Consolation in suffering

Tom Bartolomeo
3rd Sunday Ordinary B 2015
Jonah 3:1-5,10 Psalm 25 1
Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
Reproduced with Permission

Of the four gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - Mark's gospel takes us on a journey. Our journey, not simply Jesus'. The entire Bible itself continues the history of our salvation which will not end until the prophesies in the bible are fulfilled. Other histories may deal with past dead facts but not the living Gospel of Jesus Christ. Everyone of us is written into its pages. We simply must find ourselves within its pages and either start or continue our journey. No one is excused, the innocent or the guilty. This is the gospel message, the "good news" that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" which Jesus proclaimed at the start of his Gospel according to Mark: "Repent, and believe in the gospel". (Mark 1:14-15).

Besides the Good News which Jesus was born to spread there may be no other story more illustrative of mankind's journey to God than the parable of Jonah which Jesus referenced when some skeptics questioned his authority in casting a demon out of a mute who then found his voice and praised God. "The crowds", we were told, "were amazed, but some of them said "He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons" asserting illogically that Satan's power is greater than God's power. "Others to test him", we were also told, "kept demanding from him a sign from heaven." They had just witnessed one miracle and wanted another! Jesus then finally said, "This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the last judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see something greater than Solomon is here!" (Luke 11:29-32).

The story of Jonah was not factual but a well known parable which Jesus referenced. Jesus' allusion to the "queen of the South", however, chronicles an historical event, the queen of Egypt meeting Solomon, the king of Israel, the successor to King David, who told Solomon, "The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. (1 Kings 10:5-7). It was the same invitation Jesus offered his first two disciples, Andrew and John, "come and see" for yourselves what you have heard. (John 1:35-39).

For Jesus' purposes the parable of the Book of Jonah complemented Jesus work of redemption. Unlike Jesus Jonah was a reluctant prophet who was commanded by God to "set out for the great city of Nineveh and announce": 'forty days and more and Nineveh shall be destroyed'." Then we are told "the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small put on sackcloth. When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened." (Jonah 3:1-10).

Like Jonah whose journey took him through the entire city of Nineveh Jesus' journey took him through Israel, Judea, Samaria and Galilee always proclaiming, "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." John the Baptist and all the prophets before Jesus had preached repentance. For its time 612 BC Nineveh was the largest city in the world, the capital of the Assyrian Empire which had conquered Israel during the time of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah who in their day also preached repentance but were largely ignored by royalty and the people. During their time Nineveh was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire who also conquered unrepentant Israel. Israel's dark days of corruption preceded its defeat and enslavement which was followed by repentance and peace and again corruption and punishment many times over. It is history repeated over and over in the world. We may reflect also on Jonah's reluctance to follow God's command before he succumbed to God's discipline. "The Lord", had told Jonah, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me." But Jonah resisted and boarded a ship believing he could escape God's command. The ship sailed into a sudden and unexpected storm, and the ship's crew knew that Jonah had brought God's anger aboard and threw Jonah into the sea where he was swallowed whole by a large fish, perhaps a great white shark. "From the belly of the fish", Jonah prayed saying, 'I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Hell I cried, and you heard my voice: 'As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!' Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land." (Jonah 1-2ff). Finally, we learn that Jonah got up and went to Nineveh and proclaimed, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" and the entire city repented. Was Jonah that convincing and were the citizens of Nineveh that repentant? We do not know, but we know how corrupt and worldly Nineveh had again become when the city was eventually destroyed and never rebuilt. Repentance is not a one time event but a continuous turning of the heart. We know too, that Jesus' adopted town, Capernaum, where Jesus' first four Apostles lived and where Jesus performed many of his miracles was destroyed a century after Jesus predicted its destruction, and to this day it has never been restored. "Woe to you", Jesus said, "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you." (Matthew 11:21-24). To this day the large city of Capernaum in Israel remains a ghost town. All the broken walls of the city's homes and buildings remain but are empty of people. I have seen it with my own eyes.

Do we understand that chastisement always precedes forgiveness because we are at heart sinners. I do not know how many times I have heard a penitent in the confessional say, "Father, I'm a good person" to which I reply, "Well, then you should hear my confession because I am not a good person." So let me share this secret. The more we accept God's chastisements in this world the more we accept his consolations joined as we are to his continuous suffering until the end of the world. Ours will end with death. Christ's suffering continues to the end of the world. There is little enough joy we may share in this world but so much more heart felt consolation in the purpose and love we find in suffering with others.

The great Apostle Paul explained it so much better than I when he said:

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church [and] we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Colossians 2:24; Romans 5:3-5).

Would it surprise us to hear that the happiest people in this world are those who join the suffering of others to their own? We can be bands of brothers and sisters in the Lord when we allow others to unite their suffering with ours and ours with theirs in his promise that he will be with us not only here but in the world to come. This is the journey Jesus began in Mark's gospel moving from one place to another with his disciples in tow, a journey meeting and joining himself to the suffering of people in this world and finally nailing it to the cross forever and then rising from death for our shared happiness together forever.