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Healing the Broken-hearted

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr David McLean preaches on the sufferings of Job and Bonhoeffer.

Praise the Lord who heals the broken-hearted. (Psalm 146)

It is difficult to be more broken-hearted than Job. So we will need the Lord's healing after reading a typically depressing moan from Job.

All the more depressing because we can recognise Job's situation. It is familiar. There are times when we have all felt the same.

Job lies in his bed grieving, wondering when it will be day. The morning can't come quickly enough. Risen, the evening never seems to come.

Job seems to have nothing to look forward to. He is aiming for nothing. He is simply whiling away his time. Job ponders that life is only breath, and consequently could end with that breath.

Job has had a sore time of it. His friends are of little comfort. His friends maintain that misfortune is God's punishment for sin, that if Job turns to God his misfortune will be removed. Job knows that he has done nothing to deserve this.

In the modern age we perhaps have a greater appreciation of the fact that the good suffer. A realisation that causes, in some people, for some reason, a loss of faith and a rejection of God. For others, the realisation means rejecting a naïve doctrine of divine retribution where God always rewards the good and punishes the bad in this present life.

But what are we supposed to do in the face of suffering and evil? Bereavement often brings out instinctive responses in people. The death of a ninety-year-old mother is still seen as unfair and unjust, never mind the death of a child. Woe betides the counsellor who suggests that is simply the way the world is, and should simply be accepted.

But what more can be said? Is it not just the case that everybody dies whether they be young or old, and they will be subject to differing degrees of suffering throughout their lives? Bad people introduce lots of unnecessary suffering, but if we removed the bad people, nature would still bring about enormous amounts of pain and suffering.

Can we do anything more that resign ourselves to it? Should we resign ourselves like Job to wishing our lives away? If I were to come up with an answer I would be the greatest theologian who ever existed.

We need inspiration. Over Christmas I came across an unusual thing. Those of you have the luxury of digital TV perhaps discovered a biopic on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the backwaters of the movie channels. Bonhoeffer must be the only theologian to have inspired a movie of his life.

The last years of Bonhoeffer's life were dedicated to struggling against the evils and suffering created by the Nazis in Germany. According to the movie at least, Bonhoeffer's conscience first of all drives him to give up his teaching job, and ultimately leads him to embrace his execution at the end of war.

In between, Bonhoeffer finds himself driven to actions that compromise his original purity of conscience: he concludes that evil people are not entitled to the truth; and he becomes involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Most of us never have to live in situations of such unremitting suffering and evil. We may like to think we can always tell the truth and never kill anyone. In the Bonhoeffer movie we find someone of good Christian conscience who finds himself involved with both lies and murder.

Was this movie Bonhoeffer wrong? Whatever the case, doing the right thing is a constant struggle.

The attitude of Job's friends now seems even less satisfactory. Self-righteously sitting on the sidelines, assuming that Job is being punished for some sin, does no good. Job's misery and doubt seem a much more understandable response to random suffering and evil.

Then again, the Bonhoeffer of the movie is not just understandable, but is actually inspiring. Bonhoeffer struggled against evil, and left himself open to criticism from fellow Christians. To struggle is better than being despondent or self-righteously to sit on the sidelines criticising those involved in the struggle.

At the end, the movie portrays a Bonhoeffer who happily embraces his execution, much to the annoyance of his long-time persecutor who hoped to finally see him broken. A final victory over death. A healing of the broken-hearted.

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Readings

Job 7:1-4,6-7
1 Cor 9:16-19,22-23
Mark 1:29-39

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