Catholic homily outline for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B – Suffering

Caravagio - The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail)

Caravagio – The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail)

Central idea: God wants to bestow life. Doctrine: The problem of suffering. Practical application: Alleviate others’ suffering.

Written as an aid for homilists and a resource for the faithful, this doctrinal homily outline (1) provides insights into the Lectionary readings, (2) explicates a doctrine of Catholic Faith or morals from them, and (3) shows specific ways lay persons can live these truths. (To read more about this approach, click here.)

To view Lectionary 26, click here.

Central idea: God wants to bestow life

Reading 1 Gn 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18

God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he replied.
Then God said:
“Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you.”

When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger.
“Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.

Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command.”

  • Abraham perfectly obeyed the will of God, even though his understanding of God was defective. That his God would command him to sacrifice his own beloved son may not have surprised him—although it would have grieved him—since that was what other “gods” demanded.
  • The test God gave Abraham was geared to the mentality of that time. Perhaps because Abraham’s vocation was so singular—to be the father of God’s Chosen People—his test was singularly difficult. His test may have been more difficult than Adam’s.
  • The author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham had faith. “He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead.” Abraham’s test and receiving his son back were a “symbol” of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection and our own. (Hebrews 11:19)
  • Abraham passed the test and so he—and even we—received the promises: above all that in his descendants all the nations of the earth have been blessed, especially in that son of Abraham, Jesus Christ.
  • Also, he and we learned something new about God, that this was a God who would not ask for or allow a human sacrifice from his followers. If someone’s son needed to be a holocaust for sin, it would be his own.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19

R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.

I believed, even when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted.”
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.

O LORD, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.

My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people,
In the courts of the house of the LORD,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.

  • The most fundamental good is life. After that comes freedom: freedom from the bonds of oppression of every kind. We human beings are masters at enslaving ourselves and enslaving others. Why do we bind ourselves and others? It is because of fear of death and desire for life.
  • On this earth, it is not true that might makes right but it is true that might can usually get what it wants. It is best for us, then, to bind ourselves to the one who is mightiest but also good: God. The word religion in its roots means to bind oneself. It is best to become God’s slave because he is good and only intends to free us from the oppression of sin and death.
  • God’s command to Abraham may not have seemed surprising to Abraham—that was the kind of thing the powerful did—but the outcome was truly surprising. Abraham’s God was not about might getting what it wants by oppression, but rather, God is about life and bestowing benefits on those below him—us.

Reading 2 Rom 8:31b-34

Brothers and sisters:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.

  • As the Psalmist said, “Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” The death of his most faithful one, Jesus Christ, is infinitely precious in the eyes of God.
  • His death is precious to us too, because it is the greatest benefit bestowed on us here below to give us life and freedom.
  • So also precious in God’s eyes is our own death and every kind of suffering we endure.
  • If God handed over his own Son to set us free from sin and death, he will also do everything else for us. Thus, no oppressor outside of us, whether it comes from the world, the flesh, or the devil, and no oppressor inside of us, whether the tyrants of the lust of the flesh, or the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life, can bind us in slavery.

Gospel Mk 9:2-10

Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.

  • According to Mark, six days before Our Lord’s transfiguration on the mountain occurred, Jesus said “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power” (Mk 9:1).
  • On the mountain, something of Jesus’ divine nature was revealed to Peter, James, and John.
    • Our Lord’s clothing become dazzling white.
    • Moses and Elijah appeared. Usually, they are understood as representing the Law and the prophets, and so, all the promises of the Old Covenant.
    • Also, there was the cloud, which in the Old Testament Scriptures often indicated the presence of God to the people of Israel. Out of it the three apostles heard the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
    • Then on the way down from the mountain, Christ told the three that he, “the Son of Man,” would rise from the dead.
  • Peter, James, and John witnessed this transfiguration in which for a moment they saw Christ, the King of the kingdom of God, revealed in power. But at the time, they could not grasp the meaning of what they had seen. Peter “hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified” and they questioned among themselves “what rising from the dead meant.”

Doctrine: The problem of suffering

  • Suffering is universal on this earth. No one escapes it, not even animals. Why suffering exists and how God is implicated in suffering is a mystery: that is, it is only partly intelligible.
    • We can have faith that God permits suffering to bring about a greater good. St. Thomas points this out at the very beginning of the Summa:
      • “As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): ‘Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.’ This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good” (ST 1.2.3.).
        • Sometimes we can see the good that God brings out of evil, like the redemption of the world through the innocent suffering of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we cannot.
      • We can grasp that God respects human freedom by allowing our actions to have real consequences, and sometimes those consequences cause us and those we harm great suffering. For example, God allows the thief to steal, and that means the thief really does deprive people of their property.
      • We can glimpse that somehow suffering and death are the consequences of sin, yet suffering existed on this earth long before the first sin was committed.
      • We can see how witnessing suffering can unleash in us compassion and care, which makes us more human.
      • Through our own suffering, we can see that we are vulnerable and need God and other human beings. Suffering can make us humble and erode our individualistic tendencies.
      • Some suffering seems fair, as when evil-doers are punished.
      • But other suffering seems totally unjust and we feel that God should not permit it, for example, the suffering and death of an innocent child or an innocent child becoming an orphan.
    • The philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that Jesus Christ “did three things to solve the problem of suffering.” In becoming man, God took on our human condition and suffered with us. Second, he transformed “the meaning of our suffering: it is now part of his work of redemption.” Third, through his suffering and death, he overcame death and opened the eternal life in heaven to us: “[H]e transformed death from a hole into a door, from an end into a beginning.”

Practical application: Alleviate others’ suffering

  • Lent is a time in which we do penance. This means we take on some disciple to make up for our sins and to improve our character. This discipline makes us suffer a little. This suffering is a mortification, that is, a small death, to kill some of our bad qualities, if possible. These practices help us become humble and aware of our need for God. They may also make us more compassionate, because they help us see what others are going through.
  • The Christian response to another’s suffering is not to rejoice in it—even if that person deserves it. It is usually not right to point out to the suffering person that their suffering is just (if it is). It is also not usually right to tell another how this ordeal could be good for their character. The proper response to another’s suffering is kindness and mercy, to alleviate that suffering if we can.
  • What are some things we might be able to do to alleviate others’ suffering?
    • We can pray for them.
    • We can offer their ordeal to God for them.
    • We can be with them.
    • We can let them talk and listen to them.
    • We can do little things for them that please them.
    • We can help them in a way they want to be helped.
  • While these things seem to be sound principles, they can be applied in a thousand different ways depending on the circumstances, so the alleviation of suffering is really a kind of art we can learn by practice.
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