Some will know that I was the chaplain at Carey Grammar school in 1995-96. One of the tasks of the chaplain was to lead the House services that occurred monthly. At one service I spoke about how, as I reflected on my life, I have probably learned more from my failures than from my successes. Well, the sermon and the service concluded and we went for refreshments. During that time one of the parents approached me and spoke about how he enjoyed the service and commented on my sermon. He said he agreed that we can learn much from our failures but he also thought that successes were important to give us the resilience we need to face our next failure.
I have often thought about his comment and agree that a life filled with failure, struggle, suffering and sorrow, without the moments of personal success and the joy that comes from those successes, is at best a barren life and at worst a misery. The psalmist wrote that "weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5) Weeping may endure for a night or for a season, but pray God that joy does find its way into your life and you are able to experience that sense of being whole and alive.
So we get to the end of the story of Job. If you had any illusions about Job being an historical figure then the last chapter will remove any doubt that this is a parable, a narrative that puts flesh and bone on the perplexing problem of human suffering. It being a parable, we are invited to walk around inside the story, within the characters and the events and to find ourselves.
The Importance of Parable
Parables can have a remarkable impact on our lives. The stories of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son are embedded in the moral framework of Western society. And of course they are parabolic stories that didnt happen but are still no less powerful than an historical account. And they are powerful because they are true. Marcus Borg, the American theologian and author, is fond of using an ancient Native American saying which goes like this, "This may not have necessarily happened, but it is nevertheless true!" It is true because it is true to life and it resonates in a being. It is what we have experienced in life and so a story like the parable of ancient Job is true, but as the ending reminds us, not true in a literal sense, but rather true to life.
Job gets everything back, everything he has lost including his children. It is not so much a reward as a way of highlighting the ultimate mystery of life and what we name as God. Job suffered, and the experience which brought him close to the jaws of death changed him and reshaped his character. As I mentioned last week, a great love or a great loss will do that to you. He was humbled, and from his new position, the world was a different place.
I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
They are strong words and there is a desire to soften them. We dont tend to like the idea that we despise ourselves these days. But remember, these strong words are matched by the strong experience Job has endured. And it shouldnt be lost on us that Jobs transformation came about by living life, rather than merely observing it. "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you." My philosophy-of-learning teacher back in the 1980s was fond of saying, "You retain 10% of what you hear, 30% of what you see and 90% of what you do." I'm not sure of the accuracy of those figures but there is truth in the fact that we retain more, and are much more aware, of what we do and experience in life than if we just hear about it.
I think this is particularly true when it comes to faith. You can read the Bible from cover to cover but unless you find yourself in it and live out of what you discover, then you are little more than "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal", to use the Apostle Pauls words. Job could now say that his experience of God and life was his; it was real because he had had some of his skin rubbed off in living deeply into the painful experiences of life.
"Now I become myself.
It's taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces..."
writes the poet May Sarton. Or the words of Leonard Cohen in his song "The Anthem" which, like the life of Job and the words of May Sarton, calls us to be open to the often painful experiences of life that lead us into the light and love and ultimately life:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
And then comes the Celebration
There would be nothing more dangerous than taking literally the last few verses of Jobs story. If we did, then we would have missed the message that his suffering was in fact redemptive. I see this verse about Job regaining all that he has lost in a metaphorical sense. For me the deep truth here is that, that which presses us down and holds and binds us need not have final victory over us; perhaps a sort of cross and resurrection image.
What I see in these triumphant verses of Chapter 42 is a living fully into life and embracing the joy and celebration of life when it comes to us. While one should never underestimate the struggles and the sorrows many endure, I do believe that even in the dark there is the word of gratitude, or the smile of hope, or the sight of beauty. The reading by David Steindl-Rast that Jemima read earlier is I think a key to living through and beyond difficult times:
Gratitude is the key to a happy life and we all hold it in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have, we will not be happy because we will always want to have something else or something more. In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. Likewise the root of joy is gratefulness. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful. So love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise - then you will discover the fullness of your life.
I suppose that being grateful in difficult times is counter-intuitive. Maybe it is better to say, when you are miserable, be miserable and share that misery with everyone around you. Or "How can you expect me to be grateful for my life when so many things have gone wrong for me?" David Steindl-Rast goes on to say:
When you are grateful, your heart is open, open towards others, open for surprise. What your gratefulness and thankfulness does for you is as important as what it does for others. Gratefulness boosts our sense of belonging, and our "yes" to belonging attunes us to the common concerns shared by all human beings.
It you take the parable of Job literally, then it is reasonable to assume that Job was grateful for getting back everything that he lost. But that is a fairy-tale ending. I think a richer and more profound sense of the ending is that gratitude and celebration come from enduring the journey he has travelled, but most importantly gratitude for the insights gained. What is the most important goal in life? I am sure there are many answers, but if we follow the story of Job we will see that the goal of life is not acquisition of things but the gaining of Wisdom:
After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.
And Job died old and full of days. To be full of days is not only to have lived for a long time, but it is to have fully lived and come close to wisdom of the ages. What a wonderful poetic image at the end of Jobs life. The Old Testament scholar Norman Habel reflected on this ending of Jobs life in his poem Too Wonderful:
I saw things too wonderful for words.
Caught in the eye of a whirlwind,
I was summoned to behold in amazement
The primal foundations of Earth,
The depths of darkness in the underworld.
All that I saw was wonderful, so very good.
In what I saw, I saw God.