July 9, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) on July 5, 2015, at St. John XXIII Parish and Catholic Center in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; and Mark 6:1-6.
I want to remark on two distracting ideas in our Scriptures today, with the hope that by addressing them up front, we can hone in on the important stuff instead.
First distraction: did Jesus have brothers and sisters? The people in Nazareth say that he did. Answer: probably not. The terms “brothers” and “sisters” may be referring to other relatives of Jesus, such as his cousins. Or maybe Joseph had children from a previous marriage.
Second distraction: why doesn’t Jesus perform mighty deeds in his hometown? Answer: look back through the first five chapters of Mark. Jesus never offers a healing unless someone expresses belief in his message. Simon invites Jesus to visit his mother-in-law. Jesus responds to the friends who lower the paralytic from the roof. Jairus requests Jesus to heal his daughter. The woman with the hemorrhage was healed after she literally “reached out” to Jesus.
The main point today is that God works through the unexpected. Today’s homily will concentrate mostly on Paul’s account of how he found meaning in the afflictions he suffered.
The circumstances that prompted Paul to write the Second Letter to the Corinthians are very mysterious. Paul is clearly facing a lot of challenges in his ministry – challenges in his travels, challenges with other religious preachers, and challenges with the Corinthians themselves. And, in case you didn’t realize it, last Sunday’s excerpt from the letter was Paul’s attempt to raise money for the Church’s first capital campaign! Paul offers a lot of profound theology in this letter, but it’s frustrating to those of us who like a good story with our theology – when we read Second Corinthians, we’re tempted to stop paying attention to the theology and start imagining the circumstances that Paul found himself in.
And such speculation has run rampant when we consider this passage about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” The truth is, we have no idea what the thorn is. Perhaps it’s a physical handicap. Or a personality quirk. Or someone who annoys him. Or something else entirely. It’s not clear whether God gave him this thorn, or if it comes from another source. The main point is that Paul – who had received extraordinary revelations from God – could not find a way to remove the thorn.
This speaks to one of the great truths of life: to be human is to experience pain. We know this truth, but we try to resist it. We live in a culture that insists that if we have enough money, enough fame, and enough sex, we won’t have any pain. That’s simply not true: pain is part of the human condition.
Now, certain forms of pain can be avoided or lessened. Sometimes, we make choices that cause pain. Or, we can find ways to lessen the pain caused by the circumstances around us. But most pain is unavoidable. As we age, our bodies tend to acquire some wear and tear. We get sick. Jobs and relationships don’t turn out the way we wish they would. Friends and loved ones drift away, move, or die.
A few months ago, one of our parishioners lent me a book by psychologist Christopher Germer called The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. I wish I could tell you that I’ve read the whole book by now, but I only started it a week and a half ago. However, the bit I’ve read has made an impression on me. Dr. Germer uses a fascinating equation: (PAIN) x (RESISTANCE) = SUFFERING. We can’t avoid pain. But we can reduce how much we suffer. That depends on how hard we try to resist the pain. So, how does Dr. Germer define resistance? He doesn’t write it out as an equation, but I will: RESISTANCE = (WHAT YOU WANT) – (WHAT YOU HAVE). When we dwell on the difference on how our lives aren’t perfect, we feel worse. Think about it. Our lives are never perfect, but we all know some people who have tremendous pain but seem relatively happy. I think about people who have lost a loved one in tragic circumstances, or someone with a debilitating handicap. At first, they suffered tremendously, but then they accepted “the new normal.” No amount of effort was going to bring back their loved one or their lost limb. When our hopes are similar to our reality, we don’t suffer very much.
This probably sounds heretical to some of us. Don’t we want to strive for a better life, and not settle for what we have? That’s fine, as long as our expectations are reasonable. It’s one thing to aspire to get an education, to improve my marriage, to get a better job, or to live a healthier lifestyle. But if the only way I can think I can be happy is to have an IQ over 200, to never argue with my spouse, to be a billionaire, or to look like a supermodel, I will suffer. A lot.
Think about our gospel. The remarkable part of the story is how much the people in Nazareth resisted Jesus’ message of good news, because they thought that he was just an ordinary carpenter’s son!
Let’s look at that resistance equation again. A lot of people think that they can lower their resistance by distracting themselves from what they have. They turn to alcohol, drugs, or other addictions. But they don’t help. The wisdom of Christian maturity is not to avoid pain, but to acknowledge it. When pain is inevitable, we must accept what we have. In other words, there is only one variable that we can control: what we want. The way to reduce our suffering is to accept what we have. It’s like God told Ezekiel: whether the people heed the words I give you, or if they resist them, it doesn’t change the truth of those words.
So, what should we do when find ourselves fixating on unrealistic expectations? We should take it to God: ask God for the gift of acceptance.
Paul begged God to remove the thorn in his flesh, but when God declined to do so, he instead gave Paul grace to accept the thorn. So, our question for reflection today is this: how far apart are your desires for want you want and what you have? And how can you ask God to reduce the gap?