Job 42: 1-6, 10-17. Today we reach the end of the book of Job. Job, having listened to God’s assertion of their primacy, acknowledges his ignorance. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3) The lectionary moves on, skipping verses 7-9, and recounts how Job’s fortunes were restored, to “twice as much” as Job had had before. Job now has 14,000 shee, 6000 camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and another 1000 donkeys. He has more children, and “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters”. (42:15)
But I’m interested in the bit that is barely visible in the lectionary reading: what happens between Job’s acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and the restoration of his wealth and position. Here God gets angry at Job’s friends: the ones who had tried to protect themselves by telling Job he must have done something wrong. They are required to make a sacrifice and bring it to Job. Then Job prayed for them. It’s only after Job prays for his “friends” that his fortunes are restored.
From time to time on social media someone will quote Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Job would have been more than justified in ignoring his (former?) friends: they had showed him that they would not stand with him. I find it hard to think that they are still his friends. Instead, Job prays for them. That prayer opens the door for Job’s restoration. It’s something to think about: maybe we need to believe people are who they show themselves to be, and also pray for them. Praying for those who have hurt me is hard, but it’s also a comfort, because I can imagine that someone who I’ve hurt is praying for me.
Job thinks he’s been hard done by. After all, he was a righteous man, who did good, and followed God’s commandments. But since God’s deal with Satan, misfortune has overtaken him, and he doesn’t understand why. His friends are no help, suggesting maybe he really deserved it, if he’d done this or that differently he’d be fine. Now, in today’s reading, we hear the beginning of God’s response: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) The following verses proclaim God’s work in creating the world and watching over it. God reminds Job that Job’s not in control, God is. These words are echoed in Psalm 104, where the psalmist asserts, “You have set the earth on its foundations . . . O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all. (Psalm 104:5, 25)
We would mostly, like Job, want there to be a reason for suffering. “Why me?” is our frequent response to problems. Few of us want illness, suffering and pain, and if we can do something to prevent them, we will. People want to think that by virtuous living (whether it’s diet and exercise, or ethical decisions, or going to church every Sunday) they can escape illness, disaster, and loss. But it doesn’t work that way. Our response to such events is like Job’s: to lament, to cry out in grief and rage and ask why.
God’s response to Job is a reminder that we can’t control the outcome, which takes some responsibility off us. At the end, Job, who has now heard God’s voice again, proclaims not his virtue but his ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, thing too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3) I’m not happy with ignorance, and our own stories don’t always wrap up as neatly. Few of us have the reward of Job, who received “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10)! As we confront the losses we inevitably face, Job reminds us that this is not a new story; if we’re lucky, somewhere in the midst we will hear God’s voice.
The psalm for today is Psalm 22, whose first verse Jesus cries out from the cross. The despair mirrors the despair of Job, who in todays reading (Job 23:1-9, 16-17) laments that he cannot find God. In spite of his prayer, God’s hand is “heavy”. Prayer is not a magic spell, and the prayer of lament is a frequent form. Job and the psalmist have been abandoned, they think, by God. While Job is absorbed in God’s absence, the psalmist complains loudly, and notes that his enemies “laugh me to scorn”, because he trusted in God and God has abandoned him. His fate, he suggests, makes God look bad. This is not quite the feeling of “Why me?” that all of us have felt at one time or another when something terrible happens: these writers don’t understand why God isn’t there for them.
The dark night of the soul is a common experience in the lives of mystics, saints, and many people of faith: a feeling of being alone, being abandoned by God. It leads to doubt and fear. God isn’t there. Here’s the thing: they don’t stop talking to God. Job doesn’t stop, the psalmist didn’t stop. Mother Teresa spent 50 years worrying that God had rejected her, but she continued her ministry. Somehow they (and many others through the centuries) kept going because that seemed right. This is truly faith. Because of this, it’s too bad that the lectionary doesn’t include the last two verses of Psalm 22:
21 I will declare your Name to my brethren;
In the midst of the congregation I will praise you
According to Hebrews 1:3, Christ is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”. In our Baptismal covenant, we are asked if we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”. Since we recently celebrated a baptism, I made connections between these readings. If Christ is the exact imprint of God, and we seek Christ in all persons, who or what are we looking for? What is the “imprint of God’s very being” that we can see not just in Jesus, but implicitly, in everyone we meet? This exact imprint obviously isn’t the old man with a beard from Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine chapel: we meet plenty of people who don’t look like that! So the “exact imprint” is not physical; it’s about how we are in the world. And the Hebrew scriptures together give us an astonishing range of images of God: creative, disappointed, angry, judgmental, generous, kind, and merciful (to name a few). God looks very much like us. So maybe we don’t have to do anything special to be in the image of God. But there’s more: after God is angry (say, the flood), he is merciful. The world continues. This doesn’t help with our image of God if we want a physical image, but it does help us build an image of the living God.