Suffering for others a sign of faith

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  • March 7, 2008

Passion Sunday (Year A), March 16, 2008 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66)

We can endure almost anything if we know that we are doing what is right and that our suffering has meaning. The Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah’s prophecy was one such individual.

We do not know who he was — only that it was someone well known to the Babylonian exiles in the sixth century BC. He delivered God’s message to the people and it must have been something very challenging. As is usually the case, he became a victim of their fear and rage.

So sure of the divine inspiration behind his mission he was willing to endure humiliation, abuse, rejection, even physical violence. Why didn’t he resist, fight back or argue with his tormentors? That would have detracted from his mission. His trust was in God and God would have to be the one to vindicate him.

There is another aspect to this non-resistance: it acts as a mirror for the persecutors. They can see their own negative and violent behaviour, which would not be possible if one were to respond in kind. The Suffering Servant is not an example of passivity but of commitment, utter trust in God and a refusal to be pulled into the whirlpool of human violence, fear and negativity.

In true humility and self-emptying there is incredible power. Jesus possessed everything and yet was able to let go and lay aside everything. He took on the lowest form — not only as a human being but as a slave — and obeyed God even to the point of a shameful and agonizing death. Rather than death and suffering, love for God and for humanity was the purpose and goal. It was because of this that He was raised up and exalted above all other powers on Earth and in the heavens. He dethroned the earthly powers, especially the Roman emperor.

So often we hold back from doing courageous or compassionate things out of fear. What will it cost me? Will I be hurt or humiliated in some way? Will it even do any good? Jesus did not operate out of this sort of fear because He was the one able to love perfectly, and perfect love cancels out all fear. Gratuitous suffering is of no use, but suffering or burdens endured willingly for the sake of others are a sign of great love.

When we remember the passion of the Lord it must always be with care and thoughtful reflection. The passion is a sad tale of wild expectations, betrayal, crushed hopes and broken hearts and numbing fear. It is too easy to focus excessively on the violence as in Mel Gibson’s film a few years ago. Self-hatred is another danger, as is the incitement of anger and hatred against those considered “responsible” for the crucifixion.

In any case, humanity itself is responsible, and most would behave in exactly the same manner were they to find themselves in that time and place. But beyond that, suffering and death was not the goal of the mission — it was the consequence. The mission of Jesus was to provide a sacred pattern as a model for human beings to imitate. It consisted of compassion, courage, love, forgiveness, humility, harmony with God and non-violence, and Jesus lived out these qualities in a perfect manner.

What Jesus hoped to impart to us was a means of transforming the Earth and granting us access to God. Jesus was accepting and did not offer violent resistance not because He “had to die” but because to do otherwise would have been to compromise and even negate everything that He had struggled and suffered to share with humanity. Tragically, the pattern of His perfect life was poorly understood and even more poorly imitated by many who claimed to be His followers even to this day.

When contemplating the Passion, we should see how far love was willing to go on our behalf. Although our own imitation of Christ will probably not be as dramatic or extreme, we should ask ourselves each day how far we are willing to go out of love and compassion for others. The struggle to overcome selfishness and learn how to love and live for the good of others is more than enough cross for anyone.

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