My mentor quoted one of his mentors thus, “Expectations can be defined as planned resentments.” I see a lot of expectations in Job, not only from the protagonist, but even more so from his not always so helpful friends. It is a fool’s errand to try to unwind that book in a few hundred words, or a few thousand pages. Briefly, it is ancient, or at least the prologue and epilogue are. The poetic discourse between Job and three, eventually four, friends, is probably from circa the sixth century BCE. And the poetry uses a lot of techniques and imagery we see in the Psalms, which would be roughly contemporary. Sometimes Job complains in angry protest, sometimes a lament. He even cries to God, but without hope for an answer. He holds on to his truth, that he did nothing to deserve this, that he was virtuous, a stance which God has acknowledged before he used Job, his own creature, in a gentleman’s bet with Satan, two great powers playing with the powerless.
The question is one of theodicy, why does God let bad things happen to good people. Those ancient sections are pretty dualistic, and since all the dualistic heresies still hang over us, where there are two, one must be good and the other bad. For example, interpretation of the annoying, advice of his friends. Job is our protagonist and good, so the advice of these friends must be wrong, and bad. More on this below.
Job hanging on to virtue, even to the point of pride and stubbornness, is positively Stoic. And at the end, to use a modern analogy, we are left with an ecofriendly spirituality where things are made by the power of God. We seem to be just the latest iteration, and of no particular interest to God. For us, Job’s replacement sons and daughters, wealth and livestock, seems pretty cold.
Job has been seen as a precursor to Christ in that he is the Suffering Servant. And a good case can be made. Is Job at his most desperate that different from Jesus in the Garden? Was the fate God the Father laid before Jesus any kinder? Did not both Job and Jesus suffer humiliation and shame and misunderstanding? Yes, we can argue that the theology of reconciliation and the gift of immortality in the realm of the loving God are not the same. But the endurance, pain, frustration, and loneliness of the suffering servant is very much the same. And although in the text Job is called out because of his impatience, Late Antique authors defend him as patient. Job’s confession before God at the end, a foreshadow of the Christian theology of God who forgives us our secret faults, makes Job an example of the good Christian, struggling with the lessons of suffering to bind himself to God (in Christ). Job is all things to all theologians.
What was so wrong about the advice the three, later four, friends gave Job? God’s plan for Salvation history is long and we can’t see its purpose. God is just, so if you are suffering, you must have done something wrong. Repent. We have all heard and preached from those theological stances. What was wrong is that none of them, including Job, knew of the deal God made with Satan. So they judged out of ignorance. Nor did they listen to Job before they gave the expected advice. And we are still doing it every time some pastor or therapist or friend decides they know what your failure is, and here is the answer. But without listening, or believing what you say. Or in fear that what happened to you might happen to them, and a quick judgement or accusation is almost a talisman of protection. But Job is right. We don’t know God’s mind and we have no control.
But there is much we can learn from each chapter of Job, and from today’s reading (Job 12:1-6, 13-25; the missing verses suggest plants and animals can testify to God’s power), addressing Zohar, but really all three, he sarcastically praises these friends for their wisdom, and then reminds them that he, too, is wise. Job is frustrated. Humiliated. In physical and emotional anguish. And he turns to himself, not to God. His is not the voice of the vulnerable and humble. Job knows and cites how kings and even nations are raised up and thrown down at God’s whim. All are stumbling in the dark.
Job’s relationship with God is never personal, although he pleads passionately with God to release him, even kill him. Unlike David, or Jacob, who argued, pleaded, wrestled with God, but a God who cared for them, Job does not hear the voice God, or the Spirit, or see Jacob’s escalators of Angels, riding up and down, showing that the way to heaven is open.
In the Gospel of John, parables and sayings, even healings, are given as signs, ways to glorify the Father, to point upward. Today’s reading is part of the series of “I AM” quotes. I AM is the name of God. Just before our reading, Jesus has already proclaimed, “I am the Light” (Jn 8:12), during the Festival of Tabernacles, which is both a harvest festival and remembrance of the dependence the Jewish people had on God in the wilderness. One day of the festival was commemorated by a blaze of light from giant lanterns in the Temple. People are reminded of the flame which guided them through the wilderness. For Jesus to have said that he was I AM and the Light was either insane or blasphemy. Or demonic. Jesus is proclaiming himself God. He is I AM, the Good Shepherd, the way, the truth, the life. In today’s reading (Jn 8:21-32) he says, I am going where the sinners can’t find me. That he and the Father are one. There is no mistaking his meaning, but it is so absurd, so insane, that, even with the help of the Holy Spirit, it leaves those who hear it confused, and deeply upset.
Job is not saying he is God or God’s son. He feels he has very little relationship with God, and that is the critical difference, and yet in that difference we see the two sides of our deep faith. Are we who suffer, but feel abandoned, victims of a cruel and unjust God, or are we who know and trust our relationship with God, a beloved family through Jesus Christ?
The stories we hear, of Jacob, or Abraham, of the Hebrew people in the desert, stories of uncertainty, of fear, of danger, of death, in all of them God speaks to his people, sends his Spirit, if only to his chosen prophets, leaders of the people. God sends angels to feed Elijah and guide him. God even give Joshua strategic plans for military action. For Job, as we now say, crickets. But not total silence, with standard homiletic advice from those with the proper attitude and probably the proper certificates, but without knowledge or experience. And for all of them, expectation is a setup for planned resentment. The friends resent Job for not heeding them. Job resents them, but mostly he resents God. For he had expected loyalty, protection, and got none. As we live out our lives, we live out the life of Job as much as we seek to live out the life of Jesus. The Way is hard. But unlike Job, we believe that the Father does love us, and the Son will lead us. And the Spirit does talk to us, if we but listen.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.