Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

In some ways I kind of hate the ending of Job, at least the very, very end.

October 25, 2009

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17

In some ways I kind of hate the ending of Job, at least the very, very end.

Here, after all his struggling with suffering and faith and the apparent absence of God, the story raps up with Job getting it all back, twice over.  I struggle with the ending because it almost seems to undo everything the book has tried to do, or at least that’s often what’s done with it.

An example:  Not long ago I heard a preacher trying to deal with a chapter from the middle of Job.  He read the passage aloud to begin his homily, and then held up his hands and said, “For those of you who don’t know the book of Job, don’t worry, this isn’t the whole story.  Job gets it all back in the end, so don’t let this get you down.”  Well then, I thought to myself, why not just skip to the end?  Why not just give us the happy ending part?  Why bother with the struggle if, in the end, you’re going to say that it doesn’t really matter?

The problem with this, it seems to me, is that it dishonors the reality of the struggle–both Job’s and our own.  ‘Cause let’s face it, at least in this life the loathsome sores don’t go away having left no marks; most of us don’t just have the cancer erased, or the loved one replaced, or the wealth restored (double).  Real-life struggles are almost always messier, and there is rarely a magical happy ending to fast-forward to.

When I read Job, I find that I would almost prefer a “shorter ending,” ala the Gospel of Mark, for the book.  Stop it at verse 6, after Job confesses his sin.  Or maybe at verse 9, after Job’s questioning, far from being sinful or wrong, is praised by God as right and acceptable (42:7-9), and his “friends” have gotten their comeuppance–a part of Job 42 that for some reason we don’t include in our lectionary readings, although maybe we should.  Almost any ending would be better.

So if I may make so bold, let me beg you not to go there, should you decide to preach on Job this week.  It is my fervent hope that the preacher will resist the urge to do the homiletical equivalent of patting folks on the head and saying, “There, there, don’t fret.  Everything works out in the end; even better.  Just see Job.”

So what, then, can one do with Job 42, if not simply glory in the nice ending?  There may be several possibilities, I will suggest two. 

The change in Job
First, is the change in Job.  Call it a re-reversal or a change of heart, whatever the case, Job’s experience in his “Come to El Shaddai meeting,” seems to have done the trick.  Chapter 42 finds Job neither questioning God aggressively nor intoning fatalistic sounding pietisms.  Here Job admits that he has been wrong.  Here Job acknowledges that before, he had not known God, that he had “heard of” God, but never truly “seen” God.  While it may be true that suffering and struggle will open one’s eyes, and that one may well view the world–life, relationships, spirituality, faith–differently because of it, I don’t think this is primarily what makes the change in Job.  For Job, the change comes when God speaks to him.  Having confronted God Job is now answered, and so he is changed.

Remember that God, in the missing verses of our reading, identifies Job’s speech not as sinful, but as “right.”  And remember that Job’s speech is not rejected by God, but accepted.  The key is that while God accepts Job’s speech, God does not allow Job’s complaint to be the last word, or for Job to “stay where he is.”  Job’s challenge does not go unchallenged; God responds, and sets Job straight.

This is a lesson learned from the psalms as well; complaint, accusation, doubt, are all faithful expressions in their way, precisely because they are expressed in relationship with God.  But complaint is almost never allowed to trump trust, nor does doubt go unanswered.

Things too wonderful for me
Second, is the use of the word “wonders.”  Part of Job’s repentance is that he is speaking of things he does not understand.  With Job 38:4-7, 38-41 in mind these “wonders” may be taken to mean the wonders of creation–the creation itself, the sending of lightning to announce the rains, the rains to answer drought (“Can you tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?”), and the care of all creatures great and small.  These certainly are wonders, and are specifically used to illustrate the many ways in which Job is ignorant of God’s working.

But equally suggestive is another application of the word “wonders,” particularly in the book of Exodus.  In Exodus the same root word is used to describe what we typically think of as the ten plagues.  Exodus  3:20, “So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.”  Depending on one’s perspective the works that God performed in Egypt could be taken as plague, or wonder.  So too, perhaps, could the events of Job’s life.

Job’s story, the broad arch of which we have followed over these four October Sundays, is defined largely by God’s wonders, and wonder at and about God.  It is God who is, finally, at work in and through the satan.  It is God–God’s presence, God’s absence–that Job desperately seeks.  It is God’s work in creation, and in the life of Job that centers the answer given to Job’s complaint.  It is God who, though too wonderful to know, is all that Job cares to know in the end.

In Job, with his struggles, with his complaint, with his wonder, we too can not just hear of God, but see with our eyes.