After a month of reading through the book of Job on Sundays, you would think today would feel victorious. Finally, Job is rewarded for all his suffering! The text tells us that God restores the fortunes of Job and gives Job twice as much as he had before. Family members return to greet him and shower him with gifts, and he is blessed with ten new children. For any of us who have been through a time of suffering, this should feel like great news.
But this week, as I have been praying on this text, I cannot shake the hollow feeling of this good news today. Sure, Job has ten new children, but they can never erase the memory of the ten children he lost. Sure, all his wealth is returned, but after losing everything, having his friends and family abandon and blame him, and sitting covered in boils, surely wealth had lost its value and importance to Job. The good news of this text has left me feeling hollow because I just cannot imagine how Job lives into this good news. How can he conceive children with his wife who mocked him and God, risk loving again, and know that his children will never know the reality of the suffering he experienced. And his family and friends who return with gifts – where were they when he needed them?
I struggle too because we do not really get answers today from Job or God. We never really find out why God allows Job’s blessings to be taken away. The only semblance of an answer happened last week when God railed against Job for assuming that Job could understand the ways of God. But an answer does not come in the blessings either. The last verses of the book of Job do not “say that God restored Job’s fortunes and relationships in response to Job’s words of repentance and humility. Instead, God’s reasons for giving things to Job are as unexplained as the reasons they were taken away. God does not explain suffering, but God does not explain beatitude either.”[i] We are left at the end of a month of Job no clearer about suffering and blessing than we were when we started.
Maybe this ending to Job feels hollow to me now because I have seen and experienced too much of Job’s journey. I have held in prayer friends, family, and parishioners who have sat in the ashes of suffering with neither of us finding satisfactory answers. I have listened to St. Margaret’s stories of pain and suffering that happened in the years before my arrival. And I have had more friends than I wish to count who have lost a child in pregnancy. Many of us here have lost teen or adult children. Having journeyed with friends, I know that you can never replace those children.
I think also the ending of Job feels hollow to me because the ending does not address Job’s relationship with God. God and Job have been on incredible journey. Job moves in the book from talking about God with his friends to talking more and more directly to God. What was once a theological concept is now an intimate relationship. Job manages throughout the journey to hold on to “God with one hand and shake his fist at God with the other. He stays in relationship with God, addressing God directly even from the depths of despair.”[ii] But the ending of Job does not really give us a clue about what that relationship looks like going forward. Are they back to square one? Does Job go back to being blessed and on good terms with God? Now that his blessing is doubled, does God slip back into the background, unnecessary or at least not thought about too much?
As I have struggled with this text, I finally began to find footing in the small details of the text today. The first details are in Job’s confession at the beginning of the lesson. Job confesses that his relationship with God has changed. Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” In other words, Job declares that he had heard about God, but now he knows God. This journey of suffering and pain changes Job’s experience of God – from being a relationship of dutiful obedience and distant reverence, to a deep intimacy and knowledge. He no longer simply knows God cognitively; Job knows God in the depths of his being. As Job experiences utter devastation, loss, abandonment, and pain; as Job rages at God in anger and fury; as Job moans through his misery – Job never pushes God away. Through some forty chapters of pain, Job manages to grow into deeper love of God.
The other small detail in Job where I find footing today comes in how he orders his life in the midst of his restored fortunes. Job does not tell his family and friends – the abandoners – to go away, holding a grudge against them that can never be healed. Instead, he receives their gifts without protest. Job does not live a guarded life. Instead, he risks new life with his wife which results in the birth of ten children. And Job does not return to the same old way of doing things. Instead he gives his daughters an inheritance just like his sons. That may not sound like a big deal by modern standards, but giving an inheritance to his daughters is a huge deal. This act by Job is a radical and innovate way of extending his own transformation by transforming the social order for his daughters.[iii] The way that Job orders his life during his restored fortunes says a lot about how this ordeal has transformed him.
In the midst of what can feel like a hollow ending, we two can find hope for our own spiritual journey. We learn two things from Job. First, our relationship with God is indeed a journey. The experience of Job gives us permission to be angry with God, to question God, to be a fully and ignorantly limited human with God, and to humbly stand with God. We can do all of this not as defeated individuals but as transformed individuals – so transformed, in fact, that we can be a people who endeavor to risk love.
The other thing that we learn from Job is to redefine our understanding of blessedness. We never hear in the text about how Job feels about being doubly blessed. I like to imagine that Job is sober about his second blessing, his experience of suffering coloring the blessing. On Simone’s first day of school in Delaware, when I met her teacher, we both were shocked by the recognition. Simone’s teacher was a Habitat homeowner who had gone through the program when I worked with Habitat for Humanity. Here was a woman who had gotten into a situation of housing instability. Her income was 25-50% of median income. Her children were squeezed into one room at a friend’s house. Their anxiety and stress had been overwhelming. But she put in hundreds of hours of sweat equity, she built a home, and she stabilized her family. Simone’s teacher could have gone back to school to find a higher-earning job. But she stayed with this school, forming and shaping one- and two-year olds into loving, caring toddlers. Simone’s teacher was one of the most amazing women I have ever met, and she transformed my daughter’s life at a formative time. Simone’s teacher could have been distant, cut-off from extending love, or resentful for her time in poverty. But instead, Simone’s teacher was full of life and love.
Job, like this teacher, learned that he could use his blessing to transform others. Job invites us to also consider the ways that we can use our blessings to transform others – to become a blessing. In our stewardship campaign this year, we have been talking about how we are blessed to be a blessing. Job shows us the way of living into this life. Yes, I want you to consider how you can be a financial blessing to St. Margaret’s. But I also want you to see the great invitation of transforming your spirit into one of blessing. We all have a laundry list of things that could make us bitter, guarded, or careful. But Job and God invite us to instead live the blessed life that blesses others. We are promised today that we can live into a blessing life through the example of Job – a man who had every reason to abandon hope, love, and God – but who instead is strengthened in God, renewed in hope, and overflowing with love. We too can embrace Job’s embodiment of being a blessing in this life. Amen.
[i] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Risking a Happy Ending,” Christian Century, vol. 111, no. 28, Oct. 12, 1994, 923.
[ii] Kathryn Schifferdecker, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=2&alt=1, as found on October 26, 2012.
[iii] Dale P. Andrews, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 199.