The Wizard of Uz, IV: Job’s Friends

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September 25, 2022

The Wizard of Uz, IV: Job’s Friends

Passage: Job 2:11–3:10

This Autumn at Kenilworth Union Church we’re preaching a sermon series called the Wizard of Uz, which is from the Book of Job, from the Hebrew Bible. Today’s lesson:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said:

“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A male is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness!

No one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Job’s so-called friends don’t come off so well in this story, but at least they got two things right. First they came. Right? At least they came to be with him in a time of trouble. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. At least they came.

They didn't have to come. They could have stayed home. They could have sent a Hallmark card, or punched up FTD, or sent a gift to Job’s church in memory of his ten dead children. But no they traveled maybe 300 miles to see their friend, a 14-day journey.

In this series on Job, we have been asking the question, "What is the answer to the problem of evil?" Job's friends apparently knew that one partial answer to that question is "We are." We are the answer to the problem of evil.

The great Job scholar Norman Habel said, "We discover our friends when we lose our God. The ministry of friendship is not judged by our capacity to explain God's ways or defend God's teachings, but by our ability to stand with an alienated human against the insidious forces of our world, and to believe, at all costs, in that person."[1]   Did you listen to the way Dr. Habel put it?  The Ministry of Friendship.

The second lesson is equally simple. When you get there, shut the hell up. Sometimes there is just nothing to say. So what? Go anyway. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had the good sense to sit there with Job on the ash heap for seven days and seven nights, and says the text, "no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great." The greater the suffering, the fewer the words.

Most often you see evil is not a problem begging a solution, but a mystery demanding silence. Our temptation is to turn a mystery into a problem and an absurdity into a rationalization.

Last week you found out that I like anagrams. ‘Satan’ is an anagram of ‘Santa,’ and ‘Britney Spears’ is an anagram of ‘Presbyterians’? So you see that not all anagrams are terribly instructive. But some are. Did you ever notice that ‘listen’ is an anagram of ‘silent’?

It’s such a simple thing—listening. Simple but elusive and very few of us are very good at it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to say that nobody who meets the President of the United States ever listens to a word he has to say; they’re too nervous and preoccupied thinking what they will say themselves.

And so FDR would test his little theory when he met scores of people during one of his Meet-and-Greet receptions at the White House. Standing there shaking hands with one person after another, FDR would murmur to each guest in line, “I murdered my grandmother this morning,” and almost invariably, the nervous guest would reply with something like, “Very good, Mr. President,” or “Well done, Mr. President,” or “Mr. President, I am such a great admirer of yours.”

But one man was listening. When FDR shook his hand and murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning,” the guest, without missing a beat  said “I’m sure she had it coming to her Mr. President.”[2]

I don't know why it should take us so by surprise that just being there and listening would be a ministry in itself. A doctor remembers something that happened 20 years before when he was an intern. One night the nurses paged him around 2 a.m. to request a sleeping pill for an elderly man with an infection. “Imagine that,” the droll doctor declaims—“someone unable to sleep in a hospital. That hardly ever happens.”

The doctor was up anyway, he remembers.  “Interns never sleep,” he says, “except at lectures and sometimes in the hospital cafeteria.”

Instead of just ordering up the medication, the intern decides to visit this older patient. He has nothing better to do. He pulls up a chair next to the patient’s bed and they start to talk.

The intern learns that the man was Hungarian. Before World War II when he lived in Budapest, he had been a lawyer, a specialist in international law. After the war broke out he was drafted, and before the war was over he’d served in six armies, both sides, Allies and Axis. The last Army he served in was the United States Army. He immigrated to America, became a citizen, and a librarian at a law school.

The intern and the Hungarian talk for a long time. They share cups of burnt coffee. The patient teaches the intern some jokes in Hungarian, and a few in Polish, and Ukrainian.

Most of the jokes are about the Communists, of course. It takes the old man forever to get the intern to understand the punch lines from different languages and cultures, but once the doctor finally gets the joke, they both laugh loud and long.

The patient finally says he’s very tired, and he falls asleep as the doctor is turning out the light. He’d talked himself to sleep. He felt so much better the next day and went home well soon after.

And the doctor says “Twenty years later, I still remember that night. I still remember,” he says “how many KGB agents it takes to screw in a light bulb. And I still remember how to say ‘To Your Health’ in seven Eastern European languages. You'd be amazed how frequently that comes in handy.”[3]

So what have we learned from all this?  We have learned of The Limits of Loquacity, and the Loveliness of Listening. Once they start talking, Job’s friends do way, way, way more harm than good. All they can offer Job are the hackneyed bromides of traditional theology and the shallow religion of the academy.

In fact, at one point, one of Job’s so-called friends says, “You’re a jerk, Job.” That’s not an exact translation, but it’ll do. “You’re a jerk, Job. You’ve gotten even less than you deserve; God should have clobbered you even harder” (Job 11:6). You just want to slap them.

One last thing and then I’ll quit. Have I shared this story about Amelita Galli-Curci, the great Italian soprano who sang for the Metropolitan Opera Company in the twentieth century? She made her American debut as Gilda from Rigoletto right here in Chicago. Her performance was so acclaimed by audiences and critics alike they she ended up singing for the Chicago Opera Association for the next eight years.

After a concert one evening, Ms. Galli-Curci was relaxing in her dressing room when she heard a knock at the door.  She sighs wearily and drags herself to the door, expecting yet another of the aspiring young singers coming to her for encouragement, advice, and connections.

At the door stands a timid young girl clutching a small bunch of roses. The soprano takes the flowers from the trembling girl and says "Well, go ahead."

The girl looks confused. "Excuse me, madam?" "Well, do you sing?" Trembling more than ever now, the girl shakes her head. Pointing to the piano, the soprano says "Well do you play?" "No, madam." "Well then what do you do?"

The timid teenager, almost shaking, says, "Madam, I just listen." And Amelita Galli-Curci smiles and says "Oh I'm so sorry my dear. I had quite forgotten that there were people left who just listen."[4]  Yes?

Do not neglect the ministry of friendship, because, sometimes, we discover our friends when we lose our God.

When life is cruel, and fate attacks, and God seems poised against you, and the universe crumbles around you like a decrepit old house,  and you are ready to curse the day of your birth, you don't need an answer. You need a friend. Sometimes that’s all you get. Sometimes it is enough.

[1]Norman Habel, "Only the Jackal Is My Friend," Interpretation, July, 1977, p. 227.

[2]Reader’s Digest, April, 2012, p. 112.

[3]Thomas W. Gross, “How Much for an Hour of Schmoozing, Doc?” The New York Times, May 17, 2005.

[4]The Little-Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), p. 229.

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