Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Story of Bōb (Exodus 16: 11-18)

You are familiar with the story of Job. It is the most famous fairytale of our faith.

OK, maybe “fairy tale” isn’t quite accurate, but it does come pretty close. Just listen to how the story starts: “Once upon a time…” Every good fairy tale begins this way. “Once upon a time, in the land of Uz…” It also sounds a lot like, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

“Once upon a time in the land of Uz, there was a man whose name was Job.”

The name looks like it should be pronounced Jŏb, but this being long ago in a land far, far away, it’s actually pronounced Jōb, as you know.

One day the heavenly beings came before God. This included the one known as Satan, whose job it was to patrol the earth. In later Judaism and Christianity the character of Satan became a more demonic personification, but here, he’s just one of the heavenly beings.

In the story, the Lord says to Satan, “Look at Job. Why, no one on earth is as blameless and upright as he.”

Satan responds, “That’s because he’s so blessed. Let me take away everything he has, and see what happens to him.”

And God says, “Okay.”

So Satan takes away Job’s wealth. He takes away his children. He takes away his health. Job is left with nothing.

And yet, Job is not destroyed. Not completely.

There is another story. This one, I’m sure you are not familiar with. It is the story of Bōb, a name that looks like it should be pronounced Bŏb, but, well, it’s actually pronounced Bōb.

One day the heavenly beings came before the Lord, including the one known as Satan. In this story the Lord says to Satan, “Look at Bōb. Why, no one on earth is as blameless and upright as he.”

Satan responds, “That’s because his blessings have been limited. He only has enough: enough to live off of, enough to have a life that is satisfying. Let me give him so much more; let me give him everything he ever dreamed of, and see what happens to him.”

And God says, “Okay.”

So Satan adds to Bōb’s wealth. Bōb wins the Lottery! His crops all of a sudden start producing yields that are double and triple what they were before! His livestock – all his sheep and cattle and oxen – begin reproducing and multiplying at an astonishing rate, as do his own children and grandchildren. And his health and strength increase to such a point that he becomes like Samson, endowed with almost super-human abilities.

This all happens overnight, instantly. (If you are wondering about how Bōb could have so many children and grandchildren overnight, you are forgetting the fairy-tale nature of the story.)

At first, Bōb is overwhelmed by his good fortune. He offers a prayer of thanks to God, whom he credits with allowing his every wish to come true.

Then Bōb realizes that he has some work to do. He has to build bigger pens for all his livestock. He has to build bigger barns to store all his grain and other crops. He has to hire a manager – no, a team of managers – to manage all of his lottery winnings.

His family has grown so large; many relatives who he hardly knows keep showing up, but all they want is his money. Meanwhile, those who are closest to Bōb – his children and grandchildren, especially – simply want the joy of being in his presence; to play and laugh and dine with him; to share their love with him and receive his love in return.

Bōb very much wants this as well, but he no longer has time for such things. He’s too busy managing his assets.

As news of Bōb’s fortune spreads, more and more people want a share of the pie. Some of them are willing to do anything to get it, so Bōb has to hire a security team, and install alarm systems.

Bōb is now so busy, he no longer has any time at all for his family. He no longer has any time for God. He doesn’t even have any time for himself.

There is no peace in Bōb’s life any more, and no rest. All his blessings have become a terrible burden to him. His wealth, his possessions, his belongings; all these things are now holding him captive. His life is controlled by the maintenance and security of all he owns. He is no longer free.

Even his superhuman strength has become a liability, as it only separates him more from society by making him seem freakish.

And that is how Satan destroys Bōb. Not by taking everything away from him, but by giving him everything he ever dreamed of.

Is the story of Bōb true? Sure it is. Jesus knew the story. Luke records Jesus telling this story to a man who wanted Jesus to help him get his family inheritance.

This is how Jesus told the story of Bōb:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grains and all my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” [Luke 12:16-21].

The apostle Paul also knew of the story of Bōb. Paul was reminded of the story of Bōb when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth, a group that was blessed with an abundance of wealth when compared to the much poorer Christians in Macedonia.

Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that what is good and what is the will of God is for everyone to have just the right amount; not too much, and not too little. Paul said: “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need…. As it is written: ‘the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” [2 Corinthians 8:13, 15].

In saying this, Paul quotes a line from the story of the Exodus, when God sent manna to appear in the wilderness. Everyone received as much manna as they needed. Everyone received their daily bread. No more, and no less. Everyone got just what they needed.

This, my dear friends, is what God wants for us. This is what it is like in God’s kingdom. And this is, in fact, what God has provided for us in the world God has created. Enough. For everyone.

But this is not how humanity has managed the use of God’s resources. This is not the model of stewardship we have exercised over the earth. In the world as we have made it, some have much more than they need, while others do not have even the basic necessities they need to survive.

It is a fragmented world in which we live. Some people in this world have just enough to be happy; but most are burdened by having either too little, or too much. They either suffer from not having, like Job; or they suffer from having too much, like Bōb.

We talk about the suffering of those who have too little. We talk about it in church, we take up collections for them.

We don’t talk about the suffering of those who have too much. This is because we believe the lie that is fed to us daily, the lie that says you can never have too much, the lie that says more is always better, the lie that says no matter how much you have, you’ll be happier if you have even more.

We believe this lie even though studies have shown that the wealthy have higher rates of anxiety and depression than those who have enough – those who can meet their basic needs and perhaps have a little extra for an occasional luxury, like a night out at a restaurant once in a while.

It’s a bell curve of sorts. Those who have nothing – absolutely nothing – find happiness very hard to come by. The level of happiness then rises as income rises and basic needs are met. It even rises a little once income rises beyond the level that is needed to meet basic needs. But then, as income keeps rising, the level of happiness wears off.

As income continues to rise, wealth becomes more and more of a burden, and happiness actually begins to decline.

In the United States, studies have surveyed people’s level of happiness in the second half of the 20th century. Those 50 years saw an explosion in wealth. Homes got bigger. The average number of cars per family doubled. New inventions began to fill our homes, things like automatic dishwashers, microwave ovens, TVs, computers, and cell phones, all of which promised to make life easier and more enjoyable.

Yet at the end of the century, Americans reported that they were no happier than they were in 1950. In fact, the level of happiness in America had actually declined some.

What happened? Our wealth became a burden. Just like Bōb, we discovered that wealth and possessions couldn’t give us more of what we really wanted; more of what really matters.

It would be bad enough if the burden of wealth only made the wealthy suffer, but actually, all are made to suffer. As those who had more cars got used to driving themselves everywhere, public transportation ridership went down, leading to cutbacks and elimination of services. Remember the red car? It’s no longer there for those who really need it.

Many poor people cannot afford cell phones, and yet – because so many people do have cell phones – pay phones and even highway call boxes are disappearing, no longer there for those who really need them.

Water is increasingly becoming an endangered resource, both here in southern California and in many regions throughout the world. As clean water becomes more scarce, prices go up. For some, this is not a problem, as they can afford it. So they keep using and wasting water. But this raises the price even more, which makes the burden on the poor even harder to bear.

This is clearly a justice issue. That’s why scripture talks about stewardship so much. That’s why God is so concerned with how you spend your money and manage your resources. That’s why the ancient laws spoke of debt forgiveness and limitations of slavery and jubilee.

It is also an issue of happiness and wholeness. Having too much can be just as much a burden as having too little. In the stories Jesus told, it is the rich man who walks away sad. It is the rich man who cannot find his way into the kingdom of God.

Mahatma Gandhi said that “earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

The story of Job is real, but so is the story of Bōb. These stories are everyday realities in a fragmented world, a world where some have too much, and some have too little. But with God’s guidance, we can write a new story: a story of wholeness in a fragmented world.

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