Virginia Woolf once said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” If you’ve read Job before, you probably felt the same way. Rabbi Morris Kosman, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Shalom Congregation in Frederick, once presented a series at the adult forum at All Saints on Job. He told us there is more commentary on that one book than on any other in the whole of Hebrew scripture. I believe it! It is a book that faces the unanswerable questions, “Where is God when everything falls apart?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” These are questions of theodicy. How do we seek God in the dark places of our lives? It is also a book about relationships.
First let’s consider not only God’s servant Job but also the idea he may not have been a real person. His birthplace “Uz” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and there’s no corroborating evidence such a place existed. The story even begins like a folk tale: “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” … “Once upon a time … there was a man named Job.” Sounds like the beginning of a good story, doesn’t it? So rather than seeing this as some historical account, I invite you to consider it is a folkloric parable.
Now our lectionary cuts out most of the first chapter which sets up the story – Job’s seven sons and three daughters are killed prompting Job’s response, “Naked I came into the world and naked I will go. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job does not curse God but instead holds onto God even when disaster strikes. The lectionary portion picks up after this first disaster with the second wager between God and Satan: “Take away everything and Job will curse you,” Satan says. In Hebrew, it reads “the Satan” which translates as “the accuser.” Satan is a servant of the God – the one who strips away the egos and falsities of humanity. Satan has a purpose – to expose the true self. But I do confess the idea this is Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager really makes me uncomfortable (although it would make a great title for a Roald Dahl book – “James and the Giant Peach” – “Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager”). But remembering this is a parable and one about relationships is it possible that God’s wager is really a statement of how much God trusts Job and his relationship with Job? In essence, God is saying, “When the going gets tough Job, I trust you to stay in relationship with me.” This helps explain Job’s response to his wife. While many have been unsympathetic to her because of her telling Job to curse God and die, we need to remember she has also lost her children and now she’s watching her husband suffer too. Maybe she’s just had enough!
Job’s persistent integrity can be viewed as foolish or even a candy-coated prescriptive to how we should respond in times of trouble. If we do that, we do a disservice to the next 35 chapters where Job lays out a pretty serious lament and complaint against God. Job does not roll over and play dead – he comes roaring back against God and against his friends who have lots of advice on what is happening to him. No, this opening to this troublesome parable shows Job who is relentless about remaining in relationship with God no matter what happens, how bad it gets, and how confused and hurt he is. Job trusts God enough to be brutally honest in his relationship with God.
The Gospel reading today is a text which honestly can be cringe worthy. It is often read at weddings and it can, at first glance, feel like an indictment against divorce and divorced persons. Even in the midst of the marriage equality debate, this passage was used to essentially tell heterosexual people to back off because Jesus said nothing about same sex marriage but actually did say something about heterosexual married persons divorcing … again which rubbed salt in the wound of divorced persons. But, what if divorce is not what this passage is about? What if it’s about right relationships instead?
I think a case can be made that divorce is the topic of Jesus’ discourse because that’s the topic raise by the Pharisees. It is the topic but not the issue. Notice how the passage opens up with the words “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked …” The intention of the Pharisees is to quiz Jesus on the law. “Teacher, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees frame this within the context of knowledge of the law. Jesus’ response tells us that while we can follow the letter of the law, law is not the basis of right relationships! Love is the basis of right relationships. This is why the passage ends with Jesus rebuking the disciples for trying to keep the children away from him. Right relationship is rooted in love and love makes a way to open ourselves up to be fully present to others.
Right relationships with God and others is what both of these stories have in common. Trusting God’s presence even when it doesn’t make sense and, as we’ll see next week, even trusting God to lament and pour out our complaint is the model of right relationship Job shows us. Jesus shows us the law isn’t the last word on living in right relationship, especially in his context when divorce was always one sided (only a man could divorce his wife) and women were viewed as disposable property. In our current context, divorce is quite different and I have witnessed many cases where divorce was the event which led to healthier and more respectful relationships between two formerly married persons. That doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough we hear people say, “We’re good friends but we just can’t be married.” In those cases, dissolution of the marriage led to a renegotiated relationship where each of the former spouses could be present to the other in a more loving way than they could when they were married. This once again underscores the point that the law isn’t the last word … love is and love wins.