Thursday, March 26, 2009

Job and the Defense of the Weak

In his anger, he overturns the weak;

Therefore when he rise up,

No one believes his own life is safe.

(Job 24.22, LXX)

Having just been slandered by Eliphaz in chapter 22, Job responds with his own mediation on the both God's will and the lot of the wicked in chapter 23-24.

In reflecting on God's way of relation to him, Job implicitly rebukes Eliphaz and the rest of those who seeing Job's situation accuse him of wrong doing:

Who then would know, that I might find Him,

And might bring this matter to an end?

I would state my case before Him

And fill my mouth with arguments.

Would that I knew the words He would answer me A

And could understand what He would tell me. (23.3-5, LXX)

Job knows what he doesn't know, what he doesn't understand; he doesn't know or understand the will of God. And yet, unlike his accusers, Job is not afraid to acknowledge his poverty before God (and implicitly the human community represented by Eliphaz and the others).

Why? Job says that while God is a God of strength, He—unlike Job's critics—does not use His strength against humanity. God will always speak the truth, He will even rebuke us (and Job expects to be rebuked) but He does so with exceeding gentleness.

Like a warrior, it is His own strength and love of truth that restrains God in the presence of frail humanity. And not only that, God limit's Himself not out of any human insecurity as if God were somehow, as fathers reminds us, subject to human passions, but in the service of liberating Job from his suffering at the hands of both Satan and his human opponents:

Though He would come on me in His great strength,

He would not use the occasion to threaten me.

For truth and rebuke are from Him.

And He would bring my judgment to an end. (vv. 6-7, LXX)

This passage brings into sharp focus the intent of words in the epigraph. Job's accusers—both human and demonic—are motivated by anger; they threaten and bully and humiliate others in order to raises themselves up over others. In the words and actions, Eliphaz and the others stand in sharp contrast to God.

Reflecting on these verses, St Gregory the Great sees in Job's words about God a veiled revelation of the coming of Christ. The saint writes, it is “the only begotten Son of God” Who remains “invisible in the strength of the divine nature.” Why does the Son do this? Following the letter to the Hebrews (2.11-19), Gregory says that God assumes “our weakness, that He might elevate us to his own abiding strength.” (“ Morals on Job,” 16.36-37, quoted in ACCS , vol VI, p. 125)

In the divine economy, my strength is at the service of your weakness. Strength, power, authority are all at the service of the good of others.

But as we see in the example of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, it is not enough to simply be formally correct in our words and actions toward each other. Our words and actions must be truthful, yes certainly, but they must also be applicable to the truth of the situation of the person to whom we are responding.

While I must “speak the truth in love,” (see Eph 4:15) I must be at least as certain I am loving as I am that I am right. As has become clear by Eliphaz's words in chapter 22—and Job's retort to him in 24.22—this is not how things are in his case. Truth has trumped love. Or maybe more accurately, having forsaken love, Eliphaz cannot speak the truth and instead resorts to unjust accusations against his suffering friend.

As I think about all of this, I come to see a different facet of Job's response to his critics. Yes, Job is more than a little frustrated with his circumstances. And yes, I imagine that Job is hurt that he has been so misunderstood by his family and friends.

For all this his external circumstances have changed, and changed radically to be sure, Job is still, well, Job. He is still the man we meet at the beginning of the book.

And if he is no longer able to care for naked (22.6), give water to the thirst, provide food for the hungry (v. 7), care for widows and orphans (v 9) because of his impoverishment, this does not mean that he has forgotten the poor and the outcast. Job still cares for those who have no one to care for them.

Where once that care was material, and so external in some ways to him, his care for them is now more internal. Where once he offered clothing, water and food, now he offers words. Not sweet words or easy words to be sure. Job's words are powerful and directed at those who abuse their power through their neglect of the weak.

That Job does this by referring to himself, to the injustice of his own circumstances, does not make his witness any less effective. Like Christ, Job offers the poor, the weak and the forgotten among us the only thing he has, the witness of his own life. And his witness is a witness on behalf of the poor,the weak and the forgotten is this: Job stands, weak and crushed as his is, in opposition to those who would neglect and oppress those who cannot defend themselves. Having himself been stripped of everything, Job nevertheless finds in his own poverty and suffering the strength to defend others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory