Not long after I was ordained, I was working as a hospital chaplain. I remember coming across a young girl of about 12 who was very sick. She was in the hospital several times and she eventually died. I can still see her pale dead body in the intensive care room and her poor parents who were completely devastated. I remember feeling so helpless as a chaplain. I have often prayed for them since. Every time I read today's Gospel I think of that little girl and her parents.
An event like that always brings up the most difficult questions. Why does God allow these things to happen? Why didn’t God heal her? The readings today address some of these questions. First of all death was not something that God wanted for us. And although it is now a part of our earthly existence, it is only a stage of transformation, a doorway to another stage of our life with God. Our physical bodies die, but we don’t die.
The way that Jesus dealt with sickness and death also has a lot to teach us. Since Jesus was able to heal people and even bring people back from the dead, as he did on a few occasions, why did he always want people to be quiet about it? In this Gospel he only brought three of his disciples with him and when he got to the house he made as if the girl was not dead at all. Then he asked the family to keep the whole event quiet. He did the same many other times when he healed people. Why? You would think that it would be in his favour if people knew and that He would have more respect and that people would listen to him. What it is telling us is that his primary role was not about healing people physically, even though he had great compassion for people who were sick and it seems he never rejected anyone who asked for healing. His main role involved three things:
1. To sacrifice himself for us for the forgiveness of sins, so that we might have eternal life with God when we die.
2. To show us that God is with us in our sufferings. Jesus’ freely accepting death on a cross showed us this.
3. To teach us about God and what our life is all about.
Jesus wanted to teach us that God is not interested in condemning us, or ‘catching us out,’ rather, that God has made us to be with him and that God will make that happen if we allow him to. During our time on earth God is gradually transforming us and helping us to become holy, or the best version of ourselves that we can be. The teachings that Jesus left us with are the path which leads us through this gradual transformation, so that we become more like God all the time. Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to be transformed inside, then live the way that I am showing you. Spend your life loving and serving the people around you. Don’t put yourself first and don’t spend your whole life trying to store up a wealth that will disappear the day you die.’ If we get too focused on the world around us, we will miss what our life is really about.
It is tempting to think that that kind of holy life is only for a few people and that our own life is too difficult or too demanding to be like that; but that is not true. If it was not possible to live this way of life, then Jesus would not have taught us about it. The truth is that all of us are given endless opportunities to live the way Jesus taught us, because we are all the time being faced with difficult situations where we continually have to make a choice for good or evil. All of these choices are shaping us and making us into better or worse people. The good thing is that even if we have made a mess of many of the choices we’ve been given, God keeps giving us more, because God wants us to grow into the kind of people that He knows we can become. It is the ordinary struggles that we are faced with every day which are shaping us and giving us the possibility of growing in holiness.
Take something as simple as someone cutting you off in traffic. We are angry, because it is dangerous and we often react by swearing at them, or cursing them. Every time it happens we have the opportunity to bless or to curse. The way of God is not to curse someone, but to bless them. Why should we bless them when they have put us in danger? Because God asks us to. It doesn’t mean we are happy about what happened or that it wasn’t wrong, but why should we curse the person? Maybe God allowed that to happen so that you might ask God’s blessing on that person, because they need it.
Often at funerals I hear people speaking about the person who has died as if they are gone forever, their existence extinguished, there is nothing else. But to see it that way is to completely miss the point of what our faith teaches us. What Jesus has taught us is that while we are on earth we are all the time preparing for the world to come, something which is unimaginably wonderful. If we really believe that, then we can be quietly happy for those who have gone before us, because they have already reached it, at least if they have chosen it by the way they live. Knowing that something wonderful awaits us should give us both a comfort and a hope for those who have died. Sooner or later we will also be there and that is why we don’t despair. They have gone before us sooner than we expected. That is a very different perspective from believing that their live is over. It is not over, just their time on earth is complete.
St. Paul says, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied.’ If we think this life is everything, then we have completely missed the point of our faith. Many people live as if this life were everything. If that were true then make yourself and your family as comfortable as possible before it’s all over. That is the opposite of what we believe. Our life on earth is just the time of preparation and we have a task while we are here and that task is to serve; to live by the ways of God and to bring God’s love to the people around us. If the world to come is as wonderful as we say we believe it is, then in some sense it doesn’t matter what happens to us here on earth, as it is temporary. The perspective our faith gives us makes a big difference. That is why Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.’ If we live as Jesus taught us, then we will influence the world around us—just like salt—and help others to see things differently.
Jesus’ life on earth is the greatest witness for us. Everything He did pointed to what is to come and to what our purpose here on earth is. Now is the time of service and if you are not sure exactly what you are supposed to be doing, read the Scriptures. God’s word teaches us everything.
For now we live as best we can, we continually try to choose good over evil and to live as God asks us to.
He took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum,”
which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”
The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around.