A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Job 42:7-9

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

This Sunday we come to the end of our reflections on the Book of Job. This morning we heard Job’s final words to God, his seeing of God with his eye, his repenting in dust and ashes, and we heard of the restoration of his fortunes. This evening we have only three verses on which to reflect, verses about how Job’s friends fared.

The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite [one of Job’s friends]: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt-offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.’

God said to Job’s friends “you have not spoken of me what is right”. The issue was their speech, what Job described as his friends’ “windy words.”

Job, covered with sores, was sitting in his ash heap when three of his friends come to see him. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have heard of his troubles. They meet together to go and console and comfort him. At the sight of Job, their distress is acute – they weep aloud, tear their robes and throw dust in the air upon their heads. And they sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights in silence. (2:12-13) Not bad pastoral care really. These friends do a pretty good job of keeping Job company in his place of struggle. Until, that is, Job begins to speak.

After these seven days of silence, the book of Job tells of a series of dialogues between Job and his three friends. Job, overwhelmed by his suffering, laments his birth. Once Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar begin to respond, they cannot resist the theology of their culture. They present the doctrine of rewards and punishments. His friends point out that Job must have committed some sin for which his suffering is the punishment. ‘If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,’ they advise. (11:14) Job protests that he has committed no sin that could be responsible for such suffering. He calls his friends ‘miserable comforters’ (16:2) and speakers of ‘windy words’ (16:3). The friends who kept company with Job for a time, desert him. It is too confronting for them to believe that Job is not to blame for his suffering. And so they desert him, as friends often do, by being deaf to his reality, by silencing him with their ‘windy words’. The relationship between Job and his friends has failed. The Satan, the accuser, the one who set up this situation, challenging God about how human beings will fare if challenged with awful suffering, would be smiling in the wings of this drama. So far, he is vindicated. Human relationships, at least, do not seem to be able to withstand the suffering of the innocent.

And so we might think about pastoral care. About keeping company with those who are suffering. As we saw in Job’s story, his friends did a pretty good job for the first seven days. Keeping company with him in silence. It was only when he cried out that they started speaking, they started trying to explain. Pastoral Care is often about keeping company in silence. About allowing the discomfort of a person’s unexplained pain to affect us too. I once defined pastoral care as “the art of not running away”. When confronted with the suffering of an innocent person, or even a person who may have contributed to their troubles, it’s easy to want to run away. And there are different ways of doing this. We might literally flee the situation, citing any sort of excuse, our busy-ness or our being sure the person would rather be left alone, letting them sleep because they look tired. There are endless possible excuses. But there is another way of “running away” from the suffering of another human being and that is to talk rather than to listen or to sit in the silence. To talk. And one way we often talk in these situations is to do what Job’s friends did. We look for reasons why this suffering has happened. And like Job’s friends we often look for reasons in the person’s life. Or we talk theology, often bad theology, theology such as Job’s friends offered, about suffering being a consequence of sin. About the suffering person being to blame.

One of my favourite pieces of writing about suffering, about pastoral care really, goes like this, it is Simone Weil who is writing: “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” [1]

 Giving attention. Giving attention to a sufferer. And Simone Weil names that a miracle. Do you know that the word miracle means “something that causes us to wonder”? To give our full attention to someone suffering is something that causes us to wonder. To listen, to keep watch, to sit with in silence, maybe. This does not mean that we would never speak but oh we would speak with such care. We might always remember Job’s challenge to his friends that they spoke “windy words.” We might speak but with such care. We might speak of God, we might quote scripture, but never to explain, more to accompany, to help give a sense of God, to offer a gentle prayer.

Questions sometimes arise in the place of suffering. The “why” question. Someone said to me recently when she spoke of a close relative who had lost a loved one suddenly. “Do you ever wonder what you have done wrong that such a terrible thing could happen?” It’s ever so tempting to try to answer the questions that come but I wonder about that. I sometimes think questions are more to be sat with than answered. Perhaps with a few words to allow them, those questions, rather than to close them down.

Job forgave his friends. And so, as we heard in this evening’s reading, God forgave them too. Through Job’s prayer God forgave them too. A merciful thing really when we enter the holy territory of pastoral care. To know that there is forgiveness in the wings. To know that the one who embraced the worst suffering, the one who cried the most poignant question about the absence of God on his cross, will forgive us when we fail. After all he knew about the desertion of friends in the place of the suffering of the innocent. Jesus knew about that didn’t he? So, when we enter the holy territory of pastoral care, like Job’s friends, we know that forgiveness is in the wings.

[1] Quoted in Painting the Word by John Dury p37.