Some Thoughts on Job and the Problem of Pain
Offered by Pastor Rommereim
Over the last few weeks, I have asked for, and received questions about faith from persons who are part of the worship on Sunday. It was a little exercise in an ancient model I call a quodlibet, or to ask ‘as it pleases.’ I received many fabulous questions. After collating the submissions, my work was to take time on a Sunday to deliberate on them. I did this on the first Sunday after Easter the old church used to call Quasi Modo Geniti Sunday (as new born babes). Many shared one special question about suffering and the question of G*d’s role in human suffering. Specifically they asked, “When G*d is so good & loving, why do bad things happen to good people?”
Such a profound question allowed me to return to one of the oldest biblical narratives that deal with a similar predicament. That is the book of Job. In this little essay, I invite you to let the book of Job and my supportive commentaries enliven your imagination on this ancient question.
The poet/storyteller begins the book by saying: “There lived in the land of Uz a man of blameless and upright life named Job, who feared G*d and set his face against wrongdoing” (Job 1.1). In the beginning, Job is living a good life. We are told he is the greatest man in the East (9.24-24). We are familiar with suffering: the boils, the scares, the death of his children, et cetera. One after another, his body, his house and his household is destroyed. Throughout the first 31 chapters we become familiar with Job’s support network of counselors/therapists/friends who offer him advice during his tremendous suffering.
In Chapter 1, we read about an angel who is “an accusing angel”, in the heavenly court. This angel appears different from later biblical understanding of the devil because s/he is part of G*d’s court—not an outcast maker of trouble. In the riposte between G*d and Satan, G*d appears to respond to the prosecutor’s challenge by offering Job as a living testimony of humankind’s goodness and reliability. Satan is clearly skeptical of human goodness. G*d remains confident.
Job raises deep human questions. Along with Job, we ask, “Why does a good person suffer?” and “Why is it that the wrong-doers, the blatantly corrupt, appear not have the same plight as this good man Job?” This is the touchstone of chapters 3-31. It remains with us when we are exposed to our own suffering or the suffering in those we love.
Late in the story of this human drama (38.1-11) G*d re-enters the scene after a long discourse between Job and his advisors. The suffering of Job appears to mount despite the advice offered by his human counselors. Job has no respite from his suffering. As the drama mounts, we open the text at a time when Job has become what William Safire calls the “first dissident” in the Biblical heritage; one called to speak out from his own situation. He calls to G*d with candor, in such a way as to demand an answer. That Job demands an answer is what inspires Mr. Safire to call him a dissident. The wonderful etymologist and journalist for the NY Times, Mr. Safire notices in the speech from Job in chapter 31 a plea in his own defense. Job pleads his own case pointing out the manner in which he conducted his life as a beneficent person who cares for G*d, for the needs of the poor, and who is upright despite his injuries. Nothing appears to shake Job’s own case in pleading his innocence. Yet, because of his faith he asks G*d to speak.
Safire writes: “Bereaved believers looking for comfort in the Bible can find it most forcefully in Job. Not only is suffering not to be construed as evidence of sin, as we have seen (in the first 36 chapters), but apparent punishment is not evidence of isolation from G*d. Nobody needs to walk alone; to paraphrase a line about home (from poet Robert Frost), G*d is the one who, when you pray to him, has to listen.”
When faith is full, writes the philosopher William Bret, “it dares to express its anger for faith is the openness of the whole (person) toward G*d”
When all is said and done, G*d has the final word. After Job disputes with his friends about the nature of G*d, the meaning of human suffering and a host of other issues, and “after Elihu (the last spokesperson of Job’s counsel) has expressed his frustration with all the other advisors (Chapter 32-37) then and only then does Yahweh step forward to address Job.
Few persons in the Bible are recorded to have conversations with G*d. “Moses found himself talking to a burning bush (Ex: 3). Isaiah was engaged by a vision of G*d, temporarily sealing his lips (Isa: 6.1-8). In verses 38:1-40:2, YHWH/G*d answers Job. Up to this point G*d is silent. While Job and his advisors search for answers to the essential questions, “Why does a good person suffer?” G*d speaks. However, the inquiry is not directly answered. Rather, G*d proclaims the impossibility of challenging the Deity. It takes humanity out of the center and places G*d into the middle not as the one who comes to rescue but the G*d who, as in the story of Genesis 1.2 “leaps into the deep veiled darkness” (tohu vabohu).
This is G*d’s first reply to Job. It is a crafted poem of wisdom that concerns not only the power of G*d as a creator, but as wisdom as well. It is a radical reminder of what remains our first concern; “I believe in G*d the father almighty creator of Heaven and Earth.” G*d’s wisdom is celebrated in the poetry of Job 38-40:1. When we compare Job’s own lack of wisdom, and the lack of wisdom of his contemporaries, we are able to return in awe of G*d and let that remain as a testimony to our own reaction to pain rather than palliative manner we often asked to work with our pain and suffering. Perhaps this story of Job provides us a return to a spiritual and faithful imagination that may lead us to act wisely. We, like Job are capable of becoming a dissident, stand up, and ask this powerful question, “Why?” Nevertheless, before we ask we must be able to handle the answer.
G*d speaks to the dissident/poet Job, asking him to “Stand up and answer the questions I will put to you” (Job 38:3). At that moment we remember the original question between G*d and the special prosecutor of the heavenly courts, the skeptical Satan. Job is held accountable for his questions knowing that the only reverent way to approach G*d is to stand and face the voice, despite the whirlwind. At this point G*d appears to challenge Job and the poet’s readers (you and I) that our questions may be a test of character as well as of intelligence. When faced with the situations beyond our control or situations of overwhelming odds we often have to remember the ultimate source of our living.
The basic question G*d sounds off before Job is this: Who possesses the wisdom to create the heavens and the earth?” The answer that G*d sounds off is that it remains YHWH/G*d, and only G*d, who owns the craft, the wisdom, the understanding, and the knowledge, with which to establish the foundations of life. This G*d reminds Job that wisdom governs the same foundations day-by-day. Human wisdom cannot penetrate the wisdom of G*d.
Even though we are urged to speak from our own suffering, or through the compassion of the suffering of others, or the world around us it remains G*d who is. The text of Job appears to direct our inefficient wisdom. This G*d does not directs suffering, nor directly punishes by taking away things of supposed human value. Nor should we, along with Job, ever stop asking, why is there so much suffering? However, it is at this point that this famous book of Job becomes even more remarkable. After G*d speaks we are urged to ask how to find peace with G*d in an answers as remarkable for what it omits as for what it contains. Along with Job, we may not possess the wisdom to contest G*d. It appears Job comes away from these sounds of G*d without definitive linear statement. So, our place may be in the unspoken remark of the text.
What is not said is that we are to trust G*d. At that point we will be at peace. Moreover, perhaps, this trust may align us with the rest of what G*d is part of despite the whirlwinds of our living. Light in the center of darkness.
 The First Dissident The Book of Job in Today’s Politics by William Safire, Cobbett Corporation, 1992.
 Ibid. Page 73
 Ibid. Page 56
 Texts for Preaching, John Knox Press, 1993, pg. 550.
 Wonderfully expressed through the book by Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, a Theology of Becoming, Routledge 2003)
Penetrating Locked Doors
In the Midst of Community
by David H. Rommereim
I would like to share with you how difficult it is to communicate these days. Not only is there a lot of information coming your way at every instant, but it is also critical to discern the quality of that information. What are your sources? Are they reliable? Can you trust them?
These questions are only for public news and information, advertisements and essays. If you try and share those thoughts with another person, things get even more challenging. At those points of interaction we tend to have two minds, two experiences, two hearts, two language systems to deal with. It is very challenging. Then, for starters, think about our telling of the story of the resurrection. We, the gathered community, don't have it easy. People just can't imagine what this resurrection means. They say, in Brooklyn, "what r ya takin' bout... re-sar-ek-shun?"
The stories of the resurrection are especially hard in an age when scientific detail takes the limelight. Wonder, mystery, awe, inspiration, and imagination are infrequent guests in our contemporary experience. We continue to prefer to be precise and calculated with hard, cold facts. We call for proof. We explain the resurrection as a hard cold fact, rather than a witness passed along through the lens of trust and faith. It was as hard then for Mary Magdalene to inform, and become a trusted witness to Jesus' resurrection, as it is for us. Even Mary Magdalene was stunned with the terror of the crucifixion. After she was visited by the one she supposed to be the gardener, it was the Resurrected Jesus Anointed who became present again, after death.
Words are hard. Communication is hard... especially when all we utilize is words. It would be a lot easier if we could draw pictures, or paint stories with our bodies. Or perhaps be good at reading body language. Then art, theater, dance, music, words, poetry, story, and narrative could all fit into a great panoply of truth.
The one I love to refer to in this conundrum of words and communication is the American icon of elemental sayings, and sneaky wisdom sayings, Yogi Berra. I know Yogi was not a saint, but that is the very reason he can almost become saintly. He was full of holes and redeemable. Lutherans call this, simul ustis et pecator (same time sinner and saint). For those of us who realize that there were others who had as difficult a time communicating as you and I do, Yogi becomes very special. I was reminded last week of some of his famous sayings that exemplify his forgiveness. Yogi seemed to say the right things at all times. But,... only according to Yogi. That means he was not always totally clear, but he spoke from his heart, and that made the difference.Remember the Yogic saying: "I really didn't say everything I said." Or, when pertaining to Yankee Stadium Yogi said, "It gets late early there." Or, to the players he was coaching he was known as have said, "All right you guys, pair up in threes." Or, "The future just isn't what it used to be." Or, "If you can't copy 'em, don't imitate 'em." And finally, when Yogi learned that his friend Mickey Mantle died he was offended, and when asked why, he said, "'cause the Mick an' me always promise to attend each other's funerals."
Communication can be as hard or as simple as those types of Yogic statements. It is hard because the words one person uses are received differently into the ears of the other. But, if, or when the heart comes alongside the words there seems to be a major accomplishment. The thoughts get through to the heart of the matter. Words with heart tend to speak truth whether they are absolutely perfect or not. Just before the Easter narrative from John 20.19-31 we hear about the resurrection through the lens of the apostle Mary Magdalene (John 20.11-18). She had an encounter with what she thought was a gardener just outside the tomb of the assassinated Jesus. The story takes place early in the morning. Mary's grief is obvious. Her tears are filled with fear, sorrow, exhaustion, and bewilderment. No wonder she didn't recognize Jesus. "Despite her temporary grief-induced tear-blindness her, eventually open, eyes remain for all time the first to see what all people yearn to see: evidence of life beyond the bounds of death."
John wastes no time and heralds, calls, you and me directly into the middle of the huddled, fearful, disciples (Greek: mathetai). These disciples are also called learners. It appears that they have been on a journey with Jesus learning about The Way which is a call to live a life that puts God first, makes justice resonate into every part of society. They have been learning about this God, who has anointed the Nazarene Jesus to usher in an age of love, mercy, justice, and forgiveness. But these learners, at the end of their course work, after their most severe trial, are locked behind closed doors. Everything they learned about the anointed one, Jesus, seems to be locked behind the dark door of despair, depression, fear and uncertainty. This text, John 20.19, is one of the saddest descriptions of the disciples. It confirms their failure. In a blink of an eye it announces their fear. The phrase, "behind locked doors" places these followers with other kindred spirits across the Christian community.
We like to lock the doors out of fear. We want to be secure. We want things to work out without trouble. This little verse, behind locked doors is not referring to the locked doors that we tend to use when we are seeking to keep a secret. The Gospel writer is not referring to the secrets that the disciples may be keeping to preserve their own sense of well-being. The fear, locked in this little room, refers to the risk that Jesus took and which led to the crucifixion at the hands of Rome and a recalcitrant religious institution. The disciples had cause to be afraid. Jesus took on the economic disorder of his age. He sought to alleviate poverty and the discrepancy of 1% owning the vast majority of the cash flow and wealth. Jesus spoke often about money and the unequal distribution of wealth. He spoke about the widows who were not cared for by the community. He placed the most vulnerable into the highest realm of God's reign, the little ones we call children. Jesus leveled the playing field between women and men.
The first apostle, Mary Magdalene, is the living example of this resurrection of the status of women in the community of those who follow Jesus Anointed. It ushered in God's reign over both indecent religious hegemony stuck on its own empty, fussy, and unworthy traditions as well as the sacrilegious and unjust political systems of Rome. It had been just a few hours since Jesus taught them on their way from Galilee to Jerusalem; through their rural campaign for empowering the hard working people of the land into the city campaign at the seat of power. Could it be that the disciples, those learners, forgot their lessons? Or is it that they just got the life kicked out of them. Fear took hold of their message. They were hell-bent on silence... stuck in a little room behind locked doors.
But it is at this point the Gospel comes home. We know how fearful life is at times. Each of us have been scared out of our wits, at some point in our lives. We know a little about what is at stake with these huddled disciples. They are afraid of being found out, noticed, and captured by those who have been offended by Jesus' Anointed ministry of justice-love. Here in this room the community of the Gospel is gathered. Then, wonder happens. It is the same wonder that happened to our apostle, Mary, in her tear-blinded eyes. But here these disciples are fear-blinded. And Jesus Anointed enters their midst... no door, no window, no magic trick. Just Jesus.
In the famous book of Job, the book which seeks to understand the injustice of the world and the suffering of good people, the poet of Job wonders in the 42nd chapter, “who can open the doors of his face? Or, how can the door be opened in this grief? It is the response from Emerson which makes most sense. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, There is a crack in everything God has made.”
Jesus Anointed appears as if nothing can keep away the silence of God. Not even fear can lock God away from the now. Jesus enters in their midst and brings them peace. For a Hebrew it is Shalom Alechem.
 This comes to me in a book by David James Duncan called God Laughs & Plays, Triad Books 2006, chapter 1, page 9
 Becoming Children of God, John's Gospel and Radical Discipleship, Wes Howard-Brook, Orbis Books, 1994, page 455.