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The Ballad of a Man Named Job, Part 4

Thomas J Parlette

“The Ballad of a Man Named Job, Part 4”

Job 42: 1-6, 10-17


Back in the 70’s. Neil Simon wrote a hit comedy based on Job called “God’s Favorite”. It’s a story about a cardboard – box tycoon named Joe Benjamin. Joe lives in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in a 19 room mansion with his family. Joe is a wealthy man, surrounding himself with priceless paintings, expensive antiques (including a rare Gutenberg Bible) and a half million dollars worth of jewelry – not to mention the swimming pools and 2 live-in servants. Life is good for Joe.

But that wasn’t always the case, he wasn’t always so privileged, having grown up in a two room apartment with 11 brothers and sisters and only 2 cots to sleep on. It was so crowded, he says, that you had to take a number to go to bed – just like you would have to do in a deli. But Joe worked hard and lived honestly, and eventually he became a prominent citizen and successful businessman, a patient and generous person, trusting that how we live and how we die is in God’s hands. He is quick to attribute all his success to God, believing that wealth is as much a responsibility as poverty is a burden. And Joe practices what he preaches – he gives away half of what he makes every year to charity. And each year, God blesses him even more.

But one day, God sends a messenger named Sydney, originally played by Charles Nelson Reilly, to put Joe’s faith to the ultimate test and persuade him to renounce God in the Sunday edition of the New York Times – nothing big, doesn’t have to be the front page, just a small announcement that could be hidden under “Montauk Fishing News.” But, of course, Joe refuses.

And then the troubles start. Joe’s cardboard box company burns to the ground, and he is plagued with every sort of disease and discomfort you can think of – bursitis to the heartbreak of psoriasis, right down to hemorrhoids.

Then his mansion burns to the ground, and we find Joe painfully sitting in the ashes of what had been the showplace of Oyster Bay. He makes the best of the situation, suggesting a cookout over the smoldering embers. Gazing out from their front porch, the family can’t help but notice the burning bush in their yard, and they decide immediately to begin all over again with a renewed faith in God and in humanity.

“God’s Favorite” is not exactly a word for word re-telling of the Book of Job – for instance, Joe doesn’t lose his family nor is his wealth fully restored at the end of the story as it is in the biblical account. Nevertheless, Joe Benjamin and his family do come away from their experience with a different outlook on God.

Last week in the Ballad of Job, we heard God finally respond to Job out of the whirlwind. God had some questions of his own for Job – “Where were you?” is the refrain that repeated over and over again. You just don’t understand who you are dealing with Job, said God. I have knowledge, wisdom and power that are simply beyond your capacity to understand.

That was last week. This week, we wrap up the Ballad of a man named Job as we visit Job in the aftermath of the Divine Whirlwind. There is Job, his hair blown back – he’s cowering, face down with his hands over his head hiding from the whirlwind of God. When he’s sure it’s safe, when he’s sure he’s not going to be struck down in divine fury – Job peeks through his fingers and whispers in essence: “When I asked you to meet me in court, O Yahweh, I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. But things are clearer to me now. I no longer wish to challenge you; I only wish to learn from your wisdom. I will be quiet while you answer my questions.”

And then, as the New Revised Standard Version translates it, Job says, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

I once led a Bible study on Job using the Kerygma resource – which encourages a great deal of class research and discussion time. I remember that when we came to this verse – we got stuck. We had a hard time with Job “despising himself and repenting” when he had done nothing wrong – he had just been seeking some answers from the Almighty. Despising and repenting just seemed a little strong – tough to identify with.

And the truth is, there are difficulties with the translation here. The NRSV holds to the long tradition of translating the Hebrew as “despise myself.” But there are other possibilities that are just as valid and just as faithful to the language. For instance, the editors of the New English Bible have chosen to say, “therefore I yield” instead of “therefore I despise myself.” In light of the previous verses that seem to reflect more of a sense of humility rather than self-loathing – maybe “I yield” is a better translation of Job’s mental state here in the aftermath of the Divine Whirlwind.

And then there’s the idea of repentance, which is never an easy concept to come to grips with. Repentance usually means “to be sorry for sin.” We hear the word “repent” and we immediately think of changing our evil ways. But what if no sin has been committed? What if there is no evil way to change? We know that Job is righteous and good and faithful – why is he repenting?

And again, perhaps a fuller translation is needed. The Hebrew word here actually has a wide range of possible meanings – “to have pity”, “to have compassion”, or even “to comfort oneself”, are just a few possibilities. So, one possible translation of the text could be… “Job admitted his mistake in attempting to challenge Yahweh.” That perhaps gives us a better sense of what Job’s repentance is all about here.

As Irma Zaleski has written in her book “The Way of Repentance” : “When we repent, we give up our illusions, our compulsions, our self-centeredness as soon as we notice them; we cry for mercy and we always go on. We don’t expect any quick answers or ask for any revelations. We look only to Christ our Lord and follow him step by step…”

I think describes Job here after the whirlwind pretty well. He repents in that he gives up his illusions of God’s justice – and instead, Job cries for mercy. He stops expecting those quick, sure and certain answers that we’d like to have and learns to live with uncertainty, listening instead for the answers God wants to give.

Willard Van Orman Quine was a noted mathematician and philosopher who used to type all his work on an old Remington typewriter that he had customized. He had removed the number 1, the exclamation point and the question mark and replaced them with specialized mathematical symbols. Someone once asked him how he managed to write without using question marks and he answered, “Well, you see, I deal in certainties, not questions.”

Certainties are something we’d all like to deal in. But Job is not a story about certainty – it’s a story about trust. It’s a story about trusting that God will continue to love us through any circumstance – as God continued to love Job right through the time of his torment.

In Job, God gives us some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we don’t get what we deserve. And the good news is the same – we don’t get what we deserve. God is at work in each and every situation to help us find meaning and purpose.

William Slone Coffin, a well known Presbyterian minister and social activist, former chaplain at Yale University and Senior Pastor of the Riverside Church almost a generation ago, knew his share of suffering, just like Job. His 24 year old son, Alex, was killed when his car plunged through a guardrail and sank into Boston Harbor. Two weeks later, Coffin delivered his now famous sermon, “Alex’s Death,” exonerating God from any blame in his son’s death and rejecting the idea that human suffering is God’s will. Coffin said, “God doesn’t go around this world with fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels… It was not the will of God that Alex died… When the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.”

In love and mercy, God sticks by us even through the tragedies that are a part of this life.

From his face down position, Job whispers, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” As a result of his whirlwind encounter, Job experiences God in a completely new way – as the mysterious, all-powerful, unknowable, Creator of the Universe, but also as a merciful God who would stoop to lift us up and stand by us in the most troubling times.

Perhaps the apostle Paul had Job in mind when he wrote his spontaneous burst of praise in Romans:

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

In another famous sermon called “Doxology”, Fred Craddock preached on those words from Romans. “In the fall of the year, even after the days grow short and the air crisp, I still go out on the patio alone at the close of the day,” says Craddock… “I sit there remembering, trying to understand the painful distance between the day as I planned it and the day as it had been. The growing darkness seeped into my mind and heart and I was as the night. Looking back on it, I know now that it was that evening on which the Idea came to me.” It was an idea he called, for lack of a better name, Doxology.

Doxology began to follow Craddock through out his days. Doxology joined the family at the dinner table, as the question was asked, “What was the worst thing that happened today?

“The school bell rang at 8:30.”

Well, what was the best thing that happened?

“It rang again at 3:30.”

The family agreed, Doxology belonged at the family dinner table. They even took Doxology along when they went to the beach on vacation. No doubt about it – Doxology was good company.

Doxology even joined Craddock on routine errands around town. Together they laughed with children, talked to the banker and enjoyed the bustle of life. But when it was time to stop at the hospital to visit Betty, who was dying from cancer – well, Craddock felt it was inappropriate to take something as joyous as Doxology along. Doxology insisted – but Craddock locked him in the car and went on his own. After an awkward visit and quick prayer, Craddock slunk back to the car. Doxology asked, “Should I have been there?”

“Yes,” said Craddock. “I’m sorry – I didn’t understand.”

Doxology is the simple idea that God deserves all the glory and praise. As Paul said, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” There is never any situation in life where our Doxology – our words of appreciation and wonder at the awesome being of our Creator – is inappropriate. As Craddock says at the end of his sermon, “if we ever lose our Doxology we might as well be dead.”

I think Job re-discovered his own doxology at the end of his days. He lived through his sufferings and the advice to curse God and die. He lived through his searching and questioning God’s presence. He lived through his anger and bitter complaints. He even survived the whirlwind of God’s response. He lived through it all to discover that God had stood by him the whole time – offering him not justice, but something even better. Infinite mercy.

I’m sure Job sat on his front porch, sometime in the autumn of his life, rocking back and forth in his favorite rocking chair, watching the seasons change and his great grand children growing up – and perhaps he hummed a tune to the lyrics of this Ballad, lyrics that Paul would commit to writing years later and send to the church in Rome:

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God… For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever.”

A fitting last verse to the Ballad of a man named Job.

May God be praised. Amen.