This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:29–39:
On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.
When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.
Does anyone else feel like we’ve been living in quasi-biblical times of late? The feeling is legitimate, with violence in the streets, division in our communities and our homes, and a global pandemic that has us considering options that sound at least dimly familiar to the separation of lepers in the scriptures. The comparison is less legitimate on its rational merits, of course, as we still enjoy a historically astounding standard of living, plus the understanding and capability to respond to these crises that would have confounded the peoples of those times.
Still, in these crises, we can sometimes feel despair so profound that it brings us into parallel with the most troubled people of the Bible. And of those, perhaps none are so relevant in this time as Job, who finds himself afflicted with all sorts of tragedies, disease, and condemnation from his community. Job becomes the stand-in for a cosmic challenge between the Lord and Satan, but he has no idea of what his suffering means. All that Job knows is his innocence and his suffering, which has become so encompassing that Job has given in to despair:
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.
Later in the same chapter, Job says, “I loathe my life; I would not live forever,” a point which Job repeats and expands in chapter 10. His bitterness flows in every sentence and phrase he utters. Job sees no relief at hand. And yet, in chapter 19, Job testifies even from his despair to the goodness of God and faith in his eventual redemption:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!
The book of Job provides a touchstone in our darkest days, individually and collectively, but it offers more than that. The dialogues of Job give us a discourse on man’s relationship with the Lord and His mystery that has few if any parallels in or out of the Bible. When tragedy befalls us, it’s easy for us to assume that God has abandoned us, or that we are being punished for specific sins. It’s even easier for others to assume that our afflictions are a judgment from God, as Job’s friends do, and to rebuke us for our legitimate grief. The dialogues, especially Elihu’s and the Lord’s, remind us that we do not have the complete knowledge to judge any of the Lord’s actions or to comprehend how they fit within the Lord’s will.
The lesson of Job — indeed, the most basic lesson in scripture — is that we need to focus on obeying the Lord at all times and doing what is right, even when things go wrong. Darkness and despair will come, and it will go as well, but the darkness does not mean that God has left us. It just means that we need to persevere and continue to form ourselves to His will, and not presume to judge what we do not understand.
We see this from the reverse angle in today’s Gospel. Jesus comes to cure disease with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and others in Capernaum, and drive out demons from those afflicted. Imagine what life was like for those possessed and ill with the kind of diseases that would require Jesus to heal. One can imagine that these were not simple colds or mild cases of the flu that would have healed on their own; people would have sought out Jesus when all else had failed.
In other words, they were living in their own envelopes of despair. But they still had enough faith to seek out Jesus to ask the Lord for mercy, as did their families and friends. They may not have understood the mechanics of these diseases or the nature of the demonic possessions, but they knew that the Lord could heal them. They kept enough faith to see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
What does Jesus say when these people seek him out even in His desire for solitude? For this purpose I have come. Jesus preaches and heals in ways that parallel the last chapters of Job — challenging His audiences and disciples to put aside sin and cling to righteousness, and then demonstrating His mercy through these acts of authority.
Times like these offer us a similar chance to reset our thinking and to focus on faith and hope. Even in this darkness, the light of Christ will follow if we remain vigilant and focused on preparing for it.
The front-page image is a detail from “Job and His False Comforters” by Jean Fouquet, 1461. On display at the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. Via WikiArt.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.