14 September 2009

Faith, Good Works and Suffering

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 13 September 2009

Readings: Isaiah 50, 4-9; Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; James 2, 14-18; Mark 8, 27-35

The Gospel this Sunday has three parts:
1. Jesus’ asks His disciples: “Who do you say that I am”. Peter’s response: “You are the Christ.”
2. Jesus speaks about what His being Christ means, the suffering and death He has to endure, and His rebuke of Peter.
3. Jesus teaches his disciples and the crowd the way of the cross and self-denial.

The three-part Gospel passage practically describes what Christian faith is and what it entails.

1. To be a Christian means to believe in Jesus as Christ, the longed for Messiah of Israel and the rest of the world, even when they don’t know it.

To be Christian means to seek to get know Christ, and the will of the Father which He has faithfully obeyed, ever deeply and more intimately.

Apparently, Jesus as Christ identifies Himself with suffering, and suffering humanity.

2. It is not enough that we believe. Our faith should be expressed in good works, i.e., in the way we think, say, act and live.

James 2,14, from the Second Reading, says: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”

Romans 2,6 says God “will repay everyone according to his works".

Acts 9,37-42 tells the story of the saintly woman Tabitha who was “completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving”. Because of it, she was well-loved by her community in Joppa. When she fell seriously ill and died, the community fell into deep mourning and went out of its way to invite Peter to Joppa. When Peter arrived at the upper room of Tabitha’s house, where her body was laid, he did as Jesus would have done: sent them all out, knelt down, prayed, then said: “Tabitha, rise up.” She came back from the dead. The story ends with: “This became known all over Joppa, and many came to believe in the Lord.”

Faith provides the roots, and good works the shoots, shoots that bear much fruit!

3. Our faith involves undergoing suffering and denial of oneself. As it was with Jesus, so it will be with those who follow Him.

Let's be clear: it doesn’t mean that God wants His people to keep suffering, or wallow in misery, or stay poor. The denial of oneself is an affirmation that suffering is real, and the Christian way is not to deny or run away from it. It is to deal with it, fully knowing that we will triumph over it and, more importantly, that Jesus made suffering as our means of salvation.

Let me share a love story (adapted from Frank Mihalic, SVD, 1000 Stories You Can Use, vol. 2)… During the 18th century, there lived a German-Jewish philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn, a brilliant compassionate man, who at that point was also starting to rise out of poverty, with but one fault: he was hunchbacked. And he fell in love with a beautiful and charming young woman named Fromet, the daughter of a prosperous banker.

The first time he courted her, he told this story: “As you know when boys are born, the angels in heaven call out for all to hear: ‘This little boy is destined to have this special girl for a wife. It is decreed for all eternity and no one may change it’. So when I was born, the angels made that announcement about me. But then they paused and added: 'But alas, Mendelssohn’s wife will have a terrible hump on her back.' Then I should have shouted out loud before the court of heaven: “O Lord, no, no! A girl who is hunchback will very easily become bitter and hard, and the object of awful jokes and hurts. No, Lord, a girl should be beautiful. O Lord, please give the hump to me and let her be well-formed.’”

“And you know what, Fromet? God heard my prayer and I was glad. I am that boy and you are that girl.”

I don’t know if the story will work with the ladies here, but apparently it worked for Mrs. Mendelssohn.

Brothers and sisters, the greatest obstacle to our attaining success and happiness in life is not poverty, nor illness, nor physical impairment, nor whatever dire circumstance we are born into, nor is it the devil himself. Our biggest hindrance to success and happiness is our “self”: our self-centeredness, our narrow-mindedness, our concern mainly for the pleasures of the here and now. The solution to this problem is simply the dying to oneself.

Mark 8,35 says “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” The saying makes sense not only when thinking as God does, but even in worldly terms. The discipline and humility required for hard work to succeed are forms of dying to oneself. Imagine what would happen if our hard work, discipline and humility, our dying to ourselves, be offered for the sake of the Kingdom.

The suffering that Jesus teaches His followers to embrace is not a static suffering or a cross-generational never-ending cycle of poverty and oppression. The suffering that Jesus refers to is the kind that, when embraced by a faith that manifests in nobility of character and good works, leads to God’s promised glory.

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