Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 4, 2015, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 14:29-31; 66-72
“Have you considered my servant Job?… He still persists in his integrity…”
It is the privilege of the artist — the good ones, anyway — to address the deepest questions of life. Maybe only artists — painters, sculptors, musicians, writers — are equipped to do this. Among the various species of writers, the ones who often connect most powerfully to the ultimate questions are the playwrights.
So has it ever been. When people today talk of going to a play, what they usually have on their minds is entertainment: a lighthearted night out with friends, a few laughs, maybe some tears (if it’s that sort of play). Oftentimes that’s all we’re looking for: amusement, distraction. But when we take our seats, and the house lights darken, and the curtain slowly rises, the potential is there for so much more. Our spirits may be moved in spite of ourselves. One writer put it this way:
“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
That’s pretty much what the ancient Greeks thought — they who invented theater as we know it. For them, the theater and the temple were not that far apart. The earliest Greek plays began as acts of worship. Prominent among the characters in those classic dramas are the gods. Hidden behind masks, the actors could become anyone: even a divine being.
One of the hardest books of the Bible to understand is the book of Job — unless we see it as a sort of play, a drama. It’s the story of a man who’s essentially victimized by God. God and Satan engage in a contest that takes the form of a wager. God’s speaking with pride about one of his most faithful followers, a man named Job. He’s the best of the best, God brags to Satan.
No he isn’t, says Satan. Just give him to me. We’ll see how long it takes before I can make him curse you to your face!
OK, says God. You can have him. Do anything you want to him. Just don’t kill him.
Now, let’s stop for a minute. Step back from the story. Do you see any theological problems with this setup?
I do. What kind of God turns a faithful follower over to Satan, to be subjected to all manner of torture — and all for the purpose of winning a bet? Not one who’s ultimately loving or good. The God of the book of Job surely seems to be lacking in such virtues.
And what’s this thing about an argument — a debate — between God and Satan? It’s almost as though, in this biblical book, the two of them are equals. That’s not the witness of the rest of the scriptures.
Those are just two of the issues that have led some to question whether Job belongs in the Christian Bible at all.
Those critics have a point: if we’re looking at the book of Job as history. If, sometime back in the distant past, a man named Job actually existed, whom God allowed Satan to afflict with a dreadful skin disease, then massacre his livestock and servants, then cause a house to collapse upon his ten sons and daughters, killing every last one, you’d wonder — wouldn’t you? — whether that’s a God worth praying to, let alone following. Best to keep your head down, in dealing with that sort of God. You wouldn’t want to become a pawn in such a God’s heavenly chess game!
But that’s only if you look on the book of Job as history. I don’t think it is. And why not? Because it doesn’t give us any clues that tie it to any specific place or time. There’s no mention of a king, during whose reign these events took place (as is common with other historical books). Even the country in which Job lives — the Land of Uz — is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. Truth be told, we have no idea where it is.
I think the book of Job is another kind of literature. I think it’s a drama — a sacred play.
When you go in to see a play like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you don’t need to know whether there ever existed a real Danish prince by that name, who had an uncle named Claudius who stole his father’s throne, and a mother named Gertrude who married her late husband’s murderer and didn’t seem at all bothered by what he’d done. If you hoofed it around the oldest burial-grounds of Denmark, searching for a gravestone with any of those names upon it, you’d be on a fool’s errand: because Shakespeare’s characters are fictional.
Knowing they’re fictional doesn’t detract one bit from the enjoyment of that play, nor from pondering the deep philosophical and moral questions it raises. A play like Hamlet is one that fits that description of the dramatic arts I shared with you earlier. Its stage is “a magic circle where only the most real things happen” — real in the sense of touching the deepest part of us.
If the Bible is not just one book, but a whole library of books — which it is — what makes us think that every one of those books is of the same type? You wouldn’t walk into the Ocean County Library searching for a book about Geology in the Poetry section; nor would you expect to find anything about Psychology that’s worth knowing, on the shelf marked “Automotive Repair” (unless it’s a book written by the “Car Talk” guys on NPR). If Job is a drama — as I think it is — then we really shouldn’t expect it to be a work of systematic theology, that describes the attributes of God in a philosophically rigorous way. The character of God we read about in Job is two-dimensional. God, in this story, is just a vehicle for setting up the dramatic situation that lands Job in a spiritual dilemma. It’s really Job who takes center stage. The spotlight’s focused entirely upon him. The contest between God and Satan is just a setup — what they call, in the drama business, “exposition.”
No, in this play, Job’s the three-dimensional character — the only one, as it happens. The others all shuffle around him in the shadows, outside the circle of that spotlight. The true drama is Job’s struggle to maintain his faith in the hardest of times.
You’ve heard the phrase, “the patience of Job,” I expect. That’s what Job is: patient and steadfast, despite the most dreadful suffering. We stand in awe of him.
There’s another word that describes Job, besides “patience.” That word is “integrity.” In today’s passage, we hear that word spoken by God, who boasts to Satan that Job “persists in his integrity.”
So, what is this thing the Bible calls integrity? Our English word “integrity” comes from the Latin. It’s a word that also gives us the mathematical term, “integer.”
Now, think back to your math classes (which, for some of us — I know! — took place a long time ago). Remember how, when math teachers speak of “integers,” they’re describing a number that’s complete in and of itself. An integer is a whole number, as opposed to a fraction.
My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives three meanings for the word “integrity.” They are:
(1) The condition of having no part or element taken away or lacking; undivided state; completeness. [That’s the “integer” aspect of integrity.]
(2) The condition of not being marred or violated; unimpaired or uncorrupted condition; original state; soundness. [When sound engineers talk about the integrity of a recording, they mean the music’s not obscured by static, nor marred by pops or hisses.]
(3) Freedom from moral corruption; innocence; sinlessness. Soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue; uprightness; honesty; sincerity. [This definition especially reminds me of Job.]
All three of these definitions describe an aspect of Job’s character. He’s single-minded, wholly committed to his faith that God is worthy of being praised, not cursed. His faith is unmarred, uncorrupted, thoroughly sound. And, finally, Job is a paragon of uncorrupted virtue, honesty and sincerity.
Another way of describing Job’s integrity is with that strange word I’ve chosen for the sermon title: “WYSIWYG.” It’s an acronym for “What you see is what you get.” In the world of computers, WYSIWYG is a principle that whatever you see before you on your computer screen is exactly what’s going to come out of your printer when you’re all done.
I’ve known people like that. Simple, down-to-earth folks who don’t put on airs, don’t pretend to be someone they’re not. There’s a seamless connection between who they are and the principles they believe in.
Now, having said that, I also want to hold onto the fact that integrity isn’t a virtue that’s impossible to achieve. We need to be careful of making Job into some kind of spiritual superhero, a person we can admire from afar but never ascribe to becoming.
I’m sure Job had his moments of wavering and doubt. I’m sure there were times when he thought he was on verge of following his wife’s cynical advice to “Curse God and die.” But in the end, he doesn’t take that dreadful step. Somewhere Job finds the strength to persevere — in all likelihood, that strength doesn’t bubble up from within his own soul. It comes as a gift from God. And that’s a marvel, a wonder.
That’s been my experience, anyway, in getting through trying times — such as serious illness. I didn’t feel, at those times, like I was either a saint or a superman. Most of the time, I was just trying to get through the rest of the day — sometimes, the rest of the hour. I just hung on and muddled through. It’s all any of us have done, who’ve persevered through hard times.
Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean. It’s not about suffering, especially — but it is about integrity.
It’s an old Jewish tale, about a rabbi who decided one day to test the integrity of his students. He asked them a question: “What would you do if you were walking around and found a purse of money lying in the road?”
One student piped right up. “I’d return it to its owner.”
“His answer comes too quickly,” thought the rabbi to himself. “I wonder if he really means it?”
A second student admitted, “I’d keep the money if nobody saw me find it.”
“Well,” thought the rabbi to himself, “this one has a frank tongue, but a wicked heart. I’m not sure I can trust him.”
A third student made this reply: “Rabbi, to be perfectly honest, I believe I’d be tempted to keep the money. So, I would pray to God for the strength to resist temptation and do the right thing.”
“Ah,” said the rabbi to himself. “Here is a man I can trust.”
To live as people of integrity, you and I have to cultivate both a desire to live our lives as people of faith and a healthy humility in admitting how difficult that task is. We may not feel, always, that we have it in us to live as the Lord would have us live: and there will, frankly, be times when we stumble. Yet, even in such times as those, we’ve learned that turning it all over to God is the only way to get through it: to say, “not my will, but thine, be done.”
We’ve already seen how one aspect of integrity is related to that mathematical term, “integer,” that means whole or undivided. In a short while, we’ll partake of the gifts of God that will be laid upon this communion table. There’s an old word for the bread and the wine we will soon share. The church has long called them the “communion elements.”
An element, as you surely know, is a substance in nature that’s complete and whole in and of itself. The chemicals on the Periodic Table of the Elements are not the product of any kind of bond or union with anything else. They are what they are. They’re simple, undivided: “what you see is what you get.”
We believe, as Christians, that when we take such simple gifts into our bodies, they strengthen us in a way no other substance can. They have a certain integrity in what they are; and, over time, they nurture integrity in us.
Job’s integrity didn’t just drop out of the sky. The Bible doesn’t tell us how he achieved it, but surely it was the product of years of spiritual devotion, of feeding on the love and justice of God.
We invite you to this table today. But we also invite you to come back again and again, so the integrity of Job may grow within you!
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.