The Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost – October 4, 2015
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-10
This week, it is appropriate to focus on the reality of suffering, not only in terms of the theological problem of evil but the pain we experience, either deserved or undeserved. What is God’s role in the suffering we experience? How do we creatively respond to the realities of suffering and pain, our own and other’s?
The reading from Job addresses the problem of suffering. The story is strange, to say the least. Long before Satan (hasatan) become identified as the source of evil, he was perceived as God’s eyes and ears on earth, a type of divine spy or district attorney. In the story, Satan returns to the heavenly staff meeting with a report about things on earth. God boasts about one righteous man, and Satan responds with the suggestion that Job is righteous only because of his good fortune. If you take away his wealth and power, and then his health he will turn away from his creator.
This ancient tale describes our experiences of suffering. We never know the whole story – if there is a whole story – and must deal with the realities of unexpected, unearned, and unsought pain. Our suffering may be the result of a boasting match between God and Satan, God’s will, or the workings out of karma (cause and effect) from this or past lifetime, but as Paul Simon says, “the information’s not unavailable to the mortal man.”
Life is difficult. Pain happens. We don’t know its source but we must endure or make the best of it. Today’s reading from Job invites the congregation to reflect on the universality of suffering. Whether we are the spouse of a person with Alzheimer’s, diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, mourning a friend’s death in an automobile accident, or dealing with an unexpected financial or professional reversal, we all must deal with suffering – our own or others’. A child celebrates her birthday with joy and presents in a small town in Syria; a year later, she’s bedridden as a result of breathing toxins from either the Assad regime or another terrorist group.
No one is immune from suffering of body, mind, spirit, or relationships. It’s only a matter of time. Suffering can ennoble or destroy us. We never fully know our character until we face unwarranted and unexpected suffering. As Viktor Frankl suggests, however, we are called to be worthy of our suffering, and that’s one of the themes of Job. Despite his pain, he must seek to be as moral and noble as possible. For Job, this will mean challenging God’s own justice.
In Job’s world, it is assumed that the good will flourish and the evil suffer. This is at the heart of the Jewish theology that undergirds the Book of Job and Job’s quest for divine justice. Here’s the story: Job is good and he is suffering. What’s wrong with this picture? Job has done everything right and should be receiving the bounties of divine promise, and yet he is destitute. The acts-consequences, goodness-reward, evil-punishment, calculus isn’t working for Job and it doesn’t work for many people today.
To some extent, the problem of suffering will remain inscrutable to us. We should be especially humble when we try to explain other peoples’ suffering. Some, like Rick Warren, see everything significant in life – good and ill – coming from God’s hand without our consent. The evils of life are intended to be a test placed before us. God tests our mettle and determines who succeeds or fails, with eternal consequences.
In contrast, many new age/new spirituality teachers substitute the omnipotent mind for the omnipotent God. They believe, as do the sages portrayed in the best-selling book, The Secret, that “we create our own realities.” Our good and bad fortune is a reflection of our thoughts. Negativity might lead to cancer while positive thinking leads to wealth. In Christian circles, this linear acts-consequences thinking is enshrined in the “prosperity gospel” and its belief that faith leads to wealth and success while lack of belief (and contributions to their particular ministry) is manifest in sickness and poverty.
The arbitrary and omnipotent God, however, is little better than the demonic. We can fear but not love such a deity, who dispenses cancer, accident, and good fortune simply because God wants to. On the other hand, philosophies that emphasize the power of the mind to shape reality victimize the victim, blaming him or her for her or his suffering. Neither viewpoint is worthy of the compassionate Savior and Healer.
The Epistle of Hebrews speaks of the redemptive power of suffering. Although we may dispute many accounts of the cause of suffering, we recognize that responding faithfully to suffering can deepen our faith and compassion for others. God suffers and divine suffering becomes the pathway to healing. God is not immutable or immune, but suffers along with us, feeling our pain and suffering, a suffering that I believe God does not cause or will. In experiencing our suffering first-hand, God provides a pathway to redemption.
The reading from Mark begins with a dialogue on divorce. While this is a worthy topic, I will focus on the children. The children, as John Dominic Crossan asserts, were expendable in the first century. To some they were nuisances and nobodies. In this encounter, Jesus’ companions want to silence them. Instead, Jesus blesses them. Blessing children is more important than preaching a sermon. The God of Jesus would not punish children for their parents’ sins, inflict arbitrary pain on them, or hurt them as part of God’s greater will. God loves the innocent and powerless. God’s love embraces the sinner and saint, the wayward and the righteous. God tries to give us better than we deserve.
We will experience more of Job in the next few weeks, and this is good, for suffering challenges our vision of God and the goodness of the universe. There are no guarantees, but there is a God of mercy and love, who is faithful through all the seasons of life.
(For more on Job, see Bruce Epperly, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job)