Homily for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012
God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. These are the opening lines from our first reading from the book of Wisdom today.
I don’t know how much more clear about this God could be.
He is the God of the living, not the dead. He did not make death, he does not like death, death is his enemy. God wants us to live.
And yet, how many people, how many Christians, have struggled with this teaching! Even today many, many people, maybe some of you, carry this tormenting thought, a tremendous weight upon your shoulders: the thought that the death or suffering of a loved one was or is a punishment willed by God. That God wanted it.
What a tormenting thought. On top of the pain of watching someone close to us go through the pain of suffering and death, the thought that their suffering, their death, was caused by something that they did or that we did to anger God, to incur his wrath and condemnation.
Not only is it a tormenting thought, it is a thoroughly anti-Christian thought. It is, if I may say so, straight from hell.
So today might we ask the question: well, where does this idea come from, the idea that God would want or approve of suffering and death? We know that God is a loving God. He created us in love. He has told us again and again that he wants us to live with him in his love. So why do we have such a hard time believing that he doesn’t want suffering and death for us?
I think there are two reasons:
1. We know that God is all powerful. If he were not, death and suffering would not be a problem. God could just shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know what happened here. I was trying to save her, but things just happened, and next thing I knew, I couldn’t. That might work if things just happened without God knowing about it. But he knows everything, he keeps everything in existence at every moment. So if God is in charge and people suffer and die, then it seems like we are put into a position where we have to say that God must have somehow approved? Who can he blame? He’s the one who is all powerful and who could save us, right?
2. A second reason for this mistaken idea is perhaps a bit more subtle, but pervasive. Often it seems that bad things happen to bad people and it seems that good things often happen to good people. You treat people miserably and hatefully, they tend to despise you. You are generous and loving, and others tend to treat you well in return. And God himself tells us that he rewards those who do what is right, and that the way of sin leads to death. This is true, but it is a teaching that can easily be twisted, resulting in a very mistaken notion: that when bad things happen, it must be because someone did something wrong, and that when good things happen, it must be because God loves us. How easy it is to fall into that one, a subtle twisting of the truth that can make us begin to think that suffering and death are a punishment from God for those who do not please him.
And that is why we hear the Lord loud and clear in the scriptures today. God tells us, he insists: he does not want anyone to die. He is the God of the living. He wills that we be healed, he wills that we live. And of all the mistaken notions that Jesus came to correct, this is one of the greatest: that suffering and death are a sign of God’s anger and punishment.
Christ's whole life radically and completely corrects this mistaken notion, in his ministry, in his teaching, and finally in his passion and death.
Jesus spent his whole ministry healing the sick and suffering and even resuscitating those, like Jairus’ daughter, who had died. He did not heal them based on their holiness, he did not heal them because they deserved it. He healed them because they asked, or because they had faith, or just because: he showed that God loves us and wants us to live not because of what we do, but because of who we are, his beloved sons and daughters in Christ, made in his image and likeness.
And Jesus explicitly taught us something new about those who are truly blessed – he gave his disciples the teaching of the beatitudes. Who are the blessed ones, he asked? Those who are happy? No, those who mourn. Those who are free of pain? No, those who suffer. Those who are approved of by all? No, those who are persecuted. He taught his disciples and he teaches all of us very clearly that suffering and death do not mean that you are distant from God. That actually it is when we take up our crosses and follow him that we are most closely united to him and surrounded by his love.
But then, finally, because he knew, I think that we would still not really comprehend, Jesus proved the depth of God’s love, he proved that God would never want to harm us or see us suffer.
How? He submitted to suffering and death himself. The sinless Word of God, perfect in holiness, who had never offended God and who walked in his ways, suffered and died the worst of deaths imaginable. And so Jesus showed us in his passion and crucifixion that suffering and death cannot possibly be the sign of God’s anger or wrath or distance from us. God cannot be distant from himself, so he was not distant from the cross, and so he is not distant from suffering and death.
And so as followers of Christ, our understanding of the mystery of suffering and death must be completely transformed. It is no longer to be feared, because rather than being a punishment, it is a sharing in God’s very life, the life of Christ who suffered and died for us.
His suffering and death on the cross show us that even though God has allowed death to enter into his creation through the devil’s cunning and Adam’s sin, those who suffer or die are never distant from God or unloved.
No, in fact the Lord shows us that he is often closest to those who suffer and die, and that the greatest saints are often those who were intimately united with him in the suffering and in death.
So what is death? What is suffering, if it is not punishment, if it is not a sign of God’s distance from us? I’ve only been ordained 5 years, and it’s hot.
But we can at least say this: our tradition teaches us that it is first and foremost a mystery, a part of this world that cannot be entirely understood in this life. A reality of life in this fallen world that God allows for reasons that we often cannot understand. But Jesus has shown us this: that in entering into suffering and death with him, they are transformed: they no longer are a sign of God’s wrath or anger or condemnation.
Death’s sting has been lifted. Christ entered into death and suffering so that they could become, like the rest of life, an opportunity for us to encounter God and his great love for us, and to respond to his love in faith and trust. Talitha koum. Jesus told them and tells us. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of suffering, do not be afraid of death. Suffering and death are not the worst of evils. They can't be. Because through and in the midst of them God gives us eternal life.