Tonetta Landis-Aina, Summer Preaching Fellow
~ Job 2:1-10, Sermon 1 in Sassy Love, Sacred Faith series ~
When I was a child growing up in North Carolina, with pig-tails and boy clothes, my father, along with planting his vegetables every year, implanted in me the importance of integrity. At the time, I could see this quality in him easily. After all, people often mistook him for a principal because of the air of moral correctness that he carried. I thought of integrity then as being an honorable person, of possessing virtue. It seemed to me a heroic quality. But I have had, in recent years and in light of the book of Job, to revise my initial thinking.
“Lord, it is now that you should break the silence.” These are the words of Rodrigues, the Jesuit priest who is the main character of Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence. “You must not remain silent,” he says. “Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love. You must say something to show the world that you are the august one” (Endo 179). Rodrigues utters these words in 17th century Japan. As a missionary from Portugal, he has come to pastor persecuted local Christians and to investigate why his mentor has renounced Christ. He begs God to break God’s silence in light of the suffering of the Christians by the government. And he cries out even as he himself is being asked to renounce Christ. If he does, the officials will set free several Christians who are being grotesquely persecuted before his very eyes. Yet, God is silent. The only thing Rodrigues does hear are the words of his mentor telling him, “If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do it. It’s because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me” (181).
Then his mentor comes out with a radical proposal, “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them” (181). To be like Christ, for the mentor, means absolute solidarity with human beings in their suffering even if that solidarity means a rupture in solidarity with God. When we encounter the book of Job we see a similar issue at stake. In a word, what is the highest meaning of integrity?
Now, I suspect a number of you have read the book of Job or heard its story. Over the next few weeks I want us to walk around together in this book because I believe it offers clues about how we can relate to God well. And clues about what God most desires from us.
So, this morning I want to start at the beginning in the first two chapters of the book. In the very first line, we are introduced to a man named Job. He is married with 10 children and is extravagantly wealthy. His 7 sons regularly hold lavish feasts in each other’s homes on their respective birthdays. I’m guessing that they spent these birthdays as we do, reveling in the generativity of their lives and of creation (Janzen). At the end of these feasts, Job calls his children to him and scrupulously sanctifies them just in case they have sinned in their hearts. The narrator calls Job, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” He is a man of integrity in the conventional sense. His piety is expressed in genuine morality (Janzen).
The narrator then shifts to a scene in heaven. We encounter a meeting between God and God’s divine council. In that meeting, God brags about Job’s piety to his chief investigator on earth, Ha-Satan. As an aside, this character is not Satan as we think of him. For that reason, I will use the Hebrew to identify him. Because Ha-Satan is doing his job well, he asks a key question: Does Job fear God for nothing? In other words, how deep does Job’s piety run? Does he serve God because he gets something out of it (wealth, bountiful family)? Or does he serve God because God is intrinsically worthy of worship? God gives Ha-Satan permission to strike Job with tragedy as a way of beginning an investigation into whether humans are capable of disinterested righteousness.
Then in swift order the narrator makes us stand beside Job as he receives the news of the disasters that have befallen his home. Four messengers come, virtually on the heels of one another, to announce the news. All of Job’s livestock have been destroyed by raiders. All of Job’s servants have been killed in these raids and in a fire. And to top it off, all of his children have been killed by a windstorm while celebrating the oldest son’s birthday — again ironically a day to celebrate the goodness and generativity of creation and its God. So, how does Job respond? Well, he begins a formal enactment of grief. As one scholar puts it, “he reflexively makes the customary response of tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling prostate upon the ground . . . Such formal acts of grief serve as a hedge against utter chaos of feeling and help to sustain a margin of sanity” (Janzen 43). Then the first chapter ends with this final response from Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Now, if you’re anything like me, you might hear these first episodes in the book of Job and think, “What the heck?” What kind of cockamamie book is this? What kind of God would send disasters and especially send disasters on the most wonderful people? And how can Job bless God in the face of what any modern eye would see as radical injustice?
Well, let me take a moment and tell you exactly what kind of cockamamie book this is. It likely was written in its final form between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE. That’s important because Israelites at the time would have likely had on their mind the reality of exile. During that period, northern Israel was conquered by the Assyrian empire. Then Jerusalem, which was the center of southern Israel and the home of the temple where God was believed to dwell, also was destroyed and its people sent into exile in Babylon. It turns out that much of the Hebrew Bible was shaped by those events. And in its pages, we see various authors in different places at different times trying to make sense of how their God could allow them to suffer so. One of the theological responses they developed held that God had punished Israel because Israel had been unfaithful. And in that we have the grounds of what some call, “the doctrine of retribution.” Basically, God blesses those who are righteous, and God punishes those who are unrighteous. End of story. To quote Proverbs 4:18-19, “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what they stumble over.” To say it another way, if you are blessed with family, wealth, good health, and the like, it is because you are good. If you are suffering from illness, natural disaster, or violence, it is because you are bad. This doctrine of retribution can be seen in many places in the Bible. Actually, the modern prosperity gospel movement can claim in this way to be “biblical.” (For anyone who is interested we’ll talk some about that after church.)
So, this cockamamie book is written in large part to counter the doctrine of retribution. It, along with books such as Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms, was written as a counter-testimony. It offers an alternative perspective from the dominant view of the wisdom tradition. So then, the first chapter of Job invites us to take a fresh look at some important questions. Why do we worship God? Are human beings capable of serving God with complete disinterest in the “rewards” of a righteous path? How can we speak rightly of God amid seemingly unrelenting global misery visited upon the innocent? Job is put in a situation where he must decide whether he will bless God or curse God in light innocent human suffering.
Our text for this morning offers us a clue about the path Job chooses to take. And it’s a path which opens the way for his transformation and potentially for ours. After Job passes the first test by his formal enactment of grief, Ha-Satan and God conspire to strike Job’s body with illness. They want to know how deep Job’s piety really runs. Job 2:7-10 reads like this:
7 So Satan[a] went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job[b] took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse[c]God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Notice that after Job is struck with illness his responses become more ambiguous. He goes to the village ash dump and sits. He scrapes his sores with a piece of broken pottery. This is very different from engaging in the ritual displays of grief which were meant to honor God despite suffering. A space seems to have opened. We are left to ask, Do Job’s inner and outer testimonies about the goodness of God still line up? Well, Mrs. Job steps in to help clear things up. We find in what she says the exact words of Ha-Satan. “Curse God and die.” Because of this, theologians from the time of Augustine have considered her the devil’s accomplice (Stewart). 3rd century church father John Chrysostom equated Mrs. Job and Eve, seeing both as tempting the men in their lives to sin (McGuinness). Still, remember that in uttering these words Mrs. Job is effectively ending her own life. To be a woman without a husband in this society was to be among the destitute. Mrs. Job’s bold statement at one level may be radically in tune with the disposition of our own time. Maybe she chooses to abandon God to be in complete solidarity with the sufferer in the light of a seemingly unjust God.
But she also says something before her encouragement to get rid of God. She says, “do you still persist in your integrity?” This is the exact grammatical phrase that was on God’s lips just a few verses before. See, Mrs. Job puts her finger on the theological issue most at the heart of the book. Maybe she’s asking whether Job is still holding onto his old integrity by fearing God. Or maybe, just maybe, she’s asking whether Job is still holding onto his integrity as an individual. As a human being. Integrity that would force him to be honest about his personal experience (Janzen). Her words sharply highlight the tension between being honest about the wrong of innocent suffering and affirming God’s goodness (McGuiness).
But even if we admit to Mrs. Job’s theological insight, aren’t her words still a temptation to Job? Well, yes and no. The scholar Claire Matthews McGuinness explains that, “she may be playing the devil’s advocate . . . [perhaps] she verbalizes this position to provoke him, but to provoke him to take publicly . . . precisely the opposite position . . . in other words, she verbalizes the option of cursing God so that Job, ultimately, will not (136).
Amazingly, with her words, Mrs. Job helps her husband to find an alternate way between either blessing God or cursing God. She helps him, out of the ruins of their mutual calamity, to give birth to a child called sass. As one scholar puts it, though Job never does curse God, “strictly speaking, his railing, taunting, protesting, and summoning of his divine assailant [in the rest of the book] is nothing like blessing God either. (Clines 52).
And then we get evidence of this new perspective. Job defensively rebukes his wife but then verbally responds to his suffering in a less straightforward way than before. He uses a rhetorical question instead of making a statement. He clothes his personal feelings in the garments of, “we” instead of “I.” The final word to us in our text is that Job does not sin with his lips. He passes the test again. And yet, there is a sense in which a new chasm exists between his inner and outer selves. It is this chasm from which his sass emerges, a third way between blessing God and cursing God which will play out for the remainder of the book and end in a radical transformation for Job.
Now, I don’t know how much you have experienced sass. I don’t know if you are expert at expressing it. Or if you are a person who seems to find yourself ever on the receiving end of it. I don’t even know if you have ever considered that sass might be a good thing. When I was growing up, I can remember folks warning me not to be sassy while at the same time admiring those who could sass well. Sass is subversive. It usually comes from people who have little power beyond a few words gotten in before the whipping occurs, before the door slams shut, before the authorities are sent in.
In this book, we get to hear, to run our fingers along the texture of nearly 40 chapters of Job’s sass. And at the end of it all, God says of Job that he alone has spoken rightly of God. Mrs. Job helps her husband find a third way of questioning, protesting, and railing. And the wonder of our text this morning is that she helps Job begin the journey to freedom. See, the startling thing about sass is that it requires a measure of psychological freedom on the part of the speaker. The boy who says something sassy to his parents just before a time out holds onto his version of what happened. Even though, the punishment may come, sass asserts human dignity in the face of it. And wonder of wonders, God seems to want from us that kind of freedom and that kind of dignity. Sass, at least according to the book of Job, can be a vital stage on the path of transformation, a crucial element in holding onto our integrity.
As I close, I want you to take out your bulletin and look at the cover. The two images you see are water colors from a series that the famous poet, William Blake, did on the book of Job. The top image is the first image of the series. And the bottom image is the last of the series. In the top image, Job and his wife are seated, and their children are kneeling. They seem to be praying and having some kind of family devotion. The musical instruments are hung up and night is coming. In the bottom image, the family is standing, perhaps to assert a new dignity before God. They have now taken up their musical instruments and are playing them. They have passed out of the night. Morning is approaching.
For the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the book of Job together. Next week, we’ll talk some about chapter 3 of the book and how we can enter into genuine lament over suffering. Later, we’ll explore the theological problem of how God can allow suffering in the world and still be good. We’ll also talk some about the wildness of God as revealed in the divine speeches. However, as we journey together, I want you to keep these images on your bulletin in mind. Perhaps meditate on them this week through the practice of visio divina. Because this book — this cockamamy book — is ultimately about the path of transformation. It’s about a sassy love between a God who wants to be loved intrinsically and a man who wants to be honest about the injustice he sees. It’s about a redefinition of covenant based on dignity and freedom (Linafelt). And, of course, it’s about the sacred faith forged through the surprising gift of sass. May we grow in our love of God, friends, as we journey together this month. Amen.
Clines, David J. A. Job: . Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 2003. Print.
Endō, Shusaku, and William Johnston. Silence. New York: Taplinger, 1979. Print.
Janzen, J G. Job. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. Print.
Linafelt, Tod. “The Undecidability of [Barak] in the Prologue to Job and Beyond.” Biblical Interpretation. 4.2 (1996): 154-172. Print.
McGinnis, C M. “Playing the Devil’s Advocate in Job: on Job’s Wife.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series. (2001): 121-141. Print.
Newsom, Carol A. “Job.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Carol A. Newsome. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. Print.
Stewart, Anne W. “Job’s Wife and Her Interpreters.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Carol Newsom. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. Print.