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Piety and Prosperity: A Satanic Wager

For Sunday October 28, 2012

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Job 42:1–6, 10–17 or Jeremiah 31:7–9

Psalm 34:1–8, (19–22) or Psalm 126

Hebrews 7:23–28

Mark 10:46–52

           After I finished grad school, I moonlighted at a Presbyterian church as a pastor for home visitation. The very first person I visited that hot summer night in 1985 was a widow named Jan. I could barely believe her story as I sat in her living room. Jan had just lost her husband, her two sons, her father, an uncle, and a nephew in a single boating accident on a lake in Minnesota. Six loved ones had perished in a freak storm on their annual fishing trip.

           What could I say? I don't remember what I said; I hope I kept my mouth shut.

           As I drove home that night, I thought of the psalmist: "How long, O Lord?" (79:5). He'd had enough; his patience and piety were spent.

Job and the bitter truth.

           When fires purge our faith of all dross, what remains? That's the story of Job in a nutshell.

           The "patience of Job" has passed into our vernacular as a common proverb, but I've never understood why. Between the prologue of Job (1:1–2:13) and the epilogue (42:7–17), most of this ancient story is an acrimonious debate between Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (3:1–31:40). They insist that Job deserves his misfortune and therefore needs to repent. Job protests his innocence. He complains, despairs, doubts, questions, anguishes, and resigns himself to his mysterious fate. He's anything but "patient" in the normal sense of that word.

           Nor does the book of Job deal directly with broad and important philosophical questions like why the wicked prosper, why God can feel silent and hidden, or why the moral calculus in our world doesn't always add up.

           Rather, Job explores a narrow question about the relationship between piety and prosperity. Although Job never learns the origin or purpose of his ordeal, the writer-narrator informs us as readers. Satan comes before God with a provocative accusation: "does Job fear God for nothing?" (1:9). He insists that Job's faith has ulterior motives. Doesn't Job expect a quid pro quo of some sort, divine blessings for human faith or faithfulness?

           The accuser-adversary (for such is the literal meaning of his name in Hebrew) then makes a wager with God. He bets that he can prove that for Job, an immensely wealthy man with a wonderful family, God is nothing more than a Cosmic Sugar Daddy. His faith in Yahweh is fueled by its benefits. God, Satan charges, is really no more than a rabbit's foot or good luck charm for Job. Test him and try him, squeeze him, Satan wagers, and you'll see that Job's faith is opportunistic and egocentric rather than gratuitous and theocentric.

Suffering Job.

           God accepts Satan's wager and permits Job to be "ruined without reason" (2:3). A first wave of disasters decimates Job's extravagant wealth and kills his ten children. Then Satan ravages Job's health with festering boils from head to foot. To say that life hands him a dramatic reversal would be a gross understatement.

           Despite his impatience, his agonizing questions, and emotional outbursts, Job passes the tests with flying colors at each stage of the drama.

           Before his fiasco began, we read that Job was "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil" (1:1).

           During the crisis, and contrary to what we might expect, the narrator insists that "in all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing;" "he did not sin in what he said" (1:22; 2:10). Though "ruined without reason," God tells Satan that Job still "maintained his integrity" (2:3).

           And then after the fiasco, the epilogue ends with another reversal of a different sort. Whereas at the beginning of the story Job sought the help of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, at the end of the story God commands them to seek Job's prayers and intercession. They had wrongly charged Job with brash impiety, but God rightly charged them with "folly" — they "have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7).

           The story of Job contains several important lessons. In the New Testament, James commends Job for his perseverance (James 5:11). Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar warn us of the dangers of trying to "help" or "fix" our friends when they suffer, despite our best intentions. Even though he wore his heart on his sleeve and fully vented his emotions, God affirmed that Job "spoke rightly," which is a reminder that there's no need to sanitize your feelings before God. Job also teaches that we should not make a direct connection between rewards and punishments in this life with a person's sin or righteousness.

Job and friends.

           Encountering the majesty and mystery of God, Job confessed that he "surely spoke of things I did not understand" (42:3), and it was precisely his admission of ignorance that led him from second hand knowledge about God to a direct and personal experience with God: "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you" (42:5).

            In addition to all of these, though, the primary lesson of this ancient story includes a most contemporary application. Many television preachers and books teach that God wants you healthy, wealthy, and wise (if you send them your money). Job exposes that lie for what it is. In his book Forty Acres and a Goat, Will Campbell derides such teachers as "soul molesters." Genuine faith doesn't manipulate God for material gain, fear of punishment, or avoidance of unjust suffering.

           I've always appreciated how the Lutherans of the Reformation distinguished between earthly "security" (securitas) and divine "certainty" (certitudo). Security, they said, depends on human guarantees. Certainty depends on God's promises. Job reminds us that while life doesn't offer anyone any guarantees, we do have the certainty that nothing can separate us from God's love.

For further reflection:

"After Augustine," by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861–1907)

Sunshine let it be or frost,
Storm or calm, as Thou shalt choose;
Though Thine every gift were lost,
Thee Thyself we could not lose.

Image credits: (1); (2) RevPhil2011 blog; and (3)

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