Embracing a “Disinterested Religion”: A Reflection on the Book of Job

The Book of Job is for me one of the most fascinating books within scripture in its dedication to the theme of the suffering of the innocent or unjust suffering. The position and argument that Job offers is one that can touch the heart of all of us who struggle privately or publically with the issue of social or individual suffering. But the perspective that is offered between Job and his friends, the rather mysterious Elihu, and of course
God himself delivers an evolving message that culminates in a transformative cosmological perspective that opens Job and the reader to the humbling experience of what Divine justice may look like. In this post I would like to offer a reflection on the book “On Job” by the theologian Gustavo Gutierrez and to comment on his development of the theme of “disinterested religion.”

Many argue that in the end the book of Job does not offer an answer to the penultimate question of theodicy, If God is omnipotent, and God is just, why do the innocent suffer? But I believe that in offering a transformative cosmological perspective it gives us not an answer (our natural and cultural limitations do not make this possible) but a glimpse that takes us outside of our own social, cultural and anthropological setting and places us
within the a new paradigm where principles of social ethics like the “common good” or the “preferential option for the poor” can actually make sense to us. The idea of identifying our faith and relationship with God through our participation with a “disinterested religion” seems to me like a crucial element that will help us redefine our religious identity in a way that will allow us to be open to this transformative cosmological perspective.

In studying the Book of Job and reading commentaries from Michael Guinan, Daniel Harrington and now Gustavo Gutierrez I have found myself reflecting on my own human condition and my relationship with God through the struggle that Job faces and the challenging questions that he poses. The question of God’s justice in light of what appears to be unfair or unjust suffering is of special importance for someone like me who has been dedicated to the observance of social justice. Justice is one of those attributes that we have theologically used to define an essential aspect of God. We say that God is just and yet our reality includes the experience of social injustice. Theodicy is basically the study of the paradox of God’s justice in light of this assumption (God is just) and our lived  experience of injustice. Job tackles this question head on and we are allowed to accompany Job for 42 chapters where through his own experience he wrestles with this paradox.

Gutierrez adds to this discussion not only through the contribution of his own biblical scholarship but through his own cultural lens. Gutierrez places Job’s experience within the Latin American social experience of poverty and marginalization. As he discusses throughout his book, one of the major developments that happen in the experience of Job is that he engages in a social solidarity between his own unjust experience of suffering and the unjust suffering that he has witnessed throughout his life. This pursuit of solidarity
is an essential bridge that must be crossed if any individual would like to make sense of their own suffering from the perspective of a community that suffers marginalization and injustice. The Latin American context can bring this point home in a way that may not be so obvious within the individualistic context of North American. Through this perspective a new and (in my opinion) more meaningful reflection takes place regarding the issue of unjust suffering which Gutierrez is able to incorporate within a cultural context that can
resonate with the struggle of the righteous Job.

Gutierrez begins with the topic of the “wager,” the bet between God and the Satan that sets in motion the whole calamity that will befall Job. For Gutierrez this wager was about the possibility of Job’s righteousness before God to exist outside of a theology of retribution. Could Job freely love, serve and obey God without material expectation or a fear of punishment. Could Job or anyone of us for that matter truly serve God freely? This is the basis of what Gutierrez calls “disinterested religion.” this notion plays a fundamental part in Gutierrez’ analysis of Job not only in comprehending the meaning of Job’s suffering but in the struggle of Job’s authentic relationship with God. The Book of Job addresses the shortcomings of the theology of retribution that is represented by Job’s friends and found
throughout the bible most notably in the Book of Deuteronomy. Gutierrez points out that the author of Job finds this theology to be problematic in developing an authentic and freely mutual relationship with God.

The expectation of rewards that is at the heart of the doctrine of retribution vitiates the entire relationship and plays the demonic role of obstacle on the way to God. In self-seeking religion there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol. … To believe “for nothing,” “without payment,” is contrary of a faith based on the doctrine of retribution.[1]    

The entire struggle in the book then is a development of this “disinterested” relationship with God whereby God and humanity exist within a free and mutually loving relationship with “no strings attached” as it were.      

Chapter 2 takes us to the beginning of Job’s dialogue that initially happens with his three friends. It is always amazing to me that had the context of the divine court and the “wager” between God and the Satan not been added how different my own reaction to Job’s dialogue with his friends would have been. If Job’s friends represent the theology of retribution as it was understood by the people of the sixth century before the Common Era then it should also be acknowledged that they continue to represent this theological
principle to the people of our own time. The theology of retribution continues to be a prominent aspect of our faith formation and we only need to consider the catechetical programs that we offer our children. Had the book of Job started from chapter 2 verse 11 I wonder how many of us would not consider the arguments and positions of the three friends to be quite sensible and correct. Job would, on the other hand, sound like a person that is blinded by his own righteous pride and human stubbornness. But the 1st chapter tells us that Job is indeed the innocent victim of his suffering so now we are left
accompanying him in his struggle to understand why this is the case and what this means for his relationship with God. This in turns demonstrates to us the inadequacy of the theological positions of his three friends. In fact Gutierrez reminds us early on that God later will validate the position that Job takes by declaring that Job has “spoken correctly of me” and God goes on to repudiate the friends. Gutierrez goes on to analyze Job’s “God-talk” in part 2 of his book.

In defending the theology of retribution the friends urge Job to seek repentance and reconciliation with God. Job begins his God-talk by asserting his innocence in the midst of suffering. But Gutierrez identifies a transformative moment in Job’s God-talk when he  identifies his suffering with the innocent and unjust suffering of others. As Gutierrez unpacks this development of Job’s God-talk he identifies Job considering the principle that the Catholic Church calls the Preferential Option for the Poor. “The obligation to
care for the poor means that the poor are not persons being punished by God (as the doctrine of temporal retribution implicitly asserts), but rather God’s friends.”[2]

So Job’s righteous God-talk is one that is prophetic and which questions the inadequacy of the theology of retribution because it does not respond to the unjust suffering of the innocent. Job defends his own just actions in life and now wishes to understand God’s justice in light of his own unjust suffering and the unjust suffering of so many others. As Gutierrez points out, even though Job challenges God to explain his apparent
permissibility for the suffering of the innocent he continues, even in the midst of his own suffering, to believe that God is just and this point is made in reference to Job’s declaration “my Go’El lives.”[3] The question at this point is not so much “is God just?” rather than “How am I to understand God’s justice?” The prophetic proclamation asserts certain social
truths about God’s justice such as the “preferential option for the poor” but to come to understand how God is just Gutierrez invites us to comprehend God in terms a free and mystical relationship which will become the turning point for Job’s struggle.

The appearance of Elihu serves as a bridge to the human dialogues that take place between Job and his friends and the final dialogue where God finally responds to Job’s inquiries. On the one hand Elihu seems to continue to defend the theology of retribution but he also appears to set the stage for the mystical comprehension of God (Job 33:12-20). Gutierrez then dedicates the third part of his book to God’s response and the missing perspective that will grant Job the clarity he requires to have some semblance for understanding God’s justice.

God’s speech is divided into two sections that each end with a short response from Job. In the first speech God challenges Job to comprehend a non anthropocentric perspective of creation. Even if we lay aside our cultural and social perspectives we humans are naturally limited in viewing the world of values within our anthropocentric lens. God challenges Job to consider the birth of creation and the certain aspects of the created world independent of the human person. Not only is the theology of retribution challenged but the preeminence of humanity is also challenged. This does not take away from the value that humanity has with God but it gives value to all aspects of creation independent of humanity. Gutierrez tells us that in offering this description of creation God is in essence sharing His own freedom in being the author of creation. At the heart of this divine freedom is the sense of God designing creation as a free gift or gratuitousness that is based on God’s own love. This gift of creation is so totally free and we humans are invited to freely share in that gift. Gutierrez tells us that this gratuitousness is the paradigm that will augment Job’s perspective of God’s justice and in God’s second speech he will go further on this point.

Gutierrez offers this reflective question, “Must all that happens in history, including God’s action, necessarily fit hand in glove with the theological categories that reason has developed?”[4] What this says to me is that it questions the ability of natural law to
completely sum up the divine law for us. This of course we now to be true because natural law is a limited interpretation of the divine law based on the fundamental laws of nature and our gift of reason. God reminds us that no matter how well we have been able to reason God’s justice and laws we are always limited from the full mystical plan. In offering this perspective to Job God grants Job an awareness that divine justice is beyond human justice. Job appropriately responds to this by declaring his “littleness.”

The second speech of God goes further into the object of Job’s complaint, the reckoning of God’s justice. Moving ahead with the doctrine of freedom and gratuitousness God challenges Job to consider justice from this paradigm of freely loving all creation and offering a mutual respect for the freedom of all to share in that love. Under this divine restrained how will Job hope to bring forth justice? Gutierrez suggests that because of this paradigm of gratuitousness God has limited his own ability to offer justice. “In other words, the all-powerful God is also a “weak” God. The mystery of divine freedom leads to the mystery of human freedom and to respect for it.”[5] This then is the perspective that Job gains from God. Gutierrez identifies Job as one who has experienced a shift “from a penal view of history to the world of grace that completely enfolds and permeates him.”[6]

Job’s God-talk is well spoken because he prophetically challenges God and society to address the suffering of the innocent. The unjust suffering of the innocent appears to be the preeminent context from which one can engage in an authentic God-talk that is open to the solidarity of sharing in God’s gratuitous love with all of creation. Through this context we are able to liberate our relationship with God from the reward base theology of
retribution and freely share in God’s great love to one another through a religiosity that is based on a “disinterested” relationship with God and creation.

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the
Suffering of the Innocent,
(Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2009) 5

[2] Ibid., 40

[3] Ibid., 63

[4] Ibid., 75

[5] Ibid., 77-78

[6] Ibid., 88


About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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