This Wednesday we host our community noon time lenten service.  We gather together for worship and then a light meal (as if Pennsylvanian’s know what a light meal is).  Many people cannot get away from work, nor get back in time, so I thought I’d offer this reflection of the lectionary texts in advance.

 

FIRST WEDNESDAY IN LENT

March 16, 2011

 

“No Friends of God”

 

Job 1:1-22

Luke 13:22-31

 

It hardly seems like almost four years have passed since the Virginia Tech shooting, but its true.  Perhaps the time has passed quickly because of the many other tragedies that have been lifted up by the media since then.  We do not seem to catch a break.

In terms of scale, the tragedy in Japan may be dominating our news; but for a disaster that is close to home and seems a little more real, if no less tragic, I am thinking of the fire in Perry county that claimed the lives of those children last week.

In every case, the governor of Virginia had it right when he alluded to Job at the memorial gathering for the victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech. How could such things happen in the world of an almighty and all-good God? For the Reformed tradition, which accents the divine sovereignty over history, such a question is particularly insistent. As with Job’s struggle, we are dealing with theodicy, “the justification of God in the face of evil.”[1]

The governor was right to turn to Job. The book of Job tells the story of a father whose children are killed, whose livelihood is wiped out, and whose body is wracked with a painful disease: “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7). His initial reaction? “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (3:1). As remarkable as that statement seems in Scripture, so is the way that the book proceeds to recite the conventional answers that religious people give to the question of evil.[2]

 

There are may stock answers by both those who do not believe in God and those who do.  There are those who do not believe in God who will insist that this disaster (pick which one) drives the last nail in the coffin of the idea of a good and just God.

 

And, there are those so-called believers who will insist that these tragedies indicate that God is, in fact, just and that they indicate punishment for our waywardness.

 

Should I attempt to direct a response to every possible comment on such disasters, we would be here every Wednesday noon throughout lent, and perhaps for the remainder of the year, if not the remainder of my ministry.  So I will direct my comments to one possibility:  That such disasters are evidence of God’s insistence upon justice and our condition of sinfulness.

 

I want to suggest to you that this particular view may be classically portrayed by Job’s so called friend, Eliphaz the Temanite (4:1-5:27).  It is here where we receive support for the idea of  ‘this-worldly’ retribution.  He proclaims: “Can mortal man be righteous before God?  Can man be pure before his Maker?”[3]  The answer to this question is of course “no.”  But the book of Job goes on to make the assertion that there is no mathematical equation between the sinfulness of humanity and the individual retribution of God.  Job insists that the assertion of divine punishment is inadequate in explaining his situation; he insists that what he is experiencing exceeds all ordinary misfortunes.[4]

 

In some way, we might equate Job’s situation with Eliphaz to ‘anyone’s’ situation with Westboro Baptist Church.  These are the so-called Christians who have been protesting at various military funerals and who are threatening to protest at the funerals of those children from Perry County.  Essentially, they sound like Eliphaz:  You must have done something wrong, just “agree with God and be at peace.”[5]  Unfortunately for Eliphaz and all similar positions, let me remind you that by the end of the book of Job, even God says this so-called friend is wrong.

 

In the passage from Luke’s gospel assigned for today by the Common Lectionary (as was this Job text), someone asks Jesus a question.  This is no surprise, as Luke uses such questions to speak to the issues at hand all the time.  “Will those who are saved be few?” 

 

Were we to isolate this text from the remainder of Luke’s gospel, the answer will be easily stated:  “Yes, there will be few.”  And, the answer is even more disconcerting because Jesus goes on to say that we will be surprised by those who make it in.  The offer is wide open, but the way into the kingdom demands more than casual interest.[6]  Ever since Jesus has ‘turned his face toward Jerusalem’ the kingdom sayings have gotten tougher.  Consistent with the entirety of Luke’s gospel however is the idea that this Kingdom offers a preferential option for the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized.  It is those who are self assured that may be sitting outside a closed door.  So this lesson give us all of us pause in our Lenten disciplines for consideration of where we are in relation to this Kingdom which has come, but not fully arrived.

I am not surprised at where this question leaves us.  It leaves us where God leaves the problem: at the foot of the cross. As Jurgen Moltmann put it in the title of one of his books, Golgotha discloses “the crucified God” (SCM Press, 1974). In this great “in-between” time, God does not inflict the miseries described but enters into them. God does not cause malign events but shares in the agony of those beset by them. God suffers with and for the sufferers.[7]  Those who do likewise are the real friends of God.

Job’s friends, of course, were no friends of God.  Neither are those who disparage others who are suffering.

 

[1] Fackre, Gabriel “Anguish And the Almighty” PERSPECTIVES: A Journal of Reformed Thought, June/July 2007, p.1

[2] Ibid, p. 2

[3] Job 4:17, RSV

[4] Job 6:2, RSV

[5] Job 22:21a, RSV

[6] Craddock, Fred,  Luke “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for teaching and Preaching”  Westminster John Knox, 1990, p. 172.

[7] Fackre, p.4


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