Homily on suffering and death

One of the questions that sometimes gets flung at us Christians is why so many good people suffer and die in horrible ways, whilst others, even bad people, live to a ripe old age. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? Of course there is no answer to this, only a choice. Faced with a lot of awful things in the world, do we just throw up our hands in despair and say “It’s a horrible world and if there is a god he is horrible too.”? Or, do we say “It is because it is a horrible world that I choose to turn towards a power of goodness and love, however hard that may be, and in his power do what I can to make my bit of the world better.”?

The seven brothers in our Old Testament Reading today (2 Maccabees 7:1-14 –The Apocrypha) could have chosen the easy way out, and given up the religious practices that marked them, and just believed in God privately whilst conforming to the ways of the world outwardly. It is just what many people do today who have their private religion but rarely, if ever, go to Mass. What is interesting about the Book of Maccabees is that it comes right at the end of the Old Testament story less than 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Here, people know and believe that good people can often suffer far more than bad people, but that there is a reward promised to those who are faithful – in life after death with God.

However, the earlier parts of the Old Testament display the more primitive belief – that good people will be rewarded in this life ; and these more ancient peoples believed that not least because they did not believe in life after death. So when they tell the story, for example, of Abraham, the great ancestor – patriarch – of the people of Israel, they even exaggerate his age to stress that point. It reads: Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then… breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years (Genesis 25:6-8) The same is said of Jacob and Moses and others. They may have had their troubles and challenges, yes, but in the end they died knowing that their life would live on in their children and their people loved and blessed by God.  The realisation that this is not a true picture of life is one of the major themes of the Old Testament. It’s not written however as one story, but is a collection of books written over a thousand years of experiences; and in these books we can see the gradual discovery that, if God does reward his people, then it must be in a spiritual life with him in glory after death, rather than happiness here and now. That, of course, is how some people misread the Bible, by reading bits of the Bible on their own rather than seeing it as a presentation of a people over history gradually learning about what God is really like, finally revealed in the life and death of Jesus.

We can see from our Gospel (Luke 20:27-36) that even in Jesus’ day there are many who still do not believe in life after death – in the resurrection as it is called – and Jesus has to explain to them that eternal life with God is a spiritual thing –“they are the same as the angels” – and is nothing like life now, where people have husbands and wives etc. Indeed Jesus teaches that far from being simply “life after death” – the life with God that we are promised after death is something we begin to enter into here and now. That is why he calls it “eternal life” and says to those who simply believe they WILL be raised up, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life… and whoever.. believes in me will never die.”

The Gospels stories also show us that not only did the followers of Jesus have to learn this, but also had to realise that choosing to follow him into eternal life is not an easy road. They want to prevent him being crucified, but Jesus knows such suffering is necessary from the later books of the Old Testament, the one we had as our 1st Reading yes, but also the great passages from the prophets. Faced with their people suffering and dying through war and exile, they had to discover this new way of thinking about God that Jesus brings to its fulfilment in his death and resurrection. So the prophet Isaiah (53:3-5) writes, in a passage we always read on Good Friday, of “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” and then “yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.”

Our answer then to those who ask why does God allow us to suffer is to say “I do not know, but what I do know is that God chooses to suffer with us, and alongside us.”  It is thus, as we look at the cross, that we know his love and are given hope and strength to be faithful whatever we have to face. As we sing in that famous English hymn:

“Hold thou thy Cross before my closing eyes:

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.   

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”