Sunday Sermon for February 7, 2021, the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23; Mk 1:29-39
In the midst of his agony, Job speaks of man’s life on earth being a drudgery, his days like those of a hireling; he is like a slave who longs for shade and a hireling who waits for his wages. Job looked at his situation that had dragged on for months and saw no hope. He assumed he would never see happiness again. I suspect anyone who has endured intense suffering has experienced the sentiments of Job. The combination of physical suffering, mental anguish, and lack of sleep are very difficult to rise above.
However, St. Paul gives us a means by which to overcome the temptation to despair. In the second reading he speaks about his call to preach the Gospel. He tells us that preaching the Gospel is an obligation that has been imposed on him. While God may not have put it this way, it is clear that this is how St. Paul approached his work as an evangelist. Obviously, in this context St. Paul is not speaking about suffering but, nonetheless, he is speaking about something that has been imposed upon him and, later in the reading, he tells us he has become a slave to all.
In order to understand this, we need to make several distinctions. First, St. Paul helps us to see the difference in his interior disposition regarding this obligatory imposition. He says he can do it willingly or unwillingly. Even if done unwillingly, he still has been entrusted with a stewardship to fulfill. Most parents will understand this. There are probably times when a parent does not want to do something, but because it is necessary for their child, the parent performs the task because they have been entrusted with a stewardship toward their child. The child receives what is needed regardless of their parent’s disposition, but the parent knows whether or not their disposition was one of willing charity or one of obligation.
Second, St. Paul tells us he has made himself the slave of all. Once again, we note this is something freely chosen by St. Paul. It was necessary that he bring the Gospel to everyone, but his way of doing this was to make himself a servant of the Gospel and place those who heard the Gospel above himself. He did not see his stewardship as doing them a favor; rather, he was serving them in a manner that corresponded with their dignity. In other words, he saw these people had a right to receive the Gospel and he was entrusted with the task of bringing it to them. But for St. Paul, it was not just a matter of preaching about Jesus and moving on. No, it was a matter of love for the people to whom he preached. He cared for them and wanted the best for them.
When we put these two dispositions together, we can see the way we can approach any situation in our lives. Everything in our lives is part of God’s providence. Some things are pleasant for us and some are not. It is easy for us to do the pleasant things because we enjoy them and it is also easy to do the more unpleasant things out of a sense of duty or obligation. In either of these situations we see that our disposition is not what motivated St. Paul.
To reach the disposition St. Paul had reached we need to overcome our selfish motives and do the pleasant things, not because we enjoy them, but because of charity for others. It will still be pleasant for us, but our interior disposition is changed. So, also, with the things that are difficult for us. If we can adjust our motive so we are doing these things out of love for God and neighbor, not only do difficult things become more pleasant for us, but, once again, our motive has been adjusted to one of charity rather than duty.
It is not easy for us to make these adjustments, nor, I assume, was it easy for St. Paul. Only by going through many trials and sufferings did he learn this lesson. God asked St. Paul to go and preach to the people he formerly hated and persecuted. While it probably took time and effort, St. Paul learned to love these people and pour out his life for them. He served them as a servant of the Gospel and as a slave of charity.
This was the disposition of St. Paul, but this was also the disposition of our Lord. The Gospel today shows Jesus preaching, healing, and exorcising. He did what His Father asked Him to do and He did it selflessly. God allows our struggles to conform us to Jesus, especially in our disposition to love.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.