Job and His Friends, Ilya Repin, 1869, Russian Museum
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 7:1–4, 6–7
February 7, 2021
The great miracle of the Old Testament is the end of the Babylonian exile. We have examined this and its effects many times in these commentaries. For centuries, the Jewish leaders maneuvered between the major players in the Mid-East with varying success. By 598-96 BC, they had exhausted their options, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, and the elite sent off to exile in Babylon. This should have been the end of Judaism both as a religion and a people. Yet Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied that both would be reborn. Most memorable was Ezekiel testifying that the dry bones of the people would come back to life. Indeed, this came to pass when the Assyrian leader Cyrus allowed Jews to volunteer to return and rebuild their capital. Enough did that Jerusalem and its Temple rose again. This was a miracle and prophets, poets and scholars attempted to interpret it properly. The book of Job is one attempt to understand and one that has much to offer us today.
The returning Jews collected and edited their sacred writings that now form the basis of the Old Testament. One of the themes they used to give coherence to this material was that the life of Jews—social, religious, and political to the extent that they were separate—was good when they obeyed the law of the Lord and bad when they did not. This became known as Deuteronomic history. It was remarkably useful and explained much. Yet what of the good person whose life has not gone well? Indeed, one who has seen the wicked prosper at his expense. This is the predicament of Job.
Job was written about 450 BC from Jerusalem. The literature from this time (Third Isaiah, Neamiah, and Ezra) has shown that some who were loyal to the call to rebuild have ended in poverty but others with less dedication, but better connections, did very well indeed. How can this be explained?
The author of Job creates the following conceit: Job was such a prosperous farmer in a land to the east that he has caught the eye of Satan. Satan here is a member of the royal court of heaven. He believes that people worship God only because of what they can get. They will obey his law only if they are doing well or if they are afraid that something bad will happen to them if they do not. To prove his point, Satan challenges God to take away all that Job has and see if he will abandon his faith and curse him.
And so, Job is stripped of everything.
He neither curses the Lord nor does he find fault with himself. He examines his life but does not discover what we would call the “mortal” sin which for Deuteronomic History would have caused these disasters.
For most of the Book, Job will defend his innocence to his friends, now perceptively called “tempters”. The section we read today comes after his encounter with the first “tempter” Eliphaz. Eliphaz tells him simply that he must have sinned and if he repents all will be made well again.
Job refuses to do so. He is being ripped apart by the contradiction. He too believes that his relationship with God is, in our terms, transactional: he believes, obeys, and acts justly and he is rewarded. Yet he knows he has not transgressed.
In today’s reading we see this hopelessness.
Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,(Job 7:1–3)
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like laborers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
This is the inevitable end for people who seek to be just but do not have a relationship with the living God. But to encounter the LORD as his really is takes courage which Job shows when he asks for the judgment of God.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:(Job 38:1–3)
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me
God’s response is to remind Job of creation. The LORD created the world and did so not only out of nothing but also out of love. In some of the most beautiful poetry in history the LORD sings of what, why and how he created.
At its end Job is almost speechless but manages to say:
Then Job answered the LORD and said:(Job 42:1–6)
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
I have dealt with great things that I do not understand;
things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.
I had heard of you by word of mouth,
but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
and repent in dust and ashes.
He now accepts the fullness of creation but more importantly his “own eyes have seen him”. He has a real relationship with God. He knows that an association with the LORD that is seen as only transactional is unworthy of his majesty. The Lord did not create the universe only to make human robots. Now that Job understands his life will be different:
After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years;(Job 42:16–17)
and he saw his children, his grandchildren,
and even his great-grandchildren.
Then Job died, old and full of years.
After this year, many people may consider themselves Job at least a minor league one. This most likely means that they consider themselves put upon not that they are seeking a relationship with the living God. As Pope Francis constantly reminds us, interruptions can have a positive side if we make use of them properly. We have experienced massive disruption on worldwide scale and often of Job like depth. We can respond like the tempters seeking who, where and what went wrong with our “arrangement” with God, or we can be like Job and seek an experience of the living God. Job’s question is ours “Do we have a transactional deal with an idea of God or a relationship with the living one?”
May our answer be a joyous yes to the living God.