Often we think of God as someone who helps us get everything we need. The great parent in the sky.
The Responsorial Psalm says it well: “See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him, upon those who hope for his kindness, to deliver them from death.” (Psalm)
James and John say the following to their teacher: “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They rush up to Jesus (Gospel). It a bit blunt, isn’t it, like children making demands. Jesus replies mildly, “What do you wish me to do for you?”
“Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
Not a completely unreasonable request, I suppose. But rude. Moreover, the demand comes immediately—and I mean in the very next line—after he has predicted the passion. He says,
the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise. (Mark 10:33-34).
Hearing this, the apostles do what you and I often do.
They change the subject.
There is nothing in their request about suffering, just glory. Jesus responds that they too must drink the cup that he will drink, or in other words, must also undergo pain.
Jesus himself begged God to take the cup of suffering away, and he used the term, “Abba” (a familiar form of “father”) when he was asking (Mark 14:36). And in another place, “during the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission (Hebrews 5:7).
He was heard?
What? God heard these fiery prayers and then sat by idly while the passion and cruel death went right along?
Such observations put us directly in front of The Terrible Question, the one that has plagued humankind since its beginning. Why does a trustworthy, loving, parental God permit suffering and catastrophe even when he has heard in detail the prayers of those about to be afflicted?
Maybe loss, death and suffering are not the worst thing for us, even though they certainly seem to be.
The worst would be loss of love’s groundwork, the never-ending love of God.
If [my servant] gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days. (First Reading)
Suffering may well stretch and widen the human soul, making it large enough to know God, to act on behalf of others, to let in that which is greater than death or life: love.
Love stays even when life does not.
If this is true, then God’s love is parental after all. He is allowing the worst in order to show what the best really is.