Reflections for Fifth Sunday
Stephen Fry, in an interview, said, if he met God, would ‘call God 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’. It also seems that this God is more aligned with those who are in power, abuse power, make war on the innocent and are judgemental rather than the God who is close to the broken-hearted (responsorial psalm).
For four years a braggart (in the USA) told us “Look how great I am” is now lamenting how unfair things are with claims of having been cheated out of the presidency particularly as he was such a genius. Like those in power just mentioned, we saw little concern for climate change, for the poor people in need of health care during a pandemic, people needing security but facing a wall at the border, or for the dignity of women and LGBTI+ people. In Jesus shows us a God who is not a distant uncaring observer but who suffers alongside people. That was even expressed in the way that laws that did not serve people were not obeyed as in Jesus’ first public act the transgression of Sabbath law.
Just over a year ago Australia had its first reported Covid-19 case. The world has alternated between lockdowns and glimpses of freedom with wearing masks and keeping respectful spaces. There have been numerous complaints about the misery, the drudgery, the boredom and restlessness people had to endure. There were also many powerful examples of ‘helpers’ along the way.
Job, often associated with patience, was actually loud in his protests against his misery and demanding of answers from God. At the ‘pity party’, Job laments his suffering and God’s silence, “Why me?” and “How long?” He believed he had done everything right and did not deserve to lose his children, possessions, lands, and servants. Job is not afraid to complain about his situation. He struggles to believe that God ‘heals the brokenhearted’ when life takes an uncaring or terrifying turn. Similar sentiments were heard when I was involved with people living HIV/AIDS in the 1980-1990 or people living with any kind of addiction. More serious were the judgments against these people! Like many people Job had a relationship with God based on reward and punishment: goodness was rewarded and suffering and misfortune for evil. This perspective put Job in the category of evil-doer which he knew was not the case. Hence, his protests and accusations at God’s injustice until there is a shift from the strict law-and-order relationship to one that was open-ended. God simply listened and later reminded Job who he was indicting. It emerges that Job was really complaining against his so-called friends who did not listen or share his grief by making shallow explanations about the cause of Job’s plight. Rather than listening to him they tried to convince him that he must be at fault. That his misery was a punishment by God for some wrongdoing. Only after encountering God's gracious love that realised that all was gift. His life whether easy or difficult was given as gift and he had the power to decide how he would spend it. It was a move away from a sense of entitlement. This God does not engage in a tit-for-tat relationship with us even though many people see things this way. Unfortunately, when all is well, people can feel comfortable and become indifferent to the so-called “least” in society or hate those not like them.
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. The challenge is to bring the face of God into the world during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the pandemic of violence, the pandemic of police brutality, the pandemic of injustice and racism, the pandemic of poverty and food insecurity, the pandemic of poor educational systems? 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. Today they express solidarity as they sit with asylum seekers on hunger strike (Manus Island) to express solidarity.
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 he friends were distant and did not share his pain and suffering.
Confronted with the question about God, Jesus responds through action as have 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 Syria, Yemen, Palestine, 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. This week he goes beyond the realm of the institution and synagogue practices to the house of Peter’s mother-in-law where she and many people seek care. We must note the symbolism of Jesus leaving the synagogue to go where the people are and where there is need. Then having attended to local concerns, Jesus goes to the edges of town for prayer. It was during 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 to be inactive but to listen. St Benedict speaks of listening 'with the ear of the heart.' We can either look away or obstruct true care as did Job’s friends with useful suggestions in the face of suffering, loss, dreams deferred or love, and joy. But God speaks to us through these. Listening to 'strangers' may be the most important thing we do – for ourselves and the world! Here else can we see the world with God’s eyes and become God’s heart in the world. Though many people see 2020 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, how the elderly languished, the abandonment of asylum seekers, ongoing neglect of our First Nations people for sovereignty, and divisive patriotism. We were also able to see the bigheartedness and generosity of individuals and small businesses that provided for carers and nurses despite financial losses. So in going apart, we can be sensitised to this in those moments apart, in silence and prayer, and go into the world with new vigour, stronger voices, or we can succumb to the kind of silence that is tyrannical: where the innocent is allowed 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.
Before Mark has referred to the ideal of radical service or even models it, we see a woman who serves. Frustratingly, Mark does not bother to tell us the rest of the story. It is as if we need to fill in the blanks with our lives, our service and compassion. Peter’s unnamed mother-in-law is an unlikely icon. We only know that Jesus touched her. She was not healed to serve the men but to minister (like a deacon) to Jesus who first took her hand and ministered to her. And this at the beginning of this Gospel. The four followers with Jesus now become five!! (Megan McKenna On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross) In one verse we get the heart of the story.