“I Have Uttered What I Did Not Understand” or Blessed Are Those Open to Reason (176)

[Job 41:1-11; 42:1-6]

In July of 1840 Søren Kierkegaard took a ferry to Jutland. He would have been 27 at the time, decidedly not the influential philosopher he would one day become. I assume that the ferry would have taken him from Copenhagen across the shallow Kattegat strait to that big hunk of mainland Denmark that sticks up into the North Sea. In his journal Kierkegaard says the trip seemed terribly long and boring, even though the regulars said it was abnormally fast. What made the trip worse was that there were four pastors on board.

Kierkegaard heard each pastor telling the other passengers exactly the same thing. Listening to them, he said, was like watching toothless people chew their food. Apparently there was an old saying suggesting that whenever you had a pastor on board a ferry the trip took longer because there was always a headwind. The four pastors on the ferry with the young Kierkegaard were repeating this old saying to everyone who would listen; then they would proudly say that this one trip proved it wrong. Thankfully we have freedom of religion, Kierkegaard thought, so preachers don’t all have to say the same thing. He was being sarcastic. Preachers were always saying the same inane things. Kierkegaard wished he would get sick or that someone else would get sick—anything so that he didn’t have to keep listening to these preachers repeating the same old nonsense.

As I tell this story I’m making a bet with you and with brother Kierkegaard. I’m putting my money on the claim that our readings today point us in a surprising direction. Our central reading came from Job chapter 41. It begins with a question: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord?” You may identify this as part of God’s response to Job. This is God saying, in essence, “I do not play by your rules.” This is God saying, “I am transcendent, you are not.” This is God saying, “You are a creature, I am not.” With this question God is asking, “Why do you believe I need to operate in the way you think a creator should?”

The word ‘leviathan’ is a tough one for translators. Here in the NRSV the Hebrew is rendered as a proper noun, as a name. It seems like the translators have given up and simply swapped English letters for the Hebrew. Some scholars think the word refers, through some inexplicable means, to a dinosaur. Others think it refers to a crocodile. That seems more likely. An adult salt water crocodile can be six meters long and weigh over 2,000 pounds.

If you start digging into environmental philosophy and ethics you’ll eventually come across a story involving a salt water crocodile. In 1985 Val Plumwood was exploring one of Australia’s national parks by canoe. Coming around the bend she noticed what she first thought was a stick in the water. The current pushed her toward it. Then she saw the eyes. It was a crocodile. The reptile began to attack her canoe. She was worried that her little boat would be flipped. She paddled toward the shore. She stood up and was about to jump for a hanging tree limb the when crocodile lunged for her leg, grabbed it and pulled her under the water.

Eventually Plumwood managed, I’ll spare you the details, to escape up the bank. She was eventually able to find help, only to have her helpers decide that what they needed to do was go back and shoot a crocodile, any crocodile. Plumwood was terribly injured, but she protested. The experience had brought a burst of enlightenment. After tangling with the crocodile she saw the world in a whole new way. She saw that it was her who had intruded on the animal’s space. She concluded that being a human creature didn’t exempt her from being on another creature’s menu. It seemed hypocritical for her to eat other animals without assuming that they objected to being eaten as much as she did.

You can see, I think, why the story shows up in conversations about our relationship to the rest of the created world.[1] And you can see how radical was Plumwood’s change in perspective.

Maybe it’s the crocodile connection or maybe not. But after God asks Job whether or not he can wrestle one into submission, Job too has a moment of illumination. He had wondered why God pretended to be fair and just but was really random and mean. Or as Job had asked of God, “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” But now, after God’s response, Job has realizes that he had spoken without understanding. He had spoken of things that were totally beyond his comprehension.

Job had thought he could put God on trial. He had thought that he was entitled to an answer from God. But that was all based on theological hearsay. Now that God had questioned him directly, Job saw that he had misunderstood the situation. Job says, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Some interpreters say that we could actually read Job’s words more like this: “therefore I reject what I said earlier and I now publicly acknowledge my changed perspective.” Eugene Peterson died this past week. Here’s how he translates the last two verses of our reading from Job:

[Job says,] I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!
I’m sorry—forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise!
I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor.

In the book of Job the Leviathan, the crocodile, signifies a pivot. Job has changed his mind. He sees things in a new way.

This is Reformation Sunday. Not only do we remember the saints of old, the faithful, stalwart the strong, but we also remember those who have changed minds, who have taken on tradition, who have helped us see things in new ways. Last week I referred to the decline in spiritual language in our culture. I spoke about the importance of an old word that we need to recover. The word was ‘humility’. Today I want to draw our attention to another one of these words. This one, though, is more obscure. Its obscurity is why I would be comfortable preaching with Søren Kierkegaard among us.

There are several places in the New Testament where we are given descriptions of what should characterize us as members of the blessed community. One is in James chapter 3. Verse 17 of that chapter reads like this: “[T]he wisdom from above is first pure, then peacable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”  In the middle of that verse there is a set of three virtues translated as “peacable,”  “gentle,” and “willing to yield.” In Greek all three of these words start with the letter epsilon. They’re intended to be a package. We might think of the first two from time to time, peacable and gentle. I hope we do. We need those traits today. But I want us to focus now on the third in the series, the idea of being “willing to yield.” Other translators suggest that it might be read as “open to reason,” or “compliant” or “deferent” or even “open to a new perspective.”

Isn’t that interesting? The wisdom of God is found in being open to reason. We might say, “blessed are the flexible” or “blessed are those who don’t always need to have it their way.” Obviously this doesn’t mean that anything goes or that the views of experts don’t matter. But it does mean that we should be cautious about being intractable.

When we refuse to see things through the eyes of a family member. When we’re in a meeting and we think the only thing that matters is what we care about. When we assume that every new idea or every old idea is terrible. When we realize that we’ve had the same view of things for decades. When we feel like the party line matters more than reasonable, open thinking. When it occurs to us that our view of God hasn’t been unfolding in light of an actual relationship. When any of that happens we should be warry of following in Job’s footsteps.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take a crocodile to alter our course or change our minds. Let’s hope we aren’t the ones on the ferry repeating the same old nonsense, making the thoughtful folks want to vomit.

We can hope, but we can also do more than that. We can engage with God in faith. That means earnest prayer. It means reflective Bible reading. It means seeing the light of God in the world around us. It means thoughtful conversations with wise friends. It means worship. As Job learned: when we approach divinity in faith, a gracious God will not let our self-deception go unchallenged.

Blessed are those who are open to other perspectives and who are reasonable because the wisdom from above is willing to yield.


[1] http://www.aislingmagazine.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM30/ValPlumwood.html.

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