February 7, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading from the book of Job, he complained bitterly that life is little more than slavery and there is no hope left. He finished by stating: “Remember that my life is but a breath, and that my eyes will never again see joy.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Later that day he healed several who were possessed by demons and others who were suffering from disease. At the end of the reading he traveled through Galilee, preaching and casting out devils.

Of all the books of the Old Testament, the Book of Job has troubled me the most. For those who aren’t familiar, let me give the “elevator explanation” of Job. At the beginning of the book God spoke with someone, sometimes called “Satan” or “a satan.” Commentaries dive into this and describe him as an adversary and carefully point out that the Satan here isn’t the same as the Satan that modern Christians believe to be the enemy of God.

In any case this Satan and God discussed Job, a man who God described as “blameless and upright.” Satan countered that Job was blameless only because he was blessed with a large family and wealth: if this was taken away Job would stop being blameless and upright and curse God. Satan offered this as a bet. God agreed to this wager and told Satan he could level any suffering, short of death, to Job and they would see if Job would remain faithful.

This is where it gets hard for us, reading this thousands of years later. In short order his wealth was stolen and his children were killed. Then Job developed boils on his skin and his wife told him to “curse God and die.” Finally, he sat on a dung heap to ponder his next step. Three friends of his came to him and told him that he must have sinned because no good person would suffer like this.

From our very beginning we have struggled with this, and at the end of the book God tells his friends that they were wrong. But since then many of us continue to cling on to the belief that we suffer because we have done something wrong and wonder what it was. I have to confess that I don’t understand this.

When I speak with parents they worry most about two things: their childrens’ safety and how to best ensure they become good people. They want only the best for them and pray their discipline will ensure that they will become honest, responsible and kind people. And as part of their discipline they ensure their children fully understood what they did wrong and what they should have done in the hopes that next time they will make a better decision. They can’t imagine punishing their children while not explaining what they did wrong. Simply put, their children wouldn’t learn anything from this except to fear their parents.

But frankly, these days we are surrounded by suffering that demands explanation. A year ago we learned about a deadly virus that has caused over 2 million deaths. Frankly COVID-19 has caused us to wonder, much like Job did, why this is happening.

When speaking with people around me some have professed optimism that we will be able end this pandemic soon; others have professed pessimism that we will be dealing with this for a long time and the deaths will continue to mount. But I suggest that the debate between optimism and pessimism misses the point. Optimism and pessimism are essentially products of mood and evidence: some people generally think things will go well and other generally think things won’t. Also, optimism and pessimism depend in part on the preponderance of evidence.

But we are not a people of optimism but of hope. Hope isn’t a mood or a scale. Hope is a decision and is based on a deep faith in God and Jesus. God has given us many gifts and I believe our ability to hope in the face of great suffering benefits us greatly. Hope allows us to look and believe beyond what we see and feel.

I find it fascinating that languages that devolve from Latin find parallels between the words hope and breath. In French hope translates to espoir while breathe translates to respirer.

And while Job describes his situation as hopeless he’s wrong. Catholics revere St. Jude as the patron saint of “lost causes.” But the joke is on us because we know there are no lost causes. Sixty years ago a struggling comic named Danny Thomas needed money for a medical procedure for one of his children. He prayed to St. Jude that he would be able to pay the bill and he shortly received a job offer that gave him enough money for the procedure. In return he founded St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee and that hospital has made dramatic strides in curing childhood cancer.

Job tells us that while he may have given up on hope, we shouldn’t. Hope doesn’t come from us and doesn’t belong to us. In the end God’s power and willingness to heal and provide for us is greater than our ability to hope. Instead of hope we should look to a call to faith. When we feel hopeless that shouldn’t call us to doubt our faith.

The problems we face will not end when we defeat COVID-19 pandemic. There will be other viruses, conflicts, and problems.

In the Gospel we find Jesus curing disease and casting out devils. Many of them may have given up hope that they would be cured but they were wrong. So should we. Hopelessness may be a human failing, finding hope is a gift from God.

Let us be people who choose hope