19 January 2011

Silence & Suffering

2nd Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph's Church, Ponchatula

During my novitiate, I broke my glasses. Instead of asking for permission to buy a new pair, I taped the broken ones and stubbornly insisted that what I had was just fine. Finally, the novice master called me into his office to talk. He pointed out that glasses were a necessity for me. He pointed out that there was money in the budget for a replacement pair. Over and over I dismissed his attempts to make me see reason. Obviously frustrated, he said, “Philip, ask me for permission to buy a new pair of glasses.” When I couldn't do it, it dawned on me that my reluctance to buy new glasses had nothing to do with spending money; it was all about pride. Asking for help was just too much. I was a self-sufficient, educated, 35 year old man who could not bring himself to acknowledge that someone else had the authority and resources to hand me a gift. All I had to do was ask for it. Unfortunately, my heart was hardened against receiving what I needed. It took an order from the novice master to break through my pride. I asked and I received. Now, I see. . .figuratively and literally! There is no truer sign of a hardened heart than silence as an answer to suffering.

Our Lord grows angry with the Pharisees for their silence at the suffering of the man with a withered hand. He grieves their refusal to look at the man as a beloved son of the Father, a son in need of healing. Rather than treating the man with the compassion he needs, they treat him as an occasion to trap Jesus in violating the Sabbath law. What makes this scene all the more horrible is that there was no law against doing good on the Sabbath. There was no consensus among the scholars on whether or not healing was considered work. Jesus puts the question to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Now, if there had been a philosopher among the Pharisees, he might have distinguished between healing a broken hand and saving a life. Saving the man's life on the Sabbath is clearly legal. Healing his hand is questionable. A philosopher would have pointed out that not healing his hand on the Sabbath is not an intentional evil. However, instead of debating the issue, instead of offering a reasonable answer to Jesus' question, the Pharisees remained silent. And it is this silence that makes our Lord angry.

We have to ask: why do the Pharisees remain silent? And why does their silence grieve the Lord? The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. They are setting him up so that they can take him down. Rather than answer him, rather than heal the man, they sit quietly, giving him enough rope to hang himself. And does just that. Jesus heals the man's hand and the Pharisees plot to have him executed. What grieves the Lord is the willingness of the Pharisees to refuse the man compassion in order to achieve an immediate political end. In other words, they were willing to silently tolerate the man's suffering in order to catch Jesus breaking the Law. Their hearts were hardened against the only gift that the Father gives us: love. 

We cannot give what we ourselves have not received. We cannot love if we refuse the gift of love that our Father offers us. To remain silent in the face of suffering is to refuse the one gift we need more than any other—the loving care of the One who created us and redeemed us. The voice of a heart hardened against the Lord is silence.

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