Not too long ago, I ran into a friend from High School that I hadn’t seen in a long time. We had kept up with each other’s lives through Facebook, so he knew I was a priest. This often means that friends I haven’t seen in a long time feel more confident, more unfiltered, and can be incredibly frank about their thoughts about religion without any real provocation on my part. So the conversation seriously went from “Hey Joe – wow, it’s so good to see you… how long has it been? What are you up to…” To him, asking pretty quickly, “Hey, so what do you think about Joel Osteen.” Talk about conversation starters that most people rarely encounter.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 4, 2024. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
Joel Osteen – for those who don’t know – is an immensely popular Pastor of a non-denominational Church in Texas. In fact His Church in Texas is a former arena, and they get something like over 20,000 people in person every weekend. Osteen’s had a bunch of best-selling books and his services and sermons are heard on Satellite Radio on his own channel and numerous Television stations – reaching millions around the globe – including my childhood friend Joe, who is a big fan and listens to him every week.
I explained that I’ve listened to Joel Osteen a bunch of times over the years – and found him to be incredibly charismatic, optimistic and very gifted communicator. He preaches for a solid half hour without any notes in front of him, so that in itself is impressive to me as I need to have my thoughts written out in front of me all the time. From what I heard and have seen on his social media sharings – his preaching is categorized as “prosperity gospel”, meaning he believes that God always wills financial blessing and physical well-being for His children – and if we are faithful to Him, those blessings will manifest in our lives. On New Year’s Eve, this friend of mine Joe shared one of Osteen’s tweets summarizing this theme of the prosperity gospel: Let this sink down in your spirit; your due season is here. Promotion is coming, increase is coming, good breaks are coming. In this due season, your cup is going to overflow. We wish you and your family a #HappyNewYear
It’s easy to see why Osteen is immensely popular. He’s tapping into those universal human desires for wealth and health. It’s true that God’s intention, His desire is our fulfillment and happiness. But things have gone array since the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve decided, at Satan’s insinuation, that what God had prepared for them wasn’t enough… and even worse, that God couldn’t be trusted… And if they wanted, they could become gods themselves if they listened to satan. As a result, they rebelled against God – and sin entered into human existence. And unfortunately, that reality – that sin has affected, or and continues to afflicted, humanity ever since.
So, while we might want to hear promotion is coming, increase is coming, good breaks are coming – for many of us, those words from that first reading from the book of Job in the Old Testament seem more relatable. Out of the gate, Job’s first words were Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? That probably caught a lot of people’s ears who don’t necessarily expect to hear such negative (but real talk) in Church. The book of Job is one of the most challenging scriptures for people. The unanswered problem of suffering, of evil – why do bad things happen to good people, sometimes terrible things to really good people – is raised in breathtaking detail. Job himself has suddenly experienced catastrophic losses of wealth, health, family, and friends. Some of his so-called friends are trying to debate with him and convince Job that he must have done something to spark God’s wrath – that all of his woes have to be the result of some unknown sin. Job rejects that premise – he knows his conscience is clear in his heart. But he sure sounds pretty beat up tonight. As he continues… “I have been assigned months of misery… troubled nights have been allotted to me…I shall not see happiness again.” Job’s story puzzles readers for a whole bunch of reasons. Despite this (spoiler alert), Job will never curse God for what has happened to him; he remains faithful despite his profound misery. Even when he gets the opportunity to speak directly to God, God’s answers to his questions are far from answers. Yet, Job continues to praise and bless God. It’s a perplexing and challenging read for those looking for clarity, logic, and a satisfactory answer to the question of suffering and evil. Why remain faithful to God when painful, inexplicable, unreasonable things happen?
When we get to this Gospel… we hear about Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law (yep, you heard that, St. Peter was a married guy…topic for another day) who is suffering from a fever. In the ancient world, that was a serious thing that, more often than not, meant someone was dying. Jesus instantly heals St Peter’s mother-in-law. And we read in the very next paragraph, He cures many townspeople, as the Gospel describes it, “who were sick with various diseases” and he continues performing exorcisms, casting out demons. Jesus is able to heal their pain at that very moment miraculously.
But it always strikes me that those physical cures are not forever. The people who’ve experienced those miracles have told their families and friends, and quickly, there’s a crowd wanting Him to stick around – cure some other people and remain on-call just in case. But Jesus leaves the town. And at some point, Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law and everyone else who celebrated that day, who had experienced such tremendous miracles, would again be vulnerable to suffering, endure illnesses, and experience death. So what was the point?
This a fate that Jesus himself would not avoid. The same one who cast our demons, who miraculously restored healing, even brought people back from the dead – would experience temptations by Satan and all kinds of oppression and attacks from demons; he would suffer first as he witnessed other people’s pain. Throughout the Gospels, we see how his heart is moved with compassion to even weeping when someone experiences loss, pain, or misery. Ultimately, He would choose to experience every aspect of human suffering, unimaginable pain in mind, body, spirit, and heart, as well as physical death itself – on the cross.
Which is where the divide often comes between those who follow the prosperity gospel and our perspective as Catholic Christians. We frequently ask the deeply challenging question: does our pain have a purpose? That’s one of the toughest questions people of faith are left to struggle with. When we look at the crucifix, we can romanticize it. We can see it as beautiful – which it is for us, the beneficiaries of that supreme act of love. But when we’re on the cross in the midst of that – our own “crucifixions” – when we’re suffering ourselves, it’s not all that pretty.
One of the most moving things to me in the entire time that Pope Francis has been Holy Father was years ago, when he was in the Philippines, visiting hundreds of thousands of people who were touched by the devastation of the typhoons. At that visit, a 12-year-old asked the Pope, “Why so much suffering?” He was kind of speechless. And just humbly admitted in tears that he didn’t have an easy answer for her or any of us. On another occasion, though, he explained, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.” Which is something incredibly insightful and beautiful. Because we too often look to Jesus to be a light to cast out everything holding us back from health, promotion and due seasons. Which, to be sure, does happen. But not always, as the Holy Father continued with a point that has been of great comfort to me in times of trial: “To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light…”
Sure, every one of us, to some extent, desires health and wealth… And God desires our happiness and fulfillment of life – and we just imagine that if he gave us the health and wealth that we would all be in agreement and things would be fine. But Jesus has come to lift our hearts and minds to see beyond our own limited wants, needs, desires. To recognize that in our far-from-perfect world, where sin still affects and afflicts us on a personal and global level, most of us might not be experiencing those things. But that doesn’t mean He’s not blessing us – nor does it mean we’re doing something wrong and are being punished for it. For people of faith, we are called to recognize that the things we struggle with in this life aren’t supposed to be the end. Often they can prepare us for our work on earth and our ultimate home in heaven.
That’s not an easy thing to accept. We prefer the health and wealth now… and with those realities out of our reach, it’s hard to imagine what eternal life will be like without pain. That’s when we will be completely healed not just momentarily, but forever. For now, though, Jesus calls us, sometimes through pain, to follow Him wholeheartedly.
Because in the end, for Job, for St. Peter’s mother-in-law, and for everyone who experienced a miracle cure – the deeper, the more important miracle wasn’t these instances where their pain was taken away in a dramatic moment that blew everyone’s mind. The more important thing was the strengthening of their faith, the confidence that came from experiencing God’s mercy amid their pain – and being called to follow Him who wouldn’t simply suffer so we can commiserate with Him. Instead, the one who would rise from the dead would overcome all that suffering and pain and experience the glorious New Life. So Jesus calls us to follow Him.
Follow Him when we mourn;
Follow Him when we weep;
Follow Him when we feel alone and abandoned;
Follow Him when we are in agony;
Follow Him when we realize our attempts to alleviate pain fall short
Follow Him, knowing that He hasn’t ceased reaching out to us and that he hasn’t abandoned us… He is the all-powerful, omnipresent God who sees me. He knows every minute detail of our pain. He sustains us in our weakness and promises us that if we continue to follow Him, He will do far more than merely blessing us individually with prosperity, promotion or short term gains here and now. Instead- we will be able to conquer all suffering and death, eventually experiencing eternal life with Him in His unexplainable presence.