Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Lenten journey into Job...

NOTE:  This Sunday we begin a five part in-worship look at the Book of Job for Lent. I will also connect the lectionary gospel and psalm to this study.
I have yearned to lead an informed discussion about the book of Job. It is a rich and paradoxical folktale filled with theological wisdom that some people like to reference without ever having read. There are those who claim that Job explains the mystery of suffering and others who would have you believe it can help you live a more faithful life.  There are even some preachers and teachers out there – especially on-line – who will tell you that Job helps us comprehend the seemingly inscrutable ways of the Lord. But as far as I can tell, all of these assertions are simple-minded and wrong.

First, Job does NOT try to explain why an all-loving and all-powerful God would allow and tolerate the magnitude of human suffering that has cursed creation since the beginning of time. Yes, Job and others cry out in fear and despair, “Why me, Lord?” Who among us has not? But the wisdom poetry of this text never answers that question.

Second, Job does not try to “justify” or defend the mysterious ways of the Lord in a broken and imperfect world. Other texts attempt this, trying to clarify the ways of the holy to an anxious and bewildered people, but not Job. In fact, such intellectual and theological reductionism is the farthest thing from this poet’s mind.

For Job, you see, is fundamentally a portrait of what a maturing faith looks like in the heart of suffering. Job’s anguish answers no questions and solves no dilemmas – at least in an obvious way. Instead, Job shows us what a life of faith often looks like with all its warts, cracks, beauty and failures: Job doubts, questions, challenges, rebukes, resents, bargains with, fights, fumes and eventually embraces a path of faith that honors the holy even as he wrestles with the all too real human tragedies of death, disease, money problems, loss of social esteem, betrayal, emptiness, fear and anxiety.

That is why I figured that as I prepared to embrace a Holy Lent this year, it might just be as good a time as any – and maybe even the right time – to reconsider the wisdom of Job for our lives and our times.  Over the next five weeks I hope to lead you through a critical reflection on Job that will be part Bible study, part textual analysis, part historical description and part conversation in faith. So, if you want to bring your own Bible with you to worship, that would be fun, too.

There are three broad ideas I want to share with you that I hope will set up
our study. (I’ve also prepared an outline of the texts and themes I will be covering over the next month, too so if you want to do a little home work…. you can really go to the head of the class!) But for today, let’s see where these three themes lead us:

First, Job is part of what is known as the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament – so I want to spend a little time coming to terms with what that is all about, ok?

Second, the roots of Job go deeper than Israel – they clearly come from a folk tradition that is non-Jewish in origin – that may go back to Babylon and certainly include words not used anywhere else in the Scriptures. This has led scholars to conclude that Job was probably translated from another language at some point in time, but began in an oral tradition that goes back to the second millennium BCE. It was probably written down more or less in the form we have today 500 years later by an anonymous Jewish poet but some of the speeches from Job’s friends come from an even later date. So this was a real work in progress.

And third, the opening question shaped by the strange narrative in the first three chapters of Job in essence asks us to wrestle with the fact that human suffering is ubiquitous. Suffering does not begin in sin, it is not the consequence of divine justice nor is it the product of evil alone. Suffering is built into the fabric of life – and Job was shaped intentionally to answer the fears and confusion that often come from a more fundamentalist faith. I’ll say more about that in a few minutes, but this is a key challenge: what does faith mean and look like in a life saturated with suffering?

Those are the three themes for this morning: Wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, the Gentile origins of Job and the challenge of faith when confronted by human suffering.  So let’s get down to it, ok?

Earlier this week, as I was reading a blog from Fr. Richard Rohr, I came across this wonderful summary of both the organization of the Old Testament and a theological interpretation of that very structure.  Quoting Walter Brueggemann, one of our nation’s finest Old Testament scholars, Rohr writes:

The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three major sections: the Torah, the Prophets and the Wisdom books. Walter Brueggemann says, and I think it is pure genius, that these three sections represent the ordinary and healthy development of human consciousness in a sequential way. The Torah gave the Israelites the Law and a sense of their chosenness. For healthy development, any culture or family must follow this pattern of first providing structure, which develops identity, boundaries, and self-worth as beloved and special.

The second set of books involves the Jewish Prophets and they represent the birth of critical thinking. The Prophets have clearly been the most neglected part of Scripture for both Jews and Christians, because neither showed much capacity for healthy self-criticism. You can see the rise of critical thinking in young people, but it is mostly oriented toward others instead of themselves. Parents often feel their teenagers oppose them on everything! And yet it is a necessary stage, though it often doesn't go far enough (Authentic prophetic criticism always includes the self and moves away from hubris towards humility.)

(And humility is what) the Wisdom section of the Hebrew Scriptures (is all about.) It includes the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs and many of the Psalms. Such Wisdom literature reveals an ability to finally be patient with mystery and contradictions and the soul itself. Wisdom people have passed through a major death to their ego...

Structure and law – prophetic social and self-criticism – and paradoxical wisdom born of humility: Job comes from the latter category but always presupposes the former, ok?  The way of structure and law is heard in this morning’s Psalm: make me to know your ways, O Lord… lead me in your truth… for you lead the humble in what is right for your pathway is filled with steadfast love and faithfulness. The poet is NOT speaking of my pathway or YOUR pathway, but the Lord’s way.

All of us need structure, training and guidance; that is foundational. Games have rules, sports have well-defined practices and boundaries, religions and societies have essential laws and precepts.

+ Small wonder that both Proverbs 9 and Psalm 111 teach that: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We have to start with the basics and create a structure.

But structure alone does not always create compassion or justice: for that we need the critique of the prophet.  Fr. Rohr suggests that prophets see our brokenness and our shadow sides and call them out into the light.
Prophets cry out against slavery and oppression, they challenge unfairness and injustice. They give a name to our narcissism and point out ways that we might live into faith, hope and love.

+ That is why the Lenten journey always includes the story about Jesus being forced out into the wilderness: he, too had to confront himself, his fears, his doubts and questions for 40 days and 40 nights.

+ Jesus needed to die to himself – to be fully humbled so that he could fully trust God – that’s why that story is included for us on the first Sunday in Lent.

For some reason, you see, it is only when we die to ourselves – when we own our own brokenness and are humbled enough to see and think and feel beyond the limits of our structures – that we can create alternatives. Marcus Borg, who sadly died not long ago, used to say that humility is at the core meaning of transformation:  only the humble have the ability to see and speak of an alternative wisdom instead of the mere maintenance of social order, the status quo and conventional wisdom.” How did Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit – blessed are the humble and meek – blessed are the pure in heart – for they shall become the comforted ones of God’s kingdom?

Are you still with me?  Job comes out of the Wisdom tradition – that collection of insights born of structure and prophetic self-criticism that gives rise to creative alternative insights.

+ And at the core of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition is a comfort with knowing that we can’t know everything.  It is embodied humility. The ability to trust without always seeing, to laugh at ourselves and know that there is always more light to be shared by God’s grace than we can know or even imagine.

In a word, the Wisdom tradition is comfortable with mystery. Think of Jesus in the garden before his Passion: what does he pray? Not MY will, Father, but THY will be done, right? St. Paul once said to the church in Corinth that was getting too big for its britches – treating some people as second class members – now some of you have become puffed up and full of yourselves… but, the Lord, willing, we’ll find out what you are really made of and put that arrogance to death.  A more tender statement can be found in Psalm 131:  O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too haughty or marvelous for me.
Rather, I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child at her mother’s breast… hope in the Lord from this time and for ever more. The wisdom of Job is all about humility and trust. 

And that humility and trust is a fascinating development in the maturation of the Job cycle. In its original non-Jewish form, this folktale concluded with Job being rewarded for his faithfulness. If you already know the story, there are two very clear endings:

+ One takes place after the Lord rants at Job for five chapters because Job has presumed to comprehend the mystery of the Creator of Creation. God will have none of it and explodes with righteous indignation.

+ The other ending occurs in the final 17 verses of the book wherein God restores everything that had once been taken away from Job so that the epilogue winds up sounding like a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. The scholar and author, Elie Wiesel, says in his commentary about Job that he doesn’t trust this epilogue at all; not only does it rings false to reality, it certainly rings false to the experience of Jews in history.

So what we have here is biblical and theological interpretation in action. 
Writer and poet, Stephen Mitchell, reminds us that one of the paradoxes of this great Jewish story is that “the hero is a Gentile… and the author of this story is as well.” He comes from the land of Uz – probably Edom to the south of Israel but maybe to the north in what might be modern day Syria – we don’t really know.  We just know that he isn’t a Jew – but Jewish poets and theologians played with the story and changed its original purpose to a more nuanced conclusion..

You see, the hero in the Jewish version of Job DOESN’T win. He remains a victim – because that’s how real life often works out. Further, his piety is NOT rewarded. Contrary to some earlier Jewish theology – notably Deuteronomy – that can point towards a type of Hebrew karma where good people are rewarded and bad guys reap what they sow; here, the good and blameless servant, Job, gets the shaft. Talk about a paradigm shift: not only does Job’s name literally mean either HOSTILE or PENITENT, talk about paradox; but as the story unfolds the blameless one becomes NOT whole, NOT upright and maybe NOT even blameless.

Scholars tend to think that in the time after the destruction of the first Temple, during that period when Israel was returning to a devastated Jerusalem and some priests were reconstructing a theology of order and clear structures – think in the beginning God created the world… and on the seventh day (the Sabbath) rested – others in the wisdom tradition were working out a way of understanding faith from within the whirlwind of real suffering. Their experience showed that there is often no direct correspondence between evil and brokenness. Sometimes, life makes no sense. And that is what the opening of Job tries to convey to us if we are paying attention beyond our naivet√©.

+ Chapter one/part one of the prologue introduces Job as a good man, blameless before the Lord – but he is also a man who is terrified of God. He is always second guessing himself, offering burnt offerings for this or that imagined transgression, a soul defined by anxiety.

+ And there seems to be a good reason for his anxiety, too as part two of the prologue unfolds:  on the day when the angels came to testify before the Lord God, the Accusing Angel, Satan, showed up and engaged the Lord our God in a cruel wager:  Let’s see if I can’t get your blameless servant, Job, to curse your face? To which the Lord our God agrees: Sure, Satan, give it a shot and let’s see what happens! (To which the father of depth psychology, Carl Jung, said in his commentary on Job: Good Lord, with a God like that who NEEDS a devil?!)

+ And then just to make sure we grasp the fear and trembling of Job’s life, a series of calamities occur:  invading enemies attack Job’s live stock and killed them all including his servants. And before one of the survivors could finish his tale of woe, another came along to report that not only were the oxen destroyed but also the sheep and the camels. And before that messenger could complete his report, another shouted that a huge windstorm had just collapse the house where Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and they were all now dead, too.

Got the picture? Job lived in fear of his God. God seems capricious and cavalier when it came to the lives of the faithful. And Job lost everything that gave his life value and meaning – his livelihood and his family – all because of a sacred wager with the Devil.  In his sorrow, Job cries: NAKED I CAME FROM MY MOTHER’S WOMB AND NAKED I SHALL RETURN. THE LORD GIVETH AND THE LORD TAKETH AWAY; BLESSED BE THE NAME OF THE LORD.  He grieves but he still loves and fears the Lord. 

To which Job’s wife shrieks:  Are you NUTS, man? You MUST have done
something wrong for the Lord to wreak such vengeance upon you.  Stop clinging to your innocence.  Just curse the Lord and die – and hurry up about – so we can get this over with! But Job replies:  Foolish woman, God has given us blessing so we must learn to accept the bad fortune that comes from the Lord, too. 

Do you sense the clash of theological perspectives I mentioned being defined here? How a traditional notion that God only punishes only the wicked is giving way to something more modern? It isn’t fully unpacked, but you grasp the tension?

We will leave Job’s story right there for today and pick up on it next week – with one caveat:  I believe that as contemporary, even post-modern women and men of the 21st century, we need to do the same thing with the story of Job in our generation as did our ancient cousins in Judaism. And as contemporary Jewish scholars continue to do today:  and I mean wrestle with this story. Refuse to be entrapped by fear or superstition or even traditionalism.

+ Raise questions – and follow them to their prophetic and compassionate conclusions. Explore alternative and non-conventional wisdom in the spirit of Jesus and the prophets.

+ For then the way of the Lord becomes a living vessel – pregnant with the steadfast love of the Lord and God’s compassion – and aching to give birth to the fullness of God’s grace.

In this hope I ask you to pray with me:

It is because we long for peace, Lord, that we open our hearts and minds to you this day. It is because we long for wholeness that we hunger and thirst for your nurture. It is because we need forgiveness that we seek new beginnings born of your grace. So we come to you entering the depths of our soul to plead for peace, to summon true wholeness and to beg forgiveness for ourselves and one another. In this our soul is embraced by you and we are embraced with one another. Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the light within our longings.  
                                                                                                          (John Philip Newell)



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