I often wonder how people get through the hard times of their lives if they don’t have faith. We can all probably think of a time in our lives when we were sorely tested, when our lives were turned upside-down, and, looking back, we can’t figure out how we lived through it except for the grace of our faith. During the course of my priesthood, I have been present to a lot of people who were going through times like that: whether it be illness or death of a loved one, relationship struggles, job issues, or financial struggles, or a host of other maladies. Some of them had faith, and some who didn’t. It was always inspirational to see how people with faith lived through their hard times, and very sad to see how many who didn’t have faith just broken when their lives stopped going well.
That’s the experience that today’s Liturgy of the Word puts before us, I think. Let’s look at the context. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus has cured two people miraculously. He actually raised Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter from the dead, and he cured the hemorrhagic woman, who had been suffering for twelve years. So both stories had occurrences of the number twelve, reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Abraham, and later the Twelve Apostles, both of which signify the outreach of God’s presence into the whole world. So those two miraculous healings last week reminded us that Jesus was healing the whole world.
But this week, we see the exception. This week, Jesus is in his hometown, where he is unable to do much in the way of miracles except for a few minor healings. Why? Because the people lacked faith. And this is in stark contrast to last week’s healings where Jairus handed his daughter over to Jesus in faith, and the hemorrhagic woman had faith that just grasping on to the garments of Jesus would give her healing. Faith can be very healing, and a lack of it can be stifling, leading eventually to the destruction of life.
We see that clearly in the first two readings. First Ezekiel is told that the people he would be ministering to would not change, because they were obstinate. But at least they’d know a prophet had been among them. Contrast that with Saint Paul’s unyielding faith in the second reading to the Corinthian Church. Even though he begged the Lord three times to relieve him of whatever it was that was his thorn in the flesh, he would not stop believing in God’s goodness. Much has been said about what Saint Paul could possibly mean by this “thorn.” Was it an illness or infirmity? Was it a pattern of sin or at least a temptation that would not leave him alone? We don’t know for sure, but this “thorn” makes Saint Paul’s story all the more compelling for us who have to deal with our own “thorns” in our own lives. Saint Paul’s faith led him to be content with whatever weakness or hardship befell him, and he came to know that in his weakness, God could do more and thus make him stronger than he could be on his own. That assurance gives us hope of the same grace in our own struggles.
We people of faith will be tested sometimes; that’s when the rubber hits the road for our faith. Knowing of God’s providence, we can be sure that he will lead us to whatever is best. And our faith can help us to make sense of the struggles and know God’s presence in the dark places of our lives. People of faith are tested by the storms and tempests of the world, but are never abandoned by our God. Never abandoned.