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“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” God, speaking to Job. 38:2-3
Tell me if these phrases sound familiar, especially recently: “It’s the moral thing to do”, or “it’s a moral choice”. We’ve been hearing those a lot, especially in terms of the upcoming election. Yet it strikes me, time and again: I’m not sure what people mean by “morality” anymore. It all just seems fuzzy.
It’s been argued, certainly, that morality is simply a means of keeping powerful people in power; that the qualities of the social élites are deemed “good”, and that that value judgment is codified into law. This was more likely true before the separation of church and state – which may be why “morality” seems a bit fuzzy now – but it certainly held quite a bit of truth in Job’s time. And Job followed the law to the letter: that legal-religious code that was the basis of all morality in his day. Job followed it so well – and everybody knew that he followed it so well – that the devil himself came and made a bet with God. The devil himself was willing to bet that he could get Job to curse God. And God had such faith in Job that God’s took the bet.
That’s a scary notion, isn’t it? That God would bet Job’s faith on whatever the devil could throw at him. And the devil threw everything. Killed off Job’s family, laid his crops waste, decimated Job’s herds of livestock and reduced him to dust. When that didn’t work, the devil turned on Job’s very body, inflicting him with every ailment known to the ancient world. He turned Job’s friends against him, too: there’s a whole Greek chorus of friends who, throughout the book (it really is a fascinating book) keep asking, “Hey, Job, is it really worth it, man? Look at all the bad stuff that is happening to you! This is either divine retribution from some sin, or your God isn’t worth it.”
Job, despite it all, followed that law, followed that moral code to the letter. He knew that he had never, in his entire life, transgressed that law. He knew that he had dotted all his i’s and crossed all his t’s. He knew that there was no question that any of what was happening to him could be divine retribution for anything that he had done. So he held fast in his faith. Job was absolutely sure that he was okay, and that God was on his side.
Now, wouldn’t you think, if you came face-to-face with that, if you were God and looked on Job’s faith, you might say, “Hey, good going, there, Job! Well done, good and faithful servant.” That is, I think, what I would expect, at least.
But what we get, instead, is a divine temper tantrum.
God is yelling at the good guy. And that should make us all just a little bit uncomfortable.
Because we are all Job.
Most of us sitting here today can say with some degree of certainty that we haven’t broken the law. Most of us can even say that we have followed, not just the letter but the spirit of the law. So if everything went suddenly, horribly wrong, might we, like Job, demand a reckoning? Might we have such confidence in our own worthiness that we could judge such treatment to be unfair? Might we stand up before God and defend ourselves as good and moral people? And is this the response that we would want? Is this the response that we would expect? This divine – pardon the expression – snark-fest that God lays out on Job?
“Gird up your loins like a man!” says God. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to come up with the current colloquial expression for this sentiment. There is a section, just a little later in this chapter where Job, having alluded earlier to his years and his wisdom, gets smacked down by God who essentially says, “You think you’re so old, do you? You think your years make you wise there, Job, do you? Are you that old? Really?”
You have to figure that Job is standing there, as stunned as we are, wondering why God is annoyed, when we haven’t done anything wrong.
As I tend to do, when my radio listening is interrupted by small voices, I go on NPR’s website to read the stories that I couldn’t hear on the radio. And this week, I found an interesting one: the story of a truck driver. He drove a big rig, and had just stopped at a truck stop – one of those huge ones that are like small towns on the side of the highway. He had just pulled in, just parked the truck, when – as often happens in such places, although we don’t like to think about it – there was a tap at his window. A couple of girls. He knew what they wanted: badly made up and scantily clad, it wasn’t hard to figure out. He sent them on their way. He didn’t break the law, he didn’t do anything wrong. And then he looked at them, as they walked away. And he realized how young they looked. So he called the police, who came and found the girls: fourteen and fifteen years old, kidnapped six weeks earlier and pressed into service. Because of that truck driver, those girls were returned to their parents.
Think God would yell at him?
It didn’t take long, sitting at our dining room table the other night, for more stories like this one to emerge. I would imagine that if I asked, you could come up with several as well. Among the ones we thought of: the Danes, in 1943, under Nazi occupation. Nazi law had not yet come into effect in Denmark, it wouldn’t until Rosh Hashanah that year. But they found out what was coming. They found out what Rosh Hashanah had in store, what the Jewish New Year would bring. And Christian Danes smuggled their compatriots into neutral Sweden, seven thousand Jews. When Hitler’s forces swept into Denmark, there were no Jews to be found. After the war, the Jews returned. Likewise, after the war, the American Friends Service Committee – the Quakers – descended en masse into Germany and Poland, setting up camps to take in refugees from the concentration camps. To feed them and to clothe them and to attempt to repatriate them, in the midst of a chaotic and broken Europe. The Quakers are known for being peaceful people; I doubt whether more than a handful of them had fought in that war. They had no guilt to atone for, after World War II. They had no blood on their hands. They had no compelling reason to do the work that they did.
How do you explain it, then?
How do you explain the busloads of northern students, black and white, flooding into the South in the 1960s, registering people to vote, bearing witness to the violence that was happening – much of it legally?
How do you explain the mechanic in suburban Virginia, outside a college town, spent $10,000 of his own money to restore the car of a college student? The car had been keyed so frequently with homophobic slurs that the student was afraid even to set foot outside his dormitory, for fear that what had happened to his car might happen to him.
None of these people did their deeds in atonement. None of these people did their deeds in repentance. None of these people had done anything wrong.
But these were the people who knew: it’s not enough to not be the bully. It is not enough to simply follow the law. It is not enough to not do anything wrong.
And so God says to Job, “You think you’re all that and a bag of chips, do you? You think you know when it’s enough?”
And we are Job.
And we can learn from Job.
Because it is not enough to keep our own noses clean and to work for our own individual salvation. To think in that way is to teeter, as Job does, right on the very brink of idolatry.
It is not enough to recognize that there are moral issues in this election, that there are moral issues that this country faces, it is not even enough to complain about them, if we’re not willing to do something.
It is not enough to recognize that there are 16.7 million children in this country who will go to bed hungry tonight.¹
It is not enough to know that there are 5.1 million children in this country, the richest country in the world, who have no health insurance and are lacking in basic care.²
It is not enough to know that 20% of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD – one in five – a number that does not include the thousands who are suffering from physical ailments and traumatic brain injuries.
We didn’t cause these, did we? Not a one of us here has blood on our hands. Not a one of us here has done anything wrong. We have broken no law, we have impinged not even on the morality of our day. Except insofar as we have chosen silence. Except insofar as we have chosen inaction. Except insofar as the actions that we do take are scraped from our leftovers. From the crumbs that fall from our tables. And we all do that, don’t we? We see a need and we squeeze out a little from the leftover, end-of-the-month budget. We see a need and we open our wallets and we think, “Well… I still need to be able to get coffee later…” We pay, first, for all of the things that keep us comfortable, before we remember that other people aren’t so lucky. What is comfort, when there is hunger?
“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself,” says God. So what do we do? If what we give to our neighbors is indeed what we would give to God then shouldn’t it come first each month?
“Have you done no wrong?” said God to Job. “Are you so sure about that? How do you know? How can you be sure?”
We stand with Job, but it is not enough.
We stand with Job, learning that morality and legalism is only the beginning, it is only the catalyst that spurs us.
We stand with Job. We stand before the one who created all, who loves all, and who requires that love from us.
We stand with Job. Indeed we do. But standing is not enough. And God awaits our first step forward.
¹USDA ERS report on food security, 2012
²US Census Bureau Report; aggregate data 2009-2011