Talking about God in times of suffering

In his book, “On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent,” Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. argues that the central tenet of Job is found in the Job 1:9, “The Great Accuser answered the Personal Name, “Is it for nothing that Job looks to God?” Father Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez misses some key points in his reading of Job, some of which support his argument, and some of which should take the reader in a different direction. The Gospel of St. Luke does tell us in Luke 17:7-10:

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“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come, immediately; take your place at table’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare something for me. Put on your apron; wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

The problem is that our Gospels also tell us in John 15:11-16 “I told you this so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my Mitzvah: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do my Mitzvah. I no longer call you Avodim/servants. An Avod does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends; told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me. I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain. Whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.”

Which account is the right one? Are we all simply servants doing the will of an unkind master? Do we follow the rules as Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez seems to argue, “For nothing?” Is this our lot in life, or are we friends? Which is it? One of the seven rules of Hillel is “Kayotze bo mimekom akhar.” Two passages may seem to conflict until compared with a third, which has points of general though not necessarily verbal similarity.

cart before the horseFr. Gustavo Gutiérrez puts the cart before the horse and this is his first mistake in translating his work. We are not the humble servants who do the work “For nothing.” We are not the humble servants who simply say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” There is a reason we are obliged to do the work and this is where putting the cart before the horse comes into play. “It was not you who chose me. I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain.”

“Why were the Ten Commandments not written in the beginning of the Torah? A parable was given. To what may this be compared? To a king who entered a province said to the people, ‘May I be your king?’ The people told him: ‘You have not done anything good for us to rule over us.’ What did he do? He built the wall for them, he brought in the water for them, and he fought their wars.

He told them: ‘May I be your king?’They replied: ‘Yes, yes.’ Likewise, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent down manna for them, brought up the well for them, brought quail for them, and fought for them the war with Amalek. Then God said to them: ‘Am I to be your king?’ They replied, ‘Yes, yes.”

St. Luke writes well within the tradition of Deuteronomy and the Ten Commandments.

Moses summoned all those who struggle with God, telling them, Hear, you who struggle with God, the customs and correct judicial precedents, which I proclaim in your hearing, this day, that you may learn them and guard to do them. The Personal Name, our Almighty Judge, cut a Social Contract with us at Horeb; not with our fathers did the Personal Name cut this Social Contract, but with us, all of us, alive, here, this day. Face to face, the Personal Name spoke with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire, while I was standing between the Personal Name and you at that time, to announce to you these words of the Personal Name; you were afraid of the fire and would not go up the mountain: I am the Personal Name your Almighty Judge, who brought you out of the land of Egypt/Oppression, out of the house of Avodim.”

“It was not you who chose me. I who chose you…” I rescued you from oppression first. That is the main point. We do not serve, “For nothing.” We serve because he served first. He rescued us from oppression and now he asks us to return the favor for all those other on this planet who suffer. That is the point of Job.

Speaking of God from The Suffering Of The Innocent,” is the original title of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez’ work, “On Job.” His main point is that there is a right way of speaking about God. In his argument, he seems to agree with Fr. Francisco at our Cathedral in Reno Nevada. There is a rhetorical form the B.A.G. refers to as “Ironic Inversion,” in which a word is said to mean its opposite.

As it applies to “Job,” Satan continues his point, “Have you not surrounded him and his family and all that he has with your protection? You have Barack the work of his hands, and his livestock are spread over the land. Now put forth your hand and touch all that he has, and surely he will Barack you to your face.” Father Francisco, and by extension, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez argue that in the first case, “Barack/Bless” is meant to be taken literally. In the second case, the context dictates “Barack,” must be taken as meaning its opposite.

Job chapter 1 ends, “Job said, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I go back there. The Personal Name gave and the Personal Name has taken away; Barack/blessed be the name of the Personal Name!” Job, according to the argument, again reverses course and uses Barack in its literal sense of “To Bless.”

The Great Accuser answers the Personal Name in chapter 2, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. Put forth your hand and touch his bone and his flesh. Surely he will Barack you to your face.” According to the Biblical commentators, the writer reverses himself again, and uses “Barack” in this alleged “Ironic Inversion.” Job’s wife also tells him, “Are you still holding to your innocence? Barack God and die!” The reason for doing using this “Ironic Inversion” is not clear. Hebrew does have a word meaning “To curse.”

The writer of Job uses it in chapter 3:1, “After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed /קַלֵּל his day.” The Septuagint translates Barack as “Eulogize.” It uses “κατηρασατο,” which means to curse. If Ironic Inversion applies here, why the Septuagint does not apply it is not clear. The Artscroll book of Job calls Ironic Inversion, “Euphemism.”

Using the K.I.S.S. Principle, instead of positing the writer moving back and forth in interpreting the same word to mean itself and its opposite, when the writer is aware of a perfectly legitimate word meaning the opposite of “Barack,” it makes more sense to posit that the writer means for Barack to mean the same in all cases.

This leaves the question, why does Satan say, “Now put forth your hand and touch all that he has, and surely he will Barack you to your face,” twice. Why does Job’s wife also tell Job that if he blesses God, he will die? Job says, “Job spoke out: Perish the day on which I was born, the night when they said, “The child is a boy!”

For Job, at this point in the story, dying would be a blessing. For Job’s wife, if Job dies, he takes his bad luck with him, and that is a blessing. More important, it sets up what for Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez is the main point of his work.

Our God is not a God who wants empty blessings. Our God is a God who wants us to get down and dirty with him and argue with him. Midrash states:

Rabbi Eliezer said: If the law is as I say, let it be proven from Heaven. A Heavenly voice then rang out and exclaimed: What do you want with Rabbi Eliezer, since the law is in agreement with him in all areas. Rabbi Yehoshua then got up on his feet and declared: ‘It [the Torah] is not in Heaven.’ What does ‘It is not in Heaven’ mean? Rabbi Yirmiyah said:

Since the Torah was already given at Sinai, we therefore pay no attention to Heavenly voices. After all, it is written in the Torah itself: ‘After the majority one must follow.’ Rabbi Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: What was God doing at that time [when His Heavenly voice was disregarded]? Elijah answered: He laughed and said: My children have triumphed over me. My children have triumphed over me.

Sholom Aleichem’s unforgettable character, Tevye the dairyman, had Job-like conversations with God: “O God, All-powerful and All-Merciful, great and good, kind and just, how does it happen that to some people you give everything and to others nothing?” Even in the middle of his prayer, Tevye would interject his own personal comments: “Thou sustainest the living with loving kindness, and, sometimes, with a little food.” Tevye could even be somewhat sarcastic at times: “With God’s help, I starved to death three times a day, not counting supper.”

In the Bible, we see even though God is perfect, He seems to accept and even welcome criticism. Abraham had the temerity to tell God: “Shall the Judge of the whole world not act justly?” This may God’s manifests his sense of irony by telling Abraham to name Isaac. Abraham laughed when he heard that he, a one-hundred-year-old man, and Sarah, his 90-year-old wife, would have a child. The Hebrew name Yitzchak means ‘he laughed,’ a strange name for an individual.

Job demanded to confront God and know the reason for all his suffering. Job angrily railed against the injustice that he perceived when he said, “He destroys the simple/Tam and the Russia/those who think themselves first.” God answered with magnificent sarcasm: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth.

God appears to enjoy negotiating with mortals. The most famous example is that of Abraham “haggling” with God to save Sodom and Gomorra from destruction:

Abraham: “What if there are 50 innocent people in the city? Will you still destroy it?”

God: “If I find 50 innocent people in Sodom, I will spare the entire area.”

Abraham: “Suppose there are 45?”

God: “I will not destroy it if I find 45.”

Abraham: “What if there are 40?’

God: ‘I will not act if there are forty.”

We see the same in relation to superiors in the New Testament. Mary, a poor woman from the Boondocks, tells Elizabeth, the rich woman whose husband qualifies to enter the Holy of Holies, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with nobility; the rich he has sent away empty.”

Elizabeth probably could not help but feel the comments were directed against her. A chapter later, Mary receives the same in kind, “When Jesus’ parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother asked him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Jesus told them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This shows the same clear argumentative style.

The Jewish tradition, which comes into the Catholic Christian tradition, is not that of a cold, stoic father figure who insists upon pure obedience. Rather, he is a warm, caring father figure who wants honesty. There is a proper time to bless God, and a proper time to argue with him.

There is a proper time to tell jokes with him and proper times to be his friend. During wild party times, it is not proper to bless God, as Job 1:4-5 relates. Times of suffering are not times to bless God either, at least without mentioning qualifications. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked I will return; the Personal Name gave, and the Personal Name takes away;”

The point at question when discussing the proper meaning of “Barack” in Job is the very personality of God. It has ramifications in the way we counsel parishioners. Is God the Stoic high and Almighty, pure everything good, a god with no personality? Is God like us, brash on occasion, a caring father, a real character who wants to be down with us and be like us?

If God is the former, there is no room for debating with God. He is all knowing and has all the answers. If the latter, he might still be all knowing, but he gets down to our level and wants to hear our cries and our complaints. He wants us to yell at him when things are not going well. That is the very point of Job.

As the article, “Put the academics aside and your heart will tell you what the command of God is,” and Romans 2:14-15 tells us, God wrote the law and put it into our hearts. He expects us to use our understanding of the law. That means he wants us to confront him when things are not right, and do something about it.

“Barack” blessed be the name of the Personal Name. We therefore do not need to posit some “Ironic Inversion” to interpret the passage. Rather, let us have bold conversations with our God, scolding him when we think he needs it, joking with him when it is appropriate, and giving him a blessing when we are filled with joy. We then go out and rescue others, not to receive a reward, but because we have already received it.

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