The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
I don’t think most of us need to think real hard about what it means to suffer. We have all had, and will have, more than our share of it. Whether it’s the illness and even death of loved ones, or our own illnesses, or unemployment, underemployment, and difficulties at our job, or strife in our families, or any one of many other issues, we have all encountered suffering at some level, at some point in our lives. When we are going through it, it can be hard to find meaning in that suffering. Why would God let us suffer, or let our loved ones suffer, as they do, and not intervene? What purpose does our pain and sadness serve?
The reality of suffering is something of a mystery for us. Today we hear it in our first reading: Job, the innocent man, has been the victim of Satan’s testing: he has lost his family and riches, and has been afflicted physically. His friends have gathered around and given him all the stock answers as to why he is suffering: that he, or his ancestors, must have sinned and offended God, and so God allowed him to suffer in this way. But Job rejects that thinking, as we all should: it is offensive. Even if we accept that our sins have been great, this reduces God to a capricious child who throws away his toys when he tires of them.
That’s not Job’s God and it’s not our God either. And we still have that notion of suffering among us, I’m afraid. Many people think they are being punished by God because of their sins when they are suffering. And there is some logic to it: our sins do bring on sadness in this life. Sin does have consequences, and while these consequences are not God’s will for us, they are a result of our poor choices. But God does not penalize us in this way by willing our suffering.
In fact, God has such a distaste for our suffering, that he sent his only Son to come and redeem us. Jesus was one who suffered too, remember: being nailed to the cross, dying for our sins – but even before that, weeping with those who wept for loved ones, lamenting the hardness of heart of the children of Israel, being tempted by the devil in the desert, even understanding the hungry crowd and miraculously providing a meal for them out of five loaves and a couple of fish. Jesus felt our affliction and suffering personally, and never abandoned anyone engaged in it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is found healing. First Peter’s mother-in-law, and then those who came to him at sundown. In this reading, Jesus is a sign of God’s desire to deal with suffering. We do not deny the presence of suffering and the tragic in our lives, in fact, we do what we can to overcome it. But while Jesus deals with suffering and cures illnesses in these stories, he doesn’t eliminate all pain from the world. In the same way, somehow, we deal with the suffering that presents itself to us, and its causes as we can, and are left with the awesome mystery of what remains.
But the key here is that our God is with us in our suffering, and so we are called to be there for others who are suffering. Indeed, we are partners with them in their suffering. That’s how this always works. When we pray, we open the door for our God to walk with us through suffering. If it’s his will that we be cured or the situation would change, that will happen, but whatever happens, we are not alone in it. And when others suffer, we are the hands and feet and voice of Jesus as he walks with them in their pain.
This weekend we kick off our annual diocesan Catholic Ministries Annual Appeal which funds the various ministries of the diocese of Joliet. We at Saint Mary’s depend on these ministries to help us: educating seminarians like Andrew, our new intern, and our weekend seminarian Matthew; and supporting the efforts of our school and religious education program. In addition, through the efforts of Catholic Charities, housing is provided for those who are in need, and meals are served to the hungry. We are blessed that we can come together as a diocese to provide these services, all for the Glory of God.
We can’t make all of the suffering in the whole world go away. But we can do the little things that make others’ suffering a little less, helping them to know the healing presence of Christ, together.