5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our first reading today is from the Book of Job. This book is intensely involved with the problem of evil, pain and suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? Ancient people had simplistic answers for pain and suffering – it was deserved they said, or it was an illusion. The book of Job is different. And before Christ, there is no more profound look at suffering than this book. In this particular passage Job lays bare the experience of someone who is stripped of all his masks. Someone who is unable to hide from the harsh, searchlight of the human condition. ‘Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? – I have been assigned months of misery and troubled nights have been allotted to me. This is our human condition. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor – sickness feels the same. Or if you live in a small house or mansion – loneliness feels the same.
Most of us find ways of hiding from this knowledge. We fill our lives with noise and activity and are always on the go, afraid to stop. We are fearful of boredom because boredom is a messenger from our depths. The French thinker Blaise Pascal said ‘Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion. Then he faces his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.’ Job communicates melancholy and despair. And we would do well to pay attention. All of us have to make this passage at some point and by ourselves. So what is to be done?
A whole different scene greets us in the second reading. If there is one thing I picked up from St Paul in this reading it is a driving energy. He is unstoppable. And yet if you read this passage carefully there is a something very intriguing about it. St Paul says about his preaching the gospel. An obligation has been imposed on me. An obligation has been imposed on me. I have always been struck by this. I do not see that anyone has handcuffed Paul. He is a free agent. There are no soldiers or cops watching him. I do not see someone holding a gun to Paul’s head. And yet Paul does not consider himself a free agent. His is under obligation. Elsewhere he calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ. And yet this slave is not depressed or unhappy. He is energized. He refuses to let his natural likes and dislikes stop him. His natural needs for security and comfort are forgotten as his sense of obligation to Christ predominates.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians he spells this out ‘Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. Something has happened to Paul. He cannot break loose from Christ. He cannot break loose from his sense of obligation to preach Christ. But what is more Paul does not want to break loose. He wants to be a slave of Christ. This seems like madness but it is the manifestation of true love. This is what real love does. It brings about self-forgetfulness in the experience of being loved. You do not mind losing yourself because in losing yourself you actually find yourself a hundred times over. This is the paradox of love. It makes us sacrifice ourselves and yet we are happy to do so.
St Paul is the answer to Job’s melancholy. He shows us the way to happiness. As long as we are wrapped up in ourselves, we are miserable. When everything in life for us, is self-referential, this is a recipe for misery. The more we hold on to ourselves, the less we grow. Paul shows us the way – keep your eyes on the Lord. Become a slave of Christ. Make Him the focus of your life. We then experience the liberation from the chains of our little self. And something else happens. Christ never comes to us without bringing His Body along with Him. He is never found without others. He brings the whole world with Him. There is no way we can say we love Christ and hate our neighbor because Christ comes to us along with others. To keep our eyes on the Lord is also care for His Body – the brothers and sisters who are put on our path.
Yes man’s life on earth is a drudgery if he remains by himself, if he only looks out for himself. Only Christ can rescue us from this prison. Let us be under obligation to Christ too if we are to be really free.