69- ISHMAEL’S QUESTIONS

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At the foot of Mount Tabor is a small village surrounded by palm trees called Deboriah (in memory of Deborah, that courageous woman who fought for the freedom of her people). Ishmael lived in Deboriah. He had a leather shop and an only son, Alexander… That day, there was a celebration in Ishmael’s house. His son was engaged to Ruth, a young and beautiful neighbor. They were already planning the date of their wedding…

A Woman: This young lady is very fortunate, of course. Alexander is just the right guy for her.

Woman Neighbor: You bet! He’s a fine young man, hardworking, whose father is very religious…

Woman: May God bless them and may they stay happy forever!

Alexander danced in the circle of men. His friends pushed him to the center, and started clapping, goading him to recite a few lines for his sweetheart… He was tall and strong, and full of vigor…

Alexander: “The stars in the sky / do not have as much joy / as I do, when I sing to you/ beloved….aa!

Then it happened. Alexander, as if struck by a lightning, fell on the floor, his mouth was foaming and he was kicking…. His friends rushed to him without knowing what to do to help him…

A Friend: Hey, go and tell his old man, Ishmael. His son is having an attack!

A Woman: He looks terrible!

Friend: For God’s sake, let him breathe!…. Don’t push!…

A Woman Neighbor: He’s relaxed now. Come, Ishmael, help me to bring him inside… Poor guy!

Ishmael: He had it when he was a little boy… I thought he was already cured. Imagine, it happens again today, when he was about to announce his wedding…

Woman Neighbor: Don’t worry, Ishmael. God willing, it won’t happen to him again. Have faith in God.

Ishmael: Yes, I hope so. May God listen to you, Sarah, may God hear you…

Since then, however, his sickness became worse. The attacks kept recurring. Any moment, during mealtime, in the leather shop where he was working with his father, or when walking around town, when he least expected it, Alexander’s eyes would remain wide open, he would leap like he was struck by a whip, then fall to the ground, gnashing his teeth. His body would twist forcefully, so that four men had difficulty subduing him… Then, he would get up, very exhausted, with no knowledge of what had happened to him….

Ishmael: Oh my God, please help me!… He is my only son, my only joy… Heal him, Lord… I beg of you, I implore you with all my strength… Is it true that he will never have these attacks anymore?…

Every night, he prayed the same prayer, and was disappointed everytime. Alexander’s illness was getting worse…

Doctor: I’m sorry, Ishmael, but how can we tell you?

Ishmael: You who have studied should know of a cure, some herbs, perhaps..

Doctor: It’s so terrible a disease, we don’t even know its name. It’s so bad, the devil himself must have invented it.

Ishmael: But, damn, you’re a doctor…

Doctor: Ishmael, the disease was born way ahead of medicine. It always has an edge….

A Woman Neighbor: That’s life. Be resigned to your fate, Ishmael.

Ishmael: Yeah, right, I must be resigned to my fate. It’s so easy to say that, isn’t it? Because he’s not your son…

Woman Neighbor: That’s okay, but, is there anything you can do? The more you rub it in, the more you get hurt…. You’re not alone in your suffering, Ishmael… remember my friend Leah, whose son was born dumb. She’s worse than you. What about little Reuben, who became blind after a stone hit him. And remember Rebecca, poor girl, who’s got more humps on her back than a camel….?

Ishmael: Yeah, yeah, stop mentioning all the sick people in town. I know: Rebecca, the cripple; my friend’s grandson, whose face is burned; Annette’s son, the lame; the other, armless… And so? Am I to be consoled by this?

Woman Neighbor: Well, they say, that the illness of many…. gives solace….

Ishmael: To fools, yeah, to fools! That there are people worse than my son, Alexander, that suffer more than I do, doesn’t solve anything. Their suffering in no way relieves me, neither is my sorrow any consolation to them.

Woman Neighbor: You ought to be resigned to your fate, Ishmael.

Ishmael: No, no, there’s no way I’ll be resigned to my fate! I can’t bear to see my eighteen-year-old son limp as a rag. His friends have stayed away from him. They feel pity for him. His girlfriend has abandoned him. She’s scared of him… Now, you say I must accept my fate, seeing my son abandoned on the ground like a mad dog?

Woman Neighbor: You must accept the will of God.

Ishmael: The will of God! Was it God, therefore, who sent this disease to my son? And may I know why?

A Friend : Because you’re a sinner, Ishmael. God has punished you by hurting you where it hurts most. This is what happens.

Ishmael: Oh, yeah? So this is God’s justice? The parents eat the green grapes, while the children bite their teeth. Let the Lord impose a penalty on me, but not my son who’s done nothing wrong!

Friend: You can’t say that. No one’s innocent in the eyes of God.

Ishmael: Therefore, if nobody is innocent, then God should punish all of us, together. But why does God pick on my son and not yours? Tell me, why?

Friend: Because the Lord does what he wants. And what he does is okay. Who’re you to exact an accounting from God?

Ishmael: To whom should I ask? Whose fault is it that my son should get sick? C’mon, tell me.

Rabbi: God isn’t the culprit, my son. How can you talk like this about God? God is kind… He’s our father, and seeks our happines.

Ishmael: If that’s so, then, why doesn’t he cure my Alexander? I have prayed to him and asked him, day and night. He doesn’t hear my prayer.

Rabbi: Yes, God hears you, Ishmael, but…

Ishmael: But what? Can’t God do anything? Then, why not cure my son?

Rabbi: Sometimes, God takes something good from bad.

Ishmael: Wouldn’t it be easier for him to take out the bad? Thus, he’d get done sooner.

Rabbi: We ourselves cause many of our ills and sufferings. Look at that crazy man, Saul, his intestines became rotten because he drank a lot. And now, his widow is blaming God for everything!

Ishmael: My son’s name is Alexander and not Saul! And my son did nothing bad to make him sick!

Rabbi: Who knows what God is planning! The ways of the Lord are mysterious.

Ishmael: Of course, and because of this, you want to silence me. Well, I’m not keeping quiet, do you hear? God has no right to do this to my son. You say that God is our Father. Doesn’t it hurt him to see many of his children suffering? What kind of father, then, is one who doesn’t mind seeing my son suffer on the floor?

Rabbi: God doesn’t suffer, Ishmael, because… because God is God.

Ishmael: Then he is nothing! To hell with him!

Rabbi: You don’t know what you’re saying, Ishmael. Take it easy…

Ishmael: No, and I know what I’m saying. I have prayed day and night, but God doesn’t answer me. I lifted my face to heaven and said to him: Why, why do you treat my son this way? What’s he done to you? If you’re bad, then make me suffer, not him. But if you’re a good God, why don’t you cure him? What would it cost you if, indeed, everything was possible for you?… But God never answers me. He’s deaf.

Rabbi: Come, Ishmael. Go home. Rest a little. I know this will pass.

Ishmael: Yeah, for me, this’ll pass, but my son Alexander will continue to be sick. You’ll go back to your work and to your own life. But Alexander will still be sick. God will continue to hear the angels sing above, while my son continues to be sick and embittered! Why, why, why?….

Rabbi: Be patient, Ishmael. This is all I can say: Have patience and more patience.

Ishmael: No. keep it all for yourself, because I don’t need it. Don’t worry, I won’t be asking anymore, I got the answer already. Do you know why God doesn’t cure my son? Do you know why?… Because he doesn’t exist!… Yes, and don’t look at me that way. That’s the only excuse that he can give us, that he doesn’t exist. That’s the truth. There’s no one in heaven. And when we pray, our prayer comes back and falls flat on our face.

That day was market day in the village of Deboriah. Peter and James, Jesus and I, passed by, after our descent from the mountain… In a stall, a man, quite old, with large eyebags as if he had wept a lot, showed us some leather shoes..

Ishmael: This is good leather, strangers, look…

Beside him was a tall young man with stunned eyes, who was showing us, through gestures, other items…

Ishmael: For two dinars, and you can wear them right away. C’mon…

Alexander: Ayyy..!

Ishmael: Alexander, my son… my son…!

Alexander: Aggg…! Aggg…!

In no time the boy at the fruit stall fell by the side. He was twisting amid spasms. Ishmael, his father, tried to open his mouth to insert a piece of cloth so that the boy wouldn’t bite his tongue…

A Friend: Why do you have to bring him here, dammit? Why don’t you leave him in the house, or lock him up! He’s dangerous, dammit!

Ishmael: Don’t you curse my son, for he’s done nothing wrong. Curse God who is responsible for this!

Then Jesus went near the boy’s father….

Jesus: For how long has he been suffering from this illness?

Ishmael: Since he was a little boy. For many years, he was okay, but now…

A Woman: Ishmael, this man who just asked you is the Nazarene that many are talking about. They say he’s God’s prophet and has cured a lot of people…

Ishmael: Prophet? You’re a prophet? You speak with God? Please ask him on my behalf: Why is my son suffering, why, why…? Pardon me, stranger, it’s just that… it’s just that I can’t anymore… I’m tired. Tired of praying, because God doesn’t listen to me… If you’re a prophet… if you can do something for my son…

Jesus: Do you have faith? Do you believe in God?

Ishmael: Now I don’t know what to believe in…

Jesus leaned and sat beside the young man who was breathing laboriously, and wiped his face which was wet with sweat…

Jesus: There’s hope after all…

Ishmael: Is that all?

Jesus looked at the young man’s father for a long time. Like him, he was teary-eyed…

Jesus: If I told you that God is also suffering for your son, would you believe it?… That God also weeps seeing so many sick suffering… No, you’re not alone, brother. God is with you, staying by your side and sustaining you… What more can I tell you?… Come, let’s bring him home, lie him down, so he can rest… Let’s go, he’s more relaxed now…

Ishmael: Will he have another attack?

Jesus: Even if he will, there’s still hope…

Jesus helped the old man, Ishmael, lift his son from the ground and accompanied him to his house. Then he supported Alexander by the shoulders and silently walked with him and his father through the dusty road crossing the small town of Deboriah, beside Mount Tabor…

*Comments*
Deboriah was located at the foot of Mount Tabor. It was a city that belonged to the Israelites of the tribe of Zabulon. This was named in memory of Deborah, a prophetess and “mother of Israel,” who served as judge in the first periods of the history of the people when they were winning battles for the country. Their victory hymn (Jdg 5:1-31) is one of the masterpieces in Hebrew Literature. At present, Deboriah is still a small village inhabited only by Arabs.

Through the description in the gospel of the symptoms of this sick young man, we can deduce that he was suffering from epilepsy. Today we are aware that the cause of these attacks and sudden convulsions is generally a lesion in one part of the brain. While it cannot be entirely cured, epilepsy can be controlled. In Jesus’ times, nothing was known about this and those afflicted with it were specially feared. Ignorance of the disease and what to do about it made the situation deplorable. Very often, its cause was attributed to the devil. It was also believed that it was a form of God’s punishment for some hidden sin of the victim and his family.

In the face of his son’s suffering, Ishmael, the father, prays, seeks, and asks questions. He does not resign himself and ends up rebelling, shouting to God for an answer, believing that God is the only one who can grant it to him. His attitude, his questions are parallel to those of Job. About five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, an anonymous author wrote one of the most important and beautiful books of the Bible, the Book of Job which is about a good man who experienced all kinds of calamity. The pages of the book contain his reflections on sorrow, which he considers absurd, unjust and undeserving. He meets his three friends, who seek the reasons for his misfortune. Above all, he faces God, who is ultimately the one responsible for his ills.

This Job, who becomes rebellious in the face of suffering, and who implores God himself, signified an authentic revolution in the religious thinking of Israel. Until then, it was believed that while on earth, people already received the reward or the punishment for their deeds. A good person became happy and prosperous. A bad one experienced failures and sufferings sooner or later. The Book of Job radically contradicted these ideas. Its theme can be summarized in one important question: Why do the good suffer, what is the significance of the sorrow of the innocent? Throughout its 38 chapters, and in all possible ways, Job asks the same question again and again. After this book, the reflection of the people of Israel on sorrow, individual responsibility and God’s plans, would vary substantially. Job’s case paved the theoretical way to begin to understand the possibility of immortality, the transcendence of human life beyond earth.

Job – like Ishmael – is not convinced of the reasons offered by his friends. There were no valid “reasons” then, nor today, for the suffering of the innocent. It is an oversimplification to say that in suffering, God always consoles the one who suffers, since there are some who do not feel such consolation, who are desperate and embittered, unable to overcome the pain they experience in themselves or in the people they love. The suffering of the innocent is a mystery. That is why Jesus does not offer Ishmael any “reason,” he does not look for motives, nor blame anyone. He just makes his presence felt. He is there, beside the suffering father and the sick son. That’s all. Christian faith does not give “convincing” answers to everything, much less to “absurd” pain. This is not to propose a resigned acceptance, because pain always ends up in mystery, where perhaps the only thing that we can do for others is to share with them their suffering (Rom 12:15). Obviously, there are pains and sufferings about which we can “do” something. Death by starvation, the suffering of people who are unemployed, the pain of women exploited by their husbands, the lack of education of numerous children, the lack of shelter, medical attention, etc. are sources of pain. Neither one’s presence nor sharing is enough for this type of suffering. Christian faith compels us to do more in trying to get rid of this suffering, to combat and to fight against it.

It is another kind of pain that renders us impotent and demands of us Christians a faith and a hope that does not come easy. There are diseases that cannot be fought no matter what the means at hand. There are accidents that claim the lives of good persons, whose foresight escapes human control. There are children and young people who die before they have barely lived, and the cause of their death simply perplexes us because it is unexpected. There is likewise the pain experienced by the human heart (unrequited love, betrayal of friends, misunderstandings, failures, loneliness). At the end of it all is death, which is always painful even if it comes “in due time”… These are the pains that confront us in our limitations and helplessness. Faith is therefore, not a consolation, like aspirin. Perhaps it only serves as a fragile support, knowing that God suffers when he sees us in pain, that the heart of a Father is touched with the pain of his children, that he will also take away our sufferings and that one day, God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes (Rev 21:1-5).

(Mt 17:14-21; Mk 9:14-29; Lk 9:37-43)

69- ISHMAEL’S QUESTIONS

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