The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Job 7:1-4,6-7 + 1 Cor 9:16-19,22-23 + Mk 1:29-39
February 4, 2018
“For this purpose have I come.”
In today’s Gospel passage, the people around Jesus seem to believe that the cures He’s working are the “good news” of the Gospel. We have to remember that the word “gospel” literally means “good news”, and that Jesus had gone around Palestine for some time preaching that he had a message of “good news” for them.
But there was a common misunderstanding among those who heard Jesus. They didn’t exactly understand what Jesus’ “good news” concerned. Was it good financial news? News of good weather for the crops for the next hundred years? Was it news of Israel’s freedom from its slavery to the Roman Empire? The people in today’s Gospel passage think that Jesus has “good news” for them about the physical suffering that afflicts them.
Now we, as Catholics living in modern times, know that the meaning of the Gospel is that we are freed from slavery to sin, not simply that we are freed from the slavery of our bodies to disease. The people in Palestine, however, were so caught up in the wonder of Jesus’ physical cures that they couldn’t understand that Jesus was simply using these cures as signs. They were healings of the body that foreshadowed the more radical healing of the soul.
We shouldn’t fault these people in the Gospel. After all, who among us, when faced with disease, doesn’t find it easy to get caught up in the misery and suffering it brings about? All you want is for the suffering to be over. “Life on earth is a drudgery,” as Job says in the First Reading. Suffering seems to consume your life.
So it’s easy to see why a person in the first century, suddenly and dramatically freed from serious sickness, would look upon Jesus as his Messiah for that very reason. Nonetheless, Jesus’ purpose in working these cures is to point our attention beyond them to something infinitely greater.
By putting our faith in Jesus—that is, by believing that through His holy Cross He has redeemed the world—we are freed from the slavery of our souls to sin. But the larger question that Jesus points to in this Gospel passage is not, “What are you a slave to?” (the correct answer being, “Sin”). The larger question that Jesus points to is, “Who is it who has enslaved you to sin?” This isn’t a question that the people in the Gospel were ready to hear, but we as Catholics ought to consider this question seriously. “Who has enslaved you to sin?”
The answer is: “you have.” Practically speaking, this is one of the hardest teachings of the Church. It’s a teaching that often derails a Christian’s efforts at spiritual direction. We might take it for granted that we are responsible for our actions. But if we look closely at our actions, we might be surprised how often we deceive ourselves.
Like our first parents, Adam and Eve, there is a constant tendency within us to shift the blame. “Who ate the apple? Well, I did, but she made me do it.” We may not even shift the blame to another person, but rather to the circumstances in which we find ourselves in life. “If only I didn’t have to be around that person so much, I wouldn’t bother her,” or “only if I didn’t have to finish that work by next week, I would do a better job on it.”
There is no denying that we are influenced by others, even at times perhaps by the Devil himself. Nonetheless, each person must accept responsibility for his or her sinful actions. When we recognize how powerless we are to do good on our own, and when we accept the fact that it is through God’s grace that we can both be saved and do good works, then we are moving in the direction that Jesus points in today’s Gospel passage. He is pointing us, through His Cross, towards the very source of all good: namely, Jesus’ own eternal Father, who, as the priest names Him in the confessional when giving absolution, is “God, the Father of mercies.”