Tag: Suffering

The Way of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1B (1 Peter 3)

Coventry Cathedral Baptistry

1 Peter 3:13-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.


                As we begin the Lenten journey, the Second Reading, which generally takes us to one of the  Epistles, invites us to consider the words found in 1 Peter 3. Although this letter is attributed to the Apostle Peter, we don’t know the identity of the author. However, in the course of this reflection, I will simply speak of the author as Peter.

                I’ve titled the reflection “The Way of Salvation” because that seems to be the focus here. Peter is concerned that his audience, which is experiencing suffering, could fall away. He acknowledges their suffering in the verses that are excluded from the passage designated by the Revised Common Lectionary (verses 13-17) but reminds them that they are not alone in their suffering. Remember that Jesus himself suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous (vs. 18). So, stay the course and emulate Jesus. This is the way of salvation. However, know that you do not walk the path alone. Jesus has already been there!

                I decided to include the excluded opening verses of the paragraph (13-17) because they provide the reason for Peter’s words about Jesus. Peter reminds them that though they suffer, they have a reward waiting for them. Before we get to Jesus, we need to address the suffering incurred by his followers. A passage like this could do some harm if it leads to the conclusion that suffering is either a divine punishment or the promise of a heavenly reward leads deadens us to suffering. That is, it becomes the opiate of the people that is used to oppress people in the name of heaven.   

                While suffering is part of life, and we may grow through our experiences of suffering, not all suffering is the same. This was brought home to me by James Henry Harris, whose book Black Suffering: Silent Pain, Hidden Hope, is a reminder that “all Black suffering relates back to evil—an evil grounded in American chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws and practices, and the residuals of perpetual hate” [Harris, p.20]. As one who is white and male, I need to acknowledge that I have not experienced systemic suffering as described by Rev. Harris and that at times I’ve benefited from it. Such suffering we must do what we can to rectify such situations.

                In the context of this letter, the suffering experienced is related to one’s participation in the community gathered around the name of Jesus. The message has a strong eschatological dimension to it, as it speaks of a heavenly reward. In other words, if you persevere through this time of suffering you will experience heaven’s joys. So, don’t be afraid as the pagans are afraid. Whatever fear you may have, let it be reverence for God. When your faith is challenged, as appears to be the case, don’t be intimidated. Instead, be confident as you graciously answer that challenge. Be confident in your profession of faith and sanctify Christ in your hearts.

                Even as Peter encourages the people to stand fast in their faith in the midst of their suffering (and the nature of that suffering isn’t fully revealed), Peter tells the people to be prepared to make a defense of their faith. What Peter has in mind here isn’t the same thing as what we find in modern apologetics. Nor is it Schleiermacher’s speeches to the cultured despisers. This seems to be more of a life and death situation. He encourages them to give an account of their faith by sharing that hope that is within them. Reveal why one follows Jesus when suffering is a possibility, and do so with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience. Then when you are maligned, those who seek to abuse you will be put to shame.

                Having addressed this situation, we turn to the suffering experienced by Jesus. His suffering is a result of human sin, so he has suffered as one who is righteous for those who are unrighteous, so as to bring them to God. While he was put to death in the flesh, he was made alive in the Spirit. There is in this passage an atonement theory. The theory that seems to fit best here is Christus Victor. That is, Christ saves us in that through his death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over evil—once and for all.  It’s not that he is a substitute sacrifice. Instead, Jesus overcomes the power of sin and death through his own death and resurrection. Another way of looking at this word is offered by Wendy Farley in her book Beguiled by Beauty. Though she doesn’t address this passage, I think she speaks to something similar when she writes that “Jesus entered history to witness to its turmoil, poverty, and
imperial violence. In Jesus, we see the story of humanity itself. The Beloved enters history and suffers with us so that we will not be deserted or alone in whatever befalls us. In the passion of Christ, we are promised an ever-faithful companion in suffering and shown a glimpse of something beyond the seeming victories of suffering” [Beguiled by Beauty, pp. 124-125]. 

                Peter isn’t finished, however, he has something to say about Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.” The question is, what does Peter mean? While Peter isn’t clear here, the spirits spoken of here could have been the angels who rebelled—the watchers of 1 Enoch. It could also be read in connection with the message about those who didn’t believe Noah who was saved through the water of judgment. By the early second century, this idea had developed into the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”
That is, on Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, preached to the spirits there, and converted them thereby releasing them from death’s control. There is even reference to this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where C.S. Lewis speaks of Aslan “ransacking the witch’s fortress,” seeking out all whom she had turned to stone after the Stone Table is broken with his resurrection.

                Peter connects this reference to Jesus’ preaching to spirits in prison with those for whom God waited patiently in the time of Noah. He notes that in the building of the Ark, eight persons were saved through water. He makes this reference to Noah analogous to baptism, which he says now saves us. How does baptism save us? To Peter, this is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a good conscience. The appeal for a good conscience takes place in the context of the resurrection of Jesus, who is now in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. This imagery of Noah and the ark as a symbol of baptism, reminds us, as Ron Allen suggests that “the power of God is so awesome that God transforms the flood water into the means of salvation. From this perspective, 1 Peter’s attitude toward baptism is similar to that of the Reformers: Baptism is a sign from God to assure the congregation of God’s continuing providence, even amid the suffering that comes from faithfulness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 42]. Thus, we move from a reminder that though we suffer Jesus
suffers with us, to a word about baptism, so that we will know that through it all, God is with us in Christ. That is a good way to start the Lenten journey.


Coventry Cathedral – Baptistery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54899 [retrieved February 14, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecadman/2652744641/.

Is Everything Back to Normal? – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B (Job 42)

Is Everything Back to Normal? – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23B (Job 42)

William Blake – Job and his daughters
42 Then Job answered the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.
                It seems that all it took was a bit of humility, a word of repentance, and a recognition on Job’s part that he didn’t know what he was talking about to get his life back. The ending of Job has always given people pause. After all the speeches on the part of the “friends,” urging Job to repent, which he rebutted, and the back and forth between Job and God as to why Job suffering (he may have cursed his own life, but Job never cursed God) in the end Job gives in. Maybe God just wore him down. Starting in chapter 38, God began assailing Job with questions. There is a brief response on Job’s part in chapter 40, but it’s a brief respite, as God starts right back up and continues the diatribe on through chapter 41. The message appears to be that there’s a lot that Job doesn’t know, and thus he needs to be careful with his responses. Job seems to agree, at least that’s what it looks like here in chapter 42. After that gets cleared up, everything returns to normal. Isn’t that the way we like things? Don’t happy endings make for a good story? After all, who doesn’t want to live happily ever after, as is always the case in a Disney story?
                This reading from Chapter 42 is the fourth lectionary choice, and it brings the story of Job to a close. It might not have been the way we would have expected it to end, considering how things started, but maybe ending on a high note is for the best. The lectionary creators, as is their penchant, do a bit of editing to the chapter, excising verses 7-9. In these verses we find God giving the “friends” a tongue-lashing. It’s a bit harsh and may not fit the intentions of the lectionary creators, but this omission is unfortunate because it essentially justifies Job’s complaint. Consider this word: “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, he said to Eliphaz from Teman, ‘I’m angry at you and your two friends because you haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job.’” (Job 42:7 CEB). Yes, Job is in the right, and the friends are not.
Before we get to this excised response on God’s part, we must first attend to Job’s response to God’s diatribe. Job had asked plenty of questions of God, but in the end, he admits that when it came to God’s questions, he simply doesn’t have any answers. After all, God, seems to know everything and whose plans can’t be thwarted. In seems as if Job is defeated by God’ outburst, and yet there is a sense of vindication in that God deals directly with Job. In Job’s response, we hear him say that whereas before he had only heard God’s voice, now, having encountered the whirlwind, Job has seen God with his own eyes. With that, all Job can do is repent with dust and ashes. I wonder, is he repenting of his questions or simply affirming his lack of knowledge and understanding. Job recognizes that he is not God. With that, I prefer the latter explanation. Job isn’t repenting of us questions, just his lack of understanding. This is good news, as I appreciate the questions.
Job’s response, which might have been the original ending of the book, gives way in verse 7 to God’s response to the three friends, who learn that their response was incorrect.  They simply didn’t know what they were talking about. Job, on the other hand, while there might be much that he doesn’t understand or have knowledge of—after all, he wasn’t there to witness many of these things first hand—he was right in this—Job’s “misfortunes” were not the result of unrighteousness or sin. God directs the three friends to atone for their mistake by offering seven bulls and seven rams as a burnt offering, asking Job to offer a prayer of forgiveness. It wasn’t God who was to receive this offering, it was Job, the righteous one.  It’s unfortunate that this is missing because God does admit that Job was correct all along (though God doesn’t repent for putting Job in this predicament).
When we return to the text chosen by the lectionary in verse ten, it seems as if everything has gotten back to normal. It was a series of unfortunate events, that cost him family, land, his own skin (suffering on his part), but now everything is good. After Job prayed for his “friends,” God restored everything that was lost, only this time he is doubly blessed. He was faithful, and therefore he was rewarded. I know this doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. Wasn’t the prior message that Job’s misfortunes had nothing to do with a lack of faithfulness, so how could this act of blessing be a sign of faithfulness?  In any case, standing at the center of this blessing is the provision of children, specifically three daughters, as well as seven sons. The sons aren’t named, but interestingly the daughters are—Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-Happuch. Of these three daughters, the author of Job declares “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters.” They even received an inheritance, along with their brothers—that mention is made of this suggests that this is unusual. But perhaps the message here is that even as Job is blessed, so are his children. After all, as we learn in chapter one of Job, he had always taken good care of his children, offering sacrifices for them so that if they had fallen short of righteousness they were covered. Of course, faithfulness and blessing involve a long life—one hundred and forty more years to be exact, so that the one who lost his original family was able to see four generations of children born. Interestingly enough, no mention is made of Job’s wife. I wonder why? Has something happened to her? Why is she not sharing in the blessings, at least not by name?
When we read Job, I’m not sure we encounter a God we wish to embrace. Here is a God who makes wagers, and seems to be a sort of bully, pummeling Job with unanswerable questions. But maybe this isn’t about God, it’s about our own understandings of righteous and relationship. After all, in the section omitted by the lectionary creators, God does affirm one thing about Job. He was right, and the friends wrong about the cause of misfortune. Deanna Thompson spends a good deal of time with Job in her book Glimpsing Resurrection. She explores the question of trauma in light of the Job story, and she concludes:

And perhaps most important, the book of Job models a relationship with the Divine that allows for anger, grief, complaint, and protest, a relationship that may not yield clear answers regarding the reason for suffering but one that can move between tragedy and joy, and one that dares to include laughter even when the risks of living are intimately understood. [Glimpsing Resurrection, p. 99].

Perhaps that is the message of Job for us. This isn’t really a theodicy. It doesn’t give a full answer to our questions concerning God and suffering, especially if we wish to insert love into the equation. After all, God seems to respect Job, but not necessarily express this in terms of love. The message appears to be that when it comes to suffering and trauma, there are no clear or easy answers. We may want clear answers, bit they always seem elusive. With that the story might have ended, but the creators of this story have chosen to end on a high note. Job is blessed at the end, but not everyone is so fortunate. Sometimes all we can do is end with where things stand at the end of verse 6. We may need to simply kneel before God in sack cloth and ashes and repent, even as we continue to ask why.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

A Bitter Complaint – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B (Job 23)

A Bitter Complaint – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B (Job 23)


Job Talks to God
23 Then Job answered:
“Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
10 But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
11 My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
12 I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.
13 But he stands alone and who can dissuade him?
What he desires, that he does.
14 For he will complete what he appoints for me;
and many such things are in his mind.
15 Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
when I consider, I am in dread of him.
16 God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
17 If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!
                The story of Job is revealing. It speaks to our human concerns regarding the nature of God and God’s relationship with creation. It addresses the perennial question of the existence or presence of God amidst human suffering. If God is truly loving, then why does God allow suffering? The easiest answer is that we get what we deserve. If you are suffering you must have done something to deserve it. The poor experience poverty because of their failures. Women are assaulted and raped because of the way they dress. You have heard the message time and again. But reality is never that easy. I don’t know that there are any easy answers and solutions, at least not ones that assume God’s omnipotence. It is in the context of questions like these that Job often speaks. Here is the righteous person, who has done everything he can to keep himself holy, and he makes sure that he pays any debts owed to God by his family. He’s the kind of person you want on your church board. He’s honest, faithful, hard working. As we learned in the first reading last week, the reading from Job 2, God is impressed by his righteousness. But, then God goes and messes with the paradigm by engaging in a wager with Satan that allows Job to be put through a living hell. Despite his suffering, Job clings to his sense of righteousness, and despite the encouragement to do otherwise refuses to curse God.
                In this second reading from Job, we hear Job complain bitterly about his situation. He may not curse God, but he would like to have a word with a God who appears to be absent. His bitterness is compounded by the conversations he has had with his so-called friends. In the intervening chapters, which we have skipped over, Job’s friends, who at first came to comfort him, have in turn urged him to confess his sins so he might be saved from his torment. His friends embrace a vision of reality, Job likely once held, that sin leads to suffering. We call this retributive justice—we get what we deserve. Having heard Job claim innocence, Job’s friends rebuke him. Their interpretation of Job’s plight starts with the suffering and works back to the “cause,” which must be Job’s sins. Again, this is easy to do. Bad things happen to bad people. We have been seeing it influencing our politics as we eat away at the safety net, threaten to take funds from under-performing schools (rather than providing more resources, we take them away), and turn away refugees fleeing from humanitarian disasters. There is, of course, the flip side to this. If you are rich or successful, you must be righteous.
Job has been responding to these arguments with a series of rants, complaining to whoever listen, that he is innocent. He resists the arguments of his “friends,” who are offended by his ongoing confession of innocence. However Job may feel about things, his defenses do not mesh with their theological system. He has upset their religious and cultural values. Yes, he’s unorthodox. I expect that Job wants to agree with his friends, having embraced their theology, but it no longer works. It doesn’t fit his experience of life. Therefore, there must be a different answer. As that answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, he cries out in bitter complaint. If you’ve read the first couple of chapters, you know that Job has a reason to be bitter. You would be too! He could go along with his friends’ advice and confess to sins he doesn’t believe he’s committed, but he’s not going to do so. In the omitted verses you get a hint that Job is hopeful that he will be vindicated. God might be absent, but things will work out. In any case, God will do what God wants (see verses 10-15).
                Many of us were taught that it was not appropriate to argue with God. God knows best, so don’t protest. Just take it in. Fortunately, Scripture offers us a counter view. Many of us have found encouragement in Job’s rebellious response to God. Now Job doesn’t curse God or give up faith in God, but Job is willing to lay it on the line with God. If only I could find God, I would give God a piece of my mind—something like that.  Job speaks to the times in our lives when we feel we are suffering unjustly. He speaks here of his sense of God’s absence. We all have felt the same. Yes, we know that God is always and everywhere present (it’s an article of faith—we call it omnipresence), but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel otherwise. We see similar complaints in the Psalms, and this is in its own way a Psalm.
                Job understands that his traditional views don’t work, but how will he respond? In verse 17 we read Job’s response: “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” (NRSV). Or is it? The New International Version offers a different take: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” The NRSV offers a Job in despair. The NIV offers a in the words of Mark Throntveit, “defiant, feisty Job, more intent than ever to press his case” [Feasting on the Word, p. 151]. Both are possible translations, but they offer different versions of Job. Personally, I prefer the defiant, feisty Job, though I understand the one who lives with despair. Throntveit does suggest that the NIV reading connects well to the word we read in verse 2, where Job declares that his complaint is bitter! Throntveit comments: that by connecting verse 17 with verse 2, the author offers a “smoother transition to chapter 24,” where we find Job’s “scathing indictment of what God’s absence means in a world where the wicked run roughshod over the weak.”
Does this not speak to where we find ourselves at this moment in time? Churches are trying to be faithful, but they’re struggling. They see other churches thriving and wonder why they can’t. It does seem as if we’re wandering around in the dark. The choices seem to be living in despair or fighting on. So, here we are, in the dark, making our case. We cry out—where are you God? At one level this doesn’t preach. We want a message of success. We want to hear about light. That is not the message for this week, at least from Job. But, maybe, just maybe, we’ll find solace here. If we persist, perhaps God will hear us. At least that’s Job’s hope.

Job Talks to God, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55467 [retrieved October 8, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Noordwijk_Sint-Jeroenskerk_beeld.jpg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Saving Our Skins? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Saving Our Skins? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Job & his wife – La Tour
1:1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
                Job was a righteous man from the land of Uz (wherever that is), whom Satan dared God to torment, to test his faith. God agreed to the wager, and as a result Job’s children were killed by raiding parties and his property destroyed. It was a sad day for Job, but he remained firm in his righteousness. He grieved but didn’t curse God. That’s the essence of chapter one of Job, though the lectionary includes only the introductory verse in the selection for Pentecost 20B. That’s because the focus is on chapter two and a second wager, this time involving Job’s own body. Will Job remain faithful with this twist in the story.
                As in chapter one, in chapter two of Job, the heavenly council gathers with Yahweh presiding. Satan appears once again before Yahweh, who once again asks Satan what he’s been up to. The answer is, “I’ve been traveling around the earth, checking things out, seeing what people are doing.” Once again, Yahweh asks Satan, what he thinks of Job. After all, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Did you notice God’s response? Job remained blameless and upright, even though Satan had “incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” God is rather proud of this man, whom God had allowed to be tested.
                I have always been intrigued by the story of Job. It invites us to think through our understanding of God, including God’s relationship to the world. In my theology, God is love, and a God who is love doesn’t go around messing people’s lives. Yet, that is the story, which should cause us to pause before embracing a literalist interpretation. In this picture of God, God is rather petty. God play games with a man’s life, by letting his children be murdered and his property destroyed, just to see if Job will stay firm in his faith. Job does, despite everything that is thrown at him. Job is righteous, but what about God? Is God so thin-skinned that God can be manipulated by Satan? It’s a question we must face, if we’re to hear this story.
                If we’re to read Job in a way that informs us theologically, we need to affirm at the very beginning that this fiction. The first clue ought to be Job’s homeland. Where is Uz? It could be Edom, but who knows. The picture of the heavenly court is also a clue, though it gives evidence of its rootedness in a pre-monotheist Israel. Whatever its origins, the book raises questions about our understanding of God, the nature of faith, and the challenge posed to that faith by human suffering. With that is our opening point, we need to also address this important character who appears in the early chapters, and that is the person of Satan. The character of Satan as depicted here is not the devil of human imagination. This is no figure with red skin, horns, and a pitchfork. This figure is more an informant, sent out by God, as would a king, to keep watch for rebellious activities. In this set of exchanges, Satan raises questions about Job’s piety. Is it based on living the good life, and if that good life is taken away, the piety would go away as well? It’s a good question, and whether we like the way the question is set up, it does speak to our own realities.
                In chapter two, when God asks Satan what he thinks of Job’s response to misfortune, Satan responds that this is to be expected. It’s one thing to lose your family and property. It’s another thing to have your own body afflicted. Isn’t it human nature to do whatever we can to save our own skins, even at the expense of those closest to us? That’s just the way things are. Jesus knew that. In the Gospel of John, we hear him say: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus will do that for his friends, but what about us? When push comes to shove, won’t we save our own skins? That’s the wager. So, God goes along with the wager, allowing Job to be afflicted, but not killed. Pushed to the limit, will he curse God?  That’s the question.
                Satan went and cursed Job, causing sores to appear on his body running from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. In other words, the totality of his body was covered with “loathsome sores.” He was miserable. He probably wished to die. But he remained firm in his faith. He did so, even when his wife suggested that he curse God, so he might die. Curse God and get it over with. That was her advice. But he refused. He remained firm in his faith, despite everything.
                Satan was wrong. Job didn’t save his own skin by cursing God, though Job’s wife encouraged him to do so. He told his wife that one should expect both the good and the bad from the hand of God. That isn’t a comforting word on Job’s part. It doesn’t fit with my own theology. It’s not that I plan on cursing God, but I am troubled by the idea that God would authorize the bad. God might allow something bad to occur, or maybe, just maybe, there are things God simply cannot do. Through it all, however, Job remains firm in his faith.
This response on Job’s part, his decision to accept his fate and not curse God sets up the next phase of the story, his encounter with his “friends,” who at first seek to comfort him and then as time passes, and Job won’t confess his sins, raise questions about Job’s righteousness. After all, isn’t suffering the result of wrong doing? So far, however, Job does nothing to warrant his suffering, if suffering results from wrongdoing. His suffering comes from a divine directive.
                The questions raised by the Book of Job are important ones. In some ways the Book challenges another strain of Wisdom Literature that presumes that blessing is a sing of righteousness and suffering is a sign of unrighteousness. It also invites us to consider the we view the divine-human relationship. Marvin Sweeney, a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible (and my son’s professor) at a Protestant seminary, offers these words of insight:

The book of Job deliberately presents the model of a righteous man who suffers with no apparent moral justification in an effort to force critical reflection on the issue. The arguments posed by Job’s friends concerning the meaning of human suffering and their assertions of divine righteousness even in the face of evil and Job’s responses to each of them are in fact the key issues of the book. The book of Job is intended to question the standard theological premises of the Torah and the Prophets, viz., is it really the case that observance of the divine will leads to success and peace in life? Is it really the case that the wicked suffer— and not the righteous? Is it really the case that G-d is just? Indeed, the final episode in which G-d affirms Job’s demands for an explanation for his suffering— even though G-d never provides such explanation— indicates that such a critical agenda is in fact the purpose of the book. In the end, the book of Job affirms divine presence and it appears to affirm divine righteousness, but the book also affirms the right and obligation of human beings to ask such questions of G-d. In this respect, Job points to and affirms a model of a human being in critical dialog with G-d.  [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11439-11447). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]

                The door is open. Are willing to walk through? Are willing to enter a critical dialog with God, as Sweeney proposes? The lectionary moves quickly, jumping from chapter two to chapter twenty-three. We don’t get to see the dialog with the friends, but we do experience Job’s complaint, which is set up by this attack on Job’s skin.

Picture attribution: La Tour, Georges du Mesnil de, 1593-1652. Job and his Wife, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46621 [retrieved October 1, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.