Commentary on the Readings
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – February 4, 2018
Evil exists but is not invincible
Around 2200 B.C., the famous Dialog of a desperate with his soul was composed in Egypt. It was a monologue in which the protagonist, shaken by personal tragedy, contemplates suicide: “Today—he admits—death stands before me as a healing for a patient, as freedom for a prisoner, as a scent of myrrh, like the pleasure of one sitting under a palm tree on the day when a cool breeze blows.” We are at the dawn of the Egyptian literature and now the agonizing problem of pain emerges. Why is man destined to suffer?
The traditional response of Israel to this puzzle is the doctrine of retribution that Eliphaz, the friend of Job, sums up: “Have you seen a guiltless man perish, or an upright man done away with? Those who plow evil or those who sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). But life belies in an impious way this dogma of Jewish faith, highlighting the ingenuity, the provocative and insolence towards those who suffer.
Blaming the man referring to the story of the so-called original sin is equally untenable. To talk about the pedagogy of God who makes his children grow through pain, has been called “theological sadism,” created by those who have not realized the horrendous evil that affects the innocent. Besides, who ever said that pain humanizes?
To give theoretical explanations to this existential cry is equivalent to “teach a lesson on food hygiene to those who are dying of hunger and thirst.”
Jesus did not get involved in theoretical disquisitions on pain. He proposed his solution: evil exists and is not to be explained, but fought.
“Every time I wipe a tear, I cooperate in the salvation of Christ.
The story of Job is set in a fabulous country of the ancient Middle East. The main character is a servant of God, before rich and happy, then suddenly struck by misfortune lost his children, property and health. He is afflicted with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown and, lying on ashes, seeking relief by rubbing a crock. Even his wife is disgusted and giving free rein to her uncontrollable rage, shouts: “Do you still hold on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 1:1-2, 13).
This is the background, the rest of the book is a heated debate between Job and four friends who came from Edom, and from the East, countries regarded as the home of wisdom.
On the subject of pain, therefore, Job is confronted with all of people’s wisdom, and with lucidity and a charge of passion that are unparalleled in world literature, demolishes, one after the other, all the explanations of traditional theology, indeed and rightly scoffs.
Job is a fascinating character and, like Ecclesiastes, he is loved more and more.
Today’s reading contains his famous reflection on the condition of people on earth. Life is nothing but pain. Man is a slave subjected to enormous sacrifices from which he derives no benefit. He is a laborer who toils from dawn to dusk in a field not his own, bears the scorching heat of the sun in the distressing wait for the evening to arrive (vv. 2-3).
Job considers himself even more unfortunate than a slave, unhappier than the laborer. These seem to be privileged: during the night they rest from their labors, while he not even finds relief in sleep. Distraught by pain he tosses and turns in bed until dawn (v. 4).
The hope of a change in his condition is a vain illusion. The years pass quickly, like a puff and he has no choice but to conclude sadly: “My eyes will never see happiness again!” (vv. 6-8).
Why has God put him in such a desperate situation? Why did he let him be born if he was only going to have pain and misfortunes? Job is not resigned; he does not suffer in silence. He gives vent to his grief before the Lord and asking him to explain the reason for his afflictions and calamities. His cry almost scares us, it seems a rebellion, blasphemy. Instead, it is prayer.
The Hebrew language has thirteen words for prayer. Three of them expressing progressive forms of supplication to God. At the first step, the lowest, we find the prayer expressed in words. It is the simplest and most common, coming from the heart of the person and reaching the heart of God. A step up is the cry which is an even more effective invocation. At the third level there is weeping, a more compelling requests for help to the Lord. The rabbis taught: “There is no door that tears fail to open” and the Psalmist prayed: “Hear, O Lord, my supplication, listen to my cry for protection, do not be deaf to my lamentation” (Ps 39:13).
Resignation is not sought before evil. Man can and must shout against scandal. He has the right to tell God that he does not understand why he created the lover of life and joy and then put him in a world of pain and death.
The prayer of Job is made of cries and tears. Those who cry and scream their pain, even if they do not realize it, are invoking God, are asking his light and strength.
The best service we can do to persons is to bring them the gospel. The divine word transforms the minds and hearts and imparts a burst of life. Aware of this truth, some may even decide to devote their lives to this mission. But who will give them the means to live?
The question is legitimate and Jesus responded, “Do not set your heart on what you are to eat and drink; stop worrying. Let all the nations of the world run after these things; your Father knows that you need them. Seek rather his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Lk 12:29-31). The experience of the disciples confirmed the truth of the Master’s words. One day he asked them, “When I sent you without purse or bag or sandals, where you short of anything?” They answered, “No” (Lk 22:35).
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul takes up the argument and reminds Christians of their duty to assist the apostles: “Those announcing the Gospel live from the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:14), as Jesus taught: “Workers deserve their living” (Mt 10:10).
In practice, however, it is not always easy to apply this principle because, due to human weakness, abuses creep in. Anyone can use this right to enrich, to acquire privileges, to lead a comfortable life. There is also a danger that the community’s leaders behave as “servants of the sacred” and carry out their ministry with passion, generosity and selflessness of those who are really in love with the gospel, but as employees who work in view of salary. When recording such behavior, even the most eloquent and prepared preachers lose credibility; This is why Jesus recommended, indeed, enjoins his disciples: “You received this as a gift, so give it as a gift” (Mt 10:8).
To avoid these risks, Paul states that at times the evangelizer must be ready to give up his right to support from the community. This decision must be taken when suspicion may arise that the preaching of the word of God may be motivated by ulterior motives.
This is what he and Barnabas have done: they lived by working with their hands. They continued to carry out their profession without being a burden to anyone.
Those who, like Paul, are willing to gratuitously serve their community, what recompense must they expect? Nothing but the joy that comes from the consciousness of having dedicated their life to others, in pure loss, with no hope of receiving something in return (v. 18).
Paul did not preach the gospel to earn money, but to satisfy an irresistible inner compulsion. Convinced of the greatness and excellence of the gift received, he could not restrain himself. He felt the need to tell it to people.
When addressing the issue of evil, it is essential to distinguish between moral evil and physical evil. Man is the real culprit of the first. He can also commit heinous crimes. Auschwitz cannot be blamed on God, but those who have arrived to such abuses. The problem remains open: Can God intervene or not in human history? If he can, why does he not intervene? Only those who have struck out omnipotence from the attributes of God find answer to this question.
The real puzzle is constituted by evil that does not depend on man: natural disasters, genetic diseases, death. How can God allow these misfortunes? The objection often turned to the believer is: “Tell your God that this is impossible. Either he has nothing to do with the bad or he is very bad.” In today’s Gospel Jesus is confronted with evil. He does not seek and gives no theological explanations. He does not wonder why misfortune, illness and pain exist in the world. Faced with the tragedies of the world it is useless to blame God or people. The only thing to do is to be at the side of those who suffer and struggle with all our strength against evil.
In three scenes Mark presents his liberating intervention.
The first reports the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (vv. 29-31). The disease that afflicted her was not specified. We only know that she was in bed with a fever. Jesus approached her, took her hand, and lifted her back on her feet, she began to serve.
The fact is reported in a very concise manner. It is the shortest of the stories of miracles in the gospels, but all the details are significant. They were made available by Mark because they contain ideas for catechesis.
First there is the behavior of the disciples. They are faced with a difficulty which they do not know how to cope. They make a sensible choice: they speak about it to Jesus. It is what the disciples are invited to do: before solving a problem, before outlining answers and solutions, prior to managing messy situations, they should talk about it to Jesus; they have to dialogue with him. Only then they are able to see every illness, both physical and moral, with his eyes, to experience his feelings in front of the pain, to heal with the power of his word. Who does not precede from prayer the attempts to cure the fevers of man, not only does not cure the illness, but runs the risk of being infected.
Then—another significant detail—when they talk to him about the sick woman, Jesus never goes away, flee or dodge: he approaches her. The disciple also cannot ignore the fevers that prevent people to live. He cannot alienate himself, pretend not to see, waiting for others to address the problems. Who has assimilated the thoughts and feelings of the Master goes near, makes himself a neighbor to whoever is a victim of inhuman situations.
This introduction is followed by the most significant detail: Jesus takes the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and raises her up. This is not a trivial factual statement, but the gesture that symbolizes the transmission of divine power, bringing salvation. The greek word chosen by the evangelist is egéiro that, in the New Testament, is used to indicate the resurrection, raising again from the dead, from a condition of “no life.” The sick woman is lying in bed, unable to move, prisoner of the fever. She represents the whole of humanity to which Jesus approaches to introduce her to a new condition.
The Christian is called to repeat these gestures of the Master.
The stories of miracles always end with a demonstration that healing really happened. In front of the onlookers, the paralytic takes his bed and walks, the blind shows that he sees us clearly, the daughter of Jairus, coming back to life, begins to eat. Even the mother-in-law of Peter demonstrated of being fully restored: she begins to serve Jesus and the disciples. Here is the sign that characterizes who is put back on his feet by Christ: the service to the brothers. Until that happens, healing has not occurred or is still incomplete.
The archaeological excavations show that the house where the incident happened has been transformed, since the first century A.D., in a place of encounter of the first Christian community. There the Eucharist was celebrated, the sacrament which communicates to those who receive it in faith the strength to rise again and to remain always standing at the service of the brothers.
In the second scene (vv. 32-34) Jesus cures every disease. During Saturday the people respected the rule that prohibited movement, carrying loads, curing the sick. When evening comes, the new day starts. All begin to move and bring to Jesus their sick, placing them in front of the door of Peter’s house (v. 33). They know that it is only in that house where they can meet the one who heals all.
Jesus heals many but does not allow what he does to be disclosed, because he does not want misunderstandings about his identity and his mission to arise. He does not accept to be considered a holy healer. His goal is to show the signs of the new world and point to the disciples the work they are supposed to perform.
In him it is possible to contemplate God’s answer to the problem of evil.
God is not indifferent to man’s cries of pain. The impassive and imperturbable God was invented by the philosophers. The biblical God asks: “not to get away from those who shed tears” (Sir 7:34) and to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) because he too suffers, cries, is moved, experiences the feelings of a mother; hears the lament and comes to share our human condition made up of suffering and pain, puts himself at our side in the fight against evil and teaches to turn it into an opportunity to build love.
In the last part of the passage (vv. 35-39) we find Jesus in prayer.
In Israel there were different forms of prayer. Communitarian prayer was formed mainly by the praise of God and always began with the words: “Blessed are you Lord.” The individual prayers instead resembled much more to our own. They were heartfelt prayers, laments, cries of pain, invocations for help. The Psalter is full of it.
On Saturday morning Jesus prayed in the synagogue with his community. The next day, when it was still dark, he left the house and, in the solitude of the mountains, in the quiet of the night he turned to the Father with personal prayer.
It is in this dialogue with the Father that he received the light to face the pain of man.
Not all the problems of this world can be solved: “The poor you will always have with you,” he said one day (Jn 12:8). The world without dramas, worries, sickness, death is not the current one. Prayer is not an escape from life’s difficulties nor a naive request for miracles, but is the encounter with the One who helps to see man and his problems as he sees them.
It is not easy to see that the miracle is a sign, a finger pointing to the new world. It is more spontaneous to interpret it as a test of power or as an intervention of God in favor of a privileged few. Even the apostles understood in this sense the healings performed by Jesus. They have not gotten the message. In the morning, they were on the road and finding him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you” (v. 36).
They were looking for Jesus, yes, but for the wrong reason. They claimed that he would continue to perform miracles. They wanted to exploit him to achieve their dreams of success, popularity and get the benefits they bring. They did not agree to assume their responsibility, to bring to completion the work that belonged only to them.
Jesus refuses to get involved in their projects and invites them to “go elsewhere,” to reach with him all the villages, to fulfill everywhere what he has done in Capernaum.
God does not replace man. He guides him with the light of his word, accompanies him with his presence, but wants that man be the one to act and fight evil.
Preaching that does not cast out demons, leaving things as they are, that does not change the person and the world, is not the word of Jesus.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: