A parable is a story told to teach something, to make a point – sort of like “Aesop’s Fables,” which always come with a moral at the end, like “slow and steady wins the race.” The most famous parables in the Bible are told by Jesus, stories like the ones we call “The Prodigal Son,” or “The Good Samaritan.” Jesus told many parables, finding them to be a good teaching instrument.
Many Bible scholars and commentators consider the book of Job to be a parable, which would make it the longest parable in the Bible – 42 chapters long. And they provide a long list of reasons for why they believe that, a couple of which we will touch on today. Not all scholars and commentators; you may have a Study Bible which insists the book is an account of actual events which took place. But that produces some problems, as we will hear. If you’re going to say the book is literally true . . . well, “you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
Whether it’s an account of actual events or not is not our point today; it’s not really important to today’s sermon. I’m going to proceed on the notion that it is a parable; and we will find that, in a couple ways, we’ll be glad it’s “just a story.”
We can start the story by saying, then, “Once upon a time.” Once upon a time, God called a meeting at the celestial court: the court officers of heaven; the cabinet, perhaps, is our American equivalent. And among God’s cabinet officials was the chief of security – the head of the Secret Service, or FBI. This officer was known as “the Accuser,” and one of his jobs was to go out among the people and scout out if there was any evil being plotted, any schemes against God’s wishes. Like Lieutenant Worf, the security officer on “Star Trek,” it was his job to be suspicious – to be overly cautious, to watch out for any potential danger, likely or not. His official title, as I said, was “the Accuser.”
Now, unfortunately, the Hebrew word meaning “the accuser” is “ha satan” – spelled s, a, t, a, n. And as the story of Job has been passed down through the ages, that word, “the accuser,” has gotten confused with the proper name “Satan,” or the devil, which is found a few times in the New Testament. But this character is not Satan, or the devil; this is an officer of God’s cabinet, on God’s side, whose job is to be the Accuser: “ha satan” with a little s, not “Satan” the name. It’s like saying “I’m going to get the jack out of the trunk”: no one expects you to come back carrying Mr. Nicklaus or Mr. Nicholson – jack with a little j.
So as God is conversing with his cabinet officials, God mentions to this professionally-suspicious Accuser, “By the way, have you seen my faithful servant, Job? Now there’s an example of a person you’ll never have to be suspicious of, a completely blameless and upright person.” Perhaps God thinks the Accuser is a little too professionally-suspicious, and is trying to tone him down a bit.
But the Accuser responds, “Well, sure he’s faithful to you now. You’ve given him everything” – for Job was one of the wealthiest people on earth. “But what if you took away all his wealth, and then what if you took away his health and made him feel miserable? Then how loyal and faithful to you would he be? Why, I’ll bet he’d turn against you in a minute and curse you to your face! Whaddaya think, God – you want to test my theory? Or are you scared? Chicken, chicken.”
Well, God, we see, is backed into a bit of a corner now, having brought up the example of Job in the first place. To back down now would look like there is a basis to the Accuser’s claim. So God says to the Accuser, “Okay, you’re on. Let’s see what happens when you take away his wealth and health; just don’t take his life.”
And the Accuser goes out, and through a series of accidents, takes away from Job: his flocks, his servants, his children, and his health, afflicting him with sores from his head to his feet. This is the point at which we’re glad this is just a story, to make a point, because taking all these lives violently and painfully over a bet doesn’t really square with our usual idea of God.
Job’s response, much to the Accuser’s surprise, is to say, “Oh, well. I came into the world with nothing and I will leave it with nothing. The Lord gave, and now the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Lord.” In all he said, the text says, Job did not sin with his lips.
The Accuser has lost his bet, and by the middle of page 2 of this long book, the Accuser disappears from the story completely. God was right about Job, and by the end of the story will restore all of Job’s flocks and servants and wealth and health, and give him a new set of children, which we’re supposed to take, apparently, as being interchangeable with the ones he lost. Again, we’re glad it’s a story. God was right about Job.
Before Job’s restoration, however, the parable continues, in a somewhat different direction, as three friends of Job, named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, show up. And the rest of the long book is for the most part a series of conversations, first between Job and his three friends, and then between Job and God.
The conversations reveal, first, that while Job will not curse God, he does feel free to pose some tough questions of God – questions like “Why is there suffering like this?” and “Why is life so hard?” and “Why do good people suffer just as much as bad ones?” and “Why won’t you show up and answer these questions of ours, anyway?” Job even shouts at God a bit; he’s angry that there has to be suffering, and that life is hard, and so on.
And I’ll remind you of the Bible’s summary of his words: “In all this, Job did not sin with his lips.” It’s okay to be angry with God; it’s okay to be bothered by these sorts of questions. Jesus did it. Jeremiah did it, the psalm writers did it – we can express our anger to God; God can take it. But Job would prefer some answers.
And in chapters 38 to 41, Job gets his answers: God shows up. God speaks to Job, and God shows Job just how big and complicated and mysterious the universe is, and . . . God appears to Job. And something in that direct experience of God satisfies Job, and puts his questions to rest: In chapter 42 Job says, “Before I had only heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you – and I repent. Now that I’ve seen you, I take back my angry questions.”
God has not provided, apparently, any complete verbal explanations for Job’s questions, anything that can be written down for us readers. And that comes as a disappointment, doesn’t it, because wouldn’t we like to be able to read here answers to questions about why bad things happen, and why there is suffering? God’s answer, in the book of Job, has something to do with Job’s personal encounter, not with any sentences God could speak, and with that encounter Job is reassured that God is at work in the universe, that God is fully aware of evil, and that God cares for us people who have to experience some of that evil. In fact, God cares so much that God came personally to be with Job.
And in God’s company, Job is content. He is satisfied knowing that God is with us, as we deal with the suffering in life. It’s not a logical statement-of-explanation answer, something that could be written down. I have inflicted on at least some of you, in the past, my statement-of-explanation, as to why I think bad things happen, and how they get distributed among us. But that’s for another day, because today is about Job, and Job received instead a presence answer, that God is present with him. Come to think of it, that’s the same answer we can offer one another when one of us is suffering: we can be present; we can be alongside.
But there are right ways to be present with someone who’s suffering . . . and there are wrong ways. The other set of conversations in the book of Job are between Job and those three friends who are present with him: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. And the gist of those friends’ statements is this: “Well, if you’re suffering, you must have done something wrong. Confess and shape up, and then God will stop punishing you.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” Job replies continually – and we the readers know he is correct.
“You must have done something wrong,” the “friends” keep responding. “This has to be somehow your fault.”
A presence like this Job can probably do without. With friends like these, who needs . . . the Accuser? But their attitude, unfortunately, is not an unusual attitude among those who come across suffering. The Gospel of John, chapter 9: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, which man sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” It must be their own fault. The Gospel of Luke, chapter 13: Jesus said to the crowds, “Do you think the Galileans Pilate murdered suffered this way because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? Or those people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” For apparently, that was exactly what the crowds were thinking: that these people’s suffering is somehow their own fault.
The Puritans, in the early days of this country, believed that wealth was a sign of God’s reward. So if you were wealthy, that meant you were a good person and God had rewarded you. And if you were poor, why of course you must be a bad person, being punished. Poverty was somehow their own fault.
Senator Jesse Helms once demanded that funding for research on AIDS be cut – not because there was a budget deficit, but because if someone has AIDS, he said, why, it’s their own fault. A poignant response came from Ryan White’s mother; she watched her young son Ryan die of AIDS having contracted it as a little boy through a medically-necessary blood transfusion. How could it be his fault?
A husband surprises everyone when he suddenly beats up his wife. “Well, she never should have married him in the first place,” we say now. “She made her bed; she’ll have to lie in it.” Her suffering is her own fault.
People born poor in the inner city where there are no jobs should nonetheless work their way out, we hear; we don’t want to fund welfare. My laid-off co-worker with four children: well, he must have been shirking on the job somehow, though come to think of it, I never saw it. Their suffering is their own fault.
That poor baby with the birth defect? I’ll bet his mother smoked or drank while she was pregnant. That woman who was sexually attacked? Well, she probably shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood, and by the way, just what was she wearing anyway? Their suffering is their own fault.
Job’s friends are everywhere, aren’t they? “You must have done something wrong. Confess and shape up, and then bad things will stop happening to you.” I suspect it may have something to do with our own fear of bad things happening to us. “I don’t want to experience that; quick, let me find a reason it could happen to her and not to me. I know: I’ll say it’s because she was doing something wrong – something I’m not doing myself. Yeah, yeah, that’s the difference; that’s why it couldn’t happen to me. Whew! That was close.” Job’s friends are everywhere.
Well, God speaks to Job’s friends near the end of the book of Job. And you know what God has to say about that attitude, about their way of responding to someone who’s suffering? Chapter 42: “After the Lord had spoken to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temonite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken what is right of me, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly – for you have not spoken what is right.” God says to those who would blame the victim, “You need to repent, you need to confess, you need to change your way of thinking – because what you are saying is not right.”
Jesus said to the disciples, “NO! Neither this blind man nor his parents sinned. His blindness doesn’t come from that.” Jesus said to the crowds, “Do you think that the murdered Galileans were worse sinners, that the people killed by the tower were worse offenders? NO, I tell you. That’s not right.”
God says to the Puritans and Jesse Helms and those who prefer to blame poor people rather than assist them, “NO, if someone is suffering that doesn’t mean it’s their own fault. You need to repent, you need to confess, you need to change your way of thinking.” God says to us when we prefer blaming the unemployed, the beaten wife, the grieving parent, the victim of attack, to helping them, “YOU need to repent, you need to confess, you need to change your way of thinking.”
There are right ways to be present with someone who is suffering, and there are wrong ways; and Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar with their blame and their accusations are examples of the wrong way. God tells them to their face, “Your only hope is prayer and change.” God tells us through them, “If blaming the people is your response, you better pray, and you better change.”
Job, his faith intact and his fortune and family and health restored, lived happily ever after. Job’s wife, whose feelings about losing her children are pretty much neglected throughout, I guess lives happily ever after – well, it is a story. God, we can presume, lives happily ever after; and the Accuser, perhaps a little less suspicious than he once was, continues in God’s service. And Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar . . . did what God told them, and God accepted Job’s prayer for them. So I suppose they lived happily ever after too – as long as they steered clear of blaming people for their suffering. The end.
Except for this prayer: God, thank you for being present
with us when we are going through difficult times. Help us to be present with
others as they go through difficult times, and help us to be present in the
right ways, comforting, and assisting as we can. Amen.