Sunday, June 9, 2013

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

A story is told among the Buddhists of Kisa Gotami, a woman who lost her only son. Deeply afflicted with grief, she approached the Buddha, begging him for a cure. He told the sorrowful mother that he could restore her son to life if she could bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a household that had never lost son or daughter, father or husband. Making her way about the village, although she found all willing to help her, she also found not a single household that was free from the death of a loved one, and indeed where the grief did not still afflict them. Seeing how universal grief was, how common the suffering coming from death is to all men, she returned to the Buddha to follow his teaching, finding in him alone a way to relieve her suffering.

The Gospel also presents us with a woman who lost her only son, a woman stricken with grief. Unlike the Indian sage, however, Jesus actually brought the dead son to life. While both sage and Savior responded to the woman's grief, in the former case, the woman was led to see the folly of sorrow, while in the latter case, the very cause of the woman's grief was taken away, death conquered by Life himself.

Yet, despite this clear and important difference, there is a remarkable similarity in these two stories. In both cases, it is not to the son that pity is shown, but to the woman who is suffering grief. Said differently, we are not told that Jesus, on seeing the dead youth, was moved with pity for him, but rather that, on seeing the widow, he had pity for her. Surely, there is something a bit odd about this. That is, we would surely regard death as a greater calamity than sorrow, however onerous the burden of grief may be. Sorrow may be lived through, may abate in time; death, considered in itself, is final. Yet, the Gospel is clear. Jesus' pity is directed toward the widow, not her son.

There is much wisdom to learn here, but surely one of the lessons is that we are not as good at measuring suffering as we might take ourselves to be. The problem, both for the Buddha and for the Lord Jesus Christ, is the woman's grief. The Buddha answers this with natural wisdom about the universality of human death. Jesus answers it as the Lord of life itself, but the lifegiving is at least as much directed to the woman as to her son. What this suggests is that our diagnosis of our own pains, our own confidence about what it is that most ails us and those we love, and thus what we imagine ought to be God's foremost concern, is less than reliable. We cannot, of course, simply set our reason aside, act as though we have no way to tell what kinds of ills are bad, and which kinds are worse. Even so, we should not be so quick to fall into despair when God seems to not want to take away from us the ills we believe most impede our joy.

Unlike the placid wisdom of the Buddha, the love of Jesus Christ is, we need have not doubt, directed to attend to the evils that assail us, and in his heart, Jesus can surely be moved with pity. Are we prepared to receive the mercy he chooses to give, rather than demand he respond on our terms? Are we willing to learn, from the mercy he does send us, what it was that truly had been oppressing us, and give thanks?