Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What Job teaches us, or lessons from a Muslim

Marc Chagall, Job Praying
Just what is this morning’s quote from the mouth of Job a response to? It follows Job tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling to the ground in worship. What, in turn, causes Job to do all this? News that his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys had been taken by force by certain Sabeans, who also killed his servants working in the fields with these animals, except the one who escaped to tell him; that "The fire of God" falling from heaven had burned up his 7,000 sheep and the servants attending them, except the one who survived to tell him; that certain Chaledeans, formed into three groups, had stolen his 3,000 camels and killed his servants, except the one lived to tell him. Finally, the lone surviving servant runs to tell him that while his seven sons and three daughters, their spouses, children, and, presumably some servants, were gathered in the house of his oldest son, a "great wind wind" blew "across the wilderness,” causing the house to collapse and kill them all" (Job 1,13-19). According to this wisdom book, what was the cause of all these misfortunes?

This misfortune was caused by Satan telling God that Job was only faithful because God had “put a hedge around him and his house” and around all that Job possessed. God, according Satan, had “blessed the work of [Job’s] hands.” “But,” Satan says to God, “stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” This God then allowed Satan to do anything to Job he wished, except kill him (Job 1,6-12).

Now, Job contains an incomplete theology. This bears mentioning as we prepare to celebrate on Friday, 14 September, the liturgical feast of The Triumph of the Cross. However, there is much to be learned here. It is not just the quantity of what Job teaches, but the quality. Job is a true Muslim, one who submits, or surrenders, himself to God's inscrutable will. By contrast, I think most of us would qualify as God’s spoiled children, who throw tantrums and doubt God’s very existence when bad things come our way. As Rich Mullins once observed about sorrow and suffering in a lovely song to Jesus, our Lord: "I know it would not hurt any less/Even if it could be explained ".

Perhaps I am projecting, but I doubt it. Let’s each one ask ourselves honestly, Am I only faithful and grateful when things go well for me? Think back to when you were a child, or for the parents among us, to our own experience of our children. When were we, or are our children, most likely to tell our parents that we love them, that they are the best Mom or Dad in the whole world? When they gave us something we wanted. Conversely, when were we most likely to say horrible things, like you are the worst Mom or Dad in the world and perhaps even to tell a parent, a person who gave us life, who fed us, clothed us, and provided shelter, we hate them? When have been denied something we wanted, even if for good reasons, like it is unsafe, unaffordable, etc. As a parent, or, as an adult looking back on your own childish fulminations, how do we feel in such moments? There is a reason that the commandment about honoring our parents comes immediately after the three commandments by which we honor God and just before the commandments about honoring other people. Then, let us each ask, in light of this first reflection: Does my relationship with God bear resemblance to the immaturity I so shamefully exhibited in my youth? Do I curse and shake my fist at God in my struggles as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death? What happened to Job in the story happens in the real world, almost everyday. How many of us, when something bad happens to us, or, to somebody close to us, falls to the ground in worship, declaring our gratitude to God?

Today I finished a book that has deepened my faith more than any book I have read this past year, except two- Dr. Cynthia Crydale’s Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today and Dr. Rowan Williams’ Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel- Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner. In the character of Hassan, the Hazara servant and illegitimate son of the novel’s main character’s father, known as Baba, we have a new, this time Islamic, Alyosha, who is immortalized in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. While waiting in the hospital for news of the condition of Sohrab, Hassan’s orphaned son, who has attempted suicide in Islamabad after having been rescued from Taliban-controlled Kabul, Amir, in the process of redeeming his past, prays for the first time in fifteen years on a make shift jai-namaz, or, prayer rug, which is but a single bed sheet, on the floor of the hospital:

"I get on my knees, lower my forehead to the ground, my tears soaking through the sheet. I bow to the west [the direction of Mecca from Islamabad] ". . . I have long forgotten the words [the appropriate suras of the Qu’ran]. But it doesn’t matter, I will utter those few words I still remember . . . I see now that Baba was wrong, there is a God, there always had been. I see Him here, in the eyes of the people in this corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find him . . . There is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need, I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book [the Qu’ran] says He is. I bow to the west and kiss the ground and promise that I will do zakat [the Islamic version of tithing- giving 2.5% of one’s income to the poor], I will do namaz [prayer, which Muslims perform five times a day], I will fast during Ramadan [the month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, even from drinking water] and when Ramadan has passed I will go on fasting, I will commit to memory every last word of His holy book, and I will set on a pilgrimage to that sweltering city in the desert and bow before the Ka’bah [the giant black rock in the middle of the Great Mosque in Mecca] too. I will do all of this and I will think of Him every day from this day on . . ." (pgs. 345-6) [all bracketed explanatory notes are mine]

Again, in the book, it is Hassan, who at this point is dead, who is the holy fool, like Alyosha, like Francesco Bernadone, not Amir, who is the one praying in this passage. Neither can Amir, at this point, be said to be a Job because, unlike the Job, Amir seeks to bargain with God. "I will do all of this if only He grants me this one wish" (pg. 346). His one wish, the petition of his prayer, is that Sohrab lives. In His mercy and goodness, God grants Amir's petition. It is only in the manner of the life he and his wife, Soraya, live with Sohrab that Amir grows beyond this bargaining. As far as one can tell, Amir keeps his pledge to God. However, Sohrab is so traumatized that, once in the U.S., he does not speak for over a year. By the end of the book, while flying a kite in a park, something Amir and Hassan did as children in Kabul, Sohrab smiles when Amir offers to run the cut kite for him. To which Amir responds:

"It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn't make everything all right. It didn't make" anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of startled bird's flight" (pg. 371). It is here that we measure the change: "But I'll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting" (pg. 371).


  1. Thanks for the post on Job. Job one of my favorite Old Testament books. Mostly because as you described he is what most of us are not. However, identifying Job a true Muslim doesn’t give him proper credit. I think that Pope Saint Gregory the Great was closer to the mark in his preface to Moralia, sive Expositio in Job “Now that blessed Job maintains the semblance of the Redeemer to come, his very name is a proof. For Job is, if interpreted, 'grieving;' by which same grief we have set forth, either our Mediator's Passion, or the travails of Holy Church, which is harassed by the manifold toils of this present life.”(An Exposition on The Book of Blessed Job - The Preface para. 16)

  2. Thank you, as always, for your enlightening comment. I suppose in a sense Job can be seen as a proto-type of the Redeemer. But then the same is true of many figures from the Jewish Scriptures, like David, to take the most used example.

    By writing that Job is a true muslim, I mean that in the literal sense of this lovely Semetic word, one who submits. In the context of religion, it means one who submits to the inscrutable will of God. Job pushes the envelope because while he submits to God's will, he is bound determined to find why his servants and flocks were killed and destroyed, as well as why his ten children are all dead. He rejects the answer his friends try to convince about; that these things happened because of Job's sinfulness.


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