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The Ballad of a Man Named Job, Part 1

Thomas J Parlette

“The Ballad of a Man Named Job, Part 1”

Job 1:1, 2: 1-10

10/4/15

Whenever I finish a Sunday sermon, I always take a copy home for Juliet to read. She doesn’t really proof read it – but she does tell me if something doesn’t work as well as it should.

This week though, she took one look at the title and asked, “So are you planning to sing your sermon this week?” Indeed, maybe you thought the same thing when you saw the title, The Ballad of a Man Named Job. Maybe you thought I was going to break out my guitar and do my best Johnny Cash impression today. But I suspect that most of you are probably relieved that I’m not going to do that.

When I hear the word “ballad”, I think of the troubadours of old, a guitar slung over their shoulders, walking from town to town singing songs and telling stories of Kings and Queens, Knights and Dragons and epic adventures.  In more modern times, a ballad has come to mean a song that is slower in tempo and rather moody and introspective – similar in style and feel to the blues.

It seems to me that the story of Job would lend itself pretty well to a ballad. So for the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at this man Job and what we can learn from him. Whenever we are overwhelmed by news of catastrophic and heart-rending events all around the world – we can not help but ask the eternal question that is central to the book of Job – “How could God let something like that happen?” Random shootings, violence against defenseless and innocent life, refugees forced to flee their homes – why do these things happen? If God is good and loving and gracious, why do senseless, vicious things happen? Why would God allow innocent people to suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The book of Job brings us face to face with those questions. You remember the story of Job. He was a faithful servant of God, a prosperous man with a large family. According to the biblical account, Satan came to God and suggested that Job was faithful and trusting only because things were going so well for him. “Take everything away,” says Satan, “take away all of his possessions, even his family – and Job will quickly lose his faith and curse you.”

So God permits these terrible things to happen to Job. He loses everything. Job is devastated, but he remains faithful. He does however, wonder why. Why did these things happen? He had been a good and faithful man, and yet he had all these horrible things happen. Why? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Theologians sometimes depict this problem by drawing a triangle and then placing one of these statements at each corner: “God is Love”, “God is all-powerful”, “Evil is real.” Our logic tells us that all three can not be true. If God truly loves us and is all powerful to prevent bad things from happening, then what seems evil to us must not really be evil – but surely that can’t be right.

If evil is real, and God is all-powerful, then God must not really be loving – or else God would stop evil. But a quick look at the headlines and we know that isn’t true either.

Then if evil is real and God is truly loving, then God must not be all-powerful – and thus cannot prevent these bad things from happening. A number of years ago, a book hit the shelves called, “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” It was written by a rabbi named Harold Kushner, who was himself, no stranger to suffering. His son had died at age 14 from a rapid-aging disease that essentially turns the bodies of children into those of elderly people. In the book, Rabbi Kushner struggled with this whole question, and while he didn’t say so in so many words, he essentially came down on the side of evil being real and God being love – but perhaps not able or willing to prevent bad things from happening. It is indeed a good book, and has been helpful to many people dealing with grief – but understand that no one has a satisfying answer as to why bad things happen(1) It is a mystery known only to God.

The ancients tried to make sense of this problem with an idea that scholars refer to as “Retributive Justice.” It’s a fancy of saying, “what goes around comes around.” It’s the notion that if you do good things and lead a good life – good things will happen. If you lead a life of sin – well, God will punish you. Kind of like Karma. So if bad things are happening to you, you must have done something bad.

Carol Bechtel, the author of a Kergyma Study on Job, uses an example from the movie “The Sound of Music.” She describes a scene: Moon light filters through the trees, washing the gazebo in a translucent halo of blue. Inside the gazebo, Julie Andrews stares into Christopher Plummer’s eyes, their hands clasped in a stunningly romantic silhouette. Softly she begins to sing, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good…”(2) That is the concept of retributive justice, put on film – somewhere along the way, we must have done something to deserve the things that happen to us – the bad and the good.

So, following that logic, Job must have done something bad in his youth or childhood to deserve his suffering. His friends all think so – and go to great lengths to get Job to admit whatever he has done wrong. But Job will have none of it. He has led a good and sinless life. He has been faithful – and he knows it. Which just adds to the sense of frustration in this story. Job’s suffering is just so undeserved. So unjust. Job’s wife, in her one and only appearance in this story, probably capture the mood best. She seems to offer the best advice, she speaks for us all when she urges her husband to “curse God and die.” If God is not just, then why be faithful? From her perspective, disaster struck like an undeserved bolt of lightening from out of the blue. In a day when suffering was widely seen as punishment of sin, all this made little sense to the wife of a man renowned for his righteousness. Why not just curse God and die – that is Mrs. Job’s practical advice.

A lot of people would probably agree with Mrs. Job. I remember the time I was visiting someone in the hospital – the nurses were busy doing a procedure so I was sitting in the waiting area until they finished. This was the day after that shooting in Lancaster Pennsylvania, when the Amish girls were shot in their schoolhouse. The TV was on in the waiting room and a reporter was interviewing the grandfather of one of the girls who had been killed. The reporter asked the old man if he had forgiven the killer. He seemed to think about it for a second, and then answered short and to the point – “Yes.” And then the reporter asked another question, “Do you still have your faith?” And this time there was no pause, just a flicker of confusion, as the old man gave the same answer, “Yes.”

There was a couple sitting in the chairs across from me and as we watched the raindrops fall from the brim of this Amish grandfather’s wide black hat, the man said, to no one in particular – “I don’t think I could do that. I doubt I could go through something like that and still have my faith.” His wife just nodded in silent agreement. I don’t think they’re alone. A lot of people feel like that, just like Mrs. Job did. Why not curse God, if God abandons you. Why not abandon your faith. Why trust an unjust God.

I remember a man I once knew – he would stop in at church every once in awhile. He would never come all the way into the sanctuary, but sometimes he would come into the Narthex area and just sit on the steps and listen, and then slip out before the end of the service. One Sunday he stuck around long enough for us to talk a little bit and he explained that it was hard for him to sit in church because he was mad at God. Some years before, this man’s son had been vacationing up along the coast of Oregon. He had been hiking with his fiancé along a rocky shoreline – not a beach, but one of those high, jagged kind of shorelines that you see in Maine, when suddenly a huge wave knocked them off the rocks, swept them out to sea and they both drowned. They had not been careless or irresponsible – no alcohol involved on a trail that was open and presumed safe. It was simply a freak accident. No one could have predicted that a wave could reach them as high up as they were. As a result, this man struggled for years with why it happened. He was mad at God. He had a hard time keeping his faith.

But then again, there are also people of faith who undergo terrible losses and they discover that it is in exactly such terrible circumstances of pain and loss that their reliance on God comes to mean the most.

More than a generation ago, one of Scotland’s finest preachers, Arthur John Gossip, lost his wife suddenly. But he went to the pulpit as scheduled the very next Sunday. In his sermon he said, “I do not understand this life of ours. But less can I comprehend how people in trouble and loss and bereavement can fling away peevishly from the Christian faith. In God’s name, fling to what? Have we not lost enough without losing that too?”(3) It’s as if you would survive a shipwreck but then throw away your life jacket because you’re angry about the boat sinking. In times of despair, we might leave God. But God never leaves us.

Faith is not so much about belief in God. Anyone can believe that there is a God. No – faith is more about trust. A truly faithful person is one who can trust God even in the face of great suffering, grief or loss. A faithful person has trust that God never leaves us. That’s what Job had – an unshakeable trust in God. He couldn’t “curse and die.” He couldn’t abandon his faith, even though he may have been tempted to do just that. What was his alternative? Where could he turn if he turned away from God?

After the death of his wife, Joy – C.S. Lewis accused God of being little more than a “cosmic sadist.” That a Christian of Lewis’s caliber could entertain such thoughts is comforting in its way. It puts him in the company of Job, Mrs. Job, that couple in the hospital waiting room and my mysterious friend at the back of the church. Yet perhaps the following words are even more profound. After Lewis had gained a bit more perspective on his loss, he reflected, “You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears.”(4)

We’re never told, but I hope that was true of Mrs. Job. I hope that with perspective and time, she was able to rethink her advice. I hope it’s true for all of us when we struggle with our faith and have a hard time putting our trust in the mysterious ways of God. It’s interesting to remember that Rabbi Kushner’s famous book is not called “WHY bad things happen to good people” – but “WHEN bad things happen to good people.” Bad things will happen. They will happen to all of us. Evil is real. We know that to be true – and every week it seems something happens to teach us that lesson one more time.

But the good news of the Gospel is that God is good. God never abandons us. An Amish grandfather’s simple one word response can show us that. In a way it reminds me of the famous poem that we often hear at funerals by John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Eternal Goodness.” Part of the poem goes like this:

“Yet, in the maddening maze of things,

And tossed by storm and flood,

To one fixed trust my spirit clings;

I know that God is good…

I know not that the future hath,

Of marvel or surprise,

Assured alone that life and death

His mercy underlies…”

 

Whittier was convinced that greater than the reality of evil in this world, is the reality of the goodness and mercy of an ever-present God that underlies our lives. It’s not an answer to WHY bad things happen. But it is a response WHEN bad things happen.(5) I think Job would agree.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Stan Purdum, “A Hearing Heart,” CSS Publishing Inc, p. 345.

2.    Carol Bechtel, Job and the Life of Faith, Kerygma Program Resource, pg. 3.

3.    Stan Purdum, “A Hearing Heart”, CSS Publishing Inc., p. 347.

4.    Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, ed. Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 235.

5.    Stan Purdum, “A Hearing Heart,” CSS Publishing Inc., p. 347-348.