Sermon by Jay Wolin
Why does evil prosper in this world? Why do good people suffer and how should we react to such suffering? These questions were asked over twenty five hundred years ago, and resulted in the Book of Job in the Jewish Scriptures. Yet even today, I find this story and its answers relevant to my Unitarian Universalist Faith,
For those of you who do not know the book of Job, or have forgotten, let me quickly recap it for you. Job is the most pious of men, who is without fault. He is loyal to God and helps the widow and orphan, and is righteous in every way.
Well, basically God makes a bet with Satan, and actually interestingly enough, in the Jewish Scriptures God make a bet with a being called the Adversary who is member of the divine beings who gather with God. Now the issue of how there could a gathering of Divine Beings if there is only one God in the Jewish Faith will have to be a discussion for future sermon. Anyway, the Christian Scriptures change the wording from Adversary to Satan. God is boasting of Job’s piousness. Satan wagers with God that if God allows him free reign to cause havoc in Job’s life, Job will repudiate God. God takes the bet. Well, this adversary character does all he can to make Job turn away from God.
All of Job’s children are killed, his sheep were killed, his camels were stolen (I am not sure why the camels are stolen, but the children and sheep are killed, I will have to dwell further on that one), his wife abandons him, and he is stricken with “Inflammations of sores” from his head to his toes. (I will let you use your imagination on that one, but I’m guessing its very unpleasant)
I do not think I could make up a story like this, yet there it is in the Bible.
So when studying this story, I have to ask, what is the purpose of putting this story in the Bible. It is believed that this story was composed after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Israelites in 587 BCE. I believe this is the story of a people who were trying to reconcile how God could allow such evil to happen to them. Throughout the story there are four people who come to visit Job and there is an ongoing discussion as to why such tragedy has befallen Job. The assumption that these people make is that Job must have done something wrong to deserve these terrible things. Now we as readers have a foreknowledge that Job is completely innocent, and Job steadfastly defends his integrity to these people questioning him.
Throughout the story, Job has argued that he wants a audience, even demanding an audience with God. He even states that he knows God will not answer his questions, but yet he still wants to ask God the question. I believe like many people who cannot explain their circumstances, Job really just wants to be assured that there is a God, that there is some guiding force for justice in the world. How many of us have felt that way at some time in our life, when we through no fault of our own we find ourselves in desperate situations. Or after we hear a child has died. How often did I hear in my lifetime, in my family, the question of if there is a God, how could God have allowed the Holocaust to have occurred.
We see every day in our lives, and on television, ongoing inhumanity against humanity and against nature, and the incessant destruction of people, property and souls, and we wonder, today, where is God. That is what the character Job is asking. That is what the people of Israel were asking 2,500 years ago.
In Chapter 9 Job goes on to state “
God is not a man, like me that I might answer God,
That we can go to a trial together
No arbiter is between us
To lay their hand on us both.
I think this is a telling line. “There is no arbiter between us” I think this brings to bear the same philosophical question we still ask today – How do we gain knowledge. And more specifically, how do we gain knowledge about the mysteries of life. Do we gain knowledge from direct experience, or through ritual and dogma? Much of the arguments brought by Job’s visitors dwell on the wisdom of the elders. This is epitomized in Verse 8 as Bildad states
Ask the generation past,
Study what their fathers have searched out
For we are of yesterday and know nothing;
Our days on earth are a shadow
Surely they will teach you and tell you
Speaking out of their understanding
And Job replies in verse 12
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you
The birds of the sky, they will tell you
Or speak to the earth, it will teach you
The fish of the sea, they will inform you
And of course my favorite quote, in Chapter 13 when Job tells his visitor
“If you would only keep quiet it would be considered wisdom on your part”
So what is Job saying. I believe the message is that we must experience life, and we must gain an understanding of the universe for ourselves, and we cannot learn the mysteries of life through ritual and dogma. We must come to know ourselves, and through the examination of the world around us we must learn that there are universal truths, that there are natural laws about what is what is morally and ethically right and wrong, and just because there is a human law that says otherwise, or just because someone in power tells us otherwise, if we know deep in our heart and souls something is right, we need to stand for it and have faith in our beliefs.
Unitarians have long held to this principle in our country’s history, whether it was being the leading voice for the abolition of slavery, for the women’s rights movement, for the civil rights movement, and in the present day among the many things we stand for, for economic justice, for sane environmental policies and for marriage equality. We stand up for what we know is good and moral even in the face of powerful opposition. My theology tells me we are not born with original sin, we are born innocent and good. And if we don’t stand up for this what is good, then goodness will not prevail.
Now often we have heard the phrase the patience of Job. I really think this phrase is a misnomer. This comes from the Book of James in the Christian Scriptures. In chapter 5 it states
Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance.
You have heard of the endurance of Job.
The King James Version uses the phrase patience instead of endurance.
Well Job certainly endured a lot, but clearly he was not patient. Most of the Book, he is raging against his visitors and against God for an explanation of the injustice done to him. Well finally at the end of the book, God shows up. Yet God doesn’t respond to Job’s Questions regarding injustice. To make a long story short, God verbally tries to browbeat Job, and I paraphrase here, telling Job that Job has no right to question God because God is all powerful and created the universe as it is known. I am thinking maybe God is feeling a little defensive about this whole bet thing with Satan.
But God also states to Job in Chapter 40
Gird your loins like a man (I take that to mean sort of like suck it up and stop complaining)
Would you question my justice?
Then Scatter wide your raging anger
See every proud man and bring him low
See every proud man and humble him
And bring down the wicked where they stand
Then even I would acknowledge you
I see these statements in the Bible as saying that we need to stop complaining and asking for a higher authority to help us solve our problems, that we as humans need to take responsibility for the human condition.
In Chapter 42 in Job’s last statement to God Job says
I had heard you with my ears
But now I see you with my eyes
I repudiate and change my mind about dust and ashes
Now first I must admit that in my research, this last line has literally more than 50 different translations, of which many would give different meaning to the whole book. But when I look at this story from my Unitarian Universalist faith, this translation makes complete sense to me. Dust and ashes is a symbol for meaninglessness. Abraham used the same exact phrase in the Book of Genesis in comparing humanity to God. First by emphasizing “now I see you with my eyes” Job is again reiterating direct experiential learning regarding the mysteries of the universe, and in changing his mind about dust and ashes, he is repudiating the meaninglessness of humanity. The message is Humanity is what is meaningful, Humanity is what will make a difference in the world, and that is what this story ultimately is trying to tell us.
So how can we fight injustice. In the end, the story gives us a message for that as well. In the last chapter of the book, God Chastised the Visitors for not speaking the truth about God as did Job. Job’s fortunes were restored, yet it is interesting just how they were restored. They were restored by members of the community sharing their food and money with Job. So maybe this story is a positive commentary on the benefits of socialism, or at the least progressive taxation.
I think in general the mainstream of society is only willing to challenge power when they see injustice befalling people similar to them. If there is injustice against the poor in society, the majority of society turns away. People only pay attention to injustice when they feel it is possible that it could happen to them. One of the messages of Job is that society has to realize that injustice by those in power needs to be recognized, no matter who is affected. Justice can be restored by the community joining together. The community had a choice to help Job at the beginning but abandoned him out of fear. In the end, they joined him and helped him. The book of Job shows how human suffering or the awareness of suffering and injustice can lead to social transformation.
In order to create social transformation though, we need to be transformative in our dealings with injustice. We must be able to reach out beyond our own perspective of the world and try to understand the perspectives of others. We need to understand the perspective of people who are starving while we overeat, the perspective of those jailed or killed for their political views while we have the right to free speech, and the perspective of people who live with little or no prospects to improve their conditions, while we live with ample opportunities to choose our path.
I believe the story of Job is an allegory for the evolution of justice by humanity. There has been some progress over the last 2 millennium. And I do take the long view. I think by continually reviewing such universal stories of justice we will remember deep in our souls to remember the Jobs of this world, and to be like Job. We should shout against injustice, to speak the truth to power no matter the consequences, and to not be swayed from our beliefs by fear. We are the guiding force of justice in this world and we cannot shirk from our responsibilities. In the end, the truth is all that matters and it is the truth that will transform our souls and yes, it is the truth that will set us free.