The Book of Job, written about 4/500 years before the time of Christ, is a fable that addresses the problem of why God permits evil and suffering in the world. Why does God allow evil to thrive and for good people to suffer, for bad things to happen to good people?
This book in the Old Testament tackles the problem through the experiences of a man, Job, who suffers many tragedies. Initially in the story he is God fearing, law abiding and blessed with wealth and a happy family life. When God asks Satan what he thinks of Job, Satan declares that Job is a good person only because God has materially blessed him. However, Satan is quite sure that if God were to take away everything from Job, then Job would curse God. So God gives Satan permission to take away Job’s wealth and kill his children and servants in order to see what will happen.
Initially, Job accepts his misfortune and even praises God: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Even when Job is tested further with his body being inflicted with boils, and his wife prompts him to “curse God, and die”, Job simply answers: “Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?’ (Job 2:10)
Then Job’s three friends try to comfort him with platitudes. When he asks: ‘what have I done to deserve this’, they give him the traditional answer: you must have sinned and this is your punishment. Job rejects this counsel and in his misery laments the day he was born, and that life is so miserable he would rather be dead. Today’s First Reading (Job 7:1-4. 6-7) is part of this section where Job complains about the drudgery and miseries of human toil.
Job then responds to his friends with scorn. A just God, he says, would never treat an innocent person like him so harshly. His berates God for the suffering he is enduring. He accuses God, among other things, “of being intrusive and suffocating; unforgiving and obsessed with destroying a human target; angry; fixated on punishment; and hostile and destructive”. (Wikipedia) Job then complains about how God governs the world – the wicked, he says, take advantage of the needy and the helpless; these unfortunate people suffer significant hardship but God, he says, does nothing to punish those who exploit them.
Job eventually demands that God answer him in a courtroom. God does not meet him in person but Job hears God’s reply ‘from a whirlwind’. He neither explains Job’s suffering nor defends the way he governs the world. Instead, he contrasts Job’s weakness with his own divine wisdom and power: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In other words, ‘who are you, puny mite, to challenge me, the Creator of the Universe? I don’t have to explain anything to you …’ Then the Book ends with Job acknowledging God’s supremacy and his own lack of knowledge “of things beyond me which I did not know”. He accepts that in the end no human, however good or innocent, has a claim on God or can tell God what to do.
Isn’t this the life-long lesson we also have to learn? God does not offer any self-defence or explain the suffering of the innocent to us either. All we know is that God became involved personally in the mix of human suffering by becoming the crucified Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s in solidarity with Jesus, who overcame suffering and death, that we find the strength to bear whatever cross of undeserved sickness or suffering we have to carry.
Our Reading from Job reflect the miseries of illness and suffering that Jesus tackles in today’s Gospel, and for which he devoted much of his life to alleviating.
For going on nearly a year now we have been enduring the many miseries arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. As we read of Jesus tending to the sick, we have the opportunity to think about those who care for the afflicted during this time, especially the critical care staff in our hospitals who have been stretched to near breaking. It gives us a moment to honour, appreciate and thank them and the many others in the Health Service and beyond who are the healers in our midst, putting themselves in harm’s way to lift up people who are ill. Whatever our despondency over the number of people who have died, those who are grieving or the numbers who are ill, let us also recognize the tens of millions of people here and worldwide who have recovered, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of medical professionals and dedicated carers.
Last week I received my first COVID-19 injection at the Newcastle Racecourse. It was enlightening and truly uplifting to see, in addition to medical staff, the number of cheerful volunteers directing traffic, marshalling and assisting pedestrians, offering sanitising gel, form-filling and, generally, being helpful and cheerful in their various tasks. In the midst of darkness these and so many others are bearers of hope and light. They have lit a candle rather than curse the darkness. So let us too rise to the challenge of our time and, where we can, offer support and loving care to one another, especially to those for whom life is painful and cannot understand why they suffer. Christ the Healer is at work in us and in all who work in health and wellness when we emulate Jesus by tending to the suffering.
Holy Name, Jesmond
7 February 2021