- First Reading Job 42:1-6, 10-17
- Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22)
- Second Reading Hebrews 7:23-28
- Gospel Mark 10:46-52
Job was a wealthy, powerful, and ignorant man, and the book that bears his name is ultimately a story about Job losing his ignorance. In today’s lectionary passage, we conclude the story as God restores Job, helping Job to rebuild what he has lost, reconcile with his also-suffering wife, and have new children, even more than before.
We need, however, to pay attention to the story lest we learn the wrong lesson. Most people prefer to give credence to the cliché “ignorance is bliss,” and faced with a choice, even a silent or implicit choice to remain ignorant or learn something new, most people choose ignorance most of the time. Tragedies, whether the result of human actions, like wars and other violent acts, or the result of natural forces like the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake or our present pandemic, shake us out of our torpor, at least briefly.
Job’s loss of his wealth, his herds, his flocks, and his children briefly shook him out of his ignorance, but many of the arguments Job makes with his friends are arguments looking for ways to get back to that ignorant state. Job, like his friends, has a mechanical, formulaic view of the world and of God—one in which God blandly and mechanically dispenses rewards to the faithful and punishment to the wicked.
Job, partially wakened from the stupor that still holds back his friends, is starting to see that something is amiss with the idea that God mechanically dispenses justice. As he defends himself to his friends, he is arguing primarily for a return to his fortunes, a return to the ignorance he formerly held. He demands to know what has happened to his rights, to his justice, to his place in the world. In chapter after chapter, Job argues with his friends, continuing to insist on his innocence, and demanding an audience with God so that Job can ask why the formula no longer applies to him.
Along the way, Job begins to pick up the pieces of the larger story. Job makes passing references to the plight of widows and orphans, to the struggles of the poor. In raising these questions, Job begins to see the larger pattern, that the formula he has been taught, that earthly wealth is equal to divine reward and therefore both can be calculated by adding a person’s virtues and subtracting a person’s sins is, quite simply, a lie created to comfort those with wealth and power and justify their exploitation of others.
Job does not, however, manage to put all these pieces together on his own: It takes the confrontation with God, it takes his hearing God speaking from out of a whirlwind, from out of a tornado. Job has to be faced with the prospect of additional destruction, the enormous noise, the feel of the whipping wind, the prospect of a force that could pick him up and fling him like a speck of dust, to finally assemble the pieces and begin to understand, and so finally, Job responds to God, taking responsibility for his words, recognizing his former ignorance, “I have uttered what I did not understand…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent…”
We might not be sure what to do with those last few words, “I despise myself and repent…” if we adopt the typical Christian mindset of repentance as a turning away from sin, but the word’s deeper meaning is about making a change, about turning away from past mistakes, about change in both a person’s actions and mind. Job here is not repenting of wrongful actions, but of a mistaken mindset, of his selfish orientation, or his insistence that God act like a machine, something like a modern ATM that gives wealth if our prayers happen to match the correct card and PIN code, a mindset that denies both human and divine agency.
We see the difference in Job’s restoration. Contrary to what we might all want, God does not immediately restore everything Job lost—no, Job must work for it, which we see with how it begins. Job’s brothers, sisters, and friends come to Job, and they begin by sharing a meal—a meal that the guests must have brought with them, because certainly Job has nothing to feed this many people with. The guests at this meal also do something that Job’s friends have not done: “they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.” Unlike the first of Job’s so-called friends to arrive, these new arrivals do not come with judgement. They do not come to figure out how to blame job, but just to listen to him, to be present for him, and, importantly, they come to help him rebuild: “each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.” The new arrivals are not here to argue theology, to declare that if Job would only say the right prayer God would restore him in an instant. These new arrivals have come to share what they must help Job regain what he has lost, not in an instant, but over years, another 140 of them as Job and his wife have ten new children and live to see their grand-children and great-grandchildren. Children who likely grew up hearing the stories of the children Job lost, because those can never be replaced. Children who likely grew up with a great respect for God, but also a greater awareness of their role in carrying out God’s justice and God’s mercy, because while God blessed Job with a long life and better friends and family then the three who arrived first, it was with the help of those family and friends that Job’s fortunes were restored. Thanks be to God.