Fifth Sunday of the Year
The presence of
the incarnate word
shines at the heart
of all creation.
Teilhard de Chardin sj
Some years ago, Stephen Fry said in an interview that God is ‘…an evil, capricious, monstrous maniac - a bastard for having invented cancer and insects that burrow into children’s eyes. Because God is the creator of everything and all-powerful, God should/could do something to change the situation’. Many people speak of 2023 as year that was challenging as they faced loss, illness, and anxiety. For many, hope seemed elusive. No doubt we all know what it feels to be broken-hearted and sometimes despairing. Jesus shows us a God, not a distant uncaring observer, but who listens and sees, and suffers alongside people, builds bridges and is close to the broken-hearted (Psalm). This God is not aligned with those in power, who abuse power, who make war on the innocent, and who build walls rather than bridges.
In the first reading, the so-called patient Job, is loudly protesting against his misery and demanding answers from God. Job laments his suffering and God’s silence, ‘Why me?’ and ‘How long?’ How can God ‘heal the brokenhearted’ when life takes an uncaring or terrifying turn especially when he believed he did not deserve punishment like losing his children, possessions, lands, and servants as he had done everything right. We hear more and more of the prevalence of loneliness among people. How lonely have the people of Gaza and the Occupied West Bank been for many decades?
Like many people, Job’s relationship with God was based on reward and punishment: goodness was rewarded, and evil always resulted in suffering and misfortune. His situation would have categorised him as an evildoer. This led to protests at God’s injustice until he shifted from the strict law-and-order relationship to an open-ended one. God simply listened. Though complaining to God, his complains were really directed at his friends who did not listen or share his grief as they tried to convince him that was being punished for some wrongdoing. Their stance hid God’s gracious love until he saw all was gift and that God does not engage in tit-for-tat relationship.
Our challenge is to show people who we are whose we are by our actions and care. We need to show people that we see them, that they matter, that their plight is not punishment, and that God is near through us. The challenge is to bring the face of God into the world of violence, indifference, police brutality, injustice and racism, poverty and food insecurity, poor educational systems. Again, Job’s struggle was not against the God of compassion who ‘heals the brokenhearted, but against the capricious God of his friends who gambles with peoples’ lives. God seemed distant because his friends were distant and did not share his pain and suffering. We can choose to give in to discouragement or take our cue from people who tended to the metaphorical ‘Lazarus at the gate’ by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and easing suffering in their respective neighbourhoods. Jesus’ clear mission was to announce God’s Reign in opposition to the forces which threaten to destroy human life. As we saw last week, his healings, exorcisms, defiance of Rome, his challenge to religious elites, his cleansing of the temple, and his death were to oppose whatever impedes human flourishing whether it was illness or occupation. Neither encourage human flourishing. Empire was not a condition that facilitated the fullness of human life as is happening before our eyes today. Empire was, and is, destructive. Jesus’ project was to overcome these realities. His healings were not just random acts of charity but integral to revealing God’s intention is human well-being and life, even in the face of death. Jesus came to heal the world, not only of its illness, but its unhealthy subjugation to empires. He came to exorcise the demonic lies that uphold oppressive systems. This is our challenge. Does the teaching, healing, and spiritual care that we offer the world succeed in challenging the corrupt foundation of the evils that prevail in our midst? Does it say not only what the kingdom is, but also show what it is opposed to?
Confronted with the question about God, Jesus responds through presence and action as do many people today by their compassionate and sympathetic presence with the overburdened. Jesus saw, and calls us to see, where people’s lives diminish before us through illness or social injustice. His country was occupied by a foreign power and corrupt leadership. The footprints of war and violence were all over his land as today in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Sudan, the Philippines, and Latin America. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, mystic, and political activist, has a plaque on her grave which reads, ‘My solitude held in its grasp the grief of others.’ Susan Sontag said Simone Weil had the courage to live a life that was agonisingly identical to her principles - principles based on alleviating the suffering of others.
Last week, Jesus healed a man in the synagogue. The demons were not in some back streets of neighbourhoods but in a holy place, the institution. This week he goes outside the institution and synagogue to the house of Peter’s mother-in-law where many people like her seek care. We must note the symbolism of Jesus leaving the synagogue to go where the people are and where there is need. In today’s gospel, Jesus reaches out to Peter’s mother-in-law and takes her hand. This activity embodied the message he preached. When people began to take his message seriously, it snowballed and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people believed that God's reign was at hand, the more they recognized it and spread it. Healing happens in a moment of intimate human connection through a profound expression of compassion, human touch, and helping one up to regain their place in the world. Healing is an action word because it suggests relationship where a person can resume his or her life, from whatever held them captive. Wherever we look, there is brokenness and division in our world that needs healing. Jesus’ interaction with this unnamed woman is a model of healing presence in the presence of brokenness. The point is that God heals the brokenhearted – through us?
Then having attended to local concerns, Jesus goes to the edges of town for prayer. His prayer is intimately connected with his actions. It was in the moments of solitude that Jesus saw the bigger picture, the wider world that God loves and embraces and deepened his awareness of God's peace, compassion, tenderness, and love for all. This is where God’s agenda became more focused – the healing of people and repairing the world through a culture of care where he became sensitised to the interconnectedness of all things and God’s wide mercy.
To look deeply in prayer was not/is not to be inactive or passive but to listen, as St Benedict said, 'with the ear of the heart'. We can either look away or obstruct true care as did Job’s friends with useless suggestions in the face of suffering, loss, dreams deferred or love, and joy. Listening to 'strangers' may be the most important thing we do – for ourselves and the world! Here we see the world with God’s eyes and become God’s heart in the world. Though many people see 2023 in negative terms, it was also a time of possibility and eye-opening. There lay our invitation and challenge as we looked in the face of suffering. So, in going apart, we can be sensitised in those moments apart, in silence and prayer, and go into the world with new vigour, stronger voices, and peace with justice, rather than succumb to the tyrannical silence that allows the innocent to suffer. So, to see the God Job seeks, let us look at the God present with and engaged with people in Jesus in today’s gospel. Mark leaves a lot out of his narrative. It seems that we need to fill in the blanks with our lives, our service and compassion, and we find that the hand of God is with those on the frontline of care
God of our present and our past,
Help us to remember how you have empowered people
to work for positive change in our world.
Grant us courage and a vision of the future
to affirm and defend the right to wholeness for all people.