... And He Lived Happily Ever After The Rev. Amy Spagna
October 25, 2015 – Pentecost 22B Job 42:1-6. 10-17
One of the TV shows you’ll find on my DVR is the HBO series Last Week Tonight. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s similar to its cousins The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in how it looks at the week’s news through the lens of satire. One of Last Week Tonight’s features is a lengthy essay segment which explores a variety of cultural topics, ranging from food waste to discrimination against minority groups. Several weeks ago, the host of the show, an Englishman by the name of John Oliver, used this time to explore the so-called prosperity Gospel, including how some televangelists manage to raise exorbitant amounts of money by preaching it. This questionable piece of theology holds that what we give to the Church will eventually come back to us, in the form of wealth that’s been greatly multiplied. The promise usually goes something like this: if you give $50 as your “seed faith,” you’ll harvest far more back in return. It’s a little bit like the parable of the mustard seed, except it lacks the part about how that planted seed has to be properly cared for if it’s to grow into something green and fragrant.
To learn more about how this “prosperity Gospel” supposedly works, Oliver decided to invest in one of the television ministries preaching it. He sent the church a letter, along with a donation of $20. Over the course of the next seven months, Oliver received over thirty form letters from the church’s senior pastor in return. The second of these letters contained a dollar bill, and instructed him to send it back with his, “best prove God tithes or your best offering” of an additional $37. (Yes, that’s a quote directly from the actual letter.) Oliver’s comment was, “It’s like being pen pals with someone who’s in bad with a loan shark.” He then went on to describe how all of the letters instructed him to return the contents, along with another donation. No matter what was in the envelope – and there was some truly bizarre stuff, including a dollar bill which Oliver was instructed to put into a Bible overnight, and then return in exchange for yet another a dollar bill which had been specially blessed – the instructions, and the pitch, were the same: “Keep sending us your money, and you’ll get even more in return!”1
That pitch, and the empty promises underlying it, sound more than a little bit like the explanations Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar tried to give him after he lost everything. They spend far too much time trying to convince him that not only is he to blame for his suffering, but also that he alone has the power to fix it. It isn’t hard to imagine them taking the step of telling Job he has to go see the priests at the Temple to properly atone for whatever he’s done – or at least, to let them do it on his behalf. “You know it’s your fault, Job – but we can help! Just send us to the temple with the one last shekel you have there in your pocket, and we’ll give it to the priest for you. THAT will make God happy. Then you can put this whole mess behind you and just get on with your life.”
1 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, “Televangelists,” Episode 49. [Original airdate: August 16, 2015]. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg [accessed October 19, 2015].
Of course, that’s not how it works. At least in part because of the transformation Job has undergone, it is VERY dangerous to look at this “happily ever after” strictly from the point of view of the material wealth God restores to him. To do so is a gross oversimplification, not to mention reduces his struggles to the level of the absurd. As Job himself says over and over again, he’s not as interested in getting back his stuff as much as he is in getting an answer to what God is up to. At least, the happily ever after begs the question of what the whole point of this exercise in suffering is. It’s not a matter of needing to remind people of the fact that suffering is part of the human condition, or to raise questions about the causes and the nature of that suffering. Instead, it’s about how we perceive God’s power and presence within the bounds of our relationship with God. Until we, like Job, can recognize the extreme imbalance there, we too will be left on our ash heaps with nothing more than a potsherd for comfort.
Job’s encounter with God has left him with virtually nothing, except for the faith which generates his complaints. As we heard last week, God is very quick to disarm Job’s whining: “Gird up your loins like a man, and I will answer you. Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?” (Job 38:3-4, NRSV) Job can only answer this charge one way, and that is by admitting he hasn’t seen God for who God really is. It’s at this point when we see the change that this encounter has brought about in Job. When faced with his status as mere dust and ashes, he can do nothing, except to pause and recognize just how little he really understands about God. The very terms of the relationship have been changed. We can hear it in how Job’s tone softens. Instead of demanding an answer, he simply states the parameters of this relationship: “I will question you, and you will declare to me” (Job 42:4, NRSV).
It is worth noting that Job’s repentance in no way equals an acceptance of God’s judgment, or an admission that he has sinned.2 The Hebrew word translated as “repent” can also mean “recant” or “despise.” I’m also told the Hebrew does not make entirely clear what Job has recanted, or what he despises. The best guess is that it’s his former attitude of taking God’s presence, and the blessings which go along with it, for granted. What he learns, despite the lack of an answer to his question of, “why me?” is there is far more to God and God’s presence than anything he could possibly have imagined.
It’s precisely because of this change that God restores Job’s fortunes. It’s easy to interpret this act as God’s somehow returning the favor for all of Job’s suffering – or, as the letters John Oliver received from the televangelist put it, Job has harvested all the “seeds” he has planted through his faith. What the editors of the lectionary have left out is that this restoration begins with Job’s so-called friends, in their role as community leaders. Listen to what God tells them:
“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the
2 Dale P. Andrews, “Homiletical Perspective: Job 42:1-6, 10-17.” Feasting on the Word. Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17 – Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 197.
truth about Me as did My servant Job. Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, my servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about Me as did my servant Job.” (Job 42:8-9, JPS)
As leaders, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are called to make this sacrifice on behalf of the whole community. It is the action as prescribed in Leviticus as an appropriate remedy for their having sinned without knowing it. For his part, Job’s prayers are meant to remind him that he, “... must show the empathy that [his friends] had not shown, and leaving his cocoon of self-interest and self-pity.”3 He has to show that his transformation is a permanent one. His prayers on behalf of the community are what we might recognize as an act of radical forgiveness. At the least, they are the actions of a man who has come to see and know that God’s presence in the world is far bigger than the well-intentioned and often trite sentiments offered up by his friends.
The encounter with God is the REAL “happily ever after,” not the restoration of Job’s property, the gift of ten more children, and a lifespan of 140 years. It still comes at a price. It isn’t a matter of pouring colored oil onto a piece of paper and slipping it into the mail, along with a check for $19.95, or even what it costs God in terms of grace to do this. Instead, it’s about what it costs Job to invest heavily again in his family as he knows what it’s like to lose it all.4 He can bear all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios of this risk because of his faithfulness. He has learned that there is not some kind of proportional relationship between the suffering he has faced and any kind of reward he can expect to receive, either in this life or the life to come.
If there’s anything we can learn from Job, it’s that God is present in the suffering which is part of the human condition. All that is required of us is to turn and look for God there, instead of trusting in the empty promise of a quick fix or an overly simple explanation which attempts to place blame somewhere. Those are the wrong questions to be asking – or, if you will, the wrong place to put our money. What we should be asking instead is how to be present to, and with, people who are experiencing some kind of hardship. That’s really what we’re doing when we pledge our time, our talent, and our treasure to this community. It’s a pledge to show up, as God shows up, and not to try to convince our friends that their suffering is something which can be fixed without our help. That pledge does not cost us any more than its face value, nor does it have to be put into the mail with additional donations to prove our sincerity. Instead, following Jesus’ lead, we
take it, give thanks for it, and trust that God will make it into something wondrous.
3 Mayer Gruber, “Job Commentary.” The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1561-2.
4 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2001), 142.