The Book of Job is one of the most interesting books in the Old Testament. Most scholars agree that the person of Job didn’t exist but that he represents every person who has ever suffered undeserved hardship. Job had everything: wealth, health and a large family to ensure his future legacy. He assumed his life was good because God had rewarded him for being loyal and for having lived a good and righteous life. (Satan argues that Job is only loyal to God because his life is good. If his life had been rotten, he wouldn’t be so loyal!) Through a series of disasters, Job loses everything: his possessions, his family and his health. Although he remains loyal to God, our first reading is taken from a time when he bemoans the unfairness of his predicament, arguing he had done nothing wrong to deserve the hardships he is now experiencing.
The Book of Job deals with that difficult question many of us have asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people.” (Also the title of a wonderful book by Harold S. Kushner.) We know that innocent children sometimes suffer cancer and abuse. We see how natural disasters destroy the homes and livelihoods of people who were only in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are experiencing a random pandemic that is causing the death and economic destruction of innocent and vulnerable people. We, too, might be lamenting, “It’s not fair!”
Although today’s reading from Job ends on a sentiment of despair, it is important to note that Job’s story doesn’t end there. His own pain and suffering lead him to a newfound understanding that suffering is an inherent part of being human and he becomes more compassionate toward others who suffer innocently. He also knows that God hasn’t abandoned him, nor does God reward or punish him for his level of goodness or sinfulness. Job teaches us that suffering often cannot be predicted or controlled, but we can control how we respond to it.
The readings of today challenge us to think less about why suffering happens, and to focus more on our response to hardships and suffering either within our own lives or that of others. Are we pessimists who spend our energies on complaining about the unfairness of it all and seeking out someone to blame? Are we optimists who feel life is a gift, despite all its pain and messiness and so spend our energy on easing the hardships as best we can?
Today’s gospel shows us how Jesus responds to the pains and suffering of humanity. At the time, it was believed that illness was caused by demons and given as a punishment for having sinned. Although Jesus is inundated with people seeking to be healed, he offers his healing to everyone who asks, without judgment. The first to be healed in today’s gospel is Peter’s mother-in-law. She models for us a response by serving those around her. To be a follower of Jesus is to serve and to help ease the sufferings of those around us without judgement of their “worthiness.” Sometimes in our pain, we exert a great deal of energy looking for explanations or pointing fingers of blame, and we get distracted from actually doing something to alleviate that pain. Like Job, we are called to trust that God is present amidst our sufferings and giving us the grace we need to work within it. Grace allows us to see loss also as a source of gain. Grace opens our eyes to new perspectives we may not have been able to see before. Our present pandemic has been both a source of suffering and grace. I hope that when we get through this all, we will remember how the light of God’s grace was working among us, making us more aware of our connectedness to one another and empowering us to become a better, more compassionate community.