‘I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? I also could talk as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you. I could encourage you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.’ (Job 16:2-5)
Everything is stripped from Job: the mass of his material possessions, most of his servants and all of his children. Finally, his health is swept away and all he can manage to do is sit on a heap and scrape his sore-crusted skin. His response to this unimaginable loss is to acknowledge that God gave him everything; it is God’s prerogative to take it away. After some time, he opens his mouth to lament, and immediately his so-called friends pounce. ‘But now it comes to you and you are impatient’ (4:5), ‘How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty’ (5:17), ‘God will not reject the blameless’ (8:20), and so on.
The book of Job has always been difficult for me to read. The seemingly random, impassive and indiscriminate ruination of Job’s livelihood and self is excruciatingly difficult to reconcile. And, I have difficulty containing the fury I have toward Job’s unthinking, pious friends. Yet, as I am reading it this time around, I am struck by the likeness the dialogue (if one can construe the text as such) between Job and his friends bears to the public discussions swirling around the nation today: ‘The poor are just lazy’, ‘that hurricane was God’s judgement’, ‘why should my hard-earned money be siphoned off to those godless immigrants? this is a Christian nation, after all!’ It is precisely on these points the book of Job concerns itself: God is God and we can do nothing to earn God’s favor. Yes, God loves us with a love that cannot be matched; a love that can bring death to life, light out of darkness. But we cannot earn this love. It is freely given because that is exactly who this God is.
It is on this matter that I wonder why it is, then, that those who claim to follow this God expect that others ‘earn’ what they get, when in fact, these same only have what they have because they were born into a situation that set the conditions for them to get what they have. Maybe they worked a bit harder than someone else in the same place; maybe they didn’t. But to say that another doesn’t work hard as evidenced by how little that person has, is pure ignorance, utter idiocy. The many truly poor people I know work harder than any of the wealthiest people I’ve encountered. The majority are single moms working two and three jobs to keep a reasonable residence and food on the table—while caring or securing care for the children.
Jesus never judged the poor. He called to task the rich, the ‘whitewashed’-pious and those who lacked faith, all of whom neglected the poor. I love the conclusion at which Paul Ricoeur arrives when noting Job 42.1-6. Ricoeur observes that Job’s questions are not “answered”: “Job presupposes an unsuspected meaning which cannot be transcribed by speech or logos…What is revealed is the possibility of hope in spite of….” And, it is precisely here that I am provoked to act, as God’s image-bearer following after Jesus. My task is not to judge the rich or the poor. Rather, it is to understand the word of God to be eventful, not stagnant, benign; to be that instrument of possibility of hope in spite of the poverty, the lack of resources, the condemnation…in spite of my ignorance or prejudice…in spite of…myself. Hope…does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:5)