THE NEW NORMAL
Job's trajectory from suffering to abundance sparked a surprising response.
I remember well the re-entry experience I had after my first major international mission trip. A team of about 20 of us traveled to Honduras for 10 days, spending seven of those days in a rural, impoverished village. When I came back to Duke, I came back a changed person. Suddenly the mounds of food available in the dining hall seemed exorbitant, if not wasteful when I remembered the hungry children of the village. Although the long, hot showers felt glorious, I also could not help but feeling guilty for using so much water and having that water so ready at my fingertips when I had become so accustomed to having only a bucket of water to bathe with every other day – a bucket that I had to share with someone else. Even being able to go to the student health center for the stomach bug I brought back with me felt like a luxury after having run a health clinic with meager supplies and only one doctor.
All that would be enough to make me feel out of place. But what made the experience worse was that I felt like a transformed, confused, vulnerable person in a sea of people going about their everyday lives. In fact, I was very clear that I was the weird one. All I had to do was have the basic, “What did you do for Spring Break?” conversation, and I could tell that no one could relate to my new reality. They had been to Cancun, Cabo, or Costa Rica for Spring Break. They had stories about partying, pools, and pina coladas. There biggest stressors were navigating taxis without speaking Spanish, haggling with shop owners about prices, and trying to figure out how much to tip the cabana guys. My stories about a lack of indoor plumbing, sleeping on cement floors, and boiling water to drink just led to blank stares and quick exits. Instead, I was left alone, on a campus full of abundance, with students who have never had to worry about money or even their basic needs being met, in a place where my only responsibility was to study and attend classes. Having seen real poverty, I would never again be able to look at the campus and people and privilege around me and see all of that in the same way again.
I think that is what makes me so uncomfortable about the happily-ever-after ending we get in Job today. These last few weeks we have been reading through Job. We hear the confusing conversation between the Adversary and God about how the Adversary will test Job’s righteousness by taking everything away – his children, his livestock, his home. We remember how his friends try to tell him he must have done something to deserve his suffering. We hear Job lash out at God, demanding to know why he is suffering so. And last week we heard God put Job in his place, asking how Job thought he had any right to presume he knew God’s ways. The today, when Job humbly confesses and submits to God, God suddenly relieves Job of his suffering. He brings back his wealth – twice as much as he had before. He blesses Job with children and livestock again. On the surface, the whole story sounds so simple. Job has everything taken away, he remains faithful, and then is restored his fortunes. But something about that ending does not sit well with me. How could Job ever look at his 10 children without remembering the 10 he had before? How could Job ever look at that livestock and wealth without remembering how he once had nothing? How could Job receive his consoling brothers and sisters without remembering how they had all deserted him and left him to sit with his sores and grief? For some reason, I just cannot imagine how all that abundance in the face of recent tragedy somehow makes up for all his suffering.
Of course, we all try to make that transition in life. I know widowers or divorcees who have had countless people ask why they do not start dating – as if a new spouse could ever make them forget the one with whom they shared a lifetime. I know pet owners who have lost a beloved pet, only to have someone say, “You should just get a new puppy. A puppy will make you forget your old dog.” I even know young mothers who have lost a pregnancy or even an infant, only to have someone say, “You’re young. You can always have another.” To their credit, I genuinely think our friends and family are trying to say something that they think is helpful. They are facing the abyss of pain too, and simply want to make everything okay. And so they, and we, say something that even sounds awful to us coming out of our mouths. But we do not know what else to say.
As I have thought about Job this week, I realized the end of his story is not a happily-ever-after ending. The end of his story is a story about the new normal. The new normal is not just a return to the same – or even a doubling of what was before. The new normal for Job is learning how to be a person of faith in the midst of abundance. Job teaches us a lot about living in the new normal. Job prays for his friends who tried to blame Job’s suffering on Job. Job eats with his siblings who disappeared during his suffering. And Job does something radical. When he has those 10 children, three of them are daughters. The text tells us that he gives the daughters an inheritance along with their brothers. That kind of action was unheard of in Job’s day.[i] Women were not given inheritances. If they wanted security, they got married. But Job, in his new normal, decides not just to enjoy his wealth, but to make his wealth count for others – for the most vulnerable: for women.
Though I would never wish Job’s fate on anyone, Job’s suffering and trials teach him something about faithfulness. Job moves from basically espousing a prosperity gospel – one in which he was blessed with good things because of his faithfulness – to espousing a theology of gratitude. His wealth is no longer something for him to possess as a reward, but is now a tool for making a difference in the world. That is not to say that Job is not a righteous man before his trials. The text tells us he is. What the text does infer is that Job’s relationship with his wealth is transformed, along with his faith.[ii]
A few weeks ago, Deacon Anthony told us about an experience of a man in New York City that he saw on the website, “Humans of New York.” The story about the man in his own words goes like this, “Not long ago it looked like I was about to get everything. I was one of the first employees at a company that sold for a billion dollars. So I started a new company, and everything seemed to be going perfectly, but suddenly everything came apart. This has been the toughest year of my adult life. I went bankrupt, my company failed, and a person I loved died. I didn’t commit suicide—though I considered it. But my ideas of myself have definitely died. I thought I was better than everyone. I saw my success as the culmination of all my positive merits. Losing everything forced me to realize how much of my good fortune was due to things that had been given to me.”[iii] I think that man from New York understood Job’s reality deeply. His year of tragedy taught him the same thing that Job’s time of tragedy taught him. Everything is a gift: our wealth, our abundance, our comfort, our security. Everything is a gift. And once we realize that everything is a gift, we are irrevocably changed. We cannot go back to living life in a haphazard, oblivious way. Our perspective toward abundance, and our responsibility to manage that abundance, changes.
Job found a way to transform the lives of his daughters with his wealth – even though society would have never have considered asking him, let alone expected him to do so. Often we talk about wealth being a burden or a responsibility. All we need to do is think about the lesson we heard recently about the rich getting into heaven being like a camel going through the eye of a needle. Or we know those familiar words from Luke, “to whom much is given, much is required.” But Job does not teach us that lesson today. Wealth is not a burden or a responsibility. Wealth frees us for opportunity – opportunities to bless, to transform, and to flourish. Like that man in New York understood, wealth is a gift. Our invitation this week is to consider how we might use our wealth as a gift. Instead of seeing this stewardship season as a reminder of the burden we all have to support the operating budget of the church, I invite you to consider this stewardship season as a gift – an invitation to use your wealth to create opportunities to bless, to transform, and to flourish the ministries of this place. Like Job joyfully watched his daughters experience a new freedom, I wonder what new opportunities your wealth might create in this community. Amen.
[i] Dale P. Andrews, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 199.
[ii] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17,” October 28, 2012, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1455 on October 22, 2015.
[iii] Found at “Humans of New York,” October 10, 2015, found at https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork/photos/a.102107073196735.4429.102099916530784/1105944539479645/?type=3&fref=nf on October 23, 2015.