29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

     Perhaps the hardest question most of us will grapple with in our faith is the age old question of the problem of evil. I’m sure we have all asked this question to ourselves at one time or another: it goes something like this. “If God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful then why is their pain and suffering in the world?” Afterall if God is all-powerful He certainly has the power to remove the pain and suffering from this world. And if God loves us He wouldn’t want us to suffer and so He would make sure there wasn’t any pain or suffering in this world. On the surface this question may even seem like a good reason to doubt the existence of God, but the problem with this question is it seems to imply that nothing good comes from pain or suffering. Today’s readings flip that question completely upside down and remind us that as Christians, suffering has meaning and power. St. Paul, in today’s 2nd reading reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering. Christ, God Himself, suffered. He knows and experienced what it means to be in pain, to feel lost. He knows and experienced our afflictions. In our Gospel we are reminded that if we want to enjoy eternal company with God in heaven, we too must suffer. After all to be a Christian means to follow Jesus Christ and Jesus had to suffer. So why should it be any different for us. If we want to follow Him to eternal life we should expect to have to drink from the same chalice of suffering that He drank from.

     Sadly today there are many Christian preachers out their preaching what has been called the Prosperity Gospel. This notion which became popular in the 50’s very simply says that if you are living a life pleasing to the Lord, God will bless you with great earthly riches and comforts, but if you are living a bad life, God will punish you with pain and suffering. Friends this doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t line up with the Jesus Christ we know from the scriptures. After all there is nowhere in the Gospels where Jesus promises to make us healthy wealthy and wise. So we must never think that any suffering, disaster, or misfortune that comes our way, is a punishment from God for our personal sin. Look at the crucifix. If suffering was God’s punishment for personal sin, Jesus, God who became man and never sinned, would not have experienced suffering. We need to look no further than the crucifix to see that He suffered more than most of us ever will. And so in the midst of our misfortunes, the challenge is not to ask what evil we have done, but rather the challenge is to look to the crucifix and see that God knows our plight; He’s experienced our pain. I often times tell people that we are most like Christ when we suffer. In suffering we are united to Christ who suffered. In simply accepting and not having to do becoming like Christ becomes even more possible

     Certainly suffering is due to sin in general, but God never punishes us for committing a specific sin by bringing disaster into our life, just as He does not bless our good actions with financial gain. There are certainly natural consequences for our actions. If I go out and gamble away all of my money, I may find myself knee deep in debt and living on the streets and if I work hard I may find myself having financial success, but in both of these cases my fate is a consequence only of my actions and not a punishment or reward from God.

     Friends, it’s a fact of life, we will all have to suffer and in those moments we can be to ask ourselves why does God permit this suffering. Didn’t He come to heal the sick and cure the wounds of sin and division? Yes He did, but no where does He promise to come into this world to simply make us healthy, wealthy and wise. No, He came to preach the good news of the kingdom of heaven and to raise us up to eternal life. Jesus’ focus was not about making us extremely comfortable in this life, it was about saving us so we can spend eternity with Him forever in heaven.

     Jesus came into this world and freely took on our suffering to raise us up to eternal life. While God certainly has the power to remove all suffering from our life, to do so would radically change the relationship we have with Him. You see He doesn’t want to me the master puppeteer who controls our every move. He wants to have a loving relationship with us and in order to have a loving relationship with us, He has to give us the option to choose to love Him in return and the second that option is taken away is the second the choice to love Him disappears. So God did the next best thing, He made suffering the means of our salvation. “Christ took our painful condition and made of it the way of true life.”[1] So no matter what misfortune comes our way we can never be tempted to fall into the trap of believing that suffering is a bad thing. Today’s readings remind us that our Lord has transformed suffering into the means of our salvation. The fact that God allowed His son to die “shows two things very clearly. The first is that suffering and even total ruin do not signify a lack of love on the part of the Father. The second is that suffering is not in vain; it bears fruit and has redeeming power.”[2]

     You see “ultimately, far from ruining Christian hope, suffering is advantageous for it; it is even necessary. Without it, hope would be vague, an ill-defined yearning for happiness.”[3] It is only because we suffer that we can hold out hope for eternal life for in suffering we imitate God who “is a sufferer because he is a lover; the entire theme of the suffering God flows from that of the loving God and always points back to it.”[4] All we have to do is look to the cross to see that suffering can have power. It was the cross that lead to the resurrection. You don’t have the joy of Easter Sunday without the pain of Good Friday. And if it is that way for Christ why should it be any different for us.

     Friends, the challenge is not to run from it. Pain and suffering will come into our lives at times. The challenge then for us is to turn into it. When suffering comes its not our place to ask why, but rather to stare at the crucifix and recognize that in that moment God has blessed us to join Him in suffering, to become more like Him and then to beg Him for the grace to endure it and trust that He who suffered far worse than we ever could understands and has experienced our suffering and is using it in some way to draw us closer to Him and our eternal reward of heaven.

[1] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) pg. 20.

[2] Wilfrid Stinssen. Into Your Hands, Father Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us. San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2011. pg 15

[3] Cardinal Albert Vanhoe. Our Priest is Christ. (1969) pg. 57.

[4] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Behold The Pierced One. San Francisco: Ignatius. (1986) pg 33.

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