What a great contrast there is that exists between Job who tells us that our life on earth is a pitiful drudgery, in which he will never see happiness again, compared to the words we hear in Psalm 147 that tell us the Lord heals the brokenhearted and rebuilds and gathers. There are a number of different directions that we could go with this Sunday’s readings, but what stands out to me is that Job sets the tone for everything else that follows by first stating the problem of suffering in the world. First we recognize the problem, then we look to solutions.
I was once invited a number of years ago to contribute on a regular basis to a journal that dealt primarily with suffering. I declined at the time, mostly because I had too many other things going on then, though the idea didn’t really hold a lot of appeal. However, I also have to wonder whether if somewhere in my subconscious mind I had a fear of synchronicity somehow manifesting suffering in my own life. After all, suffering is something to which almost all of us who are adults can relate to some degree. Suffering is real in our world. In retrospect I probably should have addressed the issue and contributed a few articles.
Theologians have long attempted to answer how it is that evil can exist in the world alongside the presence of an all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving God. The same question can be asked about suffering, but I believe it’s much more fruitful to ask, rather than why God can allow it, what we can do about it, and certainly in my mind the wrong answer here is that we would be stoic and simply accept it as such. A true assessment of an existential experience is one that demands human response.
So we have a good example to consider. In the readings both Job and St. Paul refer to themselves as slaves. The Job reading probably comes closer to the meaning of slave that likely comes to our minds in the United States with our history of slavery, a history that also demands a response from us in how we engage others, especially those who are the descendants of slaves. It speaks of our willingness to make reparations and to rebuild what has been broken. The response we make reveals a great deal about us and about how truly willing we are to see the suffering Christ in our midst.
It’s in a different way that St. Paul uses the image of slavery. For him slavery is more akin to servitude, of being in service to another. We see this somewhat in the gospel today where Simon’s mother-in-law got up and served immediately after being healed. While St. Paul’s servitude lacks the element of suffering, at least as he presents it in the Corinthians reading, it still promotes solidarity with others. It’s where we get ideas like servant-leadership, or even we who are in the order of deacons as seeing our ministry as being servants, bearing in mind that diakonia is service. However, St. Paul does frame his role as one that is obligatory and one where he lacks complete freedom. He says it’s been imposed upon him. I think of this as being akin to the idea moral duty.
Where I’d to take this is to impart that Christian ethics imposes an obligation, a responsibility, on each of us. I know these are strong words, but it’s not my intention to paint an either/or, a heaven or hell choice, but we can take the obligation and keep on being Christians, or we can reject it and be something else despite what we call ourselves. The responsibility, the obligation or duty incumbent upon us is to our fellow human beings. Specifically we have a sacred duty to those who suffer in this world. We bear in mind the plight of migrant workers, immigrants, the undocumented, the poor and economically distressed among us. We bear in mind also the basic human right to healthcare and those who suffer because they have none or cannot afford it.
This brings us to Jesus in the gospel today who we see clearly as a healer. He reaches out not only to those who are sick physically but reaches to those who suffer in ways that were understood in the ancient world as having to do with possession. I’m of the opinion that Jesus took his responsibility to reach to those who suffered mentally as well as physically. Once at my former parish I used these readings to talk about healthcare as a human right. It wasn’t a popular homily. It actually got me a letter of complaint written. Perhaps people perceived something political in my message, though that wasn’t actually the intent. Still, I stand by what I said then and I say it now. Healthcare is a basic human right regardless of an individual’s capacity to pay for it.
Suffering in our world today is not confined to physical and mental illness. It includes all the ills that we might find in society, especially social ills like the sin of racism or of hate directed at others, such as LGBTQ people, because of who they are or how they define themselves.
What we have is a message to humanity telling us that rather than ask why there is suffering, our role is to alleviate suffering ourselves wherever we may find it by acting concretely and standing with those who suffer. The lesson for us today is about our personal responsibility in the world. The true mark of maturity is to begin to see that we are not alone, but that we bear responsibility for the other, always accompanying one another, we bear each other’s joys and pains. In that sojourning we ask how can I make this world a better place for you.