[HOMILY] Christianity: Not the Health and Wealth Gospel
Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese-born woman, was kidnapped around age 7 by Arab slave traders. For the next 12 years she was sold 4 times, on each occasion to a new vile, brutal slaver. The trauma of her young life was so severe it caused her to forget her name, Bakhita was a name given her by one of the slave traders. The mark they gave her to show she was a slave was 114 intricate patterns cut into her breasts, belly and right arm with a razor then filled with salt to insure scaring.
When her slave owner in Italy decided to move to Sudan, the process was complicated and her owners put her in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice until things settled. When his wife returned to take Bakhita, she refused to leave. The superior of the order took it to the authorities and Bakhita was freed. Upon being freed, She chose to stay and enter the Canossians where She was immediately baptized, and given Holy Communion by Archbishop Guiseppe Sarto- Future Pope St. Pius X.
For the next 42 years, she worked humbly as a cook, sacristan, and portress. By the time of her death in 1947, her gentle simplicity and holiness were obvious to all those around her.
In the first reading today, Job says we are all slaves longing for the shade. He calls life on earth drudgery. This speech from Job is a response to his buddy Eliphaz who just spent the last two chapters telling Job that he must mend his ways in order for God to bless him again. Eliphaz believed in a principle that suggests righteous men and women will be blessed in this life while evil men will be punished in this life. It’s the health and wealth gospel.
In our reading today, Job’s answer seems at first to be a strait up self-centered complaint. However, if we look a bit closer, it reveals itself as a profound critique of Eliphaz’s principle. Job says, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery.”
The word translated here as “drudgery” is actually the Hebrew word “tsaba (צבא)” which means “hard service” and is almost always in reference to military service. St. Thomas, in his exposition on Job, translates it “campaign.” Why is this relevant? When a general goes to battle, where does he plant his most skilled soldiers? In the most vulnerable, most dangerous position, for how could he possibly win the battle if he spare’s his most fit warriors from the fray? So, as a warrior grows more skilled, a wise general will in fact expose him to greater dangers and hardship. The same goes for the hireling; the more reliable he is, the greater the labors with which he is entrusted. So, Job is asking, “If this is how these relations work on a human level, why would they be any different on a supernatural level? Why ought God to preserve from hardship those who are actually capable of handling it faithfully while allowing incredible suffering to come upon those without the strength to withstand despair?
However, Job’s profound critique brings him no consolation. He continues on to say, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. They come to an end without hope.” For citizens of the 21st century who have no clue what a weaver’s shuttle is: Pretend you are sitting at your big loom, and you have this little bobbin in your hand around which you roll your thread. You send it back and forth on a rail every time you weave thread through the cross-threads. You can imagine, this maneuver for a skilled seamstress, is very swift. Job sees his days as a monotonous passing back and forth of the weaver’s shuttle. Even more, man’s life is swifter than the seamstress passing her shuttle because she must, at some point, rest from her work while Job’s days continually slip away without hope of rest. For Job and all of us enslaved to the fortunes of world- toiling for no reward, they ask: will we see happiness again?
So now let us look to our second reading, for we find an interesting answer to this question: In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all… so as to win over as many as possible”
Job expressed that all men are slaves, who “come to their end without hope.” Paul, rather, proclaims he is a free man who chooses to make himself a slave for Christ’s sake, in order that he may win souls. How has Paul made himself a slave? He chooses Christ’s will over his own, he “no longer lives but Christ lives in him.” He preaches to those Christ calls him to preach, he “becomes all things to all men.” He does not even choose where or when he is to be die but is obedient to the point of martyrdom.
Job and Paul seem to give us two pictures: Job depicts the life of the man who is enslaved to the world, whose life is a “campaign,” of hard service, which like a weaver’s shuttle, marches along without meaning or hope of relief.
Paul, however, depicts the life an evangelist, who pursues the Lord’s will relentlessly and will not rest until his flock rests in heaven. This is the Christian’s slavery, and Paul willingly enlists in this servitude because he knows his master is pure love and his reward in heaven is great.
Alright, this may work for Paul, but who is Jesus to demand of us this “hard service”? Let me tell you- he is the prime example, the omnipotent God who by nature is perfectly free yet makes himself a slave to his creatures in order to win their love. What do we see him doing in today’s gospel? He spends himself late into the light curing the sick and casting out demons, then rises early in the morning to pray to the Father, and when the disciples interrupt him, he says to them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose, have I come.” Again, in Luke 10:45 he says, “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for the ransom of many.”
Brothers and sisters, does your life ever feel like a weaver’s shuttle in the hands of a skilled seamstress, swiftly and monotonously flying by? Or even worse, like a weavers shuttle in the hands of a new terribly unskilled seamstress, moving slowly, unpredictably and unintelligibly? Take those feelings of helplessness to Christ, that he may break into your life and give it purpose. Be bold in petitioning Jesus for strength, for he loves us perfectly. However, we had better be ready to respond as Peter’s mother responded when Jesus cured her in the gospel today, or as Paul responded on the road to Damascus, or as St. Jospehine Bakhita responded when she was freed. When Christ frees us from the slavery of this world, the only fitting response is to turn our lives completely over to him. St. Gregory the Great fittingly describes this paradox saying: “You will not be able to keep what you do not give away.” Christ is calling us out of Slavery into his son-ship; let us spend ourselves in joyful service to him.
What does being Christ’s slave look like? For some it will be a radical change. Prior to my conversion I was trying to decide which career path would give me the most fiscal security and ease of work- then Christ called me to be his priest.
For others it may just be uniting your daily sufferings to him. This is no less radical, Jesus is asking us to unite our sufferings to him on the cross. Bring your suffering, addictions, sadness, and despair to Christ and he will fill it with meaning and bring joy to your life.
This is not the health and wealth gospel, Jesus will not take away all our suffering and give us great riches if we turn our lives over to him. But he will give us joy in the midst of our suffering and thus make us holy witnesses to a world full of meaningless suffering.
A young student once asked Josephine Bakhita: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?”
Without hesitation she responded: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”
So, like St. Josephine Bakhita, let us make Christ our sure foundation, let us enslave ourselves to him, it is only then that we will be joyfully free.