Preached on Sunday, 07.10.2018
By the Rev. Dr. Norman Shanks
The book of Job is embedded in Western culture – it has been consistently described in glowing terms – ‘a literary masterpiece’, ‘one of the classics of our heritage’, ‘the most sublime monument in literature’, ‘the imaginative work of a master of dramatic poetry’. Particularly in the Authorised Version, ‘the masterpiece of William Tyndale, [it has unrivalled] economy of diction,.. arresting phrases,..flowing cadences..and austere dignity’. And for the scholars it has provided a field-day, for when, how and how it was written – and more importantly for us perhaps, what we are to make of it, how we are to understand it.
Job is a respected pillar of his community, an apparently well-settled family man, a person of integrity, pious and prosperous. A series of misfortunes befall him: his life falls apart, his business crashes, family relationships crumble, he is hit, as we heard, by ill health – ‘loathsome sores’. Far from being patient in adversity – as he is sometimes traditionally depicted – he is outspoken in complaining about his plight; his friends attempt to comfort him with explanations, rationalisations, based on the prevailing thinking at the time that human suffering and adversity is something that people bring upon themselves: disaster and misfortune are the result of human sin –whether individual or communal. Toe the line; be obedient to God’s commands and you will be rewarded with health and prosperity. But Job was not convinced. This explanation was no more true to his experience then than it is to us now. ‘Bad things happen to good people’. ‘The good die young’. These maxims point to the perennial problem of the suffering of the innocent. Some natural disasters may be attributed to bad decision-making on the part of governments: the issue of climate change and global warming continues to be a subject of much debate: to what extent is this the result of economic and social policies that got priorities wrong? But this does not adequately explain the scale of human suffering that results from earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, landslides, floods, volcanic eruptions and the like. Nor does it begin to touch the tragic incidence at a personal level serious illness or disability of premature death, families bereft of children and the like. The mystery of suffering, the problem of pain remains an enigma.
In Job’s case, despite all his suffering, through the course of an intense dialogue with his friends he refuses to accept that he has brought misfortune upon himself by his sins: he has nothing to repent of or feel guilty about; his faith is tested to the limit; he questions the rationality and is perplexed by the injustice of what has happened but he retains his integrity, his conviction that despite all that has happened to him the government of the universe is in wise hands. The epilogue to the book of Job is thought by most scholars to be a later addition: there is a not very convincing fairy-tale ‘happy-ever-after’ ending to the drama: Job is restored to greater prosperity then before and dies in honourable estate surrounded by his family numerous offspring, all also miraculously recovered from their misfortunes. And we know that life is not really like that.
But before that God answers Job’s complaints and protests, speaking ‘out of the whirlwind’, describing in high-flown language and powerful images the intricacy and wonder of the whole created world. And God asks Job if he thinks he could do a better job – and this reduces Job to penitence – not for the sins of which his friends had accused him, but for his questioning God’s ways and doubting God’s wisdom. The message of Job may have to do with the importance of integrity and faithfulness in the face of the most extreme testing; but even more significant is Job’s recognition that human fulfilment lies above all in right relationship with God, in acceptance of God’s overarching purpose and the inscrutable mystery of God’s ways, ultimately in dependence and trust in God.
CS Lewis wrote a book which was very popular a couple of generations or so ago – The Problem of Pain. I remember finding it helpful when I first read it, but looking at it again now I am not nearly so sure. It seems very dated, rather convoluted and it tries to tie the whole thing up too neatly. And we are tempted to do so too – when we talk about things being ‘meant to happen’ – as if our lives are predetermined, as if we do not really have freedom of choice in facing situations, weighing up priorities and dealing with difficult decisions. Shakespeare has interesting light to shed on this in Hamlet when Hamlet says to his buddy Horatio There’s a divinity that shapes our ends rough hew them how we will. Sometimes it may be reassuring to believe this sort of thing: it may help us to cope with difficult situations. But I’m afraid I don’t buy it; and I don’t think it helps us in trying to understand the problem of pain or the mystery of suffering. For my part I can’t believe in an omnipotent God who makes bad things happen or doesn’t prevent bad things happening – tragedies and disasters in the lives of individuals, families or communities. This is not the God I believe in – a celestial puppet-master with each of us dancing on a string. There’s another Shakespeare quotation that exposes the flaw in seeing things like that – in King Lear when Gloucester says As flies to wanton boys, so we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.
We see in Job (to quote Hamlet again – when Horatio is described in terms each of us could maybe aspire to in our own lives) a man who fortune’s buffets and rewards has ta’en with equal thanks. And the abiding theme of the book of Job has to do with the quality of one’s relationship with God – and the significance of relationships underlies our Gospel reading also when, first in one of his recurring discussions with the Pharisees about marriage and divorce, and then in rebuking the disciples for trying to keep children away from him, Jesus affirms how important relationships are – families and the marriage bond, and the special place of children within the community of faith.
Last week I was visiting friends in Edinburgh – a wonderful 97 year-old retired doctor who spent her working life in Palestine- first in the hospital at Nazareth and later in some of the Palestinian refugee camps; and before that I called on a couple of old friends – a former civil service colleague from my days in the Scottish Office, now suffering terribly from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, scarcely able to walk or move, unable now to speak – and his wife caring for him with inspiring devotion. A situation like that, as with experiences that many of you will have had within your lives – like the book of Job – challenges us to reflect on the mystery of suffering – to try to make some sense of it within our understanding of God and our approach to the Christian way. And of course there is no easy answer. I’ve mentioned before I think the two pieces of public art outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, just round the corner from where my friends live. One says There will be no miracles here and the other outside another building just across the road says Everything is going to be all right. At first perhaps these two statements seem mutually contradictory; and yet I’ve come to see that maybe they are both true. No miracles perhaps in the sense of sudden unexpected panaceas or supernatural interventions; but isn’t the very texture of life a miracle and the reality of my friend’s love and care for her husband in itself a miracle? And so, yes – deep down, in and through all things, behind and beyond the suffering all manner of thing shall be well. There are at the end of the day things beyond our understanding: ultimately suffering, like many things about life, is an unfathomable mystery – but the message of the Gospel tells us that we, like those who have gone before us, those still with us too, may find the strength to soldier on – patient, resilient, depending on God’s grace and the love of those around us, trusting in the fulfilment beyond life and death, beyond all suffering, of God’s loving purpose.
From the writer Ben Okri’s poem Mental Fight written specially for the Millennium –
We are greater than our despair.
The negative aspects of humanity are not the most real and authentic;
The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.
We are best defined by the mystery that we are still here, and can still rise upwards,
still create better civilisations, that we can face our raw realities, and that we will survive the greater despair that the greater future might bring. Amen