“The Labyrinth of Job”
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
3 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”
4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”
6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”
10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (NRSV)
Job: History or legend? A flesh-and-blood human being? Or an amalgamation of human experience in general and of Jewish experience in particular? Is the question WAS Job real? or IS Job real?
In his book Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Jewish scholar and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, writes an essay entitled “Job: Our Contemporary.” In that essay Wiesel wrestles with the stories around the story.
“Once upon a time,” he says of Job. “When? Nobody knows. [Job’s] name is mentioned by Ezekiel in passing, along with those of Noah, and Daniel—was he a contemporary of one or the other? Possibly. Other legends link him alternately to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Solomon…and…the Babylonian exile. [Job] would thus have lived…more than eight hundred [years].”1
Later in the same essay, Wiesel describes Job as one who “was everywhere and everything at the same time…[a man characterized by] peregrinations through provinces and centuries.”2
To ask, “WAS Job real?” forces us to deal with nearly a millennium of conflicting stories. So, we enter a kind of maze, and a maze is just a complicated playground for which there is, typically, only one right answer. You enter in one place and, eventually, by trial and error, find the exit at another. The point of a maze is simply the entertainment of getting lost. The experience leaves you essentially unchanged.
Now, to ask, IS Job real? is to ask an entirely different question. It brings us into the moment. It acknowledges unmerited suffering, and dares to ask, “If God allows human suffering, does that mean that God, in some way, causes it?”
To ask if Job is real is to enter not a maze, but a labyrinth. A labyrinth is an ancient spiritual practice in which a person walks a set path with twists and turns similar to a maze, but its purpose is engaging Mystery, not becoming mystified. A labyrinth can be trusted. When walking a labyrinth, one follows the pathway, shedding distractions, pretensions, and fear. The center of the labyrinth offers a place of stillness, reflection, and divine encounter. It also becomes a place of metanoia, of turning around, a place to begin anew. To leave the elaborate coil of a labyrinth, you simply retrace your steps, and, assuming due discipline, you become a refreshed pilgrim reentering the world.
To ask if Job is real is to enter his story as one would enter a labyrinth. At the center of this story-labyrinth, we encounter God in, of all places, a gut-wrenching experience of human suffering. When traveling with Job as a path of divine encounter, we discover that regardless of whether or not he existed as a particular individual, Job most certainly is real.
In discovering the immediate is-ness of Job, we walk shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the characters in the story. Entering the labyrinth, we deal first with God bragging on a righteous Job. Irked by God’s boasting, Satan dares God to test Job’s spiritual mettle.
Make any human being miserable enough, says Satan, and they’ll turn on you in less time than it takes to ask ‘Why?’.
And what are we to make of God accepting Satan’s dare? Do your worst, says God, just don’t kill him.
Seriously? Who wants to walk justly, kindly, and humbly with that God?
Then we meet Job’s wife. She reminds us that it wasn’t just Job who lost everything. Her family and fortune are gone, too. And she’s furious! So, she dares her husband to test God’s faithfulness the way Satan dares God to test Job’s faithfulness.
Now we can start dealing with Job. Instead of eating the seductive apple of vengeance as tempted by his wife, Job lies down in an ash heap, scrapes his oozing sores with a potsherd, and wishes himself dead.
“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived,’” he cries. “Why did I not die at birth?” (Job 3:3, 11)
Utter despair is not exactly where one expects to find God, is it? Indeed, many people dismiss the very notion of God when caught in the grip of suffering that seems to have neither purpose nor end. And I can’t blame anyone for that, especially those who have been taught that a lack of suffering and a surplus of comfort prove God’s presence and favor. For generations, the Church has infected the world with such dis-grace. We have funneled people into a kind of doctrinal maze, saying, There’s only one way out of your suffering, only one way out this world. You must enter here. Turn there. Memorize this. Believe that. Say it, and don’t doubt. Just accept and believe everything this way.
Perhaps there’s comfort in such certainty. In a maze, however, we have more in common with lab rats than disciples on a journey. When we confront suffering, the labyrinth of faith leads us through that suffering, not away from it. And there we encounter God.
Now—I do not think God causes illness, addiction, abuse, poverty, war, accidents, natural disasters, or anything else. Not to come close to us, not to punish us, or even to strengthen us. I don’t think God causes suffering because I don’t think God revels in the Creation’s pain. I do trust that God never abandons us in our suffering. I think God, as the Ultimate Opportunist, uses those experiences to reveal God’s faithfulness and the reality and the nature of Resurrection. And perhaps it’s true that the suffering which is often most revelatory for us is the suffering into which we enter on purpose—particularly the suffering of others. And Jesus leads us into that pain. Jesus—who asks us to follow him more than to believe in him—guides us into the labyrinth of human experience where we encounter God’s relentless grace at the heart of both “great love and great suffering.”3
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink…[or] a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing…[or] sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)
Why is it that Jesus is often far more real in the projects than the palaces?
We’re going to walk with Job for the next two weeks, and as we do, I encourage you to spend time with this remarkable story. Enter it on purpose, as you would a labyrinth. Read it. Pray it. Most of all, trust it. Let a very real Job point you toward suffering—your own, someone else’s, or the raging, cultural pain around us. Be honest about any feelings of bewilderment, anger, betrayal, or despair. And when you feel that you just can’t go any further, stop. Be still. Open your heart to the grace of the living and loving God.
Then turn, and begin your journey outward—retracing your steps, back through the labyrinth of faith, where you may claim and share God’s healing, transformation, and hope.
1Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Random House, NY, 1976, p. 188.
2Ibid., p. 190.
3Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 50-53.