Reading the Book of Job alongside St. Francis of Assisi


Scripture: Book of Job. Nigel Bunce

The Book of Job is a parable that tries to explain why even good people can’t avoid suffering.  But if God is ‘almighty’, he must be doing a bad job of running the world!  God can’t be simultaneously almighty, just, and loving.  The reality is that God has concerns greater than individual misfortune, which anyway, is mostly caused by bad luck.

St. Francis of Assisi

Today, we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. Last year, on this occasion, I talked about Francis’ life and some of the legends about him, especially concerning his love for animals. I don’t want to just rehash last year’s homily. So, my starting point today is where I left off last year.

Then, I spoke about how Francis embodied a trend that seems to resurface in the Judeo–Christian tradition every few centuries. The wonder of the created world. Around 1000 BCE, psalmists had celebrated the glory of the created world and God’s role as the Creator.

Psalm 19: 1, “The heavens tell the glory of God; the wonder of his work displays the firmament. Psalm 148: 3, “Praise [God] sun and moon; praise him all ye shining stars …”

The 4th to 6th centuries CE witnessed the height of Celtic Christianity in northern Europe. Again, Creation theology was paramount. But Francis, who lived in the 12th to 13th centuries, would not have known about Celtic Christianity. Rome had suppressed it.

A renewed flowering of Creation ideas

People have rediscovered Celtic Christianity. In parallel, reverence for the natural world complements political concern about climate change. It’s not too far-fetched to think of Greta Thunberg as a prophet of a renewed natural theology.

Some contemporary Franciscans propose an “alternative orthodoxy” to traditional Christian teaching. It’s one that I personally agree with, because it downplays atonement theology. Negating the idea that Christ died to repay humanity’s debt to God because of sin.

An attractive feature of this alternative orthodoxy is that right living is much more important than right beliefs. Love, for one another and for the whole of God’s wonderful Creation, is more important than being able to recite Creeds. At St. George’s, our Affirmations of what we believe are intended to be open-ended.

The Book of Job

But I also want to speak today about the Book of Job, which we are going to dip into for the next few Sundays. It’s an extended parable. Not about a real person. It addresses the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?

Here’s the set-up. Job is a devout and very wealthy man. He has a large family. One day, Satan (an angel, not the Devil, as in later Christian thought) challenges God. “I reckon Job wouldn’t be so devout if he lost all his possessions. I bet he’d curse you.”

God allows Satan to test Job. Thereupon, messengers tell Job that his flocks have died in as fire. His servants died in an ambush. And, all his children died in a tornado. Everything’s gone.

Job refuses to curse God

Instead, he shaves his head and tears his clothes.

In the Book of Job, the protagonist never gets to know of the deal God made with Satan. But, he says, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

However, because Job’s misfortunes didn’t make him curse God, Satan gets permission to cover Job’s body with “loathsome sores”. Even his wife now says that Job should curse God for his troubles. But he still refuses.

Job’s three friends

Then, three friends come to visit Job. They can’t console him. They don’t say a word for seven days and seven nights. But, they stay. But, they stay. This is the basis of the seven days of silent mourning in Judaism.

Job curses the day that he was born. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts for me to suck? For then I would be lying down and quiet; I would be asleep and at rest.” But, he still refuses to curse God.

As the Book of Job unfolds, Job’s three friends try to explain to Job that bad things always happen for a reason. They explain that God must be punishing him for some sin. Hence, the expression “Job’s comforters.” However, Job insists that he did not sin.

God’s role in the story

God ignores Job’s pleas for help, even though Job hasn’t done anything wrong. His friends stick to their belief about sin and punishment. Yet, Job still believes that God cares about him. He just can’t understand why he is suffering. “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer.”

Here’s the problem. We all like to feel that we are in control in the world. Like Job, we might criticize God because the world doesn’t function the way we think it should. God’s creation is a disorderly place that cannot be truly counted on. Therefore, God can’t be running the place properly!

But towards the end of the Book of Job, God makes clear that he alone is the Creator. God is not answerable to created beings. That includes humanity. God has experiences beyond those of mere mortals.

A “happy ending” to the Book of Job

To me, the very end of the Book of Job is completely unsatisfactory – at least, to me!   God recognizes Job’s faithfulness, and restores Job’s fortunes to twice as much as he had before.

This “happy ending” is just too far from real experience. We see friends or relatives go through times of great distress. Illness, bereavement, marriage or family break-ups, loss of jobs or unemployment. Patient suffering rarely leads to everything turning twice as good as before. Not even just all right.

Reading the Book of Job alongside St. Francis

I reconciled this overview of Job’s suffering with St. Francis by realizing that God’s Creation is indeed good. But (and I’ve said this before), we have to realize that God does not micro-manage the world. Human free will, and just plain bad luck, can both bring disaster to us.

A contemporary example of both. Michael Stavros and Michael Kovric just returned to Canada after nearly three years in a Chinese jail. Chinese free will did them malice. And bad luck put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, like Job, there’s no point in cursing God because the world doesn’t conform to our own wishes. It’s a hard lesson to learn.