“He Heals the Broken Hearted” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, February 4, 2024

I sometimes come across people going through great suffering, who ask me “Is God punishing me for my sins?”. It breaks my heart, and I am sure it also breaks God’s heart, that people can have such a negative view of how God feels about them. Some of it, I am sure, comes from wrong or muddled teaching during their growing – up years, and some also from harsh responses they have received at some point in their lives, from clergy or religious. And this is so , so sad. Hopefully, we are doing a much better job these days of presenting God as a God “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” which is how God Himself describes his heart to Moses, back in the book of Exodus (Exod 34:6). 

If this is how God himself wants to be known by his people, can you imagine how sad he must be to find his children so scared of him, that they want to keep clear of him?

In fact this twisted understanding of the nature of God is a lot older than we realize. Way back in Old Testament times we find that people believed that those who observed God’s commandments prospered, and sinners suffered. In other words, bad things only happened to bad people, and good things only happened to good people. This led the spiritual and religious leaders to teach the people of Israel that if they were suffering bad things, it must be because they were sinful and God was punishing them. 

So the writer of the book of Job, in protest, wrote his story, presenting Job as a good and holy man, who nonetheless lost nearly everything and was in physical anguish. Three of his friends come to urge him to confess and repent of whatever he had done wrong to make God punish him so, and promised him that, if he would humble himself before God, God would restore him to health and prosperity. Again and again, Job protests his innocence, but in vain. His so-called “comforters” get more and more indignant with him, and call him selfish and arrogant to claim God is punishing him for no good reason. 

How many of the people who would come to Jesus, including those who came to Peter’s house on the evening described in our gospel reading, wondered for what sins God was punishing them with sickness and infirmity? The apostles even put credence in this idea that suffering was a punishment for our sins, asking Jesus with reference to a blind man they come across in John’s gospel, “Who was it who sinned, him or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9: 2-3). Jesus gave no credence to their way of thinking, responding: “Neither, it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him”, before going on to heal the blind man.

Sickness, or any other kind of trial, was for Jesus an opportunity for him to show that God had sent him into the world to set his people free from all kinds of evil.  When we pray, in the Lord’s prayer, “but deliver us from evil”, we are saying that we believe suffering and tragedy do not come from God, but from the evil one, the devil, who seeks to wrap us in darkness and isolate us from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that God never directly sends evil on anyone. But he sometimes permits it to happen, but only so that he can draw a much greater good from it. How many of us, looking back on dark times in our lives, can see, with the benefit of hindsight, that, what looked at those times to be totally tragic, in fact led us to a much better place in our lives. God sometimes does let us fall to the ground, often through our own bad decisions, but only so that he can pick us up again and set us on the right path.

When Job’s friends argue with him that God never lets bad things happen to good people, so Job must in reality be a sinner, they think they are doing God a favour and enabling him to save face. They are trying to make excuses for God, and He doesn’t want, or need, that. To their great astonishment at the end of the story of Job, God tells them that they are the sinners, not Job. They were the ones who did not speak rightly about God, not Job. So much harm is done by well-meaning, but judgmental, Christians who think they have to come up with a reason why someone is suffering which exonerates God from blame.  Instead, they blame the sufferer for not having enough “faith” or “trust” in God, which is by way of adding insult to injury, and is guaranteed to make them feel even worse about themselves and their situation. 

The existence of evil in our world is called a “mystery” for a reason. Theologically speaking, a mystery is not a puzzle to solve, it is a reality to explore and understand better, without necessarily being able to explain it totally. Since Old Testament times until now, thousands of teachers, preachers, philosophers, psychologists, theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil and a good God. Various answers have been put forward, some better than others. God seems to be content to allow the search for meaning to go on, without advancing a complete answer. But he has provided, in Jesus, a response to evil. The gospel of Mark, throughout its sixteen chapters, presents us with Jesus going toe to toe with Satan, the devil, in a series of bruising encounters which all end with Jesus knocking Satan down, until the fifteenth chapter, in which Jesus is crucified and the devil seemingly triumphant. But the 15th chapter of Mark is not the final chapter; there is one more to come, and in that sixteenth chapter, Jesus rises from the dead and claims the whole contest: game, set, match, to mix similes. The final and most bitter consequence of evil in the world, death, is overcome and the gates of heaven are now open wide for those who, because of sin, were destined to spend eternity in hell.

There is one last twist in the story, just as there is in the story of Job, and it involves us, you and me, brothers and sisters. After Jesus is raised from the dead, he appears to his apostles and sends them out in his name to continue his work of defeating Satan and bringing a final end to his kingdom of evil. Mark 16: 17 has Jesus promising his disciples, and this includes you and me, brothers and sisters, that, among other things, “these signs will accompany those who believe in me…by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues…they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover”. Do you get that, brothers and sisters, do you really get that? Jesus has not left us on our own to somehow muddle through our lives as some unavoidable “vale of tears”, utterly at the mercy of all the bad things the devil can throw at us. No, he has already conquered Satan, and he wants us to join in the final stages of the war against him.

 To his Church, Jesus has given all the means we need to overcome evil in all its forms, through our prayer, through the sacraments, through the power of the Gospel and our preaching of it to the world. Jesus even promised that “the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church” (cf Matthew 16:18). People often get this the wrong way round. They think Jesus is saying that the Church will somehow pull through against everything that the devil will throw at it. But in fact, it is the Church which is meant to be on the offensive, not Satan or Hell. The devil is on the defensive, because Jesus has given the Church all the spiritual weapons to take back from Satan all those poor souls who have fallen into his clutches, for whatever reason. And so, the Lord continues, in the words of our responsorial psalm today, to “heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds, to lift up the downtrodden and cast the wicked to the ground”.  

So what do you say, brothers and sisters, are you up for the fight?