There is perhaps no more serious, heartfelt or perennial questions asked than those in relation to suffering. A young woman is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is pushed to her death in front of a train by a man who should have been in hospital. A ferry is overcrowded with hundreds of desperately poor people who need to get where they are going and many of them drown when the boat sinks. A young mother dies of cancer leaving behind small children or a grandfather dies of a previously un-diagnosed heart condition only twelve months after his early retirement.
Volume after volume has been written in an attempt to answer the question, 'why there is suffering'. Perhaps a more perplexing question though, is, why do the innocent suffer. It seems that, as the old song says, "only the good die young", or as the old book's title puts it, "Generals die in bed". It seems that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It seems that some people have all the luck and others, all the misfortune. Why?
At the end of the Second World War, allied forces swept across Germany and various previously occupied countries searching houses for snipers. At one abandoned house, then almost a heap of rubble, searchers found a basement room where people had obviously been hiding. Scratched above the bed was a 'star of David', and beneath it was this message in rough uneven letters: I believe in the sun - even when it is not shining. I believe in love - even when it is not shown. I believe in God even when God is silent.
The book of Job was written, in part, to explore questions relating to human suffering. More particularly though the book of Job reflects on the relationship between the faithfulness of the righteous and suffering.
The account of Job's life is well told. It's writer was an extraordinary wordsmith, well versed in the craft, its poetry and turns of phrase are superb! Listen again to how this story, now over two and one-half thousand years old, begins: "There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared - God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters." With an economy of words the introduction to this book paints a picture of a well- off and righteous man who is also a loving father. In fact this man is so concerned for his children's moral and spiritual welfare that he continually seeks to intercede on their behalf with God, as the text says, just in case they had done anything wrong at a recent time of feasting.
Job is blessed by many children and by many flocks and other riches, all of which were seen as signs of God's blessing. Then, a monkey wrench is thrown into the system. The future course of his life will be different for the heavenly beings are having a meeting and the Satan is looking for trouble.
When we read of this being, the Satan, we must remember that the writer of Job did not regard this Satan, or Accuser, in the same way that the writers of the New Testament regarded the 'devil' - that level or development of thought on the origins and nature of evil would take hundreds and hundreds of years. It seems that God boasted that Job was supremely righteous and faithful. The Accuser , the original and quintessential 'devil's advocate' contends that Job is righteous only because he has no reason to complain. So begins the drama. The accuser is given permission to strip Job of his blessings - not to teach Job a lesson, mind you,- but, as the story tells us quite plainly, so that God and the Accuser could have a little contest; so that God could win a bet!
How many people throughout the course of history must have felt that the only reason for their suffering had to be that they are pawns in a cosmic chess game, or that some un-named power has 'lost big' at some kind of cosmic casino and they, the humans, are paying for it.
It's as good an explanation as any. If we have come to Job looking for a satisfying answer to those heart-felt questions then we will probably go away wanting. The book of Job the more we realize that it does not really solve or explain the mysteries of suffering, nor does it justify the ways of God, but it does look at faithfulness in the midst of suffering. As the story begins Job maintains the position of faith but curses the day he was born. The debate is on. The book alternates between speeches by Job and speeches by his so-called friends who try to convince him of the validity of their, quite orthodox and widely accepted opinions. Job is un-satisfied with their answers and yo-yo's between faith and despair as he replies to his friends and addresses God. Finally God speaks out of the whirlwind, asking Job all sorts of un-answerable questions and drawing both him, and all future readers, further into the mystery that is God. God cares for creation and is at work in the universe, even though God is aware of evil, misfortune and suffering God's self-revelations also shares with Job the burden of cosmic responsibility. This God wishes the free gift of human service without any strings attached and is profoundly involved, in that way, in human destiny.
As today's gospel passage begins we find some Pharisees asking Jesus what appears to be a serious question; is it 'lawful' or not. Of course these Pharisees were hoping to force Jesus to take one side or another in the already contentious issue of divorce. As usual though, Jesus does not really answer the question. His response does not centre on the rightness or wrongness of divorce but on the purpose and goodness of marriage, something far more serious and important. He sought to present the ideal. He affirmed marriage as the lifelong joining of two persons in lifelong union, a relationship for which even fathers and mothers were to be 'left'.
The fact that many marriages do not, or cannot, live up to this ideal makes that ideal no less valid. As usual, Jesus sought to go to the heart of the matter rather than the letter of the law. Jesus knew that keeping count of or evaluating the wrongs or reasons for divorce was almost against the very principle of the marriage relationship.
In this statement on the importance of marriage, Jesus is also saying some pretty radical things about the responsibility that husbands had toward their wives. In Jesus' day, women had no financial or social protection outside of marriage and he was protecting them by emphasizing the responsibility and permanence of marriage. We must remember that and, yet, at the same time we must recognize that divorce, the symbol of a relationship gone wrong, is sometimes the only right thing to do.
The gospel lesson then ends with Jesus blessing the children and rebuking the disciples who sought to keep them from him. The disciples have accepted their society's view of children. In that society they are not important. It is adult things that are important. In that day and age children had no rights and no status in comparison with smart and strong adults. Jesus challenges that kind of view by saying that in the reign of God we will all have to be vulnerable and recognize our lack of power. Heaven will not be full of adults, but of people who know how to be child-like. Heaven will be full of people who know that the only way they are going to get anywhere is by being given things. Children are depending on the mercy of parents, teachers and other adults. As children of God we are dependant on God, but unlike many human children in this day and in times past, the one we depend upon is utterly reliable.
Whether we are successful or not this applies. Whether we are married, divorced or single, wealthy or sick, poor or rich, happy or sad -- we must realize and accept this dependence on the God who loves us, cares for us and calls us into community with one another.
Yet we need to recognise that we come to God in our brokenness. We are divided as Christians, both within congregations and denominations and across denominational lines. We also are broken people because of what has happened to us or what is going on in our lives.
We may come as people whose lives are full of pain or people who are filled with joy; we may come as people who are relatively well-off, desperately poor or fabulously wealthy. Yet all are baptised, all come to the same table. We are all welcomed as we come to God, all are children, all are brothers and sisters, and we discover Jesus prayer anew – that we may all be one.