5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gospel – Mark 1: 29-39

“Suffering . . . Meaning, Mystery, Answer ”
 
Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 8 February 2015

In today’s Gospel that we just heard, Jesus cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who had fever.  He then cured great crowds of people who were brought to Him: He cast out many devils, cured those suffering from diseases of one kind or another . . . Jesus not only proclaimed the Good News of Salvation; He also revealed that the Good News is about a God whose Love is Compassionate.

Perhaps, it is appropriate for us to reflect on the theme of “human suffering” in the light of Jesus’ Compassionate Love for us.  Job in today’s First Reading tormented by the tragedies of his sufferings. He cries out in anguish, “Like a slave, sighing for the shade, or workman with no thoughts but his wages, months of delusions I have assigned to me, nothing for my own but nights of grief . . . my eyes will never again see joy.”

Fr Dasan’s reflection on suffering (which I will adapt) says, “When I hear somebody sighs, “Life is hard,” I am always tempted to ask, “Compared to what?  We see marriages on the rocks, neighbours having nervous breakdowns, teenagers at odds with their parents, crime, violence and destruction in cities all round the world.  Moreover, at the end of the Second World War, Rabbi Rubenstein, in having to face the reality that 6 million of his fellow Jews were brutally murdered because they were considered as useless parasites by Hitler, he came to the conclusion that there is no God!

        

My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we reflect on such intense and widespread evil in the human world and see how daily thousands of innocent lives are being lost through so many different forms of evil in this world through terrorism, religious extremists, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and the like; and when we then reflect on the lives of people we know and our own lives of suffering, illness and death of our loved ones too, there is a great temptation to lose hope in life like Job, and also lose hope in the world and even in God like Rabbi Rubenstein.

Yet, in all of these, let us also remember very clearly that to blame God for the sufferings in the world is clearly not the answer.  In Fr Dasan’s reflection on suffering, he add, “Wars were started by human beings; food shortages are deliberately caused to keep the world prices up, and millions are abused, exploited and manipulated by their own fellow human beings.  However, we may still want to ask the basic question, “But, why does God permit evil?”

               

My sisters and brothers in Christ, when we are confronted with this question, we are also confronted with both a truth and a mystery.  The truth is that God has given every human person the gift of human freedom to be used responsibly and for the good of each other; and not for destruction.  The mystery we are faced with is the question, “Why does Jesus Himself have to endure the horrifying suffering and death on the Cross?  This is a mystery we have no answer to.  “Human suffering is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived and embraced.”  Yes, while it is true that you and I do not wish to suffer unnecessarily, there is a deeper truth and reality that we have to face and embrace.

There is a story of a physical therapist, Loretta who shares that in serving the sick and those who are suffering, she gets more than she gives; those who are suffering teaches her more of what faith in God means when she cares for them.  One of these patients was a sickly and dying poor black woman.  Let us call her Sheila.  Sheila never complained about anything, even though she had suffered much in her life.

In fact, Sheila looks at her life as a “blessing: no matter how hard she worked, how much prejudice she was subjected to, how much loss she endured, she has never given in to depression because in spite of her great sufferings, she continued to trust that God’s Love for her is absolute and God will never abandon her.  Loretta was always deeply touched by Sheila’s faith in God and in her wisdom and grace always to see the good side of things.  One day Loretta asked her, what is faith in God means to you?  Sheila replied, “Honey, faith means if you pray for rain, bring an umbrella!  And if you pray for sun, wear sunglasses!”My brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps, another point for our reflection on the meaning and mystery of suffering is that while we are people of faith, our faith in God is not always able to deepen as it should because you and I are often impatient with God.  Take a simple example in our life.  When we are caught in a serious traffic jam or when the train we are on is malfunctioning and stalled for repairs, some of us will wait patiently, others may get nervous and twirl their thumbs, while still others may become angry at the lost of time.  God chooses many creative ways to get our attention and for many of us in His Wisdom He wants us to “wait” on Him to decide what He thinks is best for us in all the situations of our lives.

Admittedly, the “waiting” can be too painful and the pain can be too overwhelming to bear.  By all means, we may bring our woes and complaints to God and express our deepest pain and longings with Him as Job did in our First Reading.  However, the background to Job is that he was a wealthy man who lived in a large house with much land.  He had seven sons and three daughters.  He had thousands and thousands of oxen, sheep and camels and every one of his children had a country home.

           

However, the Sabeans came in and took his oxen; the Chaldeans came and stole his camels.  Lightning struck his sheep; lightning struck the house of his eldest son, and he was killed.  Then Job finally developed some ailment which covered him with sores from head to foot.  How many of us in a similar situation would be strong enough to hold on to our faith and still believe in a God of love?  How many of us would go into depression and give up on God?  Job’s wife urged Job to “Curse God and die.”  No, Job, my brothers and sisters response was, “the Lord gave and the Lord takes away; ‘praise be the Lord.”  In a similar way, Sheila, the black woman too had similar faith in God.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us remember that suffering is not a problem that can be solved.  Instead, it is a mystery to be lived and embraced.  Our answer to suffering is found in the person of Jesus.  In today’s Gospel, we see that Jesus does not want any of us to suffer unnecessarily; He did all He could to cure all the illnesses of the great crowd.  He felt deep compassion for their suffering, yet His deepest concerned was not so much that they were cured physically, for we cannot live for ever in this world; we have to die one day; and our true home is our eternal home with God in heaven.

               

Jesus suffered much and eventually died a cruel and shameful death on the Cross as a criminal.  But, He continued to accept His suffering because there is a Truth that is beyond the pains and suffering; there is victory and glory in the resurrection.  Job and Sheila suffered much, yet they continued to hold on to their faith that God has not abandoned them; that in Christ there will be peace and joy in God’s Providence.

As Jesus was deeply moved to heal the sick and alleviate their pain and suffering, in today’s and throughout the Gospel, we are likewise called to be Jesus’ channel of such healing graces, peace and joy. . . To do all these Jesus rose long before dawn to pray in a lonely place; He needed to renew His deep union with His Father, in the Spirit.  You and I too are called to be persons of prayer.  We need to get in touch with the depth of the divine Truth and Wisdom of Jesus that lie deep in our hearts.

          

We need to connect with Jesus and deepen our personal relationship with Him.  This is the secret of all Christian spirituality.  Jesus is the source of all strength and the true hope in all the sufferings of life as for Job and Sheila. When we are able to develop a personal relationship with Jesus . . . we will not only be able to perceive and embrace the mystery of suffering, but like Job, Sheila we will also be able to bring the Christ-like divine hope to people whom we know are suffering and to our world of suffering.  God is far from dead . . . when there is suffering . . . God is fully alive in the midst of suffering . . . Let us embrace this mystery and learn from Jesus in our personal prayer.

(cf: Adapated from: Shaken Faith, Hanging in There when God seems Far Away, by Antoinette Bosco, Twenty-Third Pub: A Division of Bayard; 1989: pp.83-84.)
(cf: Life is Worth Living, by Fulton Sheen; Pub: Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1999: pg.135). (cf. Adapted from: His Word Lives; Pub: St Pauls: Bandra, Mumbai, 1999: pp.254-255.)

Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.

                                  

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