Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Problem of Pain



18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle



The first reading each Sunday is usually from the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. Besides it’s own value, the first reading serves as an introduction to the Gospel reading. I think that the majority of these readings are taken from the Prophet Isaiah whose words, uttered more than six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, have always been thought to refer to the Messiah.

However, these words are not Isaiah’s words since he tells us that he is merely passing on the word of the Lord to us. In today’s reading the Lord invites all those who are thirsty to “come to the water;” and all who are poor to drink wine and milk “without paying and without cost;” and all who are hungry to “eat well,…and delight in rich fare.”

The Church uses this passage from Isaiah to introduce St. Matthew’s gospel account of the feeding of the 5000, a miracle that has always been regarded as pointing to the miracle of the Holy Eucharist. But before we get to the actual account of the “loaves and fishes” let’s look at the beginning of this gospel passage.

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

We believe that Jesus was true God and true Man, but I think that we tend to overlook the actual humanity of Jesus. We might have reverence for His Sacred Heart but sometimes I think we read a gospel passage like this and think that Jesus had a heart of stone. There is no sign of grief or sorrow in Matthew’s account. He just tells us that Jesus went off by himself when he heard the awful news.

Maybe the Evangelist wanted us to use our own imagination or experience to understand the actual emotional response of Jesus. My eye surgeon once told me that only 2% of the eye drops I have to put in my eye each day actually get through the defensive wall that protects our eyes. In the same way, I think that our souls have been made with a defensive wall that protects us from most of the horror and tragedy we hear about each day on the news. Otherwise, how could we calmly read about murders, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, and famine and calmly go about our business each day? Once in a while, a public event like September 11 stops us dead in our tracks but it doesn’t take long for things to get back to normal unless we have been personally involved.

It is only when the bad news becomes personal that it can penetrate the outer defenses of our souls. The death of a loved one especially if that person was young or in the prime of life is truly devastating. Sickness and suffering within our families can be overwhelming. I have heard it said that everyone in church is there for a reason. Despite our outward calm most of us have some hidden pain that we bring to the altar each Sunday. How can we deal with it? How did Jesus deal with the tragic news of the death of John the Baptist?

He had a human as well as a divine nature and so we see him act like many of us would do when faced with a great tragedy. He needed some time to Himself. But then, He got back to work. He saw the vast crowd and despite His own grief, “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”

Some people think that suffering and pain come from God. It is hard not to sympathize with those people who ask, “How could God have allowed this suffering to come to me?” The pain and suffering does not come from God, it comes from the world we live in. Much of it is even caused by down own efforts. But Jesus was a healer who never hurt anyone. He came to bring us happiness, not sorrow. His words and miracles provide a way for us to deal with the sorrows that this world provides.

Look at today’s account of the feeding of the hungry crowd. This miracle should remind us of the way we are fed in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus took the little bit of food that they had and offered it up to his Father in heaven. He said a blessing and broke the loaves just as the priest does at Mass. Then he asked the Apostles to distribute the food to the assembly. They were all fed just as Isaiah had predicted. Despite his own personal grief Jesus took care of the needs of others. He expects us to do the same.

It is interesting to note that before the miracle Jesus had expected the Apostles themselves to provide for the hungry crowd. He said, “There is no need for them to go away, give them some food yourselves.” Is it in the Eucharist and in the care for others that we will find solace for our own pain? The love of God is the true food that Isaiah talks about, and it is given freely, not like the false or junk food that we accept today as a costly substitute.

In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans St. Paul says that no amount of tribulation can separate us from the love of Christ. Despite all of his own pain and suffering, he could write,

What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,…
Nor any other creature will be able to separate us
From the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Reading 1. I Isaiah 55: 1-3
Reading II. Romans 8:35, 37-39
Gospel. Matthew 14: 13-21 (Loaves and Fishes)






























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