1“Hear my words, you wise men,
and give ear to me, you who know;
3 for the ear tests words
as the palate tastes food.
4 Let us choose what is right;
let us determine among ourselves what is good.
5 For Job has said, ‘I am innocent,
and God has taken away my right;
6 in spite of being right I am counted a liar;
my wound is incurable, though I am without transgression.’
7 Who is there like Job,
who drinks up scoffing like water,
8 who goes in company with evildoers
and walks with the wicked?
9 For he has said, ‘It profits one nothing
to take delight in God.’
10 “Therefore, hear me, you who have sense,
far be it from God that he should do wickedness,
and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.
11 For according to their deeds he will repay them,
and according to their ways he will make it befall them.
12 Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,
and the Almighty will not pervert justice.
13 Who gave him charge over the earth
and who laid on him the whole world?
14 If he should take back his spirit to himself,
and gather to himself his breath,
15 all flesh would perish together,
and all mortals return to dust.
So we’ve been talking about virtues in the Book of Job, and we’ve already covered Love and Beauty. Next week we’ll tackle Wisdom, but today we’re going to talk about Truth. There’s a great moment in the gospel of John where the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, is questioning Jesus, trying to figure out who he is and why he has come. Jesus tells Pilate, “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Pilate responds, “What is truth?” Interestingly, Jesus never answers.
What is truth? We’ll get to our text and the story of Job in just a moment, but first, a few digressions:
All of these examples are crucial to understanding truth in the Book of Job. The Book of Job begins with a debate in the heavenly council between God and Satan: They want to know if all of Job’s legendary piety, all of his character and righteousness…is for real, or just an act? Essentially, both God and Satan are, in their own way, seeking out the truth.
Meanwhile, on earth, Job has all these bad things happen to him. His three friends come to comfort him, and together they all set out trying to answer the question, why did all these bad things happen to Job? Was it something he did? Something he didn’t do? Was God torturing him for no reason? Or was it something else altogether? Essentially, all of them are seeking the truth.
I suspect there’s one more person seeking truth as well, and that’s the poet, the author of the story. Job is certainly the work of a skilled writer, and it bears all the marks of a fable, a parable like the story of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son. It was written not as factual history, but rather as a story to make a point. And as I hinted at last week, I think it was written as a counter argument, a minority report, to the prevailing tradition of the time. It’s an idea that permeates most of the Bible: Right is right, wrong is wrong; same with good and evil, truth and lies, and it’s easy as daylight to tell the difference between the two.
That’s a great theology, a simple theology, and there are a lot of people (and churches) that find it very appealing. But it kind of falls on its face as soon as you walk out the church doors and into a world that is complicated, nuanced, with a whole lot of gray areas and challenges where the “right thing to do” isn’t always clear, and people on both sides of an issue passionately believe their perspective is true!
Overly simplistic theologies often fall apart in the face of tragedy.
When my father died of a heart attack at the age of 48, some well-intentioned person came up to me at the funeral service and said: “This is all part of God’s plan. We can’t see it now, but somehow this will all work out for the best.” I wanted to punch that person in the face. You mean God wanted my Dad to die? What kind of God is that? And is it really all about me? God wanted my Dad to die so that somehow things could work out better for me? Well, that’s great for me, but it sure stinks for my Dad!
Well, about five minutes later, still at my Dad’s funeral, yet another person came up to me and said “This wasn’t supposed to happen. God didn’t cause this — it’s an attack from the enemy!” I didn’t want to punch this person in the face, but I was still pretty unimpressed with the answer. If God just allows the enemy to thwart his plans and desires that easily…what kind of God is that?
These are exactly the sort of questions that the author of Job struggles with. He puts the conventional wisdom in the mouths of Job’s friends. And he puts what I presume are his own objections in the mouth of his protagonist, Job. And they argue back and forth, back and forth, each side convinced they have a monopoly on the truth.
And then, after 30 chapters of this, something interesting happens (which brings us to our scripture passage today). A young man named Elihu shows up mysteriously out of nowhere, and says…(can you guess what he says?). He says, in effect, “You’re all wrong. Let ME tell you what the truth is.”
Elihu criticizes Job’s friends because they have declared Job to be wrong, but aren’t able to say why. He criticizes Job because Job has declared God to be wrong, making himself somehow more righteous than God.
But then Elihu says something interesting: “Hear my words, you wise men, and give ear to me, you who know; for the ear tests words as the palate tastes food. Let us choose what is right; let us determine among ourselves what is good.”
Now we need to be careful about this. I don’t think Elihu is saying “Anything goes…do whatever you want, it’s all good!” No, he says that the ear tests words as the palate tests food. In other words, each of us has been given by God the tools we need in order to determine what is true, what is good, what is right. And each of us carries the responsibility to do that to the best of our ability.
It’s interesting that he compares good judgment to good taste. How many of you like avocado? How many of you like seafood? Really? I can’t stand either one. It’s not for lack of trying, either. I want to like avocado–it’s healthy, and I live in the southwest. Fish is healthy too, and all of my family on my mother’s side are seafood enthusiasts from Maryland. We used to have giant family reunions with crabs and oysters poured out on newspaper-covered tables, while I ate a hot dog in a corner all by myself. I’ve tried many times, but I just can’t make myself like seafood or avocado. There are probably some things that I like to eat that some of you don’t. We each have individual taste buds.
And yet, collectively, as a species, I doubt there are very many human beings who love to eat dirt and rocks (even though I threaten to fix some whenever my kids ask me what we’re having for dinner one too many times!) As a general rule, most modern-day societies have also decided that cannibalism, or eating each other) is probably not a good idea. Sometimes, cultures will collectively decide things, like “we’re okay with eating cows but not dogs” while other cultures may choose the opposite. And even within families and households, while there are distinct individual tastes and preferences, there also tends to be a general consensus about some things–in my house, we all like fruit salad, and so that ends up being a part of most dinners.
What’s my point with all this? I think that in the words of Elihu, we find the unique approach that the Book of Job takes when it comes to truth. Unlike other books of the Bible, there are no Kings or prophets in Job to dictate what is true. There are no commandments written in stone, plain for all to see. Instead, there is a conversation. There is dialogue. Everyone gets a chance to argue for what seems true to them individually, but all this takes place in the context of a larger community–an intelligent, thoughtful, passionate community committed to each other, and holding each other accountable when someone goes off the deep end. Even God waits patiently to speak in his turn, contributing to the conversation with insight from the world he created.
It is interesting to note that God does not quite ever answer the questions raised by Job or his friends. And for that matter, the heavenly wager God and Satan doesn’t ever appear to get settled either. It’s quite possible that the author of Job, having followed a quest for truth to the very end of the story, came up empty-handed: I still don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I still don’t know the truth. No answers in the end.
But I think there’s another possibility. Do you remember the peg that fits into the round and square hole? Do you remember the picture of the woman who is old, but simultaneously young? I wonder if the author of the Book of Job, having written the last word on the last page, took up his work–all of its tortured, beloved characters, all of its disparate points of view, all of its searching, struggling, and questioning–took up his work, bound the pages together and held it out as an offering to us, the readers, saying, here is your answer:
It’s a little bit different than what you may have been taught elsewhere.
It is messy, complicated, nuanced, dark, difficult, frustrating, and sometimes hard to grasp.
But it is also rich, profound, powerful, captivating, meaningful, and always beckoning forward.
It is truth. It belongs to each of you, and it belongs to all of you.