The top of Mount Monadnock was obscured by clouds one morning this week. Katherine and I moved here, to this house at the base of the mountain, last July. We’ve seen clouds come and go. Sometimes we can’t see the top of the mountain. Sometimes we can’t see the mountain at all.
Job, in his suffering, could not see God anymore. Not the God of his understanding. What he wanted was not so much an explanation: he simply wanted to see God to show up again. God did.
I have just about finished my first week of reading through the Bible: Genesis 1-11 (the primeval stories … Creation, the Fall, the First Murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel) and the book of Job. Job is suggested in the middle of Genesis because the character of Job comes out of the same primeval mist of folklore as characters and stories of Genesis 1-11. It’s been a fascinating read.
In some ways, the Noah story feels like a third Creation account.
-For Noah, there is a watery chaos brought under control so that dry land can emerge, as in Creation at Gen. 1.1 and 1.9.
-On telling the living creatures to leave the Ark, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply” as in the first Creation story at Gen. 1:22.
-Noah is a little like Cain (in that both till the soil) and a little like Abel (in that he makes a burnt offering.)
-Trouble comes when Noah drinks from the fruit of the vine, as Adam and Eve got into trouble when they ate fruit. (Gen. 3.6).
-Noah’s sons feel shame about nakedness, as did Adam and Eve. (Gen. 3.11 – “Who told you you were naked?”)
In the Tower of Babel story one wonders if God could be so insecure that he or she feels the need to sabotage human enterprise. But I really began to wonder about God’s character reading the opening chapters of Job. God is proud and boasts about Job’s devotion. When an angel suggests that Job’s motives might be, well, mixed, God is too proud to let that go, and innocent Job begins to suffer.
I discovered two things as I read the book of Job.
(1) The book has a very well-developed sense of social sin. Look at Job 20:19-21 and 24:2-12 for example. Job’s friends suggest that Job’s sin is his wealth per se (not because wealth is bad but because it suggests either an unjust economic system, fraudulent business practices and/or a failure to consider the needs of the poor. The divine justice which is hoped for in this very ancient book (Job 5:11-16) sounds very much like the vision of the Magnificat (Luke 1:51-53.)
Job defends himself by recounting the times that he gave charity (Job 29:11-25), but it is not clear that he understands that his wealth implicates him as one who has profited from an unjust economic system. [Is it possible that as early as pre-history, “sin” has been reduced to the realm of sexual conduct?! See Job 31: 9-11.] Job protests: “If I saw anyone without a garment, I gave them fleece from my own sheep.” (Job 31:19-20.) What comes to mind is Jesus’ parable and the condemned goats thereof who protest: “But when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked…?” (Mtt. 24:44)
(2) I have always thought about the Job story as being about enduring suffering or misfortune without asking questions and submitting to God’s will. Now I think it is more about not giving up on God when our constructions of God fail us, as inevitably they must. It’s about knowing the mountain is still there, even when it is obscured by clouds. It’s about persistence in prayer when God doesn’t seem to show up as God always has in the past. Job mostly wants God to show up. He gets sidetracked into theorizing about whether or not he had sinned in his conversation with the three friends, but basically, Job just wants God to show up and talk to him. Perhaps the moral of the story is that in the end, God does just that.
Lectionary Notes – Part I – Do We Hear the Job story?
In Year A, the lectionary includes a passage from Job only once, on Holy Saturday as part of the liturgy for that day, i.e., not as part of the Easter Vigil. It is a meditation on human mortality (Job 14:1-14). It’s unlikely that anyone will hear that reading soon.
In Year C, one passage is read on Pr 7 (near November 7.) It is familiar to many as the source of the Opening Anthem of the Burial Office. (Job 19: 23-27 “I know my Redeemer lives.”) Given that association, it is a good choice for the month of November with its focus on endings and last things.
The Job story appears most completely in Year B during October. (There are alternate readings available each of the four weeks.) These are the four readings:
(1) Pr. 22B/October 5 – (Job 1:1, 2:1-10) Job’s wife invites him to curse God (Gospel: Jesus’ teaching on divorce.)
(2) Pr. 23B/October 12 – (Job 23: 1-9, 16-17) Job prays: “O that I knew where I might find God!” (Gospel: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”)
(3) Pr. 24B/October 19 – (Job 38: 1-7, [34-41]) God speaks out of the whirlwind. “Where were you when I created the earth?” (Gospel: “Can you drink the cup?”)
(4) Pr. 25B/October 26 – (Job 42: 1-17) Having heard/seen God, Job repents. (Gospel: Bartimaeus sees.)
Although the choices from Job are good reminders of the story, a preacher pretty much has to ignore the gospel in order to focus on Job. The readings from Job are not intended to invite the listener into the Job story, but to serve as a set-up for the gospel.
If one were going to chose readings that complimented the gospel (rather than serving as a set-up for it), one might consider pairing Job’s prayer (at Job 23 and earlier at 13:20) with a gospel passage about persistence in prayer. (Mtt. 9:18-22, the woman suffering from hemmoraghes, or Lk. 18:1-8, parable about the unjust judge.)
Lectionary Notes – Part II – Ash Wednesday
It will be here soon enough. The Ash Wednesday service in the BCP needs a re-write. It delivers the same message as Job’s three friends: that we are the lowest and unworthiest of the lowest and unworthy. We are detestable sinners and our only hope of regaining God is sackcloth and ashes, apology and repentance.
I cringed inside everytime I led an Ash Wednesday service, because I know that the people in attendance were trying very hard to be good and faithful people. Like me, if they needed to, I am sure they could find matter for confession. But they were not detestable in God’s sight. I resent a liturgy which requires people to speak of themselves as though they detestable. I resent a liturgy that suggests that God doesn’t know the goodness of God’s people.
Historically, Lent has been both a time of learning and preparation for catechumens and a time of repentance for those guilty of notorious (public and really serious) sins. The BCP’s Ash Wednesday liturgy is perfect for notorious sinners. But that’s not most of us. Most of us, like Job, are fundamentally good people who wish to grow closer to God. I think people want the Church to help them learn how and where to grow in faith, hope and love, and they show up on Ash Wednesday to express their openness to that growth, even if it will be challenging. Job’s prayer at 23:3-15 expresses a yearning for God and an awareness that God might have a word for us that might be challenging. That’s what Ash Wednesday ought to be about: prayers for the courage to hear what God might have to say to us.