Aug. 24, 2019

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

HOW TRIALS DISCIPLINE US

Readings: 1st- Is. 66:18-21; 2nd- Heb. 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk. 13:22-30

A huge part of our religious experience deals with emotions. For instance, the negative emotions seem to overwhelm us, and things happen in our lives. We feel bad when things don’t go right. We feel frustrated when results don’t come. We feel sad when losses occur. We feel angry when others offend us. We feel defeated and helpless when we sin. Sometimes we feel empty and lonely as if abandoned by God. We complain and whine. The second reading of today focuses on how to deal with those things that touch the core of our emotions; “Endure your trials as “discipline,” God treats you as sons” (Heb. 12:7). We have to reassess our attitude towards trials.

The reading reinforces the fact that we are like little children before God. Here, Scripture addresses us as children not just in the sense of who we are but by the way we act/react. Ordinarily, children would want things the easy way. They want to be free by their own terms -run around, play, swim in the pool, mess with toys, watch cartoons. They would want to eat but not do dish. They would want to play but not do homework. They would want to sleep extra but not go to school. Children would simply love to do things their way. But parents make rules  and enforce boundaries for children. The rules for going to bed early and rising early for instance, do not make sense to children. Yet the parents instill discipline because they know the consequences of letting children do what they want. The discipline seems like punishment to children. 

Hebrews says, “You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children: My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” That’s a hard teaching. Does God discipline us through trials? So, he lets us suffer intentionally? The answer is that trials come to us not because God dislikes us, not because he has abandoned us. Rather, trials are signs of God’s love for us. We recall the sufferings of Christ. Saint Paul writes, “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Rom. 8:32). Jesus suffered greatly as the beloved in whom the Father was well pleased. He was scourged at the pillars, crowned with thorns. Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, was spat on the face, mocked, and condemned. While hanging on the cross, emotions hit Jesus in a human fashion, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). The Prophet talks about him this way, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted” (Is. 53:4). After his resurrection, Jesus explained the discipline of his suffering when he encountered the disciples on the way to Emmaus. He said to them, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). “God treats you as sons.”

I’ve had few of my friends feel really tested recently. Just this past week, we lost one of our classmates who stayed in Canada. He had cancer last year, survived the cancer, then had pneumonia and passed away. He was married but had no child. The family is distraught. That same day, as we’re trying to deal with the sad news, another classmate posted that the dad had died that morning. On Wednesday, a priest-friend in Pennsylvania called to say he had lost his older brother, a 49 years old man with two kids in Nigeria. Same Wednesday, another friend here in the U.S. wrote me to say that two of her uncles had stroke almost at the same time. Her neighbor had lost her husband the same weekend. I started wondering about incidents of death and the pains that go with it. Has death been this rampant without me knowing? I imagined how tough it would be for the families of the deceased. Loss of a loved one is a big trial for the Christian. But the dead are not hated by God nor are the relatives of the dead forsaken. Scripture says, “For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.”  

Two words catch my attention in the passage from Hebrews: “discipline” and “training.” The Letter maintains, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain.” Think about how your little children react and sometimes agitate that you’re putting them to bed earlier than they expected. Think about how you smile at their ignorance. This is correct about the experiences of suffering, pains, and losses. No one is willing to suffer. We rarely see the positive in the negative experiences of life. We feel tortured. For instance, death carries painful feelings, makes you feel empty, elicits grief. Still the author of Hebrews says, “yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” “Those who are trained by it,” means those who look beyond the pains of the immediate situation. 

Typical example here would be those in sports. To compete in a sports tournament, participants or athletes go through the rigors of training. They learn discipline. When I was in the seminary (college), we played the All-Seminary games. This involved all the major seminaries in Nigeria which numbered over thirty-two. They would be hosted by one seminary for an intensive competition that lasted about one month. To qualify for this competition, we had to play series of soccer matches. Those in the track events would run and run, same with those doing other activities like throwing javelin, shot-put or those jumping. It was intensive. To prepare for the tournament, we engaged professional teams that we felt would help improve our game. Playing soccer was interesting but playing competitive soccer could be exhausting and sometimes scary because it entailed tough training and discipline. Sometimes, we woke up as early as 4:30am to go for runs and jugging. Because it was still dark, sometimes we hid behind the trees to escape the strenuous exercise. Occasionally, we disliked the coach for being tough. But the coach’s intention was to get us to be able to play competitively, and possibly win the trophy. In our minds, it was overwhelming. We acted like children. The reading tells us today to look to the future benefits, “yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”  God is like the coach who intends the good but takes us through the rough path.

The irony of our faith is that God prepares us for greater things through trials. In the letter of St. James we read, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2). We see the young man come to Jesus in the gospel with the question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus’ response is, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” The way of trials is the narrow gate. It is not attractive in any sense. It is tough. It can be exasperating, yet it is the way of life. Let’s pray for God to strengthen our drooping hands and to steady our weak knees. Let us pray for the grace to stay disciplined in the face of trials. We all need to understand that, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).