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Longing for the Shade

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
First Reading: Jb 7:1-4, 6-7
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Second Reading: 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23
Gospel: Mk 1:29-39

Job is a character who raises for us the question of innocent suffering. His name has become synonymous with suffering. When his "comforters" come to give him all the stock answers - that he or perhaps his predecessors must have sinned - Job rejects their opinions. The passage we have today reminds us that we do suffer and that there is no satisfactory answer for this suffering. It seems, Job says, that life is a meaningless cycle of misery; but he is also expressing what we feel, what seems to be the human condition. He longs for a rest in the shade. He is voicing a complaint, or in biblical terms, a lament.

Job's prayer is a Lamentation, a complaint of a faithful person to God. It is a prayer of great faith for it expresses belief in the One who is listening. It says that we are not alone as we cry out from the abyss, that our words do not fall on deaf ears. Job does not get a full answer from God, but he does learn that God is not deaf and hears the complaint of this pained and trusting servant who will not accept simple answers about suffering. He speaks boldly to God; his is a prayer of truth, a prayer of courage and a prayer of trust. For some of us this kind of prayer may be the only one that we can pray during times of suffering and helplessness.

If we look at the Gospel of Mark, we see that the evangelist comes right to the point: Jesus was told about the woman's condition, he went over to her, "grasped her hand and helped her up and the fever left her. Jesus "helped her up" - this is the same expression in the New Testament that is often used in the resurrection stories. Mark is implying that this person is being given a new life, a life that only the risen Jesus can give.

The phrase "helped her up" is better translated, "raised her up" and this links the cure to the real completion of the mystery of suffering. Mark tells us that she becomes a disciple and that the process of discipleship is first the healing encounter with Jesus that enables service in his name. We, the church, the modern-day followers of Jesus, must recognize our responsibility to stop suffering as much as we can. In today's Gospel, Jesus is a sign of God's desire to deal with suffering. We do not deny the presence of suffering and the tragic in our lives; in fact, we do what we can to overcome it. But while Jesus deals with suffering and cures illnesses in these Gospel stories, he doesn't eliminate all pain from the world; somehow we deal with that suffering and its causes as we can, and are left with the awesome mystery of what remains.

That mystery rests in Jesus' proclamation that the "kingdom is at hand." The first major adjustment that the early Christian community had to make was recognizing that the world was not coming to an end and that service to others was to be the order of the day. The person of faith lives in and daily deals with the reality of this world - with all of its goodness and splendor as well as all of its suffering and death. Our task is to keep alive that proclamation that is finally affirmed in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. The new life we so desperately seek is not so much to be found in the "next life" but firmly rooted in this life, given us so freely by God.

And what does this new life look like? We are told when she was healed, the woman "began to wait on them." It sounds like she is doing household chores, "woman's work," but the word Mark uses is "diakonia," the word for "church work," or Christian ministry. So in reality, she is "waiting" on the community and does the work of building community. When people experience this new life from Jesus, they are willing and able to serve others. What one receives one wants to share. This woman is quick in her response and her "work" isn't taken on grudgingly, but with a sense of joy.

Suffering finds final meaning only in the redemptive and healing mystery of Christ's own death. His innocent suffering and death have put new meaning on our own. His suffering for the sake of others has a redeeming aspect to it and this is an even more profound mystery. In his own life, Jesus, like us, was repelled when he was confronted by suffering and death. He is steadfast though, and continues to trust in His Father through it all. He will continue to pray to God, trust and walk forward to Jerusalem, showing us the path as he goes.

There is no easy answer to Job's problems. There is no "solution" to the mystery of suffering. We, too, long for a place in the shade.  But we listen to today's Gospel and we know that unlike the innocent Job, Jesus is the sinless one who takes on our suffering; who suffers so others can be set free. This is the truth to be embraced and celebrated in our own discipleship. What Jesus did for Simon's mother-in-law he does for us, individually and as a community. He extends a hand to us, raising us up from sin and death to a new life.

And this new life gives us the power to see the needs of others and to respond with trust and joy.


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