an accuser or adversary — than a proper name) that Job, being a man of utter purity and integrity, a real “upright” (that’s the term in the Bible) will not curse him, no matter happens. So this Adversary first destroys all Job’s property, farm animals, and kills all his children.   Job does not curse God. So the Adversary brings lesions to Job’s skin, takes away his health, brings him pain. Still Job does not curse God. Job, in his suffering and poverty, sitting on a heap of ashes, is approached by long-time friends. After a gentle week of silence, each explains that if Job is suffering, it must be because he has done something wrong. Of this they are utterly sure. This is the origin of the adage, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” Finding these friends “miserable consolers,” Job wishes to air his complaint to God directly, knowing that such a request is nearly blasphemous. God appears before Job to hear his complaint. However, God does not address Job’s basic question about justice and suffering. Instead, God – quite beautifully and eloquently, these passages are so poetically rendered – speaks of God’s great and mysterious powers. God even mocks Job, who, in his complaint, seems so arrogant as to question the ways of God.

The Book of Job has 42 chapters. The first two and the last are written in prose. The large middle is written in verse – in poetry. This is very important. Because it is widely believed that those three chapters – the firstImage two and the last – were written by one source at one point in time and that the poetry was written not only by a different source, but possibly by someone whose message was quite different, a message perhaps not only different, but contrary to the prevailing theological belief of the time.

There are generally two words that are associated with Job: suffering and patience. Particularly from a Christian and Muslim perspective, patience is the virtue for which Job is depicted as being rewarded: his patience during his innocent suffering. If we put those three prose chapters together, we find an intact message that supports the general idea of patience in the face of unjust suffering. However, when we attend to the poetic dialogue between Job and his friends, and between Job and God, the moral of the story shifts.

What is the theology of retribution? What does it look like today? It’s that moment when something bad happens to you – you get not only one parking ticket, but two on the same day. It’s when one hurricane comes calling and as if that’s not bad enough, it’s followed by a Nor’easter with temperatures below freezing before any electricity is restored. It’s those words that somehow echo in our hearts and sometimes aloud, even if we don’t really believe the theology behind it: What have I done to deserve this?

Job had it bad.  He lost not only thousands of head of cattle, sheep, but his children and his standing in the community. His complaint, his sense of betrayal, is deep. Not deep enough to dislodge his faith in God, which always stays intact, but enough to bring questions to God. One thing to remember about Job is that no matter how much acid in his complaint against God, Job always stays in dialogue with God. Job says,

“Even today my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.
If only I knew where to find him;
if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
and consider what he would say to me.
Would he vigorously oppose me?
No, he would not press charges against me.
There the upright can establish their innocence before him,
and there I would be delivered forever from my judge. (23:2-7)

Now, for many, to bring questions to God is to question God and is nigh on blasphemous. Back then as now. A modern version would be our voicing dissent on behalf of justice, or on behalf of the integrity of the Constitution – this is not blasphemous, this is not unpatriotic, and yet somehow, to some people, it is seen as such.

In the end, despite a tone that mocks Job’s brash behavior, God finds that those friends – who believe in a theology of retribution, a theology of punishment and reward – are wrong. God ends up blessing Job with more children, with restoration of his property and riches, and allows him a long life, living to 210 years.

For our modern ears, this is hardly recompense. New children swapped out for the slain ones? There is much about the tale of Job that is perverse, but we would do well to remember that it is a tale, a fable, a way for us to extract lessons for life and living, not a how-to book.

Job argues on behalf of God not out of some doctrine handed to him from leaders and priests, but out of his own experience. Job responds to the dogma of his three supposed friends with incredulity: he points out what they all know is true: the wicked prosper! The good are not always rewarded. The mechanics, if there are any, are not that simple, though there are days we may wish they were.

There are too many stories of hardship, of heartache, of undeserved suffering for us to be tricked by this falsehood. Our lives – yours and mine — testify against it. We know too many people, in this world, here in this community, among our families and the families of our neighbors, who suffer and though they are not perfect people, and though they are flawed, their suffering is not proportionate.

Complaint, anger, outrage, protest – particularly in the face of betrayal, in the face of injustice — has a purpose. It is a signal of our human hunger for meaning and for justice.  And it is a sign that something deeper is afoot. According to Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, complaint is the mask that covers what is underneath: concern and commitment to something deeper.

It can call us to cut through illusion, repair not just our own souls, but the soul of the world. It calls us to what Judaism calls Tikkun Olam: a repairing and healing of the world.  Anger can help us cultivate a sense of meaning that will sustain us through hard times and even to a sturdier, more resilient life of faith, one that moves us beyond our own individual silo of suffering into connection and understanding of the sufferings of others and faithfully into our own religious tradition of enacting social justice.

So this Complaint Department is open, but only for a limited time. Complaint is important; in some cases, utterly necessary, but only in a temporary form and in a form that helps connect our personal complaint of undeserved suffering to a larger, wider condition of unjust human suffering. If we linger too long in complaint, we can become stuck in a slippery hole of egoism and self-pity.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture by Rev. Mitri Raheb, who is the senior pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. Yeah, that Bethlehem. He just published a book called Faith in the Face of Empire: Reading the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. He said about his own community, but it speaks of a wisdom we can all benefit from: we should not get too comfortable in the shoes of the victim.

How can we move out of complaint and protest and into that sturdier, more faithful place? The key to whether any such emotion – grief or despair or complaint or protest — becomes destructive or transformative is twofold: we must first make ourselves aware and we must share our truth with others and the wider world.

Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor, writer, sage of our times, has a unique, or at least rare, take on Job. Whereas most people read the Bible to say that upon God revealing Godself in the whirlwind, Job repents. Wiesel is not so sure. Neither am I. Though the English translation of the text leads us to believe as much, the Hebrew text, which has words missing in places, is more open to interpretation. Wiesel, as well as my Hebrew Bible professor, tells us that many scholars acknowledge that the ending was grafted onto the original book (as is true through much of the Bible, which went through many iterations of editors over the centuries). Wiesel wonders why. To reassure devout believers? To teach persecuted people that a person must be capable of losing everything while not giving up hope?

Wiesel offers up his preference for a true ending: Job dies without the humiliation that comes from acknowledging something that is untrue. He remains in relation with God while staying loyal to his truth as he knows it, remaining “an uncompromising and whole man.” In this interpretation that holds as much validity as any other to which you have been exposed over the years, God still rebukes those who hold to a punishment/reward understanding of God’s great and mysterious justice and blesses Job in his bewilderment, his anguish, his complaint.

Wiesel offers us an image not of patient Job, or suffering Job, but of courageous, protesting Job.

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a legendary man, a just and generous man who, in his solitude and despair, found the courage to stand up to God. And to force [God] to look at [God’s] creation.   And to speak to those [people] who sometimes succeed, in spite of [God] and of themselves, in achieving triumphs over [God], triumphs that are grave and disquieting.

Our Unitarian Universalism, without a shared creed or overarching doctrines, demands much of us. Our faith requires that we – in company and accountability with each other — follow and share our truth as we understand it, in service of a better world and a better humanity and to do so together, no individual’s truth trumping another’s but a core of shared values helping to guide us and hold us along the way. Our faith calls us to be like Job: despite prevailing theologies or ideologies which place people into categories of reward and punishment, deserving and undeserving, legal and “illegal,” we are called to be a voice for a more Universalist, a more liberal understanding of how the Divine works in the world.

This is no easy task, as Job’s life reveals. Healing ourselves, healing the world – enacting Tikkun Olam – can bring resentment, bitter complaint, protest, isolation. But it need not stay stuck there. And I share with you today my belief that in our lifetime or sometime in the near future, telling our truth, being upright like Job was, as best we can, bends of the arc of the universe towards healing and justice. May it be so.

Amen. And blessed be.

 

 

Bibliography

Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie. Random House: New York, 1997.

Kegan, Robert and Lisa Lahey. How The Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Jossey-Bass, 2001

Wiesel, Elie. Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits & Legends. Random House, New York, 1976.

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