A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

The problem about suffering

One of the things that we learn over the years is that life has its “hills” and “valleys.”  That is to say that we experience “good” and “evil.”  And in a rather weird way, we can share the two almost in tandem–quite often in what I would call a criss cross pattern.

By that I mean we could have moments of sorrow in times of joy, or times of joy during moments of sorrow.  During good times bad things can happen, and during bad times good things can happen.

In the Gospel for the twenty second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 16:2127) Jesus tells his disciples that for him, good things will happen (resurrection) only when bad things happen first (suffering and death).  [This is the Lenten and Easter experience]

But Peter, speaking “off the cuff, ” tells Jesus, “No such thing will ever happen to you.”  We can imagine Jesus in the midst of a huge sigh of desperation because Peter does not see the connection between suffering and resurrection, sorrow and joy.  So, Jesus employs the criss cross pattern in explaining what it is to be his disciple.

“Whoever wishes to be my disciple, must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  Whoever wishes to save his life, shall lose it.  But whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”  Then comes the priority statement that embraces the discipleship process.  “What profit would it be to gain the whole world and lose his life.”

Makes us wonder.  Why did Jesus put so much emphasis on suffering?  I would suspect that Jesus meant that  genuine suffering comes from empathy not sympathy.  There is a difference.  Sympathy generally means that you feel sorry for someone else.  Empathy generally means that you experience the suffering of someone else.  For example, you suffer when other people suffer usually from injustice.

The fact is that empathy often provides motivation to do something about correcting the situation.  The reason is that we feel the injustice since the human family makes us all brothers and sisters.  I would not think the question too far fetched if we were to state that this is why Jesus became human– because he felt our suffering.

What can we learn from the Gospel reading?  No doubt, many things.  But I would like to suggest at least two items.  First, it would seem rather important to become aware of the “criss cross” pattern in our lives.  That is to say that good things can happen after bad things do–and vice versa.  There does not have to be a direct connection between the two.

Secondly, suffering can turn into joy IF we empathize with the suffering of others.  Why?  Because empathy will make it possible to become motivated to help others.  For instance, we feel injustice all around us.  Being empathetic with the suffering should motivate us to do something.

As Jesus was presenting the “criss cross” pattern to his followers as to be his disciples, we are reminded that as it was for Jesus so it will be for us–should we want to be a disciple.



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