Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Meaning of Suffering

My homily today was shortened a bit from the original. We had a letter to read from the bishop. So this is the homily as I actually preached it:

Today’s Gospel once again shows Jesus curing people and casting out demons. People were naturally amazed at his ability to alleviate suffering and flocked to him. He even had to get up real early in the morning just to have some time to himself. When the disciples find him, they say, “Everyone is looking for you.” And everyone probably was looking for him; how could they get enough of his miraculous healings?

Sometimes when I hear Gospel passages like that, I think, well, why doesn’t Jesus just heal everyone? Have you ever thought about that? This, I think gets to the heart of the matter for all of us: why is there suffering in the world? Why, especially, do good people, the innocent, and children have to suffer? It’s a question we all ask at one time or another.

This issue has been especially poignant for me this week. I talked to a friend from the parish where I did my pastoral internship two years ago. In catching up with the news from the place, she told me that one of the nuns that worked there, and the mother of another staff member had both been diagnosed with cancer in the last few weeks. This week in talking to my parents, I found out that one of our young friends, who himself has a large family, has serious cancer in a number of areas in his body. Another friend is undergoing some worrisome tests. And the father of one of my friends at the seminary had a serious stroke on Friday, and my friend had to sign a DNR order for him.

Why do people have to suffer?

Maybe it’s a question you’ve been asking recently. Maybe you have a friend or family member, or even more than one, on your mind right now. Maybe your heart is heavy as you sit here, listening to Jesus healing all the people in town. This can be a real hard Gospel for us to hear when we’re in that place.

In fact, I think if Job heard this Gospel, he might have lost his mind. If you’ve ever read the whole book of Job, you know that Job was a good and righteous man. He had a solid relationship with God, and was rewarded with a big family and many possessions. But Satan the accuser wanted to test him, so God allowed it. In an instant, Job’s possessions were all gone, all of his children killed in an accident, and he himself was afflicted with sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.

In the theology of the time, those who suffered were thought to be suffering because of something they or their ancestors had done. Suffering was simply a punishment for evil. But for Job it wasn’t that simple: he had done nothing wrong as far as he or anyone else could tell, so there didn’t seem to be a reason for the calamities that had befallen him. Today’s first reading from the book of Job, then, is the beginning of a Job’s prayer of complaint. He feels like there will be no end to his misery, and says: “I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me … Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Who hasn’t felt like Job at one time or another?

I think today’s Liturgy of the Word as a whole teaches us that we must have faith, even in the midst of suffering. Satan’s desire in afflicting Job with those misfortunes is that Job would “curse God and die.” In fact, those were the very words Satan put in the mouth of Job’s wife at one point in the story. But Job, even though he complained and lamented, still retained his faith in God’s mercy. And in today’s Gospel, Simon and Andrew have faith that Jesus will heal Simon’s mother-in-law, which he does. The people of the town have faith enough to gather and bring to Jesus all who were sick or possessed by demons. And Jesus responds to their faith. Even today’s responsorial psalm reflects that faith by extolling the mercies of God. It says of God, “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.”

We are called to that same faith when we suffer. Jesus tells us in another Gospel passage “In this world you will have troubles.” Suffering is inevitable in our life. But we have to remember that our God longs to see us through it, and that God will respond to our faith. The healing might not come all at once, right this minute, or even in the way we’d like to see it happen. But God sticks by us and will deliver us from evil, in his way, in his time. Suffering never makes sense, but I think it’s worse if we don’t have confidence in God’s mercy that comes from a faithful relationship with him.

Prayer can’t be our last resort, or the answers don’t make sense. So we have to be people of faith even in our suffering and pain. As we turn now to the Eucharist, let us offer the prayers of all those in our lives who are suffering in any way. As we come to receive the body of our Lord, let us receive his grace to strengthen us and heal us and bind up all our wounds. And even as we walk through the messiness of our pain, let us praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted.