The Book of Job is recognized as a literary masterpiece. There is no way we can even begin to unlock the rich treasures of this Old Testament book today. What we can do is look at part of the book and ask what it can say to us as worshipers of God.
Job is divided into two parts: a prose introduction and conclusion (chapters 1-2; and most of chapter 42) and the large poetry section of chapters 3-42a. This morning we shall center on the prose section, and in this section we will find Job patient, trusting, longsuffering, and faithful. There is no hint whatsoever in these chapters of the radical questioning of God by Job which we find in the poetry.
In the poetry section, Job gradually loses all patience. He lashes out at God in anger. He accuses God of being a cosmic bully and an all-powerful sadist who delights in torturing helpless humans at random. He accuses God of being deaf to the cries of pain as well as refusing to answer the frantic questions of innocent sufferers.
And yet in the prose section there is not a word of this. In fact, we find here that Job “did not sin with his lips.” And in the final verses of the book God affirms that Job, unlike his friends, spoke what was right concerning God.
And of course, the question is, “Why didn’t the Old Testament writers harmonize the prose section with the poetry? Why did they leave these two sections, with such conflicting presentations of Job, standing side by side?” The answer is quite simple. The prose section has something to say as it is and to harmonize it with the poetry would rob the prose section of its message. So, as it often does, the Bible refuses to harmonize conflicting parts of Scripture and chooses to keep both traditions for the sake of preserving a message that will “preach.”
In the prose section we are presented with a man named Job who was blameless and upright–a worshiper of God who turned away from evil. He had ten children and thousands of herds of stock. He was a blessed and happy man. But the scene changes from earth to the heavenly courts.
So, Job loses all his possessions and all his children. But he remains faithful to God and the scene shifts back to the heavenly courts.
Now it is important that we realize that the Old Testament does not say “Satan” in this passage. It says “the satan” who was understood to be the adversary, accuser, prosecuting attorney of God’s heavenly court. (It was not until the end of the Old Testament period that Satan was seen as the prince of darkness and evil.) God asks the DA, “Did you consider my servant Job? An upright, good, righteous man.” The DA responds, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Sure, Job worships you and pays you your due. He’s the wealthiest, most successful, and most blessed man in all the East. He knows on what side his bread is buttered. But take all that away, and he’ll curse you like a dog.” And God says, “Okay. Do as you wish. But don’t hurt Job.”
So, all is lost, but Job does not curse God. He does not accuse God. He does not even question God. So later God says to the DA, “Well, Mr. Prosecuting Attorney, what about Job? He still holds fast his integrity. He’s still faithful and upright.” And the DA responds, “Skin for skin! Job is willing to give up the skins of his animals and children to save his own hide. But if you allow me to afflict him with a dreadful and painful illness, THEN he will curse you.” And God says, “Okay. Do as you will. Just spare his life.” And Job’s physical torment is so great that even his wife tells him to curse God so that he could die from God’s wrath and leave his world of pain. But Job refuses to speak evil of God. And finally, God affirms that Job was right–that he was blameless and did nothing to deserve such calamities and suffering. And God restores Job’s fortunes twice over and gives him ten more children. Job lives the remainder of his days in peace, contentment, and ever-present blessing.
Now what is the point of this story? What is the key to unlocking its message? The key can be found in the question of the DA: “Does Job fear God for nothing? Does Job worship God for nothing? Does Job serve, pray to, and make sacrifices to God on the basis of love and devotion, or does Job serve God for what he can get out of the Almighty?” Is there such a thing as an unselfish love for God? Does an unconditional commitment to God among the men and women of this world exist?” And the DA cynically says, “No! Religious commitment and devotion are like everything else in life: they operate out of a motive of profit and self-interest. When all the pious talk and holy pretense are stripped away, you will find a mercenary religion in everyone’s heart.”
In the question of the DA and in Job’s response to his misfortunes we shall find our sermon.
First, the question. Why do we serve and worship God? Is the DA correct? Do we serve and worship God for what we can get out of the Almighty? Is there a profit motive behind our worship? Behind our church attendance? Behind our faith commitments? Do we view our religion as a wise investment as a form of “eternal life insurance”? Or maybe as “eternal fire insurance?”
If God appeared today and said, “There is no life beyond death. When you die, that’s it,” how empty would our churches be next Sunday? Would you be there?
And how often are we tempted to say when things go wrong in our lives– when things become difficult—when the going gets rough–when tragedy or misfortune strikes, “It’s not fair. I go to church. I put money in the offering plate. I even pray and try to be good. And now God let’s this happen to me!” Do we worship God so that these things do not happen to us? And on the profit side of things, do we worship God so that we will be blessed? Throughout the centuries, we humans have always been a little mercenary in our religion and in life. But I believe we live in a time and perhaps in a place where the motive for profit , the motive for more, the motive for economic advantage is unabashedly embraced and vigorously extolled far beyond the efforts of our ancestors. And this economic motive for more has spilled over into our religious life. That is why so many preachers and so many churches, some with millions of dollars to play with, will tell you that whatever you give to God will be paid back ten-fold. That is why so many sermons on the airways talk about God’s material blessings upon the righteous. And that is why so many are attracted to a gospel with no cost, a religion with no sacrifice, and a faith with no commitment. Such preachers (not to mention the ad men and the politicians) are convinced that we can’t expect people to act except out of self interest.
Some years ago, I read booklet entitled “Pastoring for Peace and Justice.” It was written for pastors who believe that peace and justice are crucial issues in the Bible and should be central in the church. It was written to advise and encourage pastors and to give some time tested hints as to how to pastor for peace and justice without alienating congregations and without miring them in guilt. The booklet has been very helpful and inspiring to me, but one piece of advice is disturbing. The author, a pastor of many years and undeniably committed to peace and justice, says that before pastors can motivate people in the church to do anything about injustice, they must first show their people that it is in their own best interests to do so.
Here’s an example from the booklet. Land in Latin American countries is being illegally taken from peasants to supply American fast food restaurants. Peasants are run off their ancestral homes and farms, intimidated, tortured, and sometimes killed by wealthy landowners and government officials so that the acreage for grazing cattle can increase. This abominable act allows the wealthy to become richer while peasants, who depend on their small farms to survive, become even more impoverished and vulnerable. The author of the booklet suggests that pastors not begin by telling the people about this injustice. Rather the pastors should let their people see how the high consumption of fatty meat and sodium effects their health. Or let the cattle farmers in the U.S. see how cheap beef imports take money from their pockets. Then church members will see that it goes against their own best interests to exploit peasants in Latin America.
The truth assumed by this approach bothers me. Perhaps it’s true, but it still bothers me. If ⋅we are motivated to seek the good and just⋅course of action only when it is in our best interest, then have we learned anything at all about the unselfish love and deep compassion of Christ?
The question of the DA is still a powerful one. Why do we serve God? Is it merely or primarily for what we can get out of the Almighty? And if so, what does that say about us?
But enough of that question. That question is important because it sets us in the right direction. But by itself it will lead to pessimism, self-incrimination, and despair. The key to interpreting our passage may be the question, but the focus of the story rests finally on the answer. To the question, “Is there such a thing as unselfish love and unconditional commitment?”, the Book of Job answers, “YES!” Job had such love and commitment. From the very beginning God believes in Job. Because we are created in the image of God and are called to be partners with God in this creation, the motto “In God We Trust” is accompanied by God’s motto “In Humanity God Trusts.” It can be done. It has been done, and not just by a character in a story. (The Book of Job as a story is true but not factual. Job-like characters are known in other literature in the ancient Near East.)
Once we hear this answer, we realize the purpose of the question is not to mire us down in guilt and hopelessness. The purpose is to challenge us to examine our own worship and love of God so that we too might be like Job–good, righteous men and women of integrity and people of genuine faith, authentic trust, and enduring commitment. Our religion does not have to be mercenary–it doesn’t have to be based on a profit motive. It can be the real thing.
Philip Hallie, a Jewish ethicist, studied good and evil throughout history and in many cultures. Part of his research focused on the Holocaust—a time of torture, genocide, and unspeakable horrors. He despaired of humanity when he read accounts of the various medical experiments carried out on small, helpless children—experiments done with no anesthesia provided for these little ones. In his reading he found a small article about a French Protestant village called Le Chambon. The article told about how the village, led by its pastor, saved countless Jewish men, women, and children from the Nazis. He was drawn to the story as though it were a magnet. He researched, went to France, and interviewed as many people as he could. He discovered a village of Christians committed to the teachings and example of Jesus. At great cost (prison, torture, death) year in and year out they saved Jewish families. These were ordinary people–“the butcher, the baker, and the candle stick maker.” The discovery of this group restored Hallie’s faith in humanity and, to an extent, in God. The title of the book is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. But my eyes focused on the subtitle: “The story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there.” In the most cruel and sinister circumstances of hatred and violence, goodness happened right in the middle of such a world.
“Is there such a thing as unselfish devotion and unconditional commitment?”
In the Book of Job, God says, “Yes!”
In the village of Le Chambon, God says, “Yes!”
And in the story of our little lives, God can say “Yes” too.
Communion: Is there such a thing as unselfish love? Unconditional love? Indiscriminate love? Everlasting love? Perhaps when all is said and done, only an affirmative answer to these questions can provide any hope for us– for humankind–for creation itself. Without such a “Yes” undergirding our existence, ultimately there can be no nobility, no redemption, no hope. The Bread and Wine proclaim through holy sacraments that there is such a love a love that is unselfish, unconditional, indiscriminate, and everlasting. And upon that love rests the salvation of the world.
Commission: How inclusive must our love be? That is the real question of Christianity. Shall we limit the circle to include only our kind? Shall we discriminate in our love? Shall we put conditions on our love? Shall we keep our love from “hoping all things, believing all things, and enduring all things”? What are the limits?
At this Table we have learned that with God there are no limits. God’s love is unselfish, unconditional, indiscriminate, and everlasting. The proclamation of that Good News by word and deed is our calling in Christ Jesus. What you have received at this Table share generously with all you meet, for the circle of God’s love knows no boundaries.
[Many people are troubled by this prose story of Job. What bothers them is the presentation of a God who gives the satan permission to do whatever he wants to Job and his family, short of causing Job’s death. As I mentioned in the sermon, this character Job has counterparts in other stories in the ancient Near East. This kind of story was well known, and we must remember that this is a story. There was no historical Job. Job is merely a character in a popular tale. The exchange between God and the satan simply helps set the stage for the question of one’s motive in their religious faith. I would grant that a different setup would perhaps have been better, but the author of this prose story was working with what he had—a well-known tale about a man who suffered greatly but was later redeemed and restored. It is the poetry section which will raise questions about the fairness and motives of God. It’s okay to question the role of God in this prose story. I certainly don’t believe in a God who says to the satan, “Bring as much suffering on this poor man as you want.” But if we focus on that problem, we miss the underlying question being raised in these verses: Is there such a thing among humans as unselfish love and devotion?]