What is our conception of suffering? Are we the type of Christians that don’t want to hear the word “suffer” or are we among those that endlessly ask: “How can we explain or justify the sufferings of man”? Why does God who is almighty and all-powerful not prevent suffering in this world? There is a mystery behind it, which the liturgy of today invites us to reflect on. In the first reading, Job saw his present suffering like a futile and discouraging work of a servant or a hired man.
He felt there was no hope anymore when he said, “Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hireling who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and night of misery are apportioned to me” (Job 7:2-4). Job described his physical condition in painful terms. His sufferings seem unending, which made him ask, “When shall I arise? The night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn” (v.6). Similarly, we are tempted to ask, why would bad things happen to good people and vice-versa? The answer to these questions seems elusive, hidden, unclear and out of reach.
With Job’s scenario, we will agree that suffering remains a puzzle. It will be unwise to pretend that we have complete answers to why God allows suffering, especially when it has to do with grave illness of loved ones or family members. Importantly, the book of Job was written to tell us that it is wrong to query God about his ways. The book is considered as one of the wisdom books; others include: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom and Songs of Songs.
These books ponder on great questions concerning human conditions/sufferings. It was written after the unspeakable sufferings of the Babylonian conquest and exile around 587-537 BC. It examined the people’s problems that transcend in history: such as bad things happening to good people and if the people can continue to serve God selflessly without any reward. This brought about ‘Theology of Retribution.’ This theology is from the book of Deuteronomy, otherwise known as the Doctrine of recompense in the Old Testament, which tells us that the good prospers and the wicked suffers, and that sickness or sufferings is as a result of sinfulness or disobedience of the Law (Deut. 30:16-18).
Proverbs 11:21 adds, “Be assured that the wicked will not go unpunished.” This theology is a simplistic interpretation of life’s events that makes assumptions about God’s intention and many Christians still hold unto this ideology or mentality till date, without good understanding of it. Can we say that the theology of retribution is wrong? It is true that, under Israel’s theocracy, God promised retribution upon the disobedient? Sometimes that retribution fell quickly (Numbers 11:33), and sometimes, not quickly (Psalm 35:17). However, God’s treatment of Israel under dispensation of the Law cannot be the basis of our theology in the dispensation of grace.
At the time of Job, this theology was justifiable by the Law, because Job’s Tradition knew nothing about the existence of heaven nor hell nor the fullness of grace. Job’s tradition holds that God reward the good and punish the evil here on earth (Prov. 11:21). With the emergence of Christ, Christianity have changed this tradition/theology and offered us a new meaning of suffering in the person of Christ and the choice of the cross. Therefore, from the first reading, we will understand the deprivation of Job from his family and friends. Even when his human friends failed him (with the mentality that Job was suffering from the evil he had done), he was assured that his Divine friend (His trust in God) will not fail him.
This Divine friend reflects in the Gospel account of today. The Divine friend that visited the mother-in-law of Peter. In the Gospel, Christ continues in his teaching and healing ministry. As a friend to his disciples, he knows very well the suffering of his people and so, he healed many who were sick with various diseases in Capernaum (not all) and cast out many demons. This is to teach us that his primary duty was to proclaim the good news, that sickness or suffering is not as a result of sinfulness, rather, for the glory of God to come to fulfilment.
In view of this, we remember the cure of the man born blind in John 9:2-3 when his disciples asked him, “Who sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The question of the disciples carries the belief of retribution, but in response, Christ said, “Neither he nor his parents sinned, he was born blind that the work of God might be revealed in him.” In the words of St. Augustine, “God permit certain evil in other to bring forth good.” In a nutshell, the readings of today reminds us of our daily struggles with the problems of life. Sometimes, in our sufferings just like Job and the mother-inlaw of Peter, it seems God is in grave silence or has absconded and we are tempted to ask various questions such as, where is God in the midst of all evils that surrounds us? Why me? What have I done wrong to deserve these sufferings or punishments? Why is there much suffering in the country?
Why will the wicked prosper and those making efforts to be faithful and obedient Christians do not? Why will evil people be blessed with life partners, children and even rewarded with good jobs or be more successful in their business when they deceive others and the virtuous ones are not? The response is always this, that the glory of God may be fulfilled in our lives and so, we are encouraged to be persistent and consistent in doing good. Let sufferings or problems of this life not undermine our intimacy with Christ. There is heavenly reward, which is our belief, it is our hope. St. Paul in the second reading speaks of the heavenly reward after his encounter with Christ. Before his encounter with Christ, he was spiritually sick and now, he can boldly say, “Woe to me if I don’t preach the Christ I have encountered” (1Cor. 9:17).
Christ is the gospel we are all called to preach. Dear friends in Christ, as we gradually approach the Lenten season, the liturgy of today reminds us that the cross, pains and sufferings are the means our Lord Jesus Christ used to redeem us. He could have used other means, but he chose precisely the cross. Since then, suffering has a new meaning different from Job’s tradition (theology of retribution), which can only be understood when it is united with Christ. So, in faith, let us unite our sufferings, pains and sickness with Christ. This way, our crosses or sufferings will become light. Happy Sunday!