Let’s Not Rewrite History – A Sermon on Job’s Friends and John 9

This month is called Neighbours. The imagery we are playing with this month is the idea of different people living together, in different and unique looking homes but still being on the same street. This will lend itself for us understanding how God interacts with us and also how we should interact with each other. So we are going to shape this month by the book of Job. The book of Job is a unique book and it consists of two parts. There is the narrative account of Job’s trial and his restoration and then the majority of the text are speeches from his friends, himself and God that dialogue on the issue of suffering. We would call Job wisdom literature and there are many comparable other texts in other religious writings. There is the Protests of the Eloquent Peasant that is similar that is about a peasant who is robbed and the authorities refuse to listen to his complaint. Job could also be compared with The Admonitions of Ipu-wer where Ipu-Wer protests the upheaval in society and is distressed at the decline of morality. The most commonly known parallel is one called “I will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” also known as “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” or the “Babylonian Job.” A powerful man is suddenly reduced to dreadful suffering and laments in great detail. He knows of no sin in his life but unlike Job does not rebuke or condemn his God. There have been plenty of parallels made between Job and the righteous suffering servant in Isaiah and eventually Jesus. I mention these because it’s important to note that the problem of good and evil and suffering is a question that all cultures, and all religions are wrestling with and have been wrestling with since we know of humans existence.

This month we are going to pull apart the text just a bit and split it three ways. We have a whole lot of speeches in the text that typically when we hear the story we ignore completely. We enjoy focusing on the story where job gets tested a bunch of crappy things happen and then in the end he gets everything back but even better. However I think that is the entire problem with this text is that we don’t spend any time in the speeches.

If we look at the story of Job as a man who was innocent and then got crapped on from whatever powers he was subject too but because he was innocent and stay steadfast to God, he was then blessed later, then we are going to have some serious theological issues. It is these theological issues that I want to tackle today. I think we have embedded deep in us a sense of what is called retribution theology that I think needs to go. Retribution theology is a theology that tells us that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. The underlying assumption is that there is a God out there that rewards good behaviour and punishes bad behaviour. We even take this belief into our views of eternity. Unfortunately, that is the opposite of most things that the Scriptures teach us, and I think the book of Job faces into these questions pretty directly. So this month if you want to, you can read the story of Job on your own, just read the first two chapters and the last one and that basically summarizes what actually happens. However, it is important to note that most scholars agree/disagree that the story is different than the dialogue. Whoever wrote it probably took a similar story and reworked it so he could frame his dialogue. So this morning we are going to stick with Job’s friends, follow their framework of speeches and see how it fits into the larger story and then see how it fits into our story and if we have anything to learn from it at all. We’ll jump into Job’s speeches next week and then God’s speeches in the third week.

So, there are three sets or cycles of speeches in Job from the friends. In the first cycle we have Job’s friends that show up on the scene and they try to console Job by recounting to him the just and wise ways of God. They sit with him for a few days, but then it seems like they want to do a bit more than just have compassion, so they start talking. They make large and general statements about what blessed people look like and their blessings and compare them to the calamity that falls on the wicked. They push Job to keep seeking God, promising him prosperity and joy.

Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple. I myself have seen a fool taking root, but suddenly his house was cursed. His children are far from safety, crushed in court without a defender. The hungry consume his harvest, taking it even from among thorns, and the thirsty pant after his wealth. For hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.
Job 5:1-7

Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal. From six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will befall you. In famine he will ransom you from death, and in battle from the stroke of the sword. You will be protected from the lash of the tongue, and need not fear when destruction comes. You will laugh at destruction and famine, and need not fear the beasts of the earth.
Job 5:17-22

I know we’ve all experienced calamity in our own ways, and I want to get an idea of how and when you’ve been this type of friend or you have been this kind of friend. The kind of friend we are talking about here is the kind that sees the problems, that’s why they are there in the first place, and then just keeps reminding you that God is good, God is just, all things work together for the good of those who trust in God. Here is some of the things that Job’s friends were saying.

Have you ever been this type of friend? Have you ever had these types of friends? What are some of the positive or negative results of this type of thinking and friendship?

For me these verses do very little to comfort. There is the benefits of continually being reminded that God is good, and that he loves me and that he doesn’t want to bring harm to me in anyway. It is good to be reminded of these things. However, there is a few things wrong with this picture. For starters, the friends had to come from their homes to come and sympathize and comfort him. Their motives were good, but where they were coming from doesn’t help the situation really at all. All your friends coming from their places of wealth and privilege to sit with you in your place of misery is not a recipe for encouragement. Then as they come, they don’t spend a lot of time actually offering much in terms of comfort; he gets more of a sermon. He gets a sermon about what the fate of the wicked are. He gets another sermon on the fate of the righteous. Then he is told to seek God and has to hear proverbs read off, and other scripture that is just quoted to him. There is no real consolation happening here. Before he even really opens his mouth he is being told that the things that are happening to him are the types of things that happen to wicked people. He is being told that the lives that they are living are the types of lives that righteous people live. He is being encouraged to be more righteous so he might inherit the fate of the righteous. Talk about accusation and assumption to the poor man. Then Job jumps into his speeches back at them and spends most of his time describing the suffering, describing his fear and sorrow for all human suffering. It seems that Job wants to talk about something a little different. Not about what he may or may have not done wrong but rather just realizing that the present situation sucks. No matter how he got there or didn’t, it sucks, but it’s a present reality and there isn’t much point in analyzing it now. For him it wasn’t about analyzing the situation, because in his opinion, he didn’t do anything wrong. All Job wanted and needed was a little bit of comfort, someone to suffer along side of him.

This is the first thing that I think it’s important for us to remember when we deal with people, or when we deal with sorrow ourselves. Analyzing why things are the way they are does not help anybody or anything. It burns bridges and makes it more about what they did right or wrong than about the fact that they are suffering greatly. Christians still do this today. For some reason we have determined that it is our job to be the moral whistle blowers of the world so if someone is doing something that is wrong or sinful we feel the undeniable desire to tell them. We think our bible is full of answers as to why everything happens, so we make some sort of reason up for everything. Do this so this will happen, don’t do this so this won’t happen. Now the good Christians will only give you examples of other people and won’t accuse and judge you, but that’s what they are thinking. The bad Christians, while they just outright tell you why bad things are happening. We have lost the ability to sympathize, instead we analyze situations. This is the ultimate epitome of theology backfiring. When theology ostricizes us from community and relationships and turns what should be about a relationship into a theological example, we have gone a long way from where God intends.

We throw around key bible verses like God works everything for the good of those who love him or God has plans to prosper us. We completely lose touch of any ability to mourn alongside of or sympathize with those that are suffering. We turn the one situation into a lesson or some universal example of how things are and try to fit it into our box of how we understand the world works. So we tell stories about other miseries. We give examples of how this kind of stuff has happened to other people you know. We start splitting the world and every situation into two categories. Righteous and Wicked, Good and Bad. There is no other category for their world. They only see the world in black and white. So it’s easy then to make assumptions. Really all it is is failed logic.

We know that: Bad things are happening to you and Bad things happen to bad people. So we assume that: Bad things are happening to you because you are a bad person.

We know that: Good things are happening to you and Good things happen to good people. So we assume that: good things are happening to you because you are a good person.

This is pretty much along the same belief cycle as those that believe in Karma today. Karma is the belief of a cause and effect world. That you can offer good into the universe and more good will come from it, and the same goes for bad. Whether you believe it is the universe or God that inevitably produces the good or bad result doesn’t really matter. The point is that Karma sees an absolute connection with your goodness and badness and whether or not goodness and badness will befall you. Job’s friends believed in Karma.

For some reason, at this point in the story, this is all Job’s friends worldviews can comprehend. There is no room for anything else. You’re either bad or good. So while they are saying it in this first cycle of speeches yet, the foundation is laid for where this conversation is going to end up.

Job offers his response. Basically, shut the heck up. What do you know? I’d rather silence than listen to this dribble. You aren’t helping. You don’t know what you are talking about. You are not in my shoes.

My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it. What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. But I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God. You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you! If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom. Hear now my argument; listen to the plea of my lips.
Job 13:1-6

So we move into the second cycle of speeches and some days have probably gone by, maybe weeks or months, and the friends start to think that Job must have done something wrong. They now stop even the little consolation that they were offering him and start making broad accusations against him.

“Would a wise man answer with empty notions or fill his belly with the hot east wind? Would he argue with useless words, with speeches that have no value? But you even undermine piety and hinder devotion to God. Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty. Your own mouth condemns you, not mine; your own lips testify against you.
Job 15:2-6

So as the conversation progresses, the friends are starting to get a little frustrated. Now he is for sure full of some kind of sin. Only sin would cause someone to call God out like he Job is doing. So you start to get defensive and hurl accusations back. Like whoa buddy, watch your mouth, do you even know what you are talking about. You’re letting this sin over take your words and it’s going to get you in even more trouble. Our God doesn’t want you talking like this to him. Keep quiet and seek your own life for what you’ve done wrong.

The first cycle of speeches at least had numerous lines of praise to God and calls to repentance. This second cycle is a bit different. Those lines of praise and repentance are absent. The three friends spend their time trying to convince Job that he is numbered in and among the wicked. Great friends they are aren’t they?

The third cycle gets even worse. Now we have Eliphaz, who does most of the talking start directly accusing Job of very specific sins.

You demanded security from your brothers for no reason; you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked. You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, though you were a powerful man, owning land– an honored man, living on it. And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless.
Job 22:6-9

At this point in the story its just getting ridiculous. As the reader we know he is innocent, but we get a peek into the hearts of Job’s friends here. Job just starts taking a beating and starts getting accused of every sin in the book. This is the next logical step of where his friends have to take the conversation. See, when we see the world in black and white, and when we see God as a follower of formula’s, and when we think we know what those formulas are, we are unable to see things working any other way. Bad things are happening, therefore you must be bad. That’s the bottom line. This type of thinking isn’t just around in Job’s day. Our world, our Christian faith is saturated in this.

When we make assumptions, we are giving over to our own desires to control. We have answers for everything. If you want happiness, then you just follow these seven easy steps. If you want to have a good relationship with your son, then just do these three things daily. Everything has been reduced to a formula, and the worst part is that we assume the formula works and we start applying it to our own lives. We don’t know what to do when something goes wrong, because we have to have answers. Now we have formula’s for ridiculous things. There are workshops everywhere for how to become a millionaire. There are hundreds of techniques to remove baldness or to make your penis grow an inch bigger.

Let me give you a few modern day examples of these types.

Obviously it’s easy to pick on these guys, but this is the same type of consolation that Job’s friends offered him (of course with these guys there is a lot of financial gain involved and they don’t really sound like they are consoling). But this is underlying a lot of our consolation efforts. I think for us in this room, the intentions are pure, I just think we are misguided many times because we make unnecessary links in our heads about why things happen. In fact we do this without really knowing it. We feel so uncomfortable when our theologies don’t work out in real life that we try to force fit stories into our theology. We can’t just do that though, even though we might not know any other way.

Let me tell you a story about a king. This king was a rich king that had all the money in the world. Everything was at his beck and call. He always found himself unsatisfied in every pursuit though. Every time he purchased anything he found that he didn’t want it after he had it. He had a wife, but they were on a rough patch and the relationship was dwindling and turning into more of a formality than anything that a marriage should be. One day this king is sitting in his room, and a parlormaid walks in. This girl is beautiful. She looks flawless. She walks in with just enough confidence and at the same time with humility. She brings him food and he pushes the food aside and starts talking to her. He flirts a little, making some jokes about the servants and the type of food that they bring him. She laughs and they keep getting closer and closer. Eventually, after a few hours, they are right next to each other, drinking and laughing together when he leans in and kisses her. If this was a movie, the kissing would get more passionate and of course we are at church, and this is PG, so the screen would fade to black.

The next scene we see them in bed together after just have making love. The king looks into her eyes and says that he has never been happy until this moment. He says that he doesn’t know what he has to do, but whatever it is, he will make it work so they can be together for the rest of his life. They kiss again, her thinking that it’s impossible. They are talking again and he seems more serious. Whatever I need to do to make this happen, I am going to do it. We will start with you having to bring me every meal, breakfast, lunch dinner and all my tea. Then we will see how it goes from there. The parlormaid felt the same way towards the king, she was also in love with him. So she agreed. They agree that it will be difficult, the have to hide this love affair from the other servants, his wife and the entire kingdom, but they both agree that they won’t let that stop them. They embrace, grab hands and and stare into each others eyes as the screen goes black and text scrolls on and says “and they lived happily ever after.”

So how does a story like this make us feel?

It sort of eats away at us doesn’t it? I think it’s crucial to be honest about our feelings. Deep down we want justice here and now. We want to know that people who do something wrong, at the very least aren’t happy. Our theology tells us that people can’t be happy and be sinning, they can’t be happy and be wrong, or at least they can’t be happy for ever. So instead of changing our theology to realize that rain falls on just and unjust and that the wicked prosper with just as much, we get stubborn and try to re-write the story. We kick the person out. We tell ourselves the King deserved it. We accuse the person. We say things are there that aren’t really there, or we add things to the story that aren’t really there. We want the wife to stomp in and go insane and kill everyone in sight. Or we want him to realize his failure and stop seeing the girl and ask for forgiveness. But the story doesn’t leave us with that. How do we befriend someone like this? Do we constantly bombard this king with cliche lines about the fate of the wicked? Do we tell him over and over again to repent? If we do, why are we doing that? Is it only because of the fate that we think is going to befall on him? If that is the case, are we not just asking him to repent so he doesn’t get in trouble? It’s a complicated place to be in. We don’t really know what to do with a bad story ending happily. Just like we don’t know what to do with a good story that ends horrible. You know those movies, that are great and uplifting, then everyone dies and the movie is over. You know how you feel inside. It just isn’t right. So we want to rewrite the story. This is what Job’s friends were trying to do to Job, re-write the story for him and tell him what he did wrong. This is sort of what we want to do for this king, we want to rewrite the ending so it fits with how we think the world should be.

The same types of friends existed around Jesus time. In John 9 we are told a story of a blind man that Jesus and his disciples were passing and instantly they ask him a question about the man.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Here we go again isn’t it? Who cares that the man is blind, who cares that this man has probably spent his entire life suffering with blindness, let’s get all theological on him and figure out why it happened. There obviously was lots of discussion as to why this guy was blind before hand and they seemed to have narrowed it down to a few options. We do it with everyone don’t we? Why do all of the Natives surrounding us live in such dire poverty? Oh, it’s because they are lazy and they don’t really care. Why is the United Church falling apart? It must be because they legalized gay marriage in their denomination. Why did that woman lose her baby? Well it must be because she left her husband. The connections go on and we link everything with everyone. We have reasons why everything happens everywhere all the time. Unfortunately we don’t come to these conclusions because they are always true. I’m not discrediting the fact that there are certainly consequences and rewards for our actions, but let’s just not pretend that every action produces the desired results.

Jesus answers with

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

Now Jesus doesn’t seem to say or debunk the fact that there is no way in the world that this man is blind because of sin in his life or someone else’s. I think it’s safe to assume, that it could be a possibility that this is why he is blind. Jesus simply gives them an answer that says that this isn’t the necessarily the case. This is our problem with living in black and white all the time. It might be black, but it might not be, and we really have no idea in most cases what colour it is. The answer cannot be to pick one of the answers and stick to it fervently. We have to somewhat live in the uncomfortable middle ground of not knowing. Unfortunately, this is super uncomfortable and we don’t want to be there, but I’m afraid in many cases this is our only option. As Richard Rohr puts it…

“What I believe is that the character, the very heart, of biblical faith is not to reach resolution and not to gain closure, but to live without resolution . . . and to be okay with that.”
– Richard Rohr

Read all of John 9

This chapter is kind of like a parallel to the book Job. Just look at the Pharisees. They can’t understand how God works outside of their box. The guys a sinner, there is no way God would have healed him. They eventually kick out the very guy who was healed. That is just the logical progression of such beliefs. If you think in black and white about people and circumstances. If God only works one way in their heads, then everything opposite of that way is sinful, or anti-God. This is the problem with putting God “in a box” as we Christians love to put it. I like to say we make formula’s for how God works. Unfortunately, both are not true. The Pharisees are going nuts in this chapter. They are going to the greatest lengths to rewrite the reality of this man’s healing. So much so they kick him to the street and call everyone a liar, they bring in the guys parents, they basically run an entire court case. They just can’t believe that their God would work this way.

Jesus at this point debunk this myth and teach us a different way to approach life.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

Jesus tends to flip everything on its head in everything he’s saying. First he says from this story that both of the regularly presuppositions as to why someone would be blind is wrong, then he faces into the entire attitude between those who can’t imagine God working outside of their formulas. He says, hey listen you people that think you have God figured out. You people that think you SEE everything and know how everything works. I came to help people that can’t see anything see, and I came to make all those that think they see things not be able to see anything at all. So by the end of this story. All those that had put God in boxes. To make huge statements about how God can and cannot work. Those that think they know who sinned and what they did and are convinced that God wouldn’t work in this way are blinded by their own need to explain and know everything. They are made blind because they can only see inside their box, and God is nowhere near it.

I live like this often. I buy into this type of retribution theology all the time. I assume that because I am doing the right thing, making the right decisions, that good things will end up happening. However, this just isn’t reality. The problem is, it is nicer and neater to believe in this, so instead of just accepting the mystery and the way things are, we try to force fit life into our theology. We are good at that. But it’s just not true. In fact, Jesus seems to think that that kind of thinking leads to blindness, not more understanding.

The answer is not and cannot be to concoct more formula’s and try to understand why God does things and then when we figure it out put the rest of life into them. It won’t work. We will be tempted to do it. Especially when it seems to obvious to us.

What are some of the formula’s for God and the way life works that we have made up?

We could look through the parables and see how Jesus constantly smashes every preconceived idea of every formula that the religious people had. They thought they were going to be freed from Roman oppression. They thought God cared if they were picking up sticks on the sabbath. They thought it was wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. They thought the strong would inherit the kingdom of heaven. They thought Jesus didn’t care about kids. Or that it was ok to exchange money in the temple. Or that their messiah would not die. Or that purity would save you. Or that you could be rich and still enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus never stopped showing people that he was unlike anything that they could comprehend. However, we seem to have missed this today. For some reason we think we have learned everything there is to know. We think that there are no categories left to break down in our minds. We think that the Bible tells us everything we need to know about what is right and wrong. There is no room in our formula’s for God to show us anything differently.

The only response, the response Jesus leaves us with no choice but to have, is that of blindness. Blindness is a symbol for humility. It’s the understanding that we don’t create the restraints of God by our understandings of him or his scriptures. We can’t fit him into our boxes. He can do what he pleases. As soon as we start to say God only does this, or God will only act like this, we’ve successfully pulled a Pharisee. This takes great humility. It takes honesty with our weakness and understanding the grace of God.

This inevitably puts us all on the same page. Its puts us on the same street. In the old paradigm of formulas and karma, we start to tell people where they are off. We act like Job’s friends saying that this is what good people look like, this is what bad people look like. This is what happens to good people, this is what happens to bad people. It puts us on different streets, in different neighbourhoods. We think that our street is the only street that God is on. What humility does is teach us that we all might be in different houses, understanding God from our perspective, but from where God is, we are all on the same street. We are all neighbours. Let’s pray this together.

God, forgive us for our formulas
Forgive us for thinking we know how it works
Forgive us for thinking we can see clearly
Have mercy on us, as our understanding is small

We are blind
We are unable to see everything you are doing
We are unaware of how you are at work
We are unsatisfied with not knowing

So give us eyes to see
Give us ears to hear
Show me where you have given grace
So I may extend the same grace to others

Show me who my neighbours are
Show me where you are at work
Break my formulas
Show me grace instead

Amen.

4 Comments

  • Just read this in After You Believe, Wright’s new book.

    …thinking about what one ought to be doing is one of the key elements in virtue ethics, as opposed to schemes of ethics based upon mere rules obeyed unthinkingly or upon “spontaneity” or “authenticity.” In the former case, you don’t need to think anymore once you’ve got the rules — but, like certain rugby players who have dozens of formal “moves” but have never really acquired a second-nature instinct for the game, you will be lost when a new situation arises for which the rules… provide no clear answer. In the latter case — spontaneity or authenticity — you shouldn’t think too hard (in fact you shouldn’t really think at all), because what matters is what “comes naturally.” Paul does of course want the young Christians to develop to the point where, as mature followers of Christ, they will gradually find that the Christian habits of heart and life “come naturally”. But to get to that point they must learn to think, must be transformed by the renewal of their minds,” and must then allow that transformation to inform and redirect their habits of life. p173

    Wright points out that not only is it not about rules, it is also not about whatever feels authentic, right at the time or in the moment. We need to move both within and between these two camps and in order to do that we need to use our heads. So don’t do it because of some feeling and don’t do it because of some rule or playbook. Do it because after considering it, it is the right thing to do. If Christianity is about the renewing of our mind we need to use it.

    I bring this up because its not just about whether or not there is a rule or a reason, and you can’t just throw in a H.S. wildcard or a flip-ant we will understand in eternity at the problem, it’s about growing closer through contemplation, about realizing that the answer may change as our minds are renewed, hopefully they will change.

    Biologically a living thing ceases to be alive when it quits moving (obviously this is a very basic understanding) therefore because I can claim eternal life in Christ, I must be ever changing, ever moving, and always willing to keep moving even though most of the time it feels like one step forward two steps back.

    Be encouraged when like an etch a sketch someone or some situation causes the frame to empty. The simple drawings you once made as a child are meant to be left behind as your understanding, your skill, your patience increase.

  • Steve, Awesome, thanks for that quote and your thoughts.

  • good stuff Nathan – thanks for making it accessible to the readers over at BTG too.

  • Thank you for sharing. This was exactly what I needed to read.

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