Sunday of Week 5 of Ordinary Time (B)

Commentary on Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39

THERE IS A HUGE CONTRAST between the First Reading and the Gospel in today’s Mass. The Book of Job was written a very long time ago, between 500 and 700 years before Christ but today’s passage could have appeared in an agony column in one of our tabloid newspapers.

It is the voice of someone who is terribly depressed and can find no meaning whatever in life. “Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service, his time no better than hired drudgery?” How often have we heard people speak like that? Perhaps we have felt like that ourselves sometimes. Fed up with life, bored with our work.

Such a person is “like the slave, sighing for the shade, or the workman with no thought but his wages”. How many people do we know who get no enjoyment or satisfaction whatever out of their work? “I just do it for the money.” How sad! At the same time, in the modern industrial world, so much of the work really is tedious and repetitive; one is just a cog in a huge machine. This was so well described in Charlie Chaplin’s film “Modern Times”. We should be grateful that the computer is now taking over so much of this dreary production line work.

How slow evening comes!

Job goes on: “Months of delusion I have assigned to me, nothing for my own but nights of grief. Lying in bed I wonder, ‘When will it be day?’ Risen, I think, ‘How slowly evening comes!’ Restlessly I fret till twilight falls.”

Day after day, night after night drags on. The days crawl by. I become just a clockwatcher, waiting for the lunch break or the end of the day when I can escape to some place (like a pub) and forget about life. The nights are worse when sleep is broken by anxiety and tension.

What kind of a life is that? Where is it going? Where is the value? Where is the meaning? At the same time, “Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed, and vanished, leaving no hope behind.” Individual days drag by but, before I realise it, my whole life has gone by. And what have I to show for it?

Before I know it, it is too late. “Remember that my life is but a breath, and that my eyes will never again see joy.” Is that a picture of my life? If not, do you know people who live(?) like that? My life can never be lived over again. I have just got one chance. Maybe today is the time for us to get our act together. As they say, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life.”

A day – and night – in the life of Jesus

Let us now look at the Gospel where there is a very different picture altogether. It is a description of part of a typical day in the life of Jesus. The day had begun by Jesus going into the synagogue of Capernaum because it was a Sabbath day. (This is not included in today’s passage.) There he made a tremendous impression by his teaching which had a unique air of authority missing from most teachers of the Law. (We spoke about that last Sunday.) While still in the synagogue, a possessed man burst in and made a great scene. Jesus overpowered the evil spirit and cured the man. (And we also spoke about that last week.)

Then Jesus left the synagogue (where today’s Gospel begins) and, because it was still the Sabbath, when work and travel were forbidden, Jesus and his disciples went to Simon Peter’s house, where Peter’s mother-in-law was confined to bed with a fever.

Jesus immediately healed her and lifted her to her feet. What did the good lady do? Did she slump into a chair and wait for sympathy to be poured out on her? No, she immediately began to serve the needs of those in the house with her. She did this not because that was the duty of a woman but because it is the duty of every Christian to serve. The restoration of her health meant that she could once more take care, according to her gifts, of the community.

No moaning or groaning

Then, after sunset, when the Sabbath was over, the people brought along those who were sick and in the power of evil spirits (some of these may have been just psychologically ill) and he healed them all.

What a difference here from the Book of Job! No moaning or groaning here. No feeling sorry for oneself. Jesus is totally occupied in putting himself at the service of people and bring healing and wholeness back into their lives.

And this is what gives meaning, fulfilment, satisfaction and happiness into people’s lives – when I am making my unique contribution to the well-being of those around me and of my society. I am not watching the clock for the next chance to escape. I am not just thinking of the pay packet.

The life of Jesus is telling us that life is for service, for giving, for sharing. And, if we all did that, how enriched we all would be! The more we all give, the more we all get.

But we live in a very individualistic, me-me-me society. If we cannot grab things for ourselves, then we think we will be losers. It’s everyone for himself or herself. Some make it and some don’t. And if you can’t make it, don’t expect anyone to help you. There is no such thing as society, as Margaret Thatcher is quoted as saying. Be like her. If you can’t make it on your own, forget it.

This is a pure recipe for us to end up like the man in the First Reading. And we see many doing so. Just walk around the streets of our city and you can see for yourself. People who have fallen through the cracks. We pity them, perhaps despise them but feel no responsibility for their being like that or doing something to integrate them into an actively mutually serving community (because that hardly exists?). It is their own fault, their own choice for being unemployed and unemployable, for being alcoholics, drug addicts, wastrels, a burden on the hard-working taxpayer.

Recharging batteries

And then at the end of the day, what does Jesus do? Put his feet up, slump in front of the tv with a beer in his hand? Go down to the pub for some craic? No, he goes off to a lonely place to pray. He needed this. He had given away so much of himself that day that he now needed to be by himself, to recharge his batteries and, above all, to get in touch with his Father, the source of all his energy, and to restore wholeness and peace. He will come away from this experience truly energised and ready to share and serve.

There is a need of all of us for rest but rest that refreshes and rebuilds, as opposed to pure escapist or dissipating activity. We rest in order to come back to a life of service not in order to get away from it. Ideally, as sculptor Eric Gill once said, our work should be our hobby, something we really enjoy doing.

On the other hand, while many are escapists, others are compulsive helpers; they need to be needed. What they do looks like service but it is really satisfying an inner fear of being passed over unnoticed. Such people need to learn how to say No without feeling guilty, as Jesus does in today’s gospel. Otherwise they face burnout and breakdown.

As in all things, balance is the secret, a balance between the needs of others and our own.

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