Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year B

Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39

 Theme:  The Mystery of Human Suffering

Human suffering, is one of the greatest mysteries of life. It is difficult to reconcile the terrible sufferings many people have to endure with the existence of a good and all-powerful God.  The book of Job, from which our first reading is taken, presents this issue very dramatically.  Written about 700 years before Christ, it tells us the story a just man, Job, who suffers a frightful string of calamities. Having lost everything and everyone dearest to him, he is left to bemoan his sad plight in words surely find an echo in our own hearts: ‘Is not our life on earth no better than hired service, our time no better than hired drudgery?’ (Job 7:1).

In the midst of his anguish, Job is visited by three friends. When they first arrive they say nothing. They just sit in silence on the ground beside him for seven days and seven nights. They have no words to assuage Job’s grief. In the face of unspeakable sorrow, silent accompaniment is perhaps the only and best response we can give. Eventually, however, Job’s friends do speak, but their words, though well intentioned, only serve to heighten Job’s anguish. Believing that his sufferings are a punishment from God for some wrong he has done, they try to convince him to repent and throw himself on the mercy of the Almighty. Job, however, continues to profess his innocence. Finally, after many days pouring out his grief and anger,  Job is granted an audience with God. And God does indeed stand by his claim to be innocent of any wrongdoing, but without offering an explanation for the shocking calamities he has had to endure.  He just tells Job that there is no way he (Job) could understand things from God’s perspective. He is left with no option but continue to place his trust in God without needing to understand his ways.

Jesus echoes the teaching of the Book of Job in rejecting the view, commonly held by his contemporaries. that human suffering is a punishment for sin.  (cf. Lk 13:1-5). But he goes well beyond this teaching in portraying a God who is more compassionate and loving than the austere God of Job. While Jesus does not explain the mystery of human suffering, his words and actions manifest a God who is profoundly moved by human suffering and responds to it with love ‘beyond all telling’. Jesus reveals a God, who, in the words of today’s responsorial psalm ‘heals the broken hearted and binds up all their wounds’. As today’s gospel clearly shows, Jesus went out of his way to heal all kinds of suffering, physical and mental. He is the lived embodiment of the divine response to human suffering, sowing seeds of hope where he finds despair, restoring broken relationships, and drawing life from the teeth of death.

Jesus came on earth to bring people into the life-giving stream of God’s love: I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn 10:10). At the very heart of his ministry is a concern for the integral well-being of human beings. From the life of Jesus, it is clear that God wants us to be healed and to be fully alive at all levels of our being: spiritual, pyschological and physical as well as social and political. Nevertheless, Jesus did not eliminate all suffering. What he did, finally, was to enter the depths of human suffering himself. His identification with suffering humanity reached its climax ón the Cross, where he uttered that heart-rending cry of utter desolation to his Father: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46). And his Father did not forsake him but brought him through the portals of death to the fullness of resurrected life. The God revealed in the life and death of Jesus is not the distant and austere God of Job, but a God who assumes our weakness and pain and transforms it through the power of his love. And, by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus shows that God’s suffering love is ultimately victorious.

When suffering touches us personally, and none of us can escape suffering at some stage in our lives, it can be an overwhelming experience, shattering our self-confidence and even our faith in God. Pope Francis states that personal suffering confronts us with a choice. We can allow it  ‘to lead us into self-doubt to the point of despair, or we can embrace it as an opportunity for growth and discernment about what really matters in life.’  The English poet, John Keats, who experienced great suffering in his life and died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five.  wrote, ‘The world is the vale of soul-making’. For Keats, suffering is an integral part of this soul-making, helping us to become the person God wants us to be. This does not mean, however, that we should be passive, or merely stoical, in the face of suffering. As disciples of Jesus, we are also called to imitate his example and, in the midst of our own doubts, fears, and sufferings, to reach out to others with loving care. In the words of Pope Francis, we are called ‘to imitate God’s style of closeness, compassion and tenderness…, to be close to those in pain and to do what is possible to alleviate it, or at least let them know they are not alone.’

Fr Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below. 

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