lenten reflections on Job #3...
NOTE: Here are my worship notes for the Third Sunday in Lent - our on-going worship series on the Book of Job.
The fundamental reason why the book of Job was included in the Holy Scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity is because it encourages us to think deeply about what we believe. It gives us permission to change our minds when our limited understandings of God become outdated or hurtful. And it offers us a glimpse into the importance of anger in our spirituality. Righteous anger or a healthy, mature and holy fury is a corrective to both the bland and sappy spirituality that shapes so much New Age thinking as well as a constraint on self-serving rage that tends to confuse our prejudice for God’s wisdom. Like the old timers in the country used to say: it ain’t what you don’t know that causes you woe; it’s what you do know that just ain’t so!
For ancient Israel, the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE was the presenting problem. And the reason I keep reminding you of this history lesson from long ago and far away is that it caused a massive emotional and spiritual cataclysm in the way our ancestors in the faith did theology. Jewish historians state that the Temple’s destruction was the “watershed of Jewish history… that caused Israel to rebuild their lives physically and spiritually.”
Before the Temple’s obliteration by invaders from Babylon, the dominant understanding of God’s role in history went something like this – and if you were listening last week you heard it articulated three different ways by the friends of Job. God’s love requires fidelity: God promised protection and steadfast love to all who kept the holy covenant and destruction to those who did not.Two passages from the heart of the old tradition make this clear.
+ Deuteronomy 30: I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life that both thou and thy seed may live by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.
+ Joshua 24: And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
In this theological construct, those who were faithful were rewarded while those who violated or broke covenant were punished. Consequently, this came to mean that if you were suffering – if you were experiencing hardship or trouble – God’s judgment was at work in your life. Your pain was proof of your breach of the covenant.
So let’s be very specific about what covenant breaking really meant, ok? First, it had to do with worshipping other gods – idolatry. Second, it had to do with acts that wounded the common good – murder and theft. And third, violating God’s covenant involved breaking the bonds of trust and intimacy at the most private level – adultery.
These were the expressions of faithlessness that Israel’s prophets railed against: these sins tore apart the fabric of a just and peaceful society, they placed selfishness and arrogance at the heart of living rather than sharing and compassion and they treated commitment as a mere commodity that could be bought and sold or even discarded. These are still the practices that wound our world today – from war and avarice to lust and lies – it is no wonder the ancient prophets continue to sound so relevant. What does the Lord require asked Micah? Only this: love compassion, do justice and walk in humility with your God.
Now if you read the history of Israel’s kings – and the genealogies of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke are insightful here – you discover something really interesting: there were both wonderful and compassionate rulers alongside of scoundrels. Some loved the Lord with all their heart, mind and soul while others loved only themselves or other gods. Some served justice and compassion as servants of shalom while others bled the people dry – especially the poor. There were good and bad, wheat and tares, blessings and curses all mixed up together. So when the first Temple was eventually sacked after the holy city of Jerusalem had been surrounded for months – causing starvation and sickness – tens of thousands of innocent people died either from the siege or the subsequent famine and disease. Those who tried to escape were captured and held in massive slave camps and Israel’s leadership was led into captivity in chains to Babylon.
+ Do you know the song “By the Waters of Babylon?” It is actually Psalm 137 – a lament cried out in despair – asking the Lord how can we ever sing of your love again while we rot away in exile?
+ The prophet Ezekiel’s story tells the same tale in the opening verses: In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day… I sat stunned among the exiles (in Babylon) by the river Chebar.
The prophet Ezekiel, you see, had trained to be a priest – he expected to serve in the holy of holies – but now he was sitting by the waters of Babylon stunned and dejected and weeping. But it was in this pain – in this confusion – in this upside reality of solidarity and compassion that the word of the Lord came to him. And in time, Israel rebuilt itself and its religion. They rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem, too – but the emphasis had shifted. Now the work of the synagogues gained greater prominence as did the importance of “inner temples” in the hearts and minds of each believer: this was a season of incredible change. I think of the way the prophet, Jeremiah, put it:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Now we know from our own lives and histories that during times of tumult and great social and spiritual change, some leaders will rise up and reclaim a fundamentalist orientation – let’s go back to the good old days when we were certain of God’s laws – when heroes weren’t zeroes and men were men and women were glad of it! At the same time, however, others start to explore more creative and nuanced ideas about God’s place within and among us. Some go deep within as contemplatives while others search for a philosophical and even existentialist way of loving God and serving our neighbors.
It is my sense that the book of Job attempts to do both of these later and more creative things: it invites a more inward and reflective exploration of God’s covenant rather than a strict fundamentalist perspective; and, it urges us to rethink how we see signs of the holy in our ordinary experiences so that we might strengthen the common good even in our confusion. I think that Job is both a theological exploration of the mystery of God’s ways that we can never fully comprehend as well as an invitation to live for justice and compassion even in during hardship. And let me try to explain why I’ve come to this conclusion: Job brings a profoundly Jewish reinterpretation to a much older Babylonian folk tale.
After the destruction of the first Temple, Jewish poets and theologians played with this old story. They were searching for new insights from within the old ways which is a time tested method of teasing out God’s wisdom for a new generation. Look at the old stories, the old poems, songs and texts that have been pushed to the periphery by the dominant culture the sages tell us. Learn to wrestle with what has fallen into the shadows of the tradition for there you will find what the powerful want us to forget and reject. And as this school of poets and scholars did so, they discovered two broad truths that become central to the book of Job.
+ First they reclaimed the Hebrew word hesed. It occurs 247 times in the Hebrew Bible and is an essential ingredient of the prophets’ message. Remember when I lifted up Micah’s aphorism concerning what does the Lord require?
+ There are three things: do JUSTICE – mishpat – love COMPASSION and the relationships of the covenant – hesed – and walk with HUMILITY – tsana halak – with your God – elohim.
This call to love and embody compassion – hesed – runs through the prophets as well as the Psalms. It is found at the heart of Torah – the law – as well as the songs of Israel. Sometimes our English translations obscure this by rendering the word hesed as steadfast love, loving kindness, mercy or covenantal loyalty. But over and again, the call to embody compassion is central to the Hebrew Bible. In fact, I would suggest that compassion becomes the critique of the old theology that Job’s friends try to force on him.
Last week my point was that no matter how much Job’s friends loved him – and they really did love him – the way they thought about God and real life came out cruel. In the aftermath of the violence and suffering surrounding the destruction of the first Temple, some of Israel’s best minds and hearts were exploring an alternative way of honoring the covenant: compassion. The Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah put it concisely: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ And more than abstract hope, too: if God’s compassion never ceases, so then must MY compassion – OUR compassion – never cease. It must become the core of how we honor the covenant. That’s one new emphasis that grew out of the suffering and confusion after the destruction of the first Temple: hesed.
The other is this: let us never again become so blind to our own hubris andself-satisfaction that we think we understand the Lord. Theologians of all stripes and traditions fall into this trap because theology has been defined as faith in search of meaning. If it is done with compassion and humility in pursuit of justice, then we can sometimes stumble upon insights into the mystery of God’s ways. But too often we love the sound of our own voices – and become infatuated with what we think are original insights and ideas – and we forget that we are neither the center of the universe nor the crown of creation.
+ The prophetic poet Isaiah put it like this: Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
+ This is something new – something humble – something mystical that recognizes and honors human limitation. Psalm 131 says much the same thing but with a very tender voice: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and for evermore.
+ And never forget the way St. Paul passed on this new tradition to those of us who celebrate Christianity: For now we see in a mirror, dimly – a glass darkly - but later we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love these three abide, and the greatest of these is love.
Compassion – humility – and right relations – justice: these three things abide when we realize that God’s ways are not our ways; when we practice trusting like a child rather than standing upon our own limited wisdom. This is new – this is hard – this requires doing faith in a new key because we like to know what’s going on. We love to be in control.
Earlier this week I was reading Nora Gallagher’s book about her illness, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, where she describes her own terror and confusion as her eyes start to malfunction. In time she discovers that she is suffering from an autoimmune disease and this type of disease is currently incompressible to most of science. She writes:
Human beings may one day comprehend why the body seems to turn against itself - there are some evolutionary theories emerging that might be helpful - but the current facts are only descriptive rather than prescriptive. Still, our quest for understanding and control causes people to say thing like: well, what did you DO to cause this problem? We want to have answers, we want to explain how things happen, we want cause and effect... and we have so little tolerance for not knowing, for reaching the limits of reason that we make up stories that will explain, satisfy and put to bed.
+ That’s what the old theology says – the theology guiding the love of Job’s friends from last week – who were certain that Job’s anguish and pain had to be the result of God’s judgment.
+ Now this doesn’t fit with Job’s reality – it has nothing to do with humility or compassion – and doesn’t make anyone healthier or more holy but… it seems to explain something mysterious so it was kept in circulation long after its shelf-life was up. We WANT to know WHY even when we cannot.
Gallagher goes on to tell about a doctor who couldn’t wrap his head around the mystery of an autoimmune disease: “He gave it some thought,” she writes, “asked me a few more questions and then said, 'Your grandmother committed suicide, didn't she? We could think of autoimmune as a form of suicide."
I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to get off the phone. He wanted an explanation that would... would what? ... (Explain the inexplicable?) He was determined to hold fast against the knowledge that such a place existed outside of cause and effect. It must be because my grandmother committed suicide. He must have done something terribly wrong. It must be something he ate or drank or did. Or else? I finally understood: or else it could happen to them!
+ That is exactly what Job’s friends who were bound by the old theology said and did and believed: OMG it could happen to us – every mysterious hurt and disgrace that plagued Job could capture us, too. Better to shout out the old ways louder than make room for the inexplicable
+ And after 29 chapters of blame and shame, fear and trembling and cruelty masked in pious but outdated theology, Job finally explodes. And please notice that his eruption in anger is at God – not so much at his friends (although they don’t please him very much) – but Job directs all the fury and force of his pain at God.
For NINE lengthy chapters, Job rants and fumes at the Lord his God. He never curses the Lord, but he certainly throws all the bile and disgust he can muster in God’s direction. Because – and this is where we’ll stop for today – because Job has to find a place for moral outrage and holy anger in his relationship with the Lord. If God was to become fully alive and real for Job, and Job was to experience real intimacy with the sacred as an adult in a complex world, the old ways had to die. And as hard as this is to say, I think Job had to become sick and tired and angry of living in the old way before something new could be born.
+ He wasn’t going to give up his old securities without a fight. They had worked for too long even though they were now cruel and abusive. No, the only way Job was going to meet the true God of mercy, compassion and humility was through his anger.
+ Job had to KNOW in his gut there was something beyond his suffering. He had to embody the cathartic blessing of moral outrage – even at the Lord – if he was going to pass through his baptism of fire. And he had to do this with all the passion he possessed in his heart, soul, mind and spirit.
Job’s anger represents spiritual maturity. For 29 chapters Job is beaten down and remains stooped over in shame and fatigue. But when he lets loose about the injustice and chaos he has experienced, “he becomes upright again.” (Stephen Mitchell) He becomes not a passive serf, but an ally of God’s powerful compassion and grace. Jesus put it like this: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – God’s justice and compassion – for they shall be filled.”