God, Humanity, Suffering: A New Paradigm


A reflection on the readings of September 3, 2021 — the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time. When available, the audio of this homily will be available here.

I could be wrong, but I think one of the things we might believe is that life is easier with God. “Jesus take the wheel,” right? With Jesus in the driver’s seat, the ride is supposed to be smoother!” But what if it is not? What if it only gets rougher? What if the lesson of life is, “Take up your cross and follow me?”

Taking my cue from today’s scripture readings, I would like to reflect on the relationship between God, suffering, and humanity.

Despair and Disillusionment: A Spirituality with Struggles

I feel very consoled that passages like today’s first reading from Jeremiah did get recorded in scripture. It captures the Prophet Jeremiah’s disillusionment. He says, “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed” (Jer 20:7). Jeremiah was called by God when he was very young. He had protested his call, but God prevailed over him. He embraced his calling with great fervor, but soon it became clear to Jeremiah that things were not going as he anticipated or as God promised. Not only were people deaf to his call, but he began to face violent opposition. He had expected people to respond positively to God’s word. When that did not happen, Jeremiah expected God to do something to turn the tide. Nothing happened. He felt like a total failure. Jeremiah was totally disillusioned and crestfallen.

Passages like these and others remind us of that crises of faith and spiritual disillusionment are real. It tells us that especially when suffering comes our way, despair is a possibility. A grieving father who unexpectedly lost is twenty-four-year-old son a couple of weeks back, said to me the other day, “If there is a God, I cannot understand this.” This father is not without faith. In fact, it is having faith that makes people express such sentiments.

Have you ever been angry with God? Have you felt let down by God? Have you felt cheated by God? And have you felt guilty about how you feel? If you are one of these people, please know that you are not alone. Jeremiah’s story teaches us that spiritual disillusionment is real and a part of both life and spirituality.

Christianity and Human Suffering

Besides spiritual disillusionment, we also encounter suffering. One of the greatest obstacles to faith in God is human suffering. Many people cannot reconcile the existence of God and the existence of human suffering. It has given rise to many an atheist and agnostic. The most disconcerting thing is that God does not even defend himself against the accusation.

Last Sunday, I reflected with you on Matthew’s composition of Peter’s Messianic confession. In Matthew’s version after Peter’s confession, Jesus affirmed Peter and said, “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 1618). I said in my homily last Sunday that Matthew composes this event this way because he was addressing the needs of the Matthean community. However, the mood changed dramatically when Jesus began to tell his disciples about his impending suffering and death. At this, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him saying, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Peter’s reaction at Jesus’ revelation of a suffering messiah is the same difficulty we have with reconciling faith and suffering, isn’t it? In response, Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me” (Mt 16:23).

However, Jesus does not stop there. He continues, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24). Historically, Matthew was writing to a persecuted Church and in these words, he was offering Jesus as the model of facing suffering with faith. But there are deeper lessons. Jesus embracing his suffering, facing it with undying faith in God, giving it meaning, all leading to the empty tomb gives us a way to encounter our own sufferings.

The Cross: A New Paradigm

The concept of “suffering Messiah” is uniquely Christian. It is an entirely new paradigm for understanding the relation between humanity, God, and suffering. Before Christ, people looked to religions for a way out of suffering. The Christian story is unique and different. Christianity is not a religion that provides useful hints to avoid suffering or treat suffering as an obstacle. Rather, Christianity takes the problem of suffering head-on and infuses it with meaning. It is a new paradigm.

The focal point of Christianity is her Messiah hanging helplessly on a cross and transforming its meaning. The cross was the ultimate symbol of suffering, despair, disillusionment, defeat, and death. But when Jesus told his disciples to “take up the cross and follow me,” he himself did not merely “take up the cross.” He embraced it, got nailed to it, and died upon it. Jesus infused the cross with a whole new meaning. Jesus transformed the cross into a means of human redemption. He made the cross a means of expressing fidelity to God and to humanity. Jesus made the cross a means of showing undying love and forgiveness. Through the cross, Jesus shows his solidarity with humanity.

Practical Implications

For me, the cross holds the key to understanding the relationship between God, suffering, and humanity. When Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24), he was inviting his disciples to live life in the new paradigm. Instead of looking at suffering as an obstacle, Jesus was asking his disciples to pick it up in faith. Just as Jesus gave the cross a whole new meaning, he invites us to give our suffering a whole new meaning.

If you face spiritual disillusionment or find the suffering in your life unbearable, I invite you to stand before the cross. The meaning the cross has for you, is the very meaning your suffering has for you. It is by taking up the cross that we can transform the meaning of human suffering. The cross is the connection between God, suffering, and humanity.

There is one more thing. Jesus did not have to take up his cross. Humanity could have been redeemed in other ways. But the cross was Christ’s solidarity with a suffering humanity. Today too, when we come to the aid of people who endure suffering, we show Christ-like solidarity. In carrying each other’s crosses, in solidarity we discover Christ in our suffering brothers and sisters.

Thanks to Where Peter is.

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