Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We began our series on Biblical wisdom this spring with the book of Proverbs. Elders, parents, wisdom teachers offering practical advice on how avoid life’s pitfalls and dangers. According to the wise teachers who composed the biblical proverbs, righteous actions are rewarded, and wicked actions meet with negative consequences. Proverbs offers us a clear vision of the way the world should work. The problem, of course, is that in the real world what should happen isn’t always what happens.
Fortunately for the reputation of Wisdom Literature in particular, and the integrity of the Scriptures as a whole, the Bible does offer an alternate perspective to balance this simpler notion of rewards and punishments in the book of Proverbs. For the book of Job is precisely about good behavior not necessarily being rewarded in the ways we might hope.
No sooner have we been introduced to Job than we learn he is blameless and upright, he fears God and turns aside from evil, and he goes to great lengths to live a holy and righteous life. We then overhear a conversation in heaven between God and "the satan,” a Hebrew word which isn't quite the equivalent yet of the proper name Satan we see in the New Testament. Here "the satan" (literally: "the adversary" or "the accuser") is a member of the heavenly court who stirs up a bit of trouble by making a bet with God about this man Job. When God points out to the adversary what a righteous man Job is, “the satan” answers "Well, sure, he's got everything going for him--riches, amazing real estate, a household of servants, a huge family. But I'll bet that if you took all that away, he wouldn't remain faithful for long." God accepts the adversary’s bet and allows him to begin to afflict Job. Job loses all of his livestock, his servants, his house, and all of his children. To emphasize how rapidly all of this happens, the narrator notes that while each messenger was still sharing his own respective piece of bad news, another messenger would arrive with more bad news, and then another, and another.
In spite of all of this, Job at the end of chapter 1 persists in worshipping God: "'the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' And in all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing." So far, so good for God's side of the bet. Even when, in chapter 2, the adversary ups the stakes a bit and encourages God to afflict Job's own body with terrible boils, Job persists in his integrity. It appears that God has won. Job does indeed fear God without all the comforts of his former life, saying to his wife "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not the bad?" But at whose expense has God won the bet? God and the adversary may both be impressed with Job's integrity. But poor Job is still down there, grieving the loss of all he once held dear, scraping at his sores with a piece of broken clay pot, and having no clue that the only reason for his suffering was this strange wager in heaven.
The heavenly wager is a device used by this storyteller to explain why an innocent man like Job would be allowed to suffer so intensely. Maybe there’s a “satan” out there somewhere stirring up trouble, or maybe God’s trying to prove a point somehow about the man’s goodness?
Whether or not we’d answer it the same way the storyteller does here, it’s a question many of us wonder about. Why, in heaven’s name, when we’re minding our own business, do we get blindsided with things like intense pain and illness? No fair! Why must good, decent people trying to do the right thing face heartbreak, tragedy, and loss? It can feel like we’re being punished somehow, though we can’t think what we did to deserve it. The age-old question of unmerited suffering. Tackled here in story form through the character of Job, the classic good guy to whom bad things happen.
After a dozen years in this congregation, I know enough of your stories to know just how well some of you can sympathize with Job. I’m so sorry. I wish it could be otherwise. I wish you didn’thave quite so much first-hand experience with pain and illness and heartbreak and loss. With bad experiences that can feel sometimes like being punished for no good reason. But it seems to go with the territory of being human, doesn’t it? The details change from person to person or family to family but from what I can tell none of us make it very far into adulthood without at least a nod to Job’s story in our own. In other words, sometimes good people suffer. They just do. And while Job’s friends try later in the book to find some awful thing he did to deserve his fate, the narrator insists throughout: none of this was Job’s fault. He did nothing to deserve the bad things that happened to him. As deeply unfair as all of this seems, at least the Bible is honest about it. No amount of righteous living can be counted on to protect us from pain.
Certainly, any number of the tragedies in our world can be blamed on human sin—that’s where Proverbial wisdom is right on target. But not all of them can, and this is where the book of Job helps us. No one contracts Alzheimer's disease because they deserve it. A miscarriage or a sudden stage 4 cancer diagnosis is no indication of hidden sins. Because the book of Job so resolutely insists that Job was a person of integrity, we must deny the argument (too often proof-texted from the Scriptures) that people only get what they deserve. They don't. Good people, people of profound integrity, people who appear to be doing everything right, are the victims of misfortune and tragedy every day.
Panning back a bit more, I mentioned to you a couple weeks ago that I used to read the wisdom books primarily on a personal level. For instance, I’d read Job exclusively as the story of an individual character that speaks to my individual life, or yours. But this time through I’m trying to watch for broader messages too. So I’m experimenting with what it might look like to apply the theology of the book of Job to larger scale experiences. Things that happen not just to a single person or a household but to a whole community, or a whole people group.
For instance, some of us were privileged to make it quite a number of years into our lifetimes before we experienced a significant illness or injury or loss. But we know that other children of God have the deck stacked against them from their first breath. The cry “no fair!” that we find ourselves saying in particular moments of crisis might as well be what a newborn utters in its very first cry when that baby is born as a person of color in this country, or born into a situation of extreme poverty or danger anywhere in the world. Talk about innocent suffering. Just as there is no adequate moral explanation for why some people experience chronic pain, neither is it fair that some must endure incredible hardship simply because of where they are born or with what skin tone.
So how might it influence the way we talk about racially or politically charged situations, for instance, not only to consider them from the perspective of human injustice – which, let’s be clear, is absolutely critical; we’ve got to keep asking ourselves what is in our power to change and improve – but also to channel a bit of theology from the book of Job? Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle?” But surely some are fighting harder battles than others, because compounding the same kinds of physical and emotional suffering any of us experience across a lifetime just because we’re human are layers and layers of other dynamics like national- and international-scale injustices and systemic racism. None of that is earned or deserved. None of it is divine punishment for an individual’s own sin, though it may well be the result of the sins of others. Human sin and injustice absolutely cause tremendous pain. But on the receiving end, innocent suffering would still feel like innocent suffering, would it not?
This communal perspective on suffering has certainly impacted how I’m reflecting on Memorial Day weekend this year. I don’t want to underestimate the losses that individual Americans have experienced because their loved ones have served in our armed forces. Pausing to reflect on those kinds of losses is the original purpose of Memorial Day as an American holiday, and some of you will no doubt be visiting cemeteries this weekend and conveying your respects and your appreciation for those kinds of sacrifices.
But last Memorial Day weekend also had us witnessing George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin, which for many also triggers memories of other Black lives lost as a nation before and since that traumatic day. So as I think about the book of Job this time around, I’ve been adding to the “why me?” questions that we all ask when we’re hurting, questions of “why them?” too. As just one example of far too many, how deeply unfair must it feel to walk around every single day as a Black man in America? Can we imagine figure of Job embodied outside of Scripture in situations like these too? And hear others lament without, like Job’s friends, rushing to judgment?
We’ll talk more soon about the spiritual practice of lament and its biblical foundations here in the book of Job and elsewhere. Meanwhile I chose as our song of response today the old African American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead” because many of us find it speaks powerfully to God’s support through difficult circumstances. You may wish to consider as you sing how this particular Memorial Day weekend might feel to the community with whom the song originated, too.
We may not get all the answers we’d like to explain undeserved suffering but thank God we are given a person – the very presence of God – in our most agonizing moments. My prayer, as we sing, is that the God who knew what it was to suffer, in Jesus, and who at the same time has the power to soothe aching spirits, would meet you in your own places of pain and bring some comfort, too, to all who are hurting today. Amen.
 Original author of this quote seems to be in dispute.