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This Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B, Jesus puts priorities straight after nearly a year of battling a pandemic.
For Jesus, it is important to address illness. But there is one thing even more important …
The Gospel this Sunday begins, “On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John.” Jesus has just astonished the crowd with his authority and personal witness. Like so many people today in the COVID-19 pandemic, Peter’s mother-in-law had spent the time of that service at home, sick with a fever.
As soon as people bring her predicament to Jesus, “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.”
Jesus very much wants to heal people, and his reputation for doing so becomes so well-known that, “after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.” In fact, “The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.”
But his true priority lies elsewhere. The healing is important, but there is one thing more important. First, the Gospel tells us, “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” He rises early not to heal but to pray. Then, “Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ He told them, ‘Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.’”
He continues not by visiting sick beds, but by visiting synagogues — not driving out fevers, but driving out demons and preaching. Jesus wants to heal bodies, but when he has to choose here between healing bodies or healing souls, there is no contest in his mind. He picks souls.
The Book of Job shows this point most clearly.
The First Reading is from the seventh chapter of the Book of Job. In the first chapter, Job sees everything taken away from him by Satan and the tragedy inspires a remarkable act of faith on his part. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” he says. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But that remarkable faith starts to wane when one thing more happens: Job himself gets sick. He keeps his faith, but it becomes harder and harder. We hear his words in today’s First Reading where he says, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings?” Each of us is “a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. … Our days are short, he says, and for his part, he adds, ‘I shall not see happiness again.’”
Ultimately, God’s answer to Job is not to heal him — though he does do that, eventually — but to show him the mystery of creation that gives meaning to his existence, even when he is sick.
Job doesn’t need healing, ultimately. What he needs is understanding. That is what people need from the Church today.
Imagine if St. Paul, as we meet him in the Second Reading, were alive during the COVID-19 pandemic. “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast,” he says, “for an obligation has been imposed on me and woe to me if I do not preach it!”
There are two priorities in the pandemic: health and hope. Of the two, hope is more important. Too often, the Church can seem like it has prioritized only health.
“I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible,” says Paul. You can see his spirit in the imaginative dedication of some in the Church who did anything necessary to reach those who are stuck at home, by bringing the Eucharist to theirs streets, by reaching out with personal contact from pastors, by telling people that life has a meaning beyond physical well-being and a purpose deeper than safety.
In a pandemic, the Church can rightly abrogate the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, but it can never abrogate the obligation to preach the Gospel. The first precept of the Church — “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation” — can be suspended by a bishop, but the Third Commandment — “Remember to Keep Holy the Lord’s Day” cannot.
Why? Because “Without Sunday, we cannot live,” as the Abitene martyrs put it. Because without sustained, significant contact with God, we forget who we are and why we are here and where we are going.
A Church that accepted Christ’s priorities would look after the sick with as much energy as Jesus does in Sunday’s Gospel. But it would expend the vast majority of its energy in making sure the Gospel is not neglected, just like Jesus does.
The Lord heals the brokenhearted, as Sunday’s Psalm put it. The inverse is also true: Without the Lord, hearts stay broken.
It is crucial to note that the Church is not just your pastor or the bishops or the Pope. It is each one of us. Our neighbors are dying of anxiety, stress, loneliness and fear, and have cried out to God for relief. To answer their prayer, God put you in their neighborhood — and gave you this Sunday’s readings to remind you.
“For this purpose I have come,” says Jesus after he prays, and we are meant to draw the lesson Paul does: “I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel.”
As Pope Francis said in his first homily as Pope: “If we don’t confess Jesus Christ, then something is wrong. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, spouse of Christ.”
The reason the Church exists during a pandemic is to heal the brokenhearted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we do not do that, there is no reason for the Church at all.
Image: COVID-19 outdoor Eucharistic procession at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.