Stuff happens. What’s your shortest sermon ever? This one could be it. Stuff happens. Amen. Okay, that’s hardly satisfactory, I realize. And there is a whole lot of . . . well . . . theology to wade through to get to this realization. Plus, everyone is used to hearing this statement in a little different format. Perhaps the shock value isn’t worth trotting it out, however. Yet the bald-faced truth is undeniable: stuff happens. The prologue of the book of Job is simply trying to establish that living-in-this-world reality.
Carol Newsom, in her fascinating introduction to the commentary of the text of Job, argues that the received text is an evolution through what she identifies as four different stages of editorial theologizing about this puzzling book. (See “Reading the Book of Job: Issues of Structure and Unity,” New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 4, Abingdon, 1996, pp. 320-325.) She argues that the oldest form of the book was the beginning and the end with some missing middle prose section. The long poetic dialogue, which also went through three separate editions, which makes up the bulk of the text we have today, was added later. All were designed to shift understandings of the characters in the story, to elevate or reduce status and to add complexity to the central issue of human suffering.
But what does it really matter? It matters in part because it shows us that this story is designed with a purpose, and that purpose is not just recording some obscure ancient historical event. Are we saying that this Job was made up? An invention of a series of unknown writers? Actually, what we’re saying is that to spend time asking the historical question is to miss the point presented in this book. Is there suffering in the world? Are there people who have lost everything? Of course there is and of course there are. That’s what makes this book so compelling. It is real life; it asks real questions; it wrestles with the truth in humbling and transforming ways. Redemptive ways.
Our story begins like a fairy tale or a parable; both are narrative events designed to teach us something. The question with Job is, “What is it teaching?” That God plays dice with the universe? Verse one is a set up. And patently unreal. Thomas Edward Frank argues that no one is really like this, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (“Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Bartlett and Taylor, General Editors, W/JK Press, 2009, p.122). Human failings are all too prevalent. And yet there is a striving for uprightness, for being blameless. And the whole point of the book is that even could we achieve such a state, we would not be immune from suffering. Random stuff happens. Even the health conscious can succumb to illness. Even the safety conscious can suffer an unforeseen accident.
There is, however, a mindset that declares faith protects, that faith earns a bubble that ensures nothing bad will happen. That is why often those who are stricken abandon their faith because they believe the promise was not kept. “If God doesn’t keep up God’s end of the bargain, then why should I anymore?” So goes the thinking. But that has never been the promise. The bargain is not built on health and personal security. We are a security-conscious nation; some would say obsessed. Yet stuff happens.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking, keep reading there, bucko. This isn’t random stuff happening. There is purpose; there is interference; there is Satan! That is the explanation for all our ills.
The first thing to note about chapter two is that this isn’t an explanation or an excuse. It is a furthering of the drama. Or rather it is a personification of the randomness of existence. The satan (pronounced with a short “a” sound – sahˑtahn, and with the definite article)—and note it isn’t Satan the adversary of God, but a holder of an office in the heavenly court—raises a question or an opposition to God’s boasting on the character of Job. Many scholars interpret this role as a prosecuting attorney, a part of the council of heaven, a partner, co-worker with God.
Then the conversation begins. “Where have you been.” “Hanging out.” Actually, that’s not what is said. “From going to and fro on the earth.” To and fro? Just out and about, just here and there, just part of the scenery. This is just a part of life, this invitation, this opportunity toward suffering. It is just there. Random. Sure, you can decide it is all in opposition to God, except it isn’t. At least according to the wager, God is a participant. At the very least allowing, complicit in all that befalls this blameless and upright, obedient servant of God.
So now what? It kinda makes you want to go check out the gospel text for this week, doesn’t it? Understandable, really. Those pharisaical debates used to seem complicated, until now. But hang in there; this is important. Not just important; this is essential. Why do we believe? What is faith all about? These fundamental questions hover there beneath the obvious ones about suffering – which are also crucial these days.
The truth is, Job doesn’t give us easy answers. There is no bumper sticker faith hidden here. Instead, we are invited to examine the depth of our souls and the foundations of what we believe. There is an underlying conviction that having waded through this book, one might be woven more tightly into the hope of the kin-dom. The transformation being offered here is toward a faith that doesn’t hang on external circumstances, but on inner convictions that seek to expand into profound and Christ-like relationships and practices. Our mission, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, needs to go through the experience of wrestling with Job. It is how we learn to cling to faith, even as we live in this random world.