Just Have Faith

(Homily for Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Sometimes people ask what is the most difficult thing for a parish priest. I would answer: officiating at the funeral of a child. Words make no sense when it happens. To say, "I know how you feel," is patently false. Even the most Pangloss priest would not tell grieving parents, "It is all right. Your child is in a better place." And hopefully, he would resist the temptation to talk about preventing future tragedies. The fact is that the parents have lost what is most precious to them. If they are believers, they will ultimately ask why God would permit it to happen. Why did He take their child from them?*

Recently a friend had the funeral of a fourteen-year-old boy who died in a skateboarding accident. His first concern was to spend some time with the parents, even though it involved a significant change to his schedule. He cancelled several appointments (including one the Archbishop) and of course people understood. Everyone senses that the most important thing a priest can do is to be present to people in a time of tragedy. Although he did not have any explanation to give them, he did offer what they most needed: an opportunity to meet Jesus in his Word and in the Eucharist.

Today's Gospel tells about people in tragic situations: A pitiful woman who had suffered twelve years from a humiliating condition. Her story is sandwiched within an account of a synagogue official, desperate because of the illness and death of his little daughter. Why does God permit people to suffer such horrible things? Ultimately, we have only one answer - that they would come to Jesus. To know Jesus is the greatest good which the Father can offer us. Apparently it would be worth twelve years, even twelve hundred years, of suffering simply to touch his cloak. And for the synagogue official, his terrible anguish vanished like mist when he heard those words, "Talitha koum," that is, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!"

I once watched a video of Snow White with a four-year-old Peruvian girl and her mom. At one point I regretted it because the child began sobbing uncontrollably at the death of the princess. Her mother also began to weep terribly. They did not stop even when the prince arrived to bestow his kiss. I had to actually reverse the video and explain what had happened. We easily identify with tragedy. It is hard to believe that a genuine resolution exists. Jesus might seem no more real than Snow White's prince.

In the end, it comes down to faith. Like the woman in today's Gospel, we must reach out to Jesus. Before asking for your leap of faith, I would like to mention a consideration based on the natural world. The Book of Wisdom describes a world filled with beauty and goodness. Only human excess spoils it. Grapes are sweet and they naturally ferment to make a wonderful drink. Human excess, however, uses it for something ugly and destructive. According to many environmentalists, human excess may destroy our entire planet. Whether their theories are correct, they point to a biblical insight: God made this world good. Human evil - spurred on by the devil's evil - has turned it into a nightmare.

If all of us - even those with a purely secular worldview - can recognize goodness and beauty in the world, is there not reason to hope that a marvelous goodness could rescue us? The most enduring stories speak about such a power. In Jesus this power has taken human form. Could it be that the purpose of our present suffering is to bring us to him?** Or to put it more accurately, to receive him when he come to us. In spite of our anguish, he says, "Do not be afraid; just have faith."


*I also hope the priest resists the temptation of saying, "Do not blame God. It was a disease...or an accident...or the work of some misguided person. God is not responsible." It might appear chivalrous to protect God, but - if you think about who God is - you realize that things don't happen behind his back. If not even the sparrow falls to the ground without his willing it, how much more a human being? In a similar vein, some people have the idea that the theory of evolution rescues God from the problem of evil. Not so. A second's thought will tell you that the fact that, over time, created things tend to change hardly absolves the Creator from ultimate responsibility. Beware of solving the problem of evil by surrendering to a secular worldview. The solution to the riddle of evil is not secularism with Christian frosting. The only answer is Jesus.

Note: For sure God is not responsible for moral evil (sin). Nevertheless, we must frankly admit that he allows sin. He permitted the Holocaust; he could have restrained our first parents from sinning, but he did not do so. At the same time we must have confidence that God is doing everything possible to fight sin, everything except taking away human freedom. We can also trust that he will utilize any evil as an occasion to bring about his final purpose (see Rom 8:28).

**George MacDonald made this comparison: "As cold as everything looks in winter, the sun has not forsaken us. He has only drawn away for a little, for good reasons, one of which is that we may learn that we cannot do without him." (I am sure my fellow Seattlites can identify with that quote. This past winter the sun seemed very distant.)

It may be too blunt for twenty-first century sensibilities, but George MacDonald also said: "Lest it should be possible that any unchildlike soul might, in arrogance and ignorance, think to stand upon his rights against God, and demand of Him this or that after the will of the flesh, I will lay before such a possible one some of the things to which he has a right. ... He has a claim to be compelled to repent; to be hedged in on every side: to have one after another of the strong, sharp-toothed sheep dogs of the Great Shepherd sent after him, to thwart him in any desire, foil him in any plan, frustrate him of any hope, until he come to see at length that nothing will ease his pain, nothing make life a thing worth having, but the presence of the living God within him."

Final Version

Spanish Version

From the Archives:

Homily for Thirteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year B, 2000: Appreciating the Ordinary

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