By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
The Book of Job is a treasure of the Old Testament. A salutary reminder of the limits of human wisdom, it dramatizes some of the most stirring questions of existence: Why do the innocent suffer and the unjust prosper? Why does God often appear absent from our world? Do we have any way to stand before him?
Job’s interlocutors try to respond to such questions. Their answers are presented as unfair and facile explanations for his terrible suffering: according to them, Job must be guilty since the innocent simply do not suffer. Their simplistic understanding of existence is grounded in a narrow view of God and his relationship with human beings. As they try to convince Job that he must be guilty, they express a dark view of the human being before God: for Bildad, “a man” is no more than a “maggot” or “worm” in God’s sight (25:4-6). According to Zophar, God is well aware of “the worthlessness of men” (11:11). For Eliphaz, God has “no confidence” in human beings, “corrupt” and “abominable” as they are (15:15). God, therefore, “puts no trust in his servants” (4:18). Their efforts to vindicate God in the face of human suffering ultimately bring them to despise human beings.
Meanwhile, Job insists they are wrong: he simply did not sin so as to deserve the terrible sufferings he experiences (27:2-6). He may be finite and fallen, but he is a man, not a maggot. And so Job wants to know why his Creator is putting him through a misery so disproportionate to his offenses (19:4-6). In his exasperation, he says some things that God reproves when he finally speaks (38-42). One could say Job risks falling into the opposite error of his interlocutors: instead of trying to vindicate God at the expense of man, he risks trying to vindicate man at the expense of God (40:8). Nevertheless, by the end of the story it is clear that God finds something righteous in Job’s behavior, something which he did not find in the seemingly pious words of his interlocutors (42:7-8).
I think that “righteous something” could be described as Job’s faith in God as a friend. As I understand him, he knows that he has no claim upon his Creator. And yet he nevertheless asserts some kind of a claim upon God (13:1-27). It is as if he feels something akin to the rights of a friend: “rights” based in the love enjoyed by two people who freely commit themselves to each other and who want to do good to each other. As a creature he cannot challenge the will of his Creator, but on the basis of their friendship Job calls upon God to explain his will. In a particularly moving prayer, he asks God, “Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?” (13:24). In this respect Job is a prophet, for the authors of the New Testament agree: we are not maggots before God, since he loves his creation, even condescending to call us friends and initiating us into his divine plan (cf. Jn 15:15; Eph 1:9).
On one occasion, Job expresses this attitude in a strikingly beautiful way: “But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust; whom I myself shall see: […] and from my flesh I shall see God” (19:25-27). Tossed about and on the verge of death, Job trusts in the One guiding all things, in the One who will never die: “I know that my Vindicator lives.” How close his hope matches our own Easter faith! We too, tossed about on the wild seas of life, find our peace through faith in our living Lord, who, as we proclaim at the Easter Vigil, is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the one to whom all times belong. In the face of the difficult questions of existence, we rest in our profession of the word spoken by the father over all creation and history – in a word of love that will never pass away. Suffering is real and it is hard to understand. But it can be illumined by the light of the Easter candle, as we witness each moment of history being gathered into a great Word of love, into a single expression of truth, love and beauty.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.