Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 7, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

Shakespeare’s character Edmund in King Lear says, “when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by enforced obedience of planetary influence.”

The Book of Job was written to dissuade the chosen and called people of Israel from such easy solutions to the problem of human suffering and evil. The common opinion was that those who believed in God would not suffer but be rewarded with happiness and prosperity and that those who sinned against God would be punished with calamity. Job’s example ultimately disproves this opinion; the teaching, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus provides us with the full answer for the meaning of evil and answer to suffering and its relation to sin if we are willing to accept it: the Cross. 

In the first reading, Job announces that human life is not a joy but drudgery, like the life of a day-laborer or a slave. There is no guarantee that those who are just, noble, and good will be happy, or that those who are unjust and evil will not. Choosing to be faithful and loving does not automatically bring us pleasure and contentment. In fact, it sometimes is accompanied by the opposite. There is a corporate dimension of suffering because of the effects of sin. Part of the effects of the original sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden is that members of the human race have disproportionate shares in the good of happiness and in the evil of suffering. Yet, the whole of humanity corporately shares in the accountability for original sin.

We struggle as Catholics in our nation with accepting a corporate understanding of sin because we struggle with a corporate understanding of responsibility. If we rely on our autonomy and do not turn to God for His grace in these struggles, we will lose not only our corporate understanding but also our corporate share in the redemption of our sins by Christ. Jesus has chosen to save us through baptism into His Church, not simply as individuals with private experiences of spirituality.

Job’s friends assess his situation as if he has individually sinned and thus, they conclude that he is being individually punished. There is a certain grandiosity attached to this approach of Job’s friends — the type of grandiose thinking that is the effect of original sin. The grandiosity that even tempts Job to see his suffering, as immense as it is, as something so unique as to be unrelatable to others and isolating and estranging from God.

Yet, Job takes these concerns to God in conversation that we can only consider to be prayer. In Job’s conversations with God, he comes to an understanding for the corporate share in the effects of evil and the power of God to carry him through this suffering. The presence and attention of God far exceeds the passing happiness of this world and Job grows to trust God. In trusting God because He is God and not simply because God gives Job what he wants. Job comes to realize that he is not responsible individually for the suffering he undergoes, and in trusting God, Job comes to realize that he shares in the corporate responsibility for sin and evil as well as in God’s healing and redemption. It is trust in God that enables Job to persevere through his suffering, this trust is itself a mercy from God.

Jesus does not treat sickness and evil with grandiosity nor does he treat sin that way. Sin is not that interesting, nor does it make us unique. Sin is tedious. Jesus last week exorcised the demoniac and they all demanded that Jesus leave Gerasa. Jesus did leave but He commanded the liberated man to stay. This week, Jesus leaves Capernaum after He has healed many people and expelled many demons, and everyone wants Him to stay. In both instances, Gerasa and Capernaum, Jesus departs each town and so perseveres faithfully to His Father’s will and the completion of the mission given to Him by His Father. Jesus is moved with compassion for those who suffer from the effects of sin, but He is not impressed by the devil’s pomp nor is He awed by the power of infirmity as we too frequently find ourselves to be. 

Likewise, after His Ascension and after the imparting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus entrusts the fulfillment of His mission of the salvation of souls to the entire Church as led by Him and guided by the Holy Spirit through the human instrumentality of the Apostles including Saint Paul. Saint Paul suffers greatly because of this call, but he has been liberated from the grandiosity of slavery to the law and sin by the freedom of discipleship and grace won for him by Christ. Unlike Job, it is because of the sufferings of Christ that Paul can make sense of his suffering and become humble and truly free of the grandiosity of his past life as a persecutor of Christ and His Church. Paul does not separate the authority of Jesus’ teaching from His power to expel demons and heal the sick — as the people of Gerasa and Capernaum attempt to do. The people of Gerasa and of Capernaum are impressed by Jesus’ power but are not fully interested in the authority of His teaching.

Jesus is not just a guard dog that protects us, nor a lap dog that entertains us. He is the triumphant Lion of Judah. Jesus is a man with a mission to complete. His mission is to clear the way for the living God by freeing the way from all idolatry — including the idolatry of “do it yourself” spirituality. If Saint Paul does not preach this Gospel, he will suffer woe and a deeper misery than any infirmity. Jesus speaks to Paul and He speaks to us as if to say, “Fight by my side.” Christ invites us to share in His suffering that we too might share in His victory and share in His glory.

To accept our call and to respond to Christ who gave it, means that we must accept everything about it including the fullness of the truth of His Gospel taught faithfully by the Church and not simply the affirming warmth of a spiritual experience. To truly be healed and converted means that we cannot follow the ethics of today that refuse accountability and claims to be “spiritual but not religious.” The Gerasene demoniac suffered from such an ethic until he encountered Christ.

Christ’s mission is two-fold. The mission of service derives from the primary mission of salvation. Service offers us tangible, visible reminders of the invisible yet manifest spiritual work that God wants to do in each soul and in all of creation. Our privilege and obligation as Christians require us to share in that mission of service that testifies to Christ’s mission of salvation.

Today we see how Jesus responds to human suffering. This is what the authority of Jesus does for us — it raises us up in the truth so that we can become people of compassion and service to our neighbor. Christ’s power to forgive our sins authoritatively and to free us from the power of false gods and demons does not give us a liberty to do whatever we please, nor to be indifferent to others. His authority and power to forgive free us for witness and service to our neighbor thereby fostering authentic communion that is the corporate experience of redemption from sin. This was experienced by Peter’s mother-in-law, and the life of the Apostle, Saint Paul, exemplifies it too. Jesus’ power and grace in our lives is effective, that is, if we are willing to recognize and accept it in communion with the Church. As the Church on Sundays at Mass, we pray in communion for that willingness.

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