Sunday Worship, October 17, 2021 - Asking Too Much?


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church                                                       October 17, 2021


Texts:  Job 38: 1-11; Mark 10: 35-45


         My old professor Marvin Pope used to say that he had two favorite books in the Hebrew Bible:  the first was Song of Songs, that tribute to erotic love, and the second was Job because it raised questions we could not answer with the standard Sunday School drivel.  In that course on Job, Professor Pope challenged all of us to rethink our relationship with God and with human suffering.


         Job is, indeed, a terrifying book.  It forces us to look at the answers we’ve been given all our lives about why bad things happen to good people. In addition to being a subject of biblical commentary, it’s been used in books, movies, and plays. Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B., a modern retelling of the story, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and sparked heated discussion regarding MacLeish’s purpose in writing the play.


         It was almost excluded from the canon because of its image of divine justice or what many religious people considered the lack of it.  Look at its framework:  the very idea that Satan, not the name for the devil we normally use in Christian writing, but meaning “the adversary” or “accuser,” certainly a protagonist goading God into visiting Job with all the losses and ills that occurred to him.  It’s hardly the image of God we’ve been raised with.


         This morning’s text only has the end of the story.  The story’s beginning presented difficulties to early Christian writers who tried to explain God’s acquiescence to the Satan, the Adversary, as a literary foil to permit the essence of the work to exist.  As my old professor wrote, in all of Scripture, there is nothing like the book of Job. 


         Although ancient rabbis ascribed the book to be contemporaneous with the Torah, it is clear from the language that the author wrote at some point in the fifth or sixth century BCE.  There were other tales similar to the story of Job in the ancient Mesopotamian literature.  What is common to them all is the attempt to understand why people suffer. It’s a question we still ask.


         There are certain kinds of suffering for which we can see the cause.  War is but one example of suffering as the result of political decisions by people.  The writers of the Hebrew Bible made it clear that the kind of suffering caused by war was the result of leaders and people turning away from God. In fact, more often than not suffering is the result of God’s actions due to evil leaders and people worshipping idols.


         There’s the suffering caused by natural disasters.  The ancients didn’t have our scientific understanding of natural phenomena.  Biblical writers ascribed the lack of rain or drought as caused by God, again as punishment for people turning away from God.  We have all kinds of explanations regarding weather and weather systems to explain why a community has a tornado or a flood.  We even have explanations regarding warming climate and extreme weather patterns that result in suffering and loss.


         A third major area of suffering includes physical and mental illness.  Doctors can explain the progress of a disease such as cancer and some even trace certain illnesses, such as diabetes, to hereditary tendencies.


         But down deep, gnawing at us, is the need for a more cosmic explanation than this natural phenomenon or that gene someone inherited or why someone opens fire in a Walmart on a Saturday morning.  The neat logical explanations do not satisfy us.


         This past week I had to go to a county government office.  My offhand comment to the clerk about how cute her grandson was in the photo of him trying to hold a pumpkin gave her an opening to talk about her late husband with the comment, “he’ll only know his grandfather through photographs.”


         Almost an hour later, she said, “they say it all happens for a reason,” but I could see she didn’t believe that. Struggling with her attempt to put meaning into her husband’s death, she went on, “Maybe God needed him more than I did.”  It was not a time to launch into a theological discussion.  It was a time to listen.


         When we ask questions in the forms of such statements – for they are really questions – more than a so-called answer, I think what we really want is someone to validate the question.  We want to know that asking the cosmic question doesn’t bring the wrath of God down upon us. 


         The book of Job is all about asking uncomfortable questions and searching for answers that may not even exist.  The three friends who are supposed to comfort him provide the traditional answers to suffering we were all raised to believe: that God grants justice and mercy to the just and punishes the wicked, that all things happen for some inscrutable reason.


         Job refuses to accept their purported consolations which are justifications for the traditional framework of faith.  “I know as much as you know,” Job cries. And he goes on: “I wish to remonstrate with God, but you are daubers of deceit, quack healers, all of you. I wish you would keep silent.”


         In fact, Job chastises the three asking them if God can be tricked as we are tricked into such beliefs? No, he cries:  he has done nothing to make God angry with him.  How often have we cried, “What did I do to deserve this?”


         Now, we’re not like Job, protesting our innocence, but we are like Job because we want to understand the cosmic reasons for suffering, not just the scientific explanations that really don’t satisfy us.


         And, deep down inside, we really don’t want to accept how God is presented at the end of the end of the book, namely, that there are no answers.  The fairy tale myth at the beginning is not even referred to at the end.  It was little more than a literary foil to make us examine the cosmic questions of pain and suffering, why some die and some live.


         The day of my late husband’s memorial service one woman looked at me and said, “You know, everything happens for a reason.”  It took all the restraint I could raise in me not to scream at her, “What’s the reason why these two small children should be robbed of their father?  What’s the reason why students should see their professor drop dead in front of them?  What’s the reason why he should have died?” 


         Those were not words of comfort as the words of Job’s three visitors were not to him.  Those are lies we tell ourselves to try to soothe our broken hearts.  But words like those only make the pain deeper.


         The problem is that there are no answers.  Like Job, we cannot hold God to account.  The ancient commentators called that blasphemy.  I call it useless.  The image of God as somehow creating evil is the blasphemy.  We do well enough by ourselves.  Blaming God solves nothing.  It actually diminishes our faith.


         Faith is knowing that God is with us in our struggles to make sense of what seems senseless and that we can draw strength from that knowledge, no matter what, no matter what.


         Let us pray: Holy Comforter, be with us in our distress as well as in our joy. In the name of him who is always with us, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.