Scripture can be found here…
We have come in on the end of the story.
In the passage we have just heard, from the Book of Job, God is speaking to Job and asking question after question. And the questions are confounding. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone? Who shut in the sea? God is asking Job questions he just can’t answer. And it’s hard to know what’s going on, here, without going back to the beginning of the story. So, that’s what we’re going to do.
Imagine the worst possible thing happening to you, the thing you dread above all others.
That’s what happened to Job. When his story begins, we are told that his family and work are thriving. He and his wife have 10 children, 7 sons and 3 daughters. He is a landowner with thousands of sheep and camels, hundreds of oxen and donkeys, and, of course, lots and lots of servants. But first and foremost, we are told that Job is a good person. He is “blameless and upright, one who fears God and turns away from evil.” And Job seems to be an especially engaged father. One touching detail: Job’s children, all adults, remain close-knit, always going back and forth to one another’s homes for dinners and celebrations. Job and his wife have managed to raise children who care about one another. And Job continually prays and offers sacrifices on behalf of them. Just in case.
That’s what makes what happens next so awful, and so unsettling. It turns out, there is a special place in the Divine heart for Job, and in a conversation with Satan, God mentions this fact. “Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks. “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”
[Before we go any further, a word about Satan. In this story, Satan isn’t in charge of hell; in fact, he’s a part of the heavenly court. Satan’s job is to be an “accuser.” He challenges God’s ideas, to see whether he can’t prove them wrong—a kind of devil’s advocate.]
So, when God gushes about how wonderful Job is, Satan can’t resist. He asks God, “Has it ever occurred to you, Job might just be righteous because he has had such a cushy life? I wonder what would happen if he lost everything he has?”
So, God gives Satan permission to test Job.
Imagine the worst possible thing happening to you. That’s what happens to Job. First, a messenger comes to tell him that an army has carried off his herds of oxen and donkeys, and killed the servants who were caring for them. And then another messenger arrives to tell him that a fire from heaven has fallen upon his sheep, and killed them along with their shepherds. And another messenger—camels and servants, also gone.
Economic devastation. Your 401K has been emptied out, all the banks have failed, and your business has burned down. Everything you’ve worked for, vanished in an instant. How would you react?
But the next messenger brings the truly devastating news. Job’s sons and daughters had all been together in one of their homes, sharing a meal and one another’s company. And a powerful wind from the desert has come and destroyed the house; it has collapsed on all his children, and killed them, every one. Job’s reaction is startling.
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “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.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing. ~Job 1:20-22
Now, Satan is a little frustrated with Job. How is it that he could receive all this terrible news—lose nearly everything and everyone of value in his life—and, in his grief, still worship God? How could he still affirm: Blessed be the name of the Lord!
So Satan gets God’s permission to give Job one more test: terrible sores, all over his body. Now Job’s physical pain and anguish match his mental and emotional pain and anguish.
The next time we see Job, he is sitting in a pile of ashes, his garment torn (the traditional sign of mourning), and he has a shard from a broken pot, with which he is scratching at the sores on his body. And that all seems pretty reasonable to me. I strain to imagine this kind of loss—I don’t want to imagine it. But everything coming to a full halt seems, at least, understandable.
Job has three friends who show up, and they spend a full week sitting with him in silence. They show honor to his pain—at least, at the beginning. But then they launch into 35 chapters of arguing with him. Job maintains that he has been a good person—which, we know is true. We have it on God’s authority. But the position of his friends is, Dude, you must have done something wrong. Job is firm: I am a righteous man. God is my witness. And we know he’s right. Job did nothing wrong. Job did everything right. And still, terrible things happened to him, and he is suffering. And he want God to tell him why.
Imagine the worst possible thing happening to you. I know that for some of us, we may be pretty sure that thing has already happened. And it is the most normal, the most natural thing in the world to ask why. Why me? Why now? Is there something I did wrong? Is there something I should have done, that I didn’t do? It is a very human thing to do, to search our souls for our own guilt, when something terrible happens.
In his wonderful book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story of a time when he had two funerals in quick succession, both for elderly women who left adult children behind. The Rabbi notes that both women had “succumbed to the normal wearing out of the body after a long and full life.” Before the funerals, he visited both families on the same afternoon. He writes,
At the first home, the son of the deceased woman said to me, “If only I had sent my mother to Florida, and gotten her out of this cold and snow, she would be alive today. It’s my fault that she died.” At the second home, the son of the other deceased woman said, “If only I hadn’t insisted on my mother’s going to Florida, she would be alive today. That long airplane ride, the abrupt change of climate, was more than she could take. It’s my fault that she’s dead.”[i]
When tragedy strikes, when the worst happens, it is so human to ask “Why?” But when Job’s friends try, for 35 chapters, to give him possible reasons why, we gradually realize that trying to figure out “why” can be a fool’s errand. In Job’s case, it’s because the accuser in God’s heavenly court wants, for some reason, to prove that he isn’t as great as God thinks he is. In other words, Job’s losses are for no good reason.
Tragedy can strike for no good reason. Three weeks ago, a family was caravanning to events around a wedding in Schenectady, NY, and a father-in-law and son-in-law took their time walking from the car to a rest stop. Because of that simple fact, they were in the path of an out-of-control limousine as it sped down a hill, and they were killed, along with everyone in the limo. The news reports tell us the limo had failed inspection, and shouldn’t have been on the road. So we know, technically, “why” all those people were killed. But that “why” doesn’t satisfy, does it? Knowing that doesn’t mean we—or the families of all those people—have any insight or wisdom or comfort.
God finally shows up in our story, speaking to Job (almost) face to face. But God does not provide him with the answers he. Instead, God peppers him with questions. And all the questions highlight one thing, and one thing only: God is God and Job is not.
Jews have a prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish. By tradition, after the death of a close relative, it is recited every day for one year. I became interested in the prayer following the September 11 attacks in 2001. I looked it up and made a copy of it to keep in my prayer book.
I had been looking for a prayer about mourning. I expected it to say things like, “The Lord heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.” But it doesn’t. I had expected a prayer of sorrow and loss, a prayer calling out to God for comfort. But that’s not what I found. Instead, I found a prayer of unabashed praise of God, in all God’s goodness and glory. It begins,
Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba, Amein,…
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified, Amen,
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now say: Amen.[ii]
The Mourner’s Kaddish asks grieving people to hold together two things that don’t feel compatible. It asks them to hold their grief side by side with their conviction that God is good, that God is loving, that God is marvelous beyond our imagining.
This is what I think God is doing for Job in that long sequence of questions God keeps lobbing at this good and righteous servant. God is not dismissing Job’s grief or loss. And God is not offering a satisfying explanation to Job. Rather, God is asking Job to trust in God’s goodness, in God’s God-ness, despite his pain.
So, instead of a God who answers Job’s questions—why, and why me?—Job finds a God who answers Job’s need: For his pain to be seen. For his cries to be heard. For God’s presence in the midst of all of it. For God’s presence and love, as only God can give.
Near the end of Rabbi Kushner’s book, he writes,
In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people translates itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.
Are you capable of forgiving and accepting in love a world which has disappointed you by not being perfect, a world in which there is so much unfairness and cruelty, disease and crime, earthquake and accident? Can you forgive its imperfections and love it because it is capable of containing great goodness?
… Are you capable of forgiving and loving God… even when (God) has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty… and permitting some of those things to happen to you?
… And if you can do these things, will you be able to recognize that the ability to forgive and the ability to love are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in this less-than-perfect world?[iii]
The ability to forgive and the ability to love are the weapons God has given us to live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in this world, beautiful and broken as it is. Like Job, we can choose how to respond to our terrible losses. We can choose forgiveness—even when that means forgiving God. We can choose love—opening our hearts to the God who does not tell us “why,” but who does accompany us through it all, who, in fact, never leaves us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon Books, 1981), 91.
[ii] “Mourner’s Kaddish,” Judaism 101, http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer/kaddish.htm.
[iii] Kushner, op. cit., 147-148.