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The mystery of God’s justice (Feb. 20, 2022)

Uniform Lesson for February 20, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Job 8:1-13, 20-22

We end our unit on “Justice and Adversity” with two selections from the book of Job. For 11 weeks we’ve been thinking about how we might embody God’s justice and righteousness in our lives as individuals, congregations and communities. We end with the story of an individual whose “blameless and upright” life (Job 1:1) spins out of control. Only this time it is not because Job has forgotten God and God’s law but because he feels like God has forgotten him. It gets so bad for Job that he eventually despises his life and wishes to be left alone by God: “Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (7:19). In our passage, one of Job’s so-called “friends” steps forward to instruct Job on God’s way of justice. We will have to decide whose words (Job’s or Bildad’s) are “a great wind” — then and now.

Does God pervert justice?

Bildad comes at Job in three successive moves. His first move is his most basic one: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” These are not trivial questions. The term for justice is mishpat. The word for right is sedeq. Justice and righteousness are, perhaps, the two most characteristic attributes of God in Scripture: Read the Psalms (Psalm 97:2); Listen to the prophets (Amos 5:24); List again the individuals who embodied the justice and righteousness of God (Joseph and Daniel, Esther and Ezra) and thus were entrusted with privilege and power to bring God’s blessing to others. Does God pervert justice? “No! Heck, no!” assumes Bildad, else his entire theology and way of life crumbles.

Bildad is clear. If Job’s children suffered early deaths, they must have been sinners. If Job turns his life around, his end may be greater than his beginning. Bildad urges Job to look beyond himself and back over the wisdom of the ages. Good people prosper. Bad people are destroyed. End of story. End of sermon. Really?

For the past 11 weeks, we’ve been wondering how we as God’s people might help construct communities that live out the justice and righteousness of God. But here, in Job, we are confronted with the mystery that this is not exactly the way that God maintains this community called the world. Yes, God is a God of justice and righteousness. But not every person or community that attempts to live out this justice and righteousness will prosper — at least in ways that we can measure or see. This so-called “prosperity theology” is not a new invention. It lives in the words of Bildad and his ilk. Job urges us toward a wisdom and a faith that goes deeper and spreads further, like the roots of certain plants.

Consider the flowers

Bildad’s second move involves the use of allegories and metaphors familiar to readers of Scripture. Like a tree planted by water (Psalm 1), and in contrast to seed that falls on rocky ground (Matthew 13), reeds and papyrus need constant water to survive. Like healthy plants, wise people are rooted in the justice and righteousness of God — so they prosper. Foolish people, lacking such water, wither and die. Yes, Jesus also pointed to the flowers of the field (Matthew 6), but he did so as a parable of trust. Jesus did not say “good” flowers prosper and “bad” flowers are destroyed. Who’s full of wind? Bildad or Job?

Look to the future with hope

Bildad closes his three-point sermon by giving poor Job a second chance. If Job repents, and if Job turns his life around, then God may fill his mouth with “laughter” rather than wind, his lips with “shouts of joy” rather than blasphemies. Though Job’s beginning has been “small,” his ending may be “very great” (v. 7). Of course, the joke of Job is that this becomes true, according to one ending (Job 42:10 ff.), but not necessarily according to another (our lesson for next week). Simply pushing God’s justice and righteousness off to the future doesn’t solve Job’s issue or ours.

Just as we can’t assume that everyone out of jail is a good person and everyone in jail is bad, so we cannot assume that everyone whose life is prosperous is a good person and everyone whose life is full of trouble and suffering is bad. The first observation arises because our systems of justice and righteousness are imperfect and fallible and subject to being perverted. The second observation must come from somewhere else. And so, we move to our second lesson from Job.

For discussion:

Whose words, Job’s or Bildad’s, do you think are “full of wind”?

Richard Boyce is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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