22nd Sunday – Stumbling Stone

Felix Joseph Barrias, The Temptation of Christ

Matt 16:21-27, Romans 12:1-2

“It so happened that I [once wrote] a bestseller; this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naiveté and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and b****rds of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” – Thomas Merton, Love and Living

Why would you write a book hoping it will not sell well? Why would you do a job so that you’re unsuccessful? Or, does Merton mean something else? We can easily approach life as a puzzle to be cracked open or  as a game to be won. If we play by the rules – whatever they may be – we can win. This goes as much for being a success in the world, as our attitude many times, to the spiritual life. If we work hard, have the right connections and what not, we can be successful. We can have the life we want. And similarly, if we are pious, try to live a good and holy life, then God will bless us. Why would he not? The book that most easily lends itself to this mode of thinking in the Old Testament is Deuteronomy. If we keep the Law, there are blessings that will accompany life. If we don’t, equally, there are curses that follow. The great protest against this mode of thinking (rather than Deuteronomy itself, being as it is, Scripture and therefore, true as a whole), is the Book of Job. There, an innocent man, who has lived all his life truly and in fidelity to the covenant, suffers grievously. He dares to raise his voice against God himself, demanding to know why such suffering has befallen him, all the while maintaining his innocence. 

Thomas Merton

The problem of suffering, especially innocent suffering always raises a ‘why’. It throws into chaos this vision of life as a problem that could be and can be solved. Over the years, different religions and philosophies have all wrestled with this. It should be said that some of the answers of other religions and philosophies to that of suffering and evil can be more intellectually appealing, and satisfying, compared to Christianity. To say this person suffers because he has sinned, as belief in karma would suggest, can give satisfying closure, even as we pity them. We understand its cause. It is not without reason that St Augustine, one of the greatest minds of the Church, spent almost a decade in Manichaeism, a Gnostic religion. It provided a logically coherent answer to the existence of evil (two gods in conflict, one good and one bad), and it allowed oneself to be set free of evil through individual effort. Very similar to the New Age spiritualities on offer today, it involved the performance of particular rituals and techniques like diet, exercises etc., to free oneself of evil. While the approaches and answers are varied, they usually have in common self-effort of the sufferer, individually achieved. It does not involve repentance from sin or loving your neighbour. Such a vision is usually accompanied by a devaluation of the body from whose effects one has to be freed. 

Compared to all these, Christianity has a deliberately muted – or should I say, an air of contemplative silence – before the ‘mystery of iniquity’ as John Paul II called it. Job receives an answer of apocalyptic dimensions in the final part of the book (Job 38:1f). The ‘why’ that he raises however, is never answered. It has led some atheist philosophers to cite it as proof that the God of the Bible is not all-powerful, even should he exist.  But that is to fail to understand the deeper query that Job raises, the meaninglessness of his existence in the face of final annihilation. Why should God create human beings only to destroy them, leaving them without communion with each other and with God forever? (Job 14) This, God answers. In the whirlwind, which signifies the explosion and abundance of divine life, God reveals himself as One who is able to provide and save through all of his suffering. As the all-powerful giver of life, he is able to order things, even Job’s suffering in a way that can bring forth joy.

And Job’s protest is particularly relevant to us, who exist as embodied beings, which is a particular form of existence. We are not pure spirits who commune very differently. As the Apostle says in the second reading, ‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice’ (Rom 12:2). The body opens us out to the world. To be embodied means we live as relational creatures.

It is within these relationships as well, that we experience our suffering. We suffer because and for the ones we love. There is something of this we can readily accept. Parents routinely make sacrifices for their children, good friends for each other. There is some meaning to it. But what about the injustices that we face? The ‘bad hand’ that life deals out at times? Or just the share of suffering which befalls everyone, some more generously than others? In other words, the Cross that appears in all of our lives. There seems to be no meaning to this at all. When we experience this Cross, it no longer remain an intellectual problem but a deeply painful, existential one. And the very first prediction of the Cross, immediately produces a cry of protest – and rebuke – from Peter, Jesus’ newly appointed vicar. Jesus is saying that he is going to be unjustly and violently killed – and he is going to walk straight into it! Till now, things have been going according to plan. Jesus has been healing people, multiplying bread, preaching, everyone, save a few, love him. He has helped so many. How can his death – this injustice – be part of any good plan, let alone, God’s? But it is precisely here, that the promise God makes Job as provider in his suffering, comes to full flowering. God, by becoming incarnate – taking a body to himself – will embrace this very injustice, this violence and death, unleashed in the world through man’s free rebellion. This rebellion is his refusal to be in relationship with God. Through this, Death had become the final annihilator of all relationships. In freely giving his life to the rebellious, Christ will disarm Death of its power on the Cross, so that there is no place where God and his love will not be present. 

Job answered by God, William Blake

When you experience this love, which has gone beyond death and won over it, whatever comes your way, you can face it knowing that you are not alone. This was the deepest cry of Job, that he would be left alone, annihilated in Sheol (Job 14:10). The gospel of Matthew opens with Christ being called Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’. It ends with the Resurrected Christ’s promise that he is there with us always, even till the end of time. The cross, in its appearing – and appear, it will –  can leave us feeling powerless and vulnerable. But if we know this promise, we don’t need to cry out in despair, like Job; or rebuke Jesus like Peter. 

Jesus calls Peter, ‘Satan’, the one who first tries to draw him away from the Cross, by offering him the glory and success the world can give. Jesus exorcised Satan with a ‘begone’ (Matt 4:4), but he orders Peter to ‘get behind’ him. There was no redemption for Satan, but there is for Peter. To ‘get behind’ Jesus, is to follow him as a disciple and trust him in faith. Whatever we face, he will himself be there with us to take us through it. United with Christ, our suffering takes on new meaning. We are joining his mission in the salvation of the world. Then we can say with St Paul, 

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

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