Sunday, January 26, 2020

From Analgesic to Antidote

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Picture: cc Basheer Tome

My dear friends, given a choice, which do you think a sick person would prefer to receive, an analgesic or an antidote? As you know, an analgesic, such as Panadol, relieves pain, while an antidote counteracts the effects of poison. The first helps only to treat a symptom. The second actually provides a cure. So which do you think a sick person would choose, an analgesic or an antidote?

You may have heard the story of the man who complains to his doctor saying, Doctor, doctor, every time I drink coffee, I experience a sharp pain in my eye. Please help me! In response, the wise doctor leads the patient to a pantry, where she asks him to make himself a cup of coffee and drink it. Sure enough, as soon as he does so, the patient again reports experiencing a sharp pain in his eye. The doctor then smiles at him reassuringly, and says, I know the cause of your ailment. The next time you make coffee, remember to do one thing before you drink it. What is it? Asks the patient. Be sure to first remove the spoon from the cup.

In this story, if we were to think of the spoon as the poison, then the doctor’s advice is the antidote. But what if the patient stubbornly refuses to follow the doctor’s advice? What if he asks for Panadol instead? Then we could say that the patient is choosing an analgesic over the antidote. Which may not be such an unreasonable thing to do, since it’s probably much easier to pop a couple of pills into one’s mouth than to change one’s habitual behaviour.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I believe we find something like this difference between an analgesic and an antidote in our Mass readings today. The gospel describes Jesus’ decision to settle in the town of Capernaum as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading. The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light… So if we were to think of darkness as a poison, then the light of Christ is the antidote. But what is this darkness? What is this poison? And in what way is Jesus the antidote?

At first glance, the answer seems clear enough. For at the end of the reading, we’re told that Jesus went round the whole of Galilee… curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people. So it would seem that disease is the darkness to which Jesus is the light. Sickness is the poison for which Christ is the antidote. Which is great news for us. For then, every time we are sick, we have only to bring our illnesses to Jesus in prayer, and we can expect to be made well again.

And yet, perhaps it’s important to notice that the curing of diseases is only one of several things that Jesus does in the gospel. Along with healing the sick, the Lord also proclaims good news. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. And, along with healing and preaching, Jesus also calls disciples. Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.

Of course, it’s possible for me to think of all these activities of Jesus – the preaching, the calling, and the healing – as having no connection with one another. Such that I can be cured of my sickness without hearing the Lord’s message of repentance, or heeding his call to discipleship. That may be possible. But what happens then? Could it be that, even if I were cured of my bodily ailments, even if I were in the pink of health, I could still remain very much in the dark? I could still suffer the effects of a different kind of poisoning?

We find a useful illustration of this in the second reading. As we will see further on in this letter, in St Paul’s day, the Corinthian community was blessed with many gifts and charisms, perhaps including even the power to heal. And yet, here at the beginning of the letter, Paul is quick to point out an area of darkness in which the Corinthians remain trapped. (I)t is clear, Paul writes, that there are serious differences among you… Abundantly gifted though they may be, the Corinthians are severely divided among themselves.

It is upon this darkness of conflict, that Paul shines the light of the gospel. Like that doctor in the story we shared earlier, Paul advises the Corinthians to remove the spoon of their divisive attitudes and behaviours, and to be united again in… belief and practice. But repenting of such habitual behaviour is, of course, much easier said than done. To help his patients to follow his advice, Paul reminds them of Christ’s crucifixion, into which they have all been baptised. Implicitly, Paul invites them to allow themselves to listen again to the voice of Jesus, who calls them to discipleship. So that, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, they too might leave everything and follow the Lord… To counteract the poison of division, Paul prescribes the Good News of Christ as the antidote.

What does this show us, my dear friends, if not that the Lord’s proclamation of the Good News, his calling of disciples, and his curing of the sick are all part of a single ministry of reconciliation, a single work of deeper healing, by which Christ offers himself – his own life and death and resurrection – as the only effective cure for my selfishness and sin.

But, to be honest, it’s not always easy for me to see this. It’s not easy to recognise the deeper connections between the Lord’s words and actions, as they are recorded in the scriptures, and the challenges of my daily life. And even when I do see the connections, it’s not always easy to put them into practice. To do so, I need to dedicate time and space to meditate on God’s Word. To allow the message I hear with my ears to penetrate more deeply into my mind and heart. So that it can eventually find its way to my hands.

Isn’t this one good reason why I need something like this newly instituted Sunday of the Word of God? For even though every Sunday is dedicated to the Word of God, it’s still helpful to have a special day on which to be reminded that, for us Christians, the Word we receive, is not just a dead letter to be read off a dusty page, but God’s only Begotten Son. The One who continues to live among us in the flesh. And who keeps calling me to embrace a fuller life, by leaving everything to follow him.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even if a doctor’s advice may be effective for curing our illness, it’s still not always easy for us to follow it? Is there perhaps a spoon that you need to remove from your coffee-cup today?

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