Feburary 8, 2015
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Job 7:1-4, 6-7
What if it’s all meaningless? What if we just die and that’s it? Unfortunately, throughout our lives we have to confront these perennial questions again and again. Whether our faith is small as a mustard seed or solid as a rock, we can’t help feeling the nagging of doubt within. These needling questions make their voices loud and clear especially when life gets tough or disappointing. After facing failure or tragedy, we are tempted to throw up our hands and simply complain. In this Sunday’s first reading, Job gives voice to these questions and loudly complains about how rough life can be.
The Suffering of Job
Job is in the midst of the worst suffering. His children have all died in an accident. His wealth has been stolen. His servants have been murdered. Not only that, but Job’s body is covered in sores. His suffering is so great that when his friends show up to comfort him, they simply sit with him silently for seven days before anyone says anything! (Job 2:13) At first, Job curses the day of his birth and then gets an initial response from his friend Eliphaz (Job 3–4). But Job replies with more bitter complaining about his own plight (Job 6), which he generalizes to the experience of all human beings in our reading from Job 7.
When you show up at church Sunday morning, you usually expect to hear something uplifting, hopeful and inspiring to help you through the week, but this Sunday you will be disappointed. This reading from Job is not meant to fill us with hope, but to give voice to the longings we find inside ourselves. We long for a life free from suffering. We long for rest from our work. We look for the day when we will have hope, true hope, that finally crushes those inner doubts. Here, Job asks the question that the Bible seeks to answer. Essentially, he is saying, “My life is painful, hard, sad, and swiftly ends—is this all there is? Is it really meaningless?” This reading challenges us to think, to pray, to join our voices with Job, asking God and questioning, seeking an answer to the question. Giving voice to such doubts is not a comfortable experience.
Job first talks about life as hard work. He uses the word tsaba’, which normally refers to an “army” or “host,” but here he is comparing life to military service (cf. Num 1:3). For Job, human life feels like being conscripted into the military. If we read verse 1 and 2 together, we can see that the idea of “hard service” in v. 1 is in parallel to the slave and his labor in v. 2. The second part of each verse discusses the “hireling” or day-laborer who receives a wage. For Job, to be born into this life is to be like a conscripted soldier-slave who seeks for shade from the hot sun, or like a laborer who works constantly waiting to be paid. His view should cause us to reflect back on Gen 3:17, where Adam is cursed with toilsome work, or to the questions of Ecclesiastes, who decries how man’s “days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation” (Eccl 2:23).
Emptiness and Insomnia
Job goes from the general to the particular, pointing back to his own suffering. Thus “am I allotted months of emptiness” (Job 7:3). Suffering is not just hard work, but feels pointless. If we got a paycheck or an award or a certificate for enduring suffering, it might feel more meaningful. But usually suffering is lonely, boring, and difficult. Feeling the pain of grief troubles us, but often there is little to do about it. We must simply endure the emptiness of it. If that weren’t enough anguish, Job’s desolation also steals his sleep (7:4). He tosses and turns through the night because his grief keeps him awake. The relief that sleep should bring by at least allowing consciousness of pain to subside for a few hours is taken away by insomnia. Suffering troubles him both by day and by night. (The Lectionary omits v. 5, where Job describes his painful boils and the worms which cover his skin. Yuck!)
Swift, Hopeless Days
It makes sense that he can’t see a way forward. Grief consumes his life. It eats up his hope. It chases away his dreams. On the one hand, his nights drag on with endless, sorrow-filled wakefulness, but on the other, his days fly swiftly away, fast as a “weaver’s shuttle.” Most of us don’t have looms at home, but a “weaver’s shuttle” is a device which carries the weft thread through the separated threads of the warp. The weaver throws the shuttle back and forth through the threads very quickly in order to finish her work (Here’s an 18th Century loom with shuttle at work). Job compares his life to ruach, breath or wind. Often in the Bible, the soul, the life and the breath itself are connected—as when God breathes the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils (Gen 2:17). The word for wind and for breath is the same: ruach. Job takes this link seriously and views it as an ill indication for his own duration. Life is short. Again, we get a bit of parallelism: the “weaver’s shuttle” metaphor is paired with Job’s life being like “wind,” while his hopeless end (Job 7:6) is paired with his inability to see any good in life (v. 7). The days not only pass quickly, but there is nothing to look forward to in the end.
Seeking an Answer
This reading from Job does not leave us satisfied. It is not meant to. This passage stokes the fires of longing in our hearts: longing for answers, for rest, for meaning, for hope. Dwelling in the Question long enough helps us avoid becoming shallow people who brush aside all the challenges to our faith as if they were mosquitoes. Those challenges are important for us to confront, revisit and remember. Left un-addressed, they can fester within. Though Job lived millennia ago, we will find the same complaints, questions and anguish voiced by our friends, our family members, even our own hearts. We can’t end in the question, but must use it as fuel to help us seek answers. Hard work finds meaning in our participation in God’s act of creation. Suffering itself becomes meaningful since God’s own Son suffered with us and invites us to join our suffering to his. Suffering actually becomes redemptive in Christ. And if that is so, we can start to sleep at night, knowing that our swift days in this “vale of tears” will not end in a fizzle, but that dying is actually the doorway to life. When we witness the life of Jesus and embrace his message, we can respond to the Question with St. Paul: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).