"Do not human beings have a hard service on earth, and are not their days like the days of a laborer? Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like laborers who look for their wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me. When I lie down I say, 'When shall I rise?' But the night is long, and I am full of tossing until dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end without hope. "Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good.
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law-though not being myself under the law-that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law – not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ-that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
The story of Job is a like a roller-coaster: He has made it big — happy home, prosperous landowner, and he's a regular religious observer. The Lord even boasts about him to Satan — what a virtuous man Job is — but Satan says that Job's prayers might stop if his prosperity suddenly failed. So the Lord reluctantly lets Satan do his worst, and poor Job doesn't know what hit him. He speaks about the misery and emptiness of life. When some friends of his come along, offering religious comfort, it doesn't seem to help poor Job.
We're far removed from Job in time, but not so far from his experience. The human condition remains subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Hamlet goes on to name various things that make calamity of so long life. "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office and the scorn that patient merit of the unworthy takes?" Only a total hermit could avoid seeing the pain and misery around us. We see the marriages heading for the rocks, people with nervous breakdowns, teenagers at odds with their parents, the threat of vandalism and violence in our cities. At times it seems that the world in which we live is full of immorality, injustice, exploitation, and hypocrisy for its systems to operate. It leads some clever people like Stephen Fry to call God a sadist. We can repeat, maybe with less polish, most of the sentiments that Job speaks in the first reading.
What might a Christian have to say to Job – or to people who think like Stephen Fry? What can we say to the many brothers and sisters of Job who live in this world? There is no easy catechism answer to take away the pain they find in living? Maybe in dire situations it is not our task to speak, but to listen. The cry of emptiness, loneliness, despair, and pain may not be the most profound insight into life, but the cry is real, and honest, and strong. In a way, that cry is part of the Christian message; we even find it in the Saviour's mouth on Good Friday. That cry today is part of the Word spoken now, and it demands response.
What is our response to persons in pain? To some extent, we can see that response at work in the Gospel passage: the sick come to Jesus, and he heals them. He does not debate the meaning of suffering — he stretches out his hand and heals. Our first reaction is to think that here we cannot be imitators of Christ. But that is only true if we take the miracles of Jesus in a narrow sense. We cannot make illness go away with a simple action, as Christ could. But we can respond, and we can help to ease the suffering. We can let Christ himself act in us to fill the loneliness, care for the sick, to be with the fearful and the heartbroken.
Today's Scripture challenges us to listen and to share. We are to follow Jesus not only in our happy times but also in times of loneliness, and even of tragedy. Like him we seek ways to reach out with love toward people who are worried, sick or depressed — to let the Lord use us to bless those situations somehow. Then when he calls us to himself — he will hasvelet us be his eyes, his smile, his ears, and his hands, quietly at work in the world.
There is some debate about whether the people Jesus healed were demon-possessed or just mentally disturbed. That debate misses the main point, that these individuals were deeply troubled and Jesus healed them. His intent was to heal people both in body and soul. Most scripture scholars now agree that miracles were an important part of Our Lord's ministry and of the memory of that ministry in the early church. We simply cannot abandon them to placate the sceptics who say miracles are impossible. The precise explanation of how these healings were accomplished is another matter and perhaps one that is also besides the point. Jesus did not work miracles to prove anything. Rather they were signs that God's healing love is at work in the world.
A group of doctors were discussing whether prayer helped their patients. "Does it do any good," one asked, "for people to pray for those who are sick?" Another said "Well, it helps those who pray to feel that they're doing something for the sick person. But it really doesn't help the sick person at all." A few had the impression that prayer really had a positive effect on sick people. The others said it was scientifically impossible. So they decided to try a double-blind experiment on those who were recover from heart problems. They would have prayers said for some and not for the others to see what happened. The doctors didn't know who was chosen to be prayed for but a list of first-names were given to those who were to do the praying. Neither the "pray-ers" nor the "pray-ees" nor the researchers knew who had been chosen to be prayed for. Apparently, those for whom prayers were said recovered more quickly. But it's an argument that still goes on.
The Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis set out to give a rational explanation for the Christian vision of life. In 1940 he wrote on The Problem of Pain which revolved around the problem of suffering. Twenty one years, in 1961, he wrote a very different book, called, A Grief Observed detailing the reflections of a man whose beloved wife has died, slowly and painfully, from cancer. The book vividly describes his own reactions, as a man of faith, to his wife's death. His rational faith fell to pieces when confronted with suffering of a devastatingly personal kind. He writes at one point, 'Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.' The name of the wife was Joy. Lewis had earlier written a book called Surprised by Joy, about the impact that meeting her had on his life. A Grief Observed was widely admired for its authentic account of the impact of bereavement. Even though his rational, cerebral faith took something of a battering because of Joy's death, Lewis did not lose his faith. Through the darkness of this experience he even claims to have come to love his wife more truly. God had helped him realise that because the love he and his wife had for each other had reached its earthly limit, it was ready for its heavenly fulfilment.
Faith has to come to terms with the cross and it is at the foot of the cross that faith is purified and deepened. Jesus entered fully into the darkness of human suffering. In today's second reading, Paul says of himself, 'For the weak, I made myself weak.' That is certainly true of Jesus. He entered into the weakness of the human condition. Elsewhere Paul says that 'though he was rich, for your sakes Christ became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.' On the cross Jesus was at his weakest and poorest; it was then that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, Jesus turned to God and found a door slammed in his face, as he cried out, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Yet God did not forsake Jesus, but brought through death into the fullness of life. The Jesus who was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lord who is with us in our own suffering moments, just as he was with the suffering and the broken in this morning's gospel. He is with us as one who knows our experience from the inside. Having gone down into the depths and having moved through those depths into a fuller life, he can enable us to do the same. He is the good shepherd who, even as we walk through the valley of darkness, is there with his crook and his staff, leading us to springs of living water.