“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” ( Job 2:11-13, NRSV).
Imagine reading the Bible in the way we read the headlines in the newspaper or the scrolling news ticker at the bottom of your favorite cable news network. The news ticker for the Book of Job might read: Job’s Sons Host Extravagant Parties, Heavenly Council Nominates Job for Man of the Year, Wealthy Man’s Sons and Daughters Die When House Collapses on Them, These headlines provide as much insight into the Book of Job as the hand full of sermons I have heard. These sermons typically begin and end with the end of the story. The tagline for these messages would be “Job Receives Double for His Trouble,” and “Job Lost All But Eventually Recovered It All Back.”
These headlines overlook something central to this text for Job and his friends. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were neither family members, classmates, acquaintances, nor associates. The nature of their relationship and interactions was of a different tone and tenor. The concept of biblical friends is worth further consideration here. When Job’s friends learned of Job’s loss, they left their homes and met together before going to console and comfort Job. Job’s physical and environmental state stopped his friends in their tracks. They were some distance from Job, but I can imagine that they were close enough to identify him as a result of their friendship. What they were unable to do is recognize him? Perhaps, you have visited a friend in grief or with an illness. You knew who they were because they were in a familiar place in the comfort of their home or hospital room with their name on the door. But, once you entered their room, you asked, “Friend, is that you? I can hardly recognize you. You’ve lost so much weight. your skin is so pale. Your hair is so undone.”
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are better friends than many of us. For when they reached Job, they raised their voices, wept aloud, tore their clothes, threw dust on their heads, and sat beside Job for seven days and seven nights without saying a mumbling word. I offer for your consideration that what Jobs friends do for him, we must consider doing for not only our friends, but also for our neighbors. Namely, those who are in close proximity to us in our homes, families, communities, jobs, and even congregations, who have experienced moments or prolonged suffering at the loss of loved ones, possessions, status, or positions.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar help us understand the differences between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Dr. Neel Burton, M.D., in a Psychology Today article on “Sympathy versus Empathy,” frames the difference: Pity says, “I acknowledge your suffering.” Sympathy says, “I care about your suffering.” Empathy says, “I feel your suffering.” Compassion says, “I want to relieve your suffering.”
To provide a visual representation of these sentiments, I am sharing several Christian subject paintings on Job and his three friends with you to capture the tone of the interaction and the examples of pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion shared between friends and acquaintances.
Job and his friends are not only an example of dealing with death, loss, and grief. They also provide a helpful framework for re-considering and re-framing a challenge that has become more acute for many of us in our work environments. We are nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent racial, social, economic, and political grieving our nation and world have undergone since March 2020. Those of you working and serving in for-profit, nonprofit, educational, health, and human services spaces will know the emphasis that has been placed on diversity, inclusion, and equity.
Although my evidence is anecdotal, I do know of several accounts of disgruntled employees displeased with all of the “forced” conversations and training on diversity, inclusion, and equity. Corporations earmarked and invested millions of dollars, what some call guilt money, into DEI programs, and community organizations working in and with Black and Latinx communities. Some Christian denominations, churches, and seminaries activated initiatives to take a look at and address both the historical and contemporary impact of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other privileges within their institutions and congregations.
My own experience has been these initiatives have been good starting points for dialogue and discussion, but with the progress of societal norms around COVID-19 restrictions, the response to COVID-1619 has been more regressive. The challenge is these efforts have promoted more pity, than sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Furthermore, the origins of the recent outrage and attack on critical race theory may be found in these efforts.
I invite you to think of Job as a representation of any experience of loss or injustice (be it sex, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability) and to imagine responding in the way Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar did initially. Let me remind you of their process. They met together and determined to console and comfort Job. When they reached Job, they could not recognize him. Nevertheless, they raised their voices, wept aloud, tore their clothes, threw dust on their heads, and sat beside Job for seven days and seven nights without saying a mumbling word.
During the Lenten season, it is not that I need an actual job. Instead, I need more of the character and disposition of Job and his friends in this passage of scripture as they respond to death, loss, grief, and human suffering. Lent has become many things to many people. Its form is a 40-day commemoration of Christ’s 40-day fast in the Gospels. Its focus is as a time of preparation for Easter beginning with Ash Wednesday (March 2, 2022). May it also be a time of praying, fasting, and working towards God’s justice and righteousness.