Monday, February 09, 2009

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Stories Of Loss and Danger

Readings: 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
Picture: CC Sir Mervs

Sisters and brothers, today I’m reminded of two stories with which most of you are probably already familiar. The first took place just a couple of weeks ago. It’s the story of the family of seven who died in Wilmington on January 26 – victims of what looked like a murder-suicide. Apparently, the parents had recently been dismissed from their jobs for trying to defraud their employer. And the father then shot and killed his wife and five children, including two sets of twins, before turning the gun on himself.

The second story is older and from further away. It’s the story of the Polish Franciscan priest, St. Maximilian Kolbe. In July 1941, while detained at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Fr. Kolbe was starved to death by his captors, after having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen to suffer that very fate.

These two stories are both the same and yet different. They are the same in that both are stories involving loss. In the first, the parents had lost a lucrative means of making a living, and would soon lose their reputations as well. In the second, Kolbe had lost his physical freedom, and much more besides. In both cases, people would also end up losing their very lives as well. But how different are the circumstances. As appalled as we might be at the loss of life in each case, when we hear about the first story, we cannot help but shake our heads at the terrible tragedy of it all. But when we recall the second, something truly marvelous happens within us. We are moved and inspired by what we find.

What does this difference in our reactions tell us if not that there are some losses that are more tragic and more dangerous than others. Worse even than the loss of one’s life is the prospect of losing one’s hope and the sense of one’s own dignity and purpose as a human being. At least arguably, these precious things were lost in the first story, but retained and even advanced in the second.

In our readings today, we also find situations of loss and of danger. We probably all know very well the story of Job. We know how he had lost everything in a series of disasters: his wealth, his property, his family, and even his health. And, in today’s first reading, we find Job in danger of losing something even more precious. My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, he prays, they come to an end without hope… Job is in danger of losing his sense of hope and purpose in life. For what meaning can there be, if a righteous person like him should have to suffer in such terrible ways? Should he follow the advice of his friends and see his trials as God’s punishment for sins he has no knowledge of having committed? Should he simply end his life, as did the Wilmington family in our first story? It is out of this terrible situation of loss and of danger that Job offers his prayer to God.

And isn’t it true that Job’s story is also often our story as well? Even if we consider neither our virtue nor the extent of our difficulties to be quite on par with Job’s, from time to time, don’t we too suffer from losses of one kind or another? And when this happens, don’t we sometimes feel tempted to believe that God is punishing us for sins we may not even be conscious of committing, or thinking that maybe this is due to bad karma? Wondering about the meaning behind it all, don’t we sometimes even find ourselves pushed to the edge of despair? And if, like Job, we were to cry out to God, how might God reply?

The response will, of course, vary from situation to situation, and from person to person. Even so, is there not perhaps some discernible pattern to God’s response? Could this be what we find in today’s gospel? For here too, we are faced with situations of loss and danger. The most obvious of these are to be found, of course, in the people who flock to Jesus. We are told that they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons…

Is this then, how God invariably responds to our experiences of loss and danger? If we have a cancerous tumor, does God always take it away? If we are possessed by demons of loneliness or depression, anxiety or despair, does God always ease our pain? If we lose our jobs or our 401(k) investments, does God always immediately reinstate them? While it is true that God often does do such things for us, and while it is highly appropriate and even commendable that we should pray for them if we need to, isn’t it also true that, perhaps just as often, what we pray for doesn’t seem to come to pass? Isn’t this also the situation in the book of Job? In spite of Job’s incessant pleading, for much of the time, God seems to remain painfully silent. What then are we to make of today’s gospel passage?

A clue to an answer is to be found perhaps in what Jesus does at the end of the reading. In spite of a growing demand for his ministry of healing and deliverance, Jesus ultimately decides to leave. Let us go on to the nearby villages, he says, that I may preach there also. What does this tell us if not that, as important as it was for Jesus to cast out demons and to heal, in his mind, it was even more important to preach the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom. And the purpose of his miracles is precisely to proclaim and lead people into this same kingdom. As he tells his disciples: For this purpose have I come.

Here, we find not only a sense of Jesus’ priorities but also the pattern of God’s response to our experiences of loss and danger. If preaching the good news appears more important for Jesus than even healing and casting out demons, isn’t it because, more dangerous even than the loss of one’s wealth and health, is the loss of one’s sense of hope and purpose as a human being? Indeed, isn’t this a danger that Jesus himself faces in the gospel? How tempting it must have been for Jesus to remain where he was well received, and perhaps to set up his own private practice. But, after spending time in prayer, Jesus decides to do otherwise.

Doesn’t his experience show us that one encounters the danger of forgetting one’s purpose as much in seasons of success as in times of suffering? And isn’t this precisely the danger that the good news addresses? Isn’t it in the good news that we find the hope and meaning that we need to face and to overcome the trials that beset us, much as Maximilian Kolbe did at Auschwitz? Isn’t this also the experience of Paul in the second reading, who professes to have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible…. for the sake of gospel, so that I too may have a share in it?

Sisters and brothers, it’s not a matter of debate that we are now living in a time of loss and of danger. But isn’t it just as much a time of opportunity and obligation, a time when we, the followers of Christ, are especially needed to go out into the global village to preach the good news both in word and action?

How are we being invited to do this today?


  1. Two tragic death stories: The first one overwhelmed my heart and head with pity and the second one filled me with awe at the height that a human spirit can attain.

    How will the end of my life be like? Truly hope that with God's grace, it'll be a little more like the second one.

  2. I used to labour at being a "good and loving" wife and mother-- taking pains to provide our family with all their physical and emotional needs; praying that they will make wise choices in diet and lifestyle to avoid illness and harm; supporting them in times of trial; reminding them of God's blessings and the need to thank our loving Father and turn to God for support and guidance......

    Yet I wondered why they felt little need to engage in their Faith and had a lukewarm attitude in their prayer.

    One day, a light bulb went on for me: I realise that with their life of plenty, my family simply did not have much to hunger and thirst for--least of all for God's spiritual nourishment!

    Could it be then, that lacking something in their lives is what may help them notice their past blessings, and for them to turn to God in their need now? Could it be that being needy, disappointed or fearful, and finding little immediate earthly relief could be moments of grace rather than disaster?

    While I would not wish tragedy on anyone for the sake of faith-training, could my meticulous caring and provision of a sheltered and comfortable existence preclude their need for the deeper peace and joy the God can give through life's struggles?

    God is always ready to shower us with blessings, but until things fall apart, are we truly disposed to receiving what God has to offer?

    Nowadays, I don't try to cover all my family's needs to the point of my exhaustion, nor do I lament at their lukewarm attitude to spiritual matters, trusting that in the graced moments of lack and despair, God is ever ready to lift in love.

    Rather than offering handy human solutions, I need to allow their need for God to mould their souls, and be patient for that process to unfold, participating with God to continue loving them when things fall apart.

    Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails..

  3. My heart aches for the family that died so tragically. As a volunteer counsellor for the suicidal, I know that, except for the mentally ill, those who feel suicidal are almost always on the brink from which they can be rescued. They need help to see past the immediate crisis and think of their loved ones instead of themselves. Many a life has been saved bu giving up suicidal plans because of those they'd leave behind. That's what the good priest did. He thought of someone else, altho the result in his case is death for himself. But what a saintly thing to do!

    Would I make such a sacrifice? I'd probably have a hundred reasons why I shouldn't, but I should pray for the courage just to do something one tenth as brave.