Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B
The Gospel readings we’ve been hearing for the last few weeks and those we will hear in the weeks to come focus on the meaning of discipleship; being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. We’re into the second half of the Gospel of Mark. Having past the halfway point where Peter is the first to confess Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah the Apostles now follow Christ on the way to Jerusalem where Jesus must go to die. And along the way, the Apostles learn what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
It’s ironic that in the midst of another election season, we should see James and John doing some campaigning of their own. Thinking that being a friend of Jesus means access to power, prestige and privilege, James and John ask for the seats of authority. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
However, Jesus warns them. To be His true disciple isn’t going to be easy. It isn’t going to be fun. In fact, it’s going to be incredibly painful at times.
He tells James and John, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The cup that Jesus will drink and his baptism is His own death. He is walking towards Jerusalem where He will suffer greatly. And following Christ means we will suffer greatly too.
Which begs the question, “Why?” Why do we suffer? Why is there so much suffering in the world? And how could a good God allow suffering?
There have been innumerable attempts throughout the centuries to answer these questions. Some say that suffering is a kind of purification. Others say suffering is an opportunity to participate in the life of Jesus. Still others say suffering enables us to move closer to God, to learn to trust Him more.
However, these attempts don’t really help many situations do they? I mean, how do you explain the suffering of a young child with cancer? Does a young child really need purification? Does a wife whose husband has been unfaithful to her really want to hear that it’s an opportunity to trust God more? Should someone who lost a family member to suicide be told “This is an opportunity to participate in the life of Jesus”?
I remember one time in the seminary, one of the upperclassmen was telling me about how someone from his parish assignment was going through intense suffering. I don’t even remember what the exact details were anymore. But I do remember thinking how awful it was and I immediately asked, “What did you say?” He wisely said, “I didn’t say anything. I just listened.”
Many times (not every time, but many times) people don’t want answers for their suffering as much as they want someone to simply be there and listen.
A man came to my office a few weeks ago and said how he was growing in His relationship with God but still struggling greatly, largely due, in part, to seeing the pain of his two children who suffer from muscular dystrophy. So I sat there and listened to him. And when he had finished, I simply said, “I don’t know how you feel. Because your suffering is yours and not mine. And I’m not going to pretend to know why your children are suffering or attempt to give you some sort of answer.” And the lines in his forehead eased a bit and he simply replied, “Thank you.”
And as it turns out, that’s the way, it seems, Christ wishes to answer our suffering. Just as people don’t want answers for their suffering as much as they want someone to simply be there, so too, Jesus, it seems, doesn’t attempt to give an answer for our suffering as much as He is simply there with us in our suffering.
In our second reading, St. Paul says of Jesus: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has similarly been tested in every way.” Perhaps it’s easier to understand if we take out the double negatives: We do have a high priest, Jesus, who is able to sympathize with our weakness, because He has been tested in every way. I wasn’t able to “feel the pain” of that father who visited my office. But Christ “feels our pain” because He suffers with us and the cross is a reminder that we are not alone.
Last Wednesday, nearly 100 parents and grandparents whose children died by either illness, accident, miscarriage or abortion came to a “Mass of Healing.” We listened to the Gospel passage where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And it was important to hear that Gospel, not just so they would hear that death is not the end and that the resurrection is our sure hope. They needed to hear that Gospel so that we could hear the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept.” As Fr. James Martin says in his book, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Anything” “God was not standing outside our pain, but was a companion within it, holding us in his arms, sharing our grief and pain.”
So, to all who suffer (and everyone suffers) know that none who have faith ever suffer alone. Christ has already drank from the chalice of your suffering. He has already been baptized in the same baptismal waters of suffering in which you are being baptized. And he always walks ahead of us on the way to our Jerusalem. That’s what it means to be a disciple: to be a follower; to let Jesus walk ahead of us on every path, most especially the path of suffering.