“‘Tis the season to be jolly!” “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” That’s what most will have said over the recent festive season of Christmas & New Year. Of course the reality is quite different …many are not wonderfully jolly but lonely, suffering, grieved, anxious, elderly, heartbroken or ill; yet a few others are staring into the dark tunnel of terminal illness. Some of these dear folks are well-known to us as family, friends, believing brothers & sisters, colleagues or neighbours. This is their season to be sorry …the most dreaded, dark & dreary time of the year!
Of course any pangs of conscience that we might have been susceptible to over recent weeks, have largely been suppressed by the drip-feed of on-line entertainment and merriment – as we enjoyed & indulged ourselves to the full (or to excess), we almost entirely forgot about them: we barely gave them a thought & refused to let their needs & suffering interfere or impinge in any way with our festive schedule. Strange we should be able to find so much time for those who could repay us with presents or pleasure. The shocking thing is we did not have to be taught to do this or to be instructed in thoughtlessness & selfishness – it all comes quite naturally & sinfully to the sons of Adam, who find it easy to be too busy to spare a glass of empathy & solidarity to toast the sick & sorrowful.
Friendly neglect or disregard was the desolating experience that Job had – he records it in chapter 17 of the book to which his name gives the title. Let’s give his friends some credit – they sealed their lips patiently for a period of seven days: no doubt we would have raced ahead & blurted out our callous, theologizing, heartless remedies, only to make the patient worse. When they could restrain their speech no longer, or decided it was time to cut loose, they spoke frankly to tell him what they thought: things could only get better, God is always Sovereign, wickedness will be punished; then, eventually, the cruel, callous, punchline – Job obviously had sinned & therefore should repent!
He commences the chapter, still full of faith but devoid of earthly hope for “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct; the graveyard is ready for me,” v1. All their lengthy speeches, for all their theological acumen, were totally out of context in the case of Job. He felt surrounded by ‘mockers’ and ‘provocation’ v2. He then makes a statement, that appears to amount to a proverbial kind of curse: it highlights what he believed to be a callous lack of pity & regard for their afflicted downtrodden friend. He says in v5: “He who informs against his friends to get a share of their property – the eyes of his children will fail.”
In one of his ‘Pastoral Epistles’, Paul reminds his understudy, in 1 Timothy 5.8, that those who fail to care for family members, and especially 1st or 2nd degree relatives, have denied the faith & are even worse than pagans. Such a selfish, thoughtless, merciless course of conduct indicates a withdrawal of ‘the milk of human kindness’ or ‘common grace’ & natural affection. It appears that even the worst of criminals display common kindness towards their own.
If Job 17.5 has been called a textual ‘Gordian Knot’, most seem to be agreed that is looks like some sort of well-known proverbial saying, that has to do with selling-out on friends, or handing them over to plunder, or using them for one’s own advantage. Friends in trouble should have us as defenders but, instead, the friends of Job have become deserters & detractors. Barnes explains this helpfully in the following way:
“The idea is, that he who betrayeth his friends to the spoil or to the spoiler, the eyes of his children shall fail. The meaning in this connection is, that the friends of Job had acted as one would who should announce the residence of his neighbours to robbers, that they might come and plunder them. Instead of defending him, they had acted the part of a traitor …It is evidently a proverb, and is designed to bear on the professed friends of Job, and to show that they had acted a fraudulent part toward him.”
The ESV strikes an even more sinister note – it suggests a course of action that exploits friends & family for personal gain or advantage. If we think that is a stretch, then the situations are legion of those who should have cared for the sick & dying, instead wished relatives dead – they wanted to lighten their burden of care, and then to circle round like vultures, and obtain monetary carrion from the estate of the deceased. It is not improper, certainly, in cases of life-changing, long-term care, to find the burden of time & energy draining – ‘Who cares for the carer?’ is a legitimate question to ask & answer, so that relatives get respite to bear their burden well! There are also some distressing situations where those who care are genuinely unsure about what is the best, most-loving, course. Yet, when the temptation enters our hearts, that ‘friends in need are a friend for greed’, we must resist the impulse to sacrifice godliness, goodness & gentleness in pursuit of gain.
There are many situations where we can prove fair-weather friends. Those with whom, in prosperity, we spent times of luxury and laughter, are now not so appealing companions in their presumed scandal, sin or suffering. No longer is it fun to be around such folk – frankly it is draining, so we leave it to those whose time & needs are less pressing than our own. Parents or grandparents who have given their all for us, in time, prayers & love, are quickly shuffled off to a care home, and if we pop in once a year then we think we’ve done our dues. Of course there are some cases when nursing care is required or 24-hour daily observation is necessary for safety. For the other all-too-common cases – which is a great blight on our culture – we might as well admit it: we are too busy or burdened to be bothered. Like Job’s ‘cheery’ friends, once the 20 minutes is up, we smile & part saying ‘all things work for good.’
The danger, I fear, is that in our careless, callous, culture, where other Christians do it, that such ‘respectable sins’ jettison us in the same league as Job’s comforters v4, “since you have closed their hearts to understanding.”
Godliness is grounded in an awakening to and understanding of the Grace of God in the Gospel. Perhaps that’s why we need to stare into Job’s eyes, and see his suffering afresh, to rekindle sincere love & kindness in our hearts v6-11: “He has made me a byword of the peoples & I am one before whom men spit. My eye has grown dim from vexation, and all my members are like a shadow …My days are past, my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart.” Who do you see as you stare into those deep pools? Whose broken heart gazes up from that deep well of sorrow? The pain of Job is a fraction of that of Jesus, in union with whom, Job entered into & endured exceptional, deep, devastating sorrow. His body was tortured, his heart was broken, his faith still resolute, as he headed to the Cross & suffered for our sins. “Yet the righteous” v9 “holds to his way & he who has clean hands grows stronger & stronger.” Magnificently, majestically, in his heart, mind & will, Messiah strides onto Mount Moriah!
Finally we must say He, Jesus, becomes the resource for the sufferer & the carer – faith to endure, strength to supply, sympathy to render, kindness to dispense, power to forgive & grace in which we see the empty depths to which callous, blind, callous, hard-hearted sinners can stoop, in the name of care & compassion. He knows what it was to be disowned, denied & sold for 30 pieces of silver or safety, far better than Job from whom friends sought to profit, even more than David deserted by Ahithophel – ‘betrayal for benefit’: he drained that cup to dregs – and has a heart of sympathy & strength to supply the believer in sorrow or support.