Wednesday, February 15, 2012

12-02-05: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Job 7:1-4,6-7 / Psalm 147 / 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23 / Mark 1:29-39

Who said Jesus didn’t play favorites? Here he is in today’s gospel curing Peter’s mother-in-law so she can get up and go back to serving her guests – Jesus included. The gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus healing and curing, relieving the sufferings of those in dire straits. But he obviously didn’t get around to healing and curing everyone. Suffering and pain continued then, as it does now, to be a part of everyday life, though we should be inordinately grateful to those who have fomented tremendous relief of suffering through medical technology and pharmacology (having endured the torture of a kidney stone until morphine was administered has made me a committed proponent in the use of opiates to relieve suffering).

Suffering, and what we make of it, has always been a dilemma. But it’s especially a problem for us who say we believe in a singular God who claims to be good. For the ancient polytheist, suffering and evil could be ascribed to the one or more gods, among many, who ruled the dark side of reality. But for the monotheist, who insists that the one God is also a good God, the problem of suffering is seemingly insurmountable. C.S. Lewis once remarked, after he saw his wife dying in agony from cancer, that he had no difficulty believing that there was a God, but he had tremendous difficulty in believing that that God was indeed good.

Most scholars think the Book of Job was written some 2500 years ago. Yet Job himself seems thoroughly modern, or better, postmodern. Like us, Job doesn’t know what to make of suffering. And like us, he doesn’t know what to make of life without it. In a recent book by Jonathan Weiner, Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality, the author interviews a leading scientist who claims that science will soon be able to increase our life span, not by a few years, but by hundreds of years, enabling us to live a thousand years without pain. The reaction of most people to this promise was simply: Why would you want to? The prospect of living a thousand years might make us echo Job’s words: “Isn’t life a drudgery?” It’s sort of like the reaction to the Islamicist claim that suicide terrorists (martyrs for the cause) will be rewarded with 72 virgins when they gain heaven for their sacrifice. When weighed against eternity, even 72 virgins aren’t all that enticing; at a certain point boredom becomes the worst suffering. But it’s Job’s wife who is the most postmodern of all. When she sees Job’s suffering only increase with no end in sight, she tells him “curse God and die.” In other words, take the extra dose of morphine and be done with it.

Some Christians, mainly of the evangelical stripe, see suffering as inflicted by God in response to our sinfulness. When confronted with the problem of the suffering of innocents, their response is that there simply are no innocents – everyone’s guilty of something to one degree or other. We saw this response after the attacks on 9/11 when the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell pronounced that Americans invoked God’s wrath because of our permissive society – abortion and homosexuality being the catalysts. Even Mother Teresa fell prey to this cognitive dissonance when she pronounced in the early 80’s that AIDS was a punishment from God for immoral behavior. These types of “explanations” for suffering seem utterly inadequate when confronted with the fact that not all victims of AIDS have found themselves there by choice; and not all the victims of the 9/11 attacks had an abortion or were gay (some still insist that it could be possible that they voted for someone who might have been in favor of both). Their God seems especially capricious, not only permitting such things to happen, but deliberately causing them to happen in order to make a point.

The more nuanced Christian response is to believe that meaning can be found in suffering. Like Christ, one can offer one’s suffering for others as a redemptive suffering. Yet the gospels are filled with Jesus relieving suffering. If suffering were always redemptive, shouldn’t Jesus have let those who were suffering continue to suffer so they might be redeemed? But he doesn’t. He is continually healing, curing, relieving pain and suffering. This gives me, coward than I am, a bit of hope that not all of us are called to endure our sufferings without limit, be it nobly or not. I’d gladly take the “mother-in-law option” and happily serve the guests - rather than endure the alternative.

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