Give it a rest, Zophar

Do you know the book of Job? That’s where Zophar is. Job is as low as a man can get, pathetically low. His children are dead, his servants are dead, his wealth has gone, and he’s a mass of suppurating boils…. it seems that all he has left is his wife and all she does is nag him, trying to whip him up into anger and outrage against God. It’s as if she’s saying ‘Be a man! Shake your fist at him! Are you a man or a mouse?’ His mates do the very opposite – they try to bully Job into cheerfulness, gratitude, worship. No one will leave him alone to work stuff out for himself. No one trusts God and Job to get there on their own. So his pals gather around this pitiful man and bombard him with platitude after platitude, truth after truth, a great stream of wise sayings and trite encouragement, brotherly reproach. They might as well be the Ministry for Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious. If I was Job I wouldn’t bother answering any of them, and certainly not Zophar, I’d just poke him in the eye with a sharp stick.

The story of Job examines the idea that God allows suffering, that even in our suffering God is good, that honesty with God is the best and only policy, that it is no sin to argue with God, to tussle with the difficult truths of pain and loss, to shout in despair to the God we love, knowing that he will hold us even as we howl our protest. Job’s friends just want him to say all the right things, regardless. I wonder if they’re British at heart, stiff upper lip and all that. Or good church people, sweet smiles and lots of ‘We love you’ but not much reality?

Pain and loss has brought Job low but it is bringing him to place of deep understanding.

Job’s comforters. What twits. Do they really think that a word from them can ease his pain? There’s a real danger that we go into the ‘I-have-the-answers’ mode when people are in trouble, either ladling out cliché and empty soothing words, or bestowing a painful nudge followed by a kick up the bum…. as if we can sort it, as if we have the wisdom and the answers, and of course the implication is that the sufferer is dim and wrong, and we are right and holy. Not so. We are all in the same boat together.

Silence is golden. Zophar should have given it a go.

Here’s Zophar, talking to Job, trying to show him that the ways of man are rubbish (as if that’s going to be either news or helpful) and that God can be trusted. On he ploughs, on and on about Godless people, the Godless lives they lead, trying to make Job see that the ways of man are wrong, that God is good and… well, he’s right. He is. Everything Zophar says is absolutely true, bang on the money, and he really understands that sin has a natural consequence- but he really needs to shut up about it. He just needs to look at Job and understand the depth of his despair, to have some true compassion, to sit with him, and trust in God and in Job, that together they will come to a better more peaceful and joyful place, without Zophar sticking his great fat oar in.

This is what Zophar says, talking about the Godless man:

Though evil is sweet in his mouth
and he hides it under his tongue,
though he cannot bear to let it go
and lets it linger in his mouth,
yet his food will turn sour in his stomach;
it will become the venom of serpents within him.
He will spit out the riches he swallowed;
God will make his stomach vomit them up.
He will suck the poison of serpents;
the fangs of an adder will kill him.
He will not enjoy the streams,
the rivers flowing with honey and cream.
What he toiled for he must give back uneaten;
he will not enjoy the profit from his trading.
For he has oppressed the poor and left them destitute;
he has seized houses he did not build.

I often think of that first image, and I like the way Eugene Peterson translates it:

They savor evil as a delicacy,
    roll it around on their tongues,
Prolong the flavor, a dalliance in decadence—
    real gourmets of evil!
But then they get stomach cramps,
    a bad case of food poisoning.
They gag on all that rich food;

I thought about this imagery today, when I read about 7 million pounds allegedly paid to a politician who lobbied for a dodgy financial company that rapidly went into liquidation. How tempting those 7million smackeroonies must have been. Think of all the champagne and fine dining and luxury you could buy with that! How much privilege and advantage it can buy for his children. It made me wonder how long it will be before that politician gets food poisoning. Already his name is splashed across the news, already his friends are washing their hands of him, and soon – I’m sure – his involvement will be less desirable in financial transactions, in political movements. His legacy and reputation will be smeared. Stomach cramps indeed!

But 7 million pounds! The claim is that he slipped it into his back pocket for what? How did he ‘earn’ this massive fortune? A few hosted meals in expensive restaurants, a couple of emails, a few conversations? Obscene. Think of the peasant who has laboured hard from childhood, who lives a simple life doing no damage to his world, who knows nothing of wealth and success, ambition and greed. Think of the people in the third world who don’t have fresh water, adequate food, medical care. Think of the child labourers who make our clothes, and pick our fruit. Think of the countries where there is no Covid vaccine. Think of the people brutalised by the Taliban, silenced by China, isolated by North Korea.

Seven million pounds! 350 pounds will sink a bore hole in Africa to bring clean water to villages. 11 pounds will feed a child for a week. 25 will educate a young person for a month. Just one million of the seven would build a hospital.

The Bible gets it right, time after time after time, unfailingly, infallibly. We love our Godlessness. We love being happy, we love our treats and luxuries, we savour them. And they do us no good at all.

I’m reminded of the wonderful closing scene in an episode of The Sopranos, when Tony Soprano is at the wheel of his motor cruiser and heading out to sea… the sun is shining, the sky is blue, his son is there in the boat with him in a rare moment of bonding, and it’s wonderful! The boat slices through the crystal waters, the bow wave a great tumbling cloud of foam, the birds wheel above them, and Tony is supremely happy. So happy. He savours the moment, wordless, beaming. As he revels in his wealth and his possessions, and delights in speed and power, he is the picture of a happy man. The camera pulls back, and we see , in his foaming , troubled wake, a small rowing boat, rocked and swamped by the turbulence, in danger of capsizing, the passengers shouting in alarm. Tony can’t hear them. His success and his wealth drown out their cries.

And so, like the history of mankind, Tony Soprano goes on, ricocheting from one disaster to the next, amassing and spending, wasting and hoarding, grabbing, grabbing, grabbing. And so, left to our own devices, do we.

Like Job we can take this to God, we can see the injustice of the world, the grief and the fat cat profiteers, and we can ask ‘Why?’

I think there is something wrong with us if our prayers are not sometimes tortured, struggling, pleading, bewildered. I think our prayers need to be raw and honest. Sometimes nice words, wise words, aren’t what God wants to hear. If we look at the injustice of the world and are not angry, we are not in line with God.

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