Monday, October 26, 2009

Unintended Consequences to Exceptional Faithfulness

Do you ever feel like all the good things you do don't really amount to much? Even though you are always trying to do the right thing, it doesn't seem to make any real difference? Or maybe that the world's problems are too big to be impacted by your minuscule contribution?

The biblical book of Ruth tells the stories of some people who weren't exactly VIPs. The story of Ruth isn't the story of great kings or mighty warriors. It's the story of an average woman and her daughter-in-law.

The story begins with something as mundane as a family's search for food. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, journey to Moab with their two sons because they have heard that there is food there while Bethlehem, which means house of bread, has run out of bread. While they are in Moab, Elimelech and his sons die. This leaves Naomi with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi, looking out for the safety of her daughters-in-law in a culture where women are dependent upon men for income, urges Orpah and Ruth to leave her and go live with their own people so that they might find another husband. Naomi knows she is too old to remarry but she is willing to fend for herself if it means that Orpah and Ruth can start a new life. Orpah does the reasonable thing and follows Naomi's advice to go back home. Ruth, however, demonstrates exceptional, almost absurd fidelity to her mother-in-law and promises to remain with her whatever the circumstances. This is an exceptional act of faithfulness on the part of Ruth that goes well beyond any of the cultural expectations of her day.

But it turns out that this is not the only exemplary act of faithfulness in the story. Ruth manages to meet Boaz, a relative of Naomi. He also exemplifies faithfulness well beyond what is expected of him by taking special care of Ruth and seeing that her and Naomi have plenty of food. Ruth and Naomi take note of this special care from Boaz and Ruth uses it to the advantage of herself and Naomi by asking Boaz to "spread his covering over her", a sort of marriage proposal. Boaz says this act of kindness by Ruth is greater than her first (presumably referring to Ruth's kindness toward her mother-in-law which the story earlier indicated Boaz knew about). Boaz says that Ruth could have sought marriage with a younger man than himself but instead she has selflessly sought the marriage of a man related to her mother-in-law. This is significant because it gives Boaz the right to redeem (take ownership of) the land that belonged to Elimelech, Naomi's husband, thereby keeping it in the family. In short, Ruth has once again demonstrated remarkable faithfulness toward her mother-in-law by seeking marriage with her kinsman. Likewise, Boaz is remarkably faithful by taking responsibility for his dead relative's family when he is not obligated to do so.

As I mentioned before, the book of Ruth records a fairly mundane, everyday, family ordeal. These are just average people who exhibit extraordinary faithfulness in their ordinary circumstances. But then at the end of the book we learn an interesting fact; Ruth gives birth to a son with Boaz. His name is Obed. His son's name is Jesse who was the father of David. Though the lives of Ruth and Boaz may have seemed small and inconsequential, their extraordinary faithfulness lead to the birth of the greatest king in Israel's history.

The truth is we never know what kind of enormous consequences might follow from the simplest acts of faithfulness.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Job's Justification

This is our final week in our short trip through the book of Job. It turns out that this gloomy book has a happy ending. After enduring the loss of his family, wealth, and health, moral lectures about his own sinfulness from his friends, and even a few pointed questions from God himself, Job is finally vindicated. Although Job admits that he has spoken about things he did not understand, God's verdict is still that Job has spoken truthfully about God while his friends have not. Job 42 gives the details of Job's vindication and restoration. Job is blessed even more than before. He once again has his health, he is again blessed with 10 children, and his wealth in livestock is double what it was before. Job's restoration as a spiritual authority is symbolized in his sacrifice and prayer on behalf of his three friends which God accepts and his restoration to his former place of honor in the community is symbolized by all those who had known him before his suffering coming and dining at his house. Job was righteous before his suffering, he endured that suffering righteously, and in the end God vindicated or justified Job's faithful obedience as righteous by blessing him even more than he had before.

As I've been working through the book of Job, I've been struck many times by the parallels of Job's suffering with the life of Jesus. I've often wondered if Jesus' own reading of the book of Job as he grew up was instrumental in shaping his own understanding of his messianic mission; if perhaps passages like these in Job and the suffering servant passages in Isaiah led Jesus to the conclusion that he could suffer righteously. As I was reading this last chapter of Job today, I was struck once again by the parallels between Jesus and Job, especially as Paul sums up the story of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11. The pattern of movement from greatness to obedience in humiliation and suffering to restoration and exaltation as a result of that obedience which we find in the book of Job is the same movement found in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2.

The pattern in both of these stories shows that God will ultimately vindicate those who place their trust in him; Job's fortunes are restored and Jesus is "exalted to the highest place and given the name that is above every name". But this pattern also clearly shows that the kind of trust that God requires is not easy trust that is only present when things are going well. Real faith, real trust is the kind that endures the suffering of Job, the kind that carries a cross.

Monday, October 12, 2009

An Offensive God

The God portrayed in the book of Job is problematic.

This God makes deals with Satan. He allows a righteous man to suffer tremendously through the loss of his whole family, all his possessions, and even his own health. In fact, he not only allows it. It seems God almost encourages this process to take place, dangling Job out in front of Satan like some kind of bait by saying "Have you considered my servant Job?" This is anything but a comfortable image of God. It offends our sense of justice. What kind of God is this who invites affliction upon the most righteous and faithful of his servants? Its not exactly this God that we have in mind when we think of proclaiming the gospel to the world. Its not exactly the kind of God I really want to preach about. Its not the kind of God that I want to think about as I go to visit a dear friend and saint in the hospital who is suffering. Is God simply testing her as he tested Job? And if so, how can I love a God who would be so capricious with his people?

God's answer? It comes in Job 38 -41. The short version: I am God and you are not.

It's not exactly satisfying or comforting. In all honesty, its still offensive. In fact, its a kind of non-answer that changes the question that is being asked. We ask whether or not God is righteous and just. God asks who we are to ask that question.

I believe that God is just in all he does and that he cares deeply about seeing justice done in our world and that one day he will recreate this world in full accordance with his righteousness. But even as important as justice and righteousness are to the character of God, they do not exhaust the mystery of God. God will not be held captive or boxed in by any concept or definition, not even ones as important as justice and righteousness.