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Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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14th Sunday of Ordinary Time/ “What is the Thorn in Your Side?”

St. Paul writes today in 2nd Corinthians that he was given, “a thorn in the flesh.”  The suffering he endured says was meant to keep him from becoming proud.  St. Paul did not reveal what the source of this chronic suffering was in his writing.  And this has led to speculations throughout the centuries as to what the thorn could have been. 

            If we read through the 11th and 12th chapter of the 2nd letter of Corinthians, we see that Paul is attacked by other Christian leaders.  He seems to feel it necessary to go through his qualifications to be an apostle.  He puts forth two proofs of his worthiness.  The first thing that Paul points to is the fact that he suffered much as the has witnessed to the faith.  Paul was imprisoned.  He was beaten severely on several occasions. He was ridiculed.  He was shouted down.  The list of indignities is long indeed. But St. Paul will not give up his service of the Gospel.   Paul argues that when one is willing to suffer for what is right that is truly a proof of sincerity.

            The other thing Paul uses to justify his ministry, are the mystical experiences that he has enjoyed.  The main, experience he writes about is how he was snatched up into heaven.  He says he does not know whether he had an in body or out of body experience, but it was a gift of God to encourage him in the ministry.

            Lastly, he speaks of the thorn in the flesh. We can tell by Paul’s anguished words that this malady was very difficult for Paul to accept.  He begs for God to take the thorn away.  Probably the thorn in the flesh was not real thorn, but Paul was speaking in an allegorical sense.  For that reason, this can be an encouragement to us.  Many of us have Chronic problems. We all have thorns in our side.  Our difficulties can take three forms.

            We can have a chronic disease of a physical nature.  With Paul it was thought that he might have had problems with his eyesight. He may have had migraine headaches.  Perhaps he had a speech impediment.  We do not know.  But many of us gathered here struggle with physical suffering.  People struggle with everything from diabetes, to heart disease to cancer.  Many here, I am sure have begged to have physical suffering taken away.  But the thorn suffering remains imbedded in the flesh of many who struggle.

            The second form suffering can take, is in the form of mental illness. Some have speculated that St. Paul might have struggled with depression, at times.  Many ministers do.  We will have a new saint in the church soon.  His name is Archbishop Oscar Romero.  We probably remember him as a man who was shot by an assassin as he said Mass.  He was shot in El Salvador almost 40 years ago because he courageously spoke in defense of the poor.  He also suffered from severe depression at times.  He was rigid.  He was excessive compulsive.  He sought psychiatric treatment. He continued his ministry. Like St. Paul he forged ahead amidst adversity.

            The last way we all struggle is spiritually.  St. Paul was constantly attacked by other religious leaders.  His words were twisted.  His character was lied about.  He mentions one tormenter by name.  Alexander the copper smith attacked St. Paul so much that he was driven out of Ephesus. His slander followed St. Paul wherever he went.  Church community can be a very supportive environment, but then again there can be struggles between members.  Many people write off the church for that reason.  The church itself was probable a thorn in Paul’s side at times.  But he struggled on in community. He believed it was the authentic way to follow Jesus.

            Why does the Paul bring up his personal struggle?  Probably he had a sense that pointing to his heroic witness was not effective preaching.  He did not want to be the super hero everyone admired but did not imitate.  He also knew that most people don’t often have mystical experiences.  But almost all of us have thorns in the flesh, ongoing struggles.  Paul’s point was that such struggles can drive us away from God.  But then again, they can draw us close to God. Paul’s difficulties brought him ever closer to Jesus Christ. His vulnerability in his preaching gave people encouragement.

            Several times, in ministry, I have gone to jails and prisons.  When I first experienced this ministry, I felt very inadequate.  How should I preach?  Do I talk about sin and conversion?  Do I speak about how faith in Jesus has changed my life?  When I preached in such a way the people who were imprisoned did not seem to listen.  But one day I shared that I had struggles, I sinned, I had doubts. I shared a little about some of the thorns that were in my flesh, that I believed nonetheless. At that point, I felt like my audience was listening.  And they found some hope.

            We all have our own thorns in the flesh.  St. Paul tells us not to despair, but to look at our difficulties as an opportunity for God’s grace to work in our lives.  Paul became ever more faithful as he fought the good fight, hopefully we can as well.