Jesus' unexpected solution to the problem of pain and suffering

Matthew 16:21-27  (22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

The Weeping Woman, Picasso, source
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon. (Woody Allen)

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. (George Orwell)

God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering. (St. Augustine)

Suffering is universal. It’s the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and muslims are all worried about. (John Green, author of the Fault in our Stars)

Because suffering is a universal experience, religions and philosophies have all tried try to explain how best to deal with its presence in our lives. Here’s some examples:
  • Stoicism explains that you should try your best to be indifferent to both pleasure and pain. When you are faced with suffering you need to “keep a stiff upper lip” and “suck it up”.
  • Hedonism argued that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is inherently evil. You should do whatever you can to maximize pleasure in your life and flee from whatever causes you suffering.
  • Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by unfulfilled desire. To get rid of suffering, you need to eliminate all desire in your life.
  • Islam proposes that when faced with suffering you must endure it, not question why you suffer but rather endure it as God’s will and submit to it as a test of faith.
  • The Old Testament presents various views to the topic of suffering. In places, suffering is viewed as a punishment for sin. In the story of the just man Job, however, we see that suffering is rather a test of faith. Ultimately, the Old Testament does not reach a final resolution regarding how best to approach suffering.

Jesus did not come to eliminate suffering. Rather, He showed how we could transform suffering in our lives, filling it with purpose and meaning. In today’s gospel, Jesus explains that both He and His followers will have to suffer. Peter is having none of this news and rebukes Jesus for even suggesting it. In response, Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him a Satan, that is, someone who is opposed to the plans of God. Though Jesus does not remove suffering from His or our lives, neither does He flee from it or simply grin and bear it. Jesus freely chooses to go to Jerusalem, the place of His Passion. Jesus’ solution to the problem of suffering is to confront it head-on by offering Himself out of love. When Jesus makes His whole life a gift to others, He transforms the suffering that is in His life and makes it salvific. His suffering becomes a source of life for the whole world. He rises from the dead and reunited us with God the Father. We are called to respond to suffering in the same way. When we choose to offer our whole life to God and others out of love, the suffering in our life is redeemed so that it brings goodness to ourselves and others.

When we live Jesus’ paradoxical program for dealing with suffering, we discover that it leads to true fulfillment and happiness. St. John Paul II explained that human happiness is guided by the Law of the Gift. Just as it is a law that we need oxygen to live, the Law of the Gift dictates that true happiness is found by making our lives a gift to others by putting ourselves at the service of others rather than focusing on ourselves. We are tempted to think that if we possess all the best things and have others at our beck and call then we will be happy. When we focus on ourselves, however, we ultimately become sad because our sufferings, problems and what we lack in our life seem so large and inescapable. On the other hand, when we make ourselves a gift to others by serving God and our neighbour, we get the perspective to see that our problems are not so bad. We discover the joy of living in relationships with others and the peace that comes through service. I remember clearly one of the first times I discovered firsthand the truth of the Law of the Gift. During my first year at University I volunteered to help out at a parish dinner washing dishes. On my way to the dinner my mind was full of worries and concerns regarding all the homework I had to do. I was stressed out and feeling down. The short experience helping out at the dinner changed my mood completely. By the end, I felt peace and happiness. It gave me joy to be able to help others. My problems didn't feel so big after all. At some time we have all experienced this truth articulated by Jesus: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

We cannot choose whether we suffer in life or not; we can only choose how we confront suffering. Here we do well to remember the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. (Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi)

When we live the Law of the Gift in our lives, our suffering is kept in check and is even transformed into something that brings life and goodness to others. Is it an easy way to live? By no means. It is, however, the only truly effective solution to the problem of suffering. Today take a moment to remind yourself of a time when you experienced the Law of the Gift in your life. Recall the joy and happiness you felt. Allow that experience to motivate you to continue living that way in the future.

Who do you say Jesus is? Have you been "called out"?

Matthew 16:13-20 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, year a)

What kind of car do you drive? What do you do for a living? What do you study? Android or iPhone?  We often ask people these questions because the answers they give (particularly about their choice of smart-phone...) tells us a lot about what kind of person they are. Though such questions are helpful, from this Sunday’s Gospel we can gleam three more important and fundamental questions. The answers we give to these three questions strike to the core of our identity and how we have chosen to live our life.

1) Who do you say Jesus is?
Jesus poses the question of His identity in the Gospel. First, the apostles explain that the people think Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. Next, Jesus challenges the apostles to tell Him who they personally believe He is. Peter alone responds with the grace-filled profession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  In other words, Jesus is God incarnate, come to save the world. Today, who do the people say that Jesus is? Most would say He was a good man, a wise leader and a sage teacher, but stop there. Though safe, these responses do not answer the question Jesus wanted to know about His identity. Jesus was an incredibly provocative individual; He wasn't really concerned if people thought He was good, wise or caring. Jesus claimed to be God and our Savior. Like Peter, each of us needs to decide if we believe Him or not. In his famous “trilemma”, C.S. Lewis, a Christian author best known for the Narnia series, explained the choices we faced when responding to this question. As Jesus claimed to be God, we are left with three options. If Jesus knew that He was not God and yet claimed to be, that would make Him a liar and a vicious and manipulative man. If Jesus honestly thought He was God but really wasn't, that would make Him a lunatic and a very dangerous man. When we look at the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus’ behavior proves He is neither a liar nor a lunatic. C.S. Lewis argues that we are left with one final option: Jesus is exactly who He claims to be and is thus our Lord. When we believe that Jesus is Lord, we must respond by worshiping Him and putting Him at the center of our life. Liar, lunatic or Lord? Who do you say Jesus is?

2) Have you been “called out”?
After Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus talks about His Church. Believing that Jesus is Lord is not the end. When we believe this we become part of a community founded by Jesus, the Church. In the original Greek, the word for Church is ekklesia, which literally means “called out from”. The question is, called out from what? The scriptures make it clear that we have been called out from the world. Now, we know that in the world there certainly is much good. When the Bible talks about the world, however, it is referring to all the evil that exists which is in opposition to God’s plans: greed, error, violence, jealousy and jealousy. The Church, therefore, is a people who have been called out from the world, gathered and given the job of continuing the mission of Jesus to fruition. Simply asking the question, “are you Catholic?” is not enough. We can say we are a Catholic - perhaps we even go to Mass each Sunday - but this fact makes little difference in the rest of our lives. We are no different from the world. To help us consider whether we have truly been called out, it is helpful to consider this question, often asked in sermons: If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Seriously, think about it. Imagine for a moment that it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus. One day you are dragged in front of a judge. For weeks prior to this, all your actions and words were under secret surveillance. At your trial, all the evidence is brought forward. How would the trial go? Would you be acquitted and found not guilty of being a Christian? Would you be convicted and found guilty? Would there be reasonable doubt in the matter? Have you been “called out”?

3) Are you a person of hope?
As members of the Church, the world won’t let us leave it without a fight. Outside the world we witness violence, persecution and an often discouraging response to the Church and her message. Within the Church too we see sin, scandal and division. Much of what happens both within and outside the Church, can tempt us to fall into a state of hopelessness. In the Gospel, Jesus gives us an assurance that should be a constant source of hope: “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”. Jesus is victorious. Since the Church is His Body we can be sure that it will weather all storms, whether they come from within or without. This hope is expressed in an interaction between Napoleon and Cardinal Consalvi, that is as funny as it is serious. At this time, in the early 1800’s, Napoleon and his army were sweeping across Europe, conquering country after country in an effort to dominate the globe. At the height of his power, Napoleon issued this threat to Church officials: I will destroy your Church. Hearing the threat, Cardinal Consalvi responded with what must be one of the best comebacks in history: He will never succeed. We have not managed to do it ourselves. In the Gospel, Jesus mentions a very important source of hope within the Church. The Church will be built upon Peter. As Catholics we see this as referring to the Office of Peter, also known as the papacy. The Office of Peter is a special gift of Jesus to the Church which helps us maintain unity as a community following Jesus and continuing His mission. For me personally, Pope Francis, like the popes before him, is a sign of hope. With his words and actions Pope Francis strongly reminds us that as members of the Church we are to be people of unshakable hope founded on the words of Jesus.

Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. To live well, we need to take the time to get to know who we really are and what we are living for. Just as asking others questions is a great way of getting to know them, asking ourselves questions is a wonderful way to get to know ourselves. Today take some time to examine your life by answering the three questions posed by today’s Gospel: 1) who do you say Jesus is?, 2) Have you been “called out”? and 3) Are you a person of hope? Let us make our lives more and more worth living.

Jesus called her a dog?!

Matthew 15:21-28 (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A)

“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

I know what you’re thinking ... did Jesus just call that poor woman a dog?! Yes, I’m afraid He did. In fact, Jesus’ actions throughout the Gospel seem strange and out of character. Here we meet a woman who approaches Jesus, asking Him to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. For the people at Jesus’ time, being tormented by a demon could mean many things, including suffering from some physical, psychological or physical ailment. Regardless, this woman’s daughter was suffering and she is desperate for help. At first, Jesus ignores the woman. When she continues to beg His help, Jesus replies that He was sent to help only the lost sheep of the house of Israel, of which this Canaanite woman is not a member. Finally, after she continues to beseech Him, Jesus replies with a phrase which has the impact of a sucker-punch to the nose: “It is not right to take the food of the children and feed it to the dogs”. Ouch! Why is Jesus acting like this? What is going on here?

First, lets be clear about what is not going on in this Gospel:
1. A prejudiced Jesus learns a lesson about cultural acceptance
Some Jews at Jesus’ time viewed other nations and cultures harshly. They, the people of Israel, were God’s children. They would refer to non-Jews, or Gentiles, as dogs. Some suggest that as a 1st century Jew, Jesus shared this racial prejudice. They argue that His encounter with the Canaanite woman helped Him drop this view and become more accepting. Jesus does use a racially charged expression, but He gives no indication He agrees with it. His actions show the opposite. Jesus freely chooses to visit a gentile land, something He would hardly have done had He not liked the people there. He went there to reach out to the people in this land. As we will see, Jesus has a very good reason for playing on the underlying racial tensions of the encounter.

2. Jesus learns the full nature of His mission from the Canaanite woman
Others argue that Jesus initially thought He was only the Savior of the people of Israel. His encounter with the Canaanite woman supposedly led Jesus to realize that His mission was to be the Saviour of all. Again, this view is countered by what we find in the Gospels. We need to remember that Jesus was a Jew through and through. Sometimes our art, in which Jesus is depicted as a pale-skinned, blond haired Californian surfer, can make us forget this. Jesus knew that His mission was to be the Savior of all. At the same time, He knew that His mission was first to the people of Israel. Jesus comes as the King of the Jews to start a kingdom that will eventually cover the world. Israel was the chosen vehicle through which God planned to save the world.

So what is happening here in this Gospel??

In His interaction with the Canaanite woman, Jesus is intentionally putting barriers in her way so that in stepping over them, she will come to a deeper faith. One of the most popular movies around when I was growing up was The Karate Kid (the original, better one, not the new one with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan...). This movie tells the story of Daniel, who has just entered Senior High in a new city. He soon gets bullied and beaten up and wants to learn Karate as a way to defend himself. Upon learning that his maintenance man in his apartment, Mr. Miyagi, has a background in Karate, Daniel begs him to teach him. Mr. Miyagi responds by putting many obstacles in Daniel’s way. When he arrives for lessons, Mr. Miyagi ignores him and gives him menial tasks to do: painting, sanding the deck and waxing cars. Though angry at first, Daniel perseveres and eventually finds that what he saw as roadblocks were actually part of his training. More than teaching him basic physical skills, in persevering against these challenges, Daniel developed as a person. He grew in his desire to learn, in courage and in self-confidence. The barriers put up by Mr. Miyagi drew these qualities out of Daniel. Jesus does the same thing with the Canaanite women. When she first comes to Jesus, she did have faith in Him. But how deep was her faith in Christ? Did she see Him simple as just another miracle worker? Jesus ignores her, and puts her off with some charged comments to test the depth of her faith. In the end, the strategy works. She replies with with a charming statement expressing her belief that although Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, she want Him to be her Savior as well: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus praises this great faith she has discovered within herself.

In order to help us grow, Jesus often puts roadblock in our way. Lets look at three examples.
  1. Roadblocks in life. Sometimes when we are living our life in a way that leads us away from God, He puts barriers in our way. Things such as difficulties at work and personal suffering often serve to make us remember how much we need God in our lives and turn back to Him.
  2. Obstacles in prayer. Often we don’t get what we ask for in prayer or else prayer can feel dry and lifeless. We can be tempted to give up. If we persevere against these obstacles and keep praying, we can grow spiritually. We can learn to love God for being God rather than the good feelings we get from Him. Also, some of the things we ask for in prayer aren't really what is best for us. In this case, God doesn't give us what we ask for in prayer because He is helping to expand our heart, making it capable of receiving an even greater gift.
  3. Challenges in relationships. Whether it is in our family, work or school, we all have to deal with “difficult people”. They can test our patience and lead us to become frustrated. Learning to relate to such people, however, is a great opportunity to grow in the virtues of patience and understanding.

At times we all feel like the Canaanite woman. We can become confused and frustrated when Jesus does not remove certain roadblocks in our life. Today, identify one such barrier in your life. Perhaps it is a struggle in prayer, at work or in a relationship. Take a moment to ask God for the grace to persevere like the Canaanite woman, trusting that Jesus will use this obstacle as a means to strengthen and deepen your faith.