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Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Wis:1:13-15; 2:23-24; 2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43

July 1, 2012

The Sting of Death

It is always so difficult to deal with the death of another. There is really very little that can ease the pain that cuts so deeply into life. Soothing words and thoughtful gestures may comfort for a time, but then the searing pain returns and we are often left bereft. The sting of death often causes a festering that is not easily healed.

When death strikes, there is first the pain of loss. Someone who has been a part of the very fabric of our lives is gone, never to return to it in the same way. Sometimes there is regret that we failed to do or say what might have brought happiness or comfort, or that we said or did what brought anger or caused hurt. There might also be fear and apprehension, for the death of another reminds us that we too are mortal and must face the inevitability of our own death.

Why do we have to die? A traditional understanding traces our death back to the story in Genesis where God warns Adam: "The moment you eat from [the tree of knowledge of good and evil] you are surely doomed to die" (Gen 3:17). However, further on we read that the punishment for sin was not death itself, but pain and suffering "until you return to the ground from which you were taken" (Gen 3:19). This apparent discrepancy points to the complexity of the ancient story, which is really a reinterpretation of several earlier myths that were woven together into a new story. People continue to ask: 'Why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?'

Such a question might be more easily answered if we believed, as many ancient religions believed, that there are two warring deities in the world, one responsible for the good and the other responsible for the evil. But we are monotheists who believe that there is only one God, and that God is somehow responsible for everything. Furthermore, we believe that God is good and is concerned with our well-being. Here is precisely where our questions about suffering and death arise again, and our religious tradition struggles to provide answers. These answers might not adequately explain everything; they can only help us live with the mystery and the unanswered questions.

Perhaps we are posing the wrong question. Rather than ask 'Why do we die?' we should ask: 'How are we to deal with the inevitability of death?' The gospel reading provides insight here. It lays bare the power of Jesus in the face of suffering and death. The ancient people believed that death could come suddenly or progressively. Illness and the debilitation that often accompanied it were considered the onslaught of progressive death. When Jesus healed the woman suffering from hemorrhage, he was really combating the forces of death. The raising of the daughter of the synagogue official was a second demonstration of Jesus' power over death. In each case, faith was required. The woman believed: "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured." The official, initially looking for a cure, blindly followed Jesus' instructions even when he was told that his daughter was already dead.

These wonderful stories remind us of Jesus' tenderness toward those who suffer. However, they might also mislead us if we think that faith will save us from the forces of death. If we believe that Jesus has power over the forces of death, how do we think he will exercise that power in our lives? Do we trust that we will be spared suffering and death? Or do we place ourselves in his hands, not knowing exactly what will happen, yet trusting in his commitment to our well-being? The ambiguity that surrounds death prompts us to choose the latter option. But do we?

By Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., Professor of Old Testament Studies

This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010).

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