There is so much suffering to be found in the readings set for Evening Prayer this Sunday before Lent, 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Matthew 17:9-23. In the first, Elisha is weighed down by the knowledge that his master, Elijah, will be taken from him this day. Elisha had walked away from his family inheritance to become the great prophet’s apprentice, to be with him and learn from him, and now the Lord God was about to take Elijah from the face of the earth. As they make one last visit to the prophetic communities Elijah has mentored, those present take Elisha aside and enquire as to whether he is aware of what is about to take place. This must surely add to his burden: do the prophets see him only as Elijah’s servant, and not a prophet like them? His parting request to Elijah is that he be recognised as his heir, his successor. Yet, the company of prophets is also suffering, not only the loss of their mentor too, but also wanting to make everything better for Elisha, and knowing that they cannot, that there is nothing they can do to prevent this parting from happening.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus is approached by a father who is in distress over his son. The father describes him as a lunatic, who falls into fire or water with abandon. He had asked Jesus’ disciples to cure him, but they had not been able to do so. Jesus is distressed by the situation. The boy is not a lunatic, but afflicted by a demon (my English translation has the father claim he has epilepsy, with the unfortunate result that some see epilepsy as demonic). There is, to my knowledge, no cure for lunacy, but there is deliverance from oppression. This boy has suffered torment at the malicious hands of a demon, an angel who has rebelled against God and wars against the children God delights in. His suffering is multiplied by misunderstanding; and under this misunderstanding the father and the disciples also suffer their inability to take hold of the situation, to relieve everyone’s distress. Jesus, alone, stands on the promise of God through the prophet Isaiah, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ (Isaiah 43:2). He calls this mountain, this encounter with the living God, into his present valley of the shadow of death.
But in this same passage, Jesus speaks both of John the Baptist, who had been executed on a whim, and of his own impending torturous execution, and hope of being raised to life three days later. God does not shield us from all suffering (though I suspect that we are, indeed, shielded from some) but takes our suffering to himself in Jesus, that, ultimately, it may be transformed. That, ultimately, all that hurts or harms us will be utterly consumed in the fire of Love, until all that remains is a perfectly safe vulnerability, where we are seen, known, and loved, and see, know and love in return.