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Bible Essays - Pain and Suffering in Homer's Odyssey and the Gospel of Matthew

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Pain and Suffering in The Odyssey and the Gospel of Matthew


In the "great works" of ancient Greece and of Christianity, suffering alone is portrayed as something to be feared. Both Homer's Odyssey and the Gospel of Matthew contend that suffering is virtually unbearable when the sufferer has not outside support. If, however, the tormented can find support from others, these teachings continue, suffering becomes more tolerable. Both agree that we wish to find supporters when we are tormented. Unfortunately, these sources diverge on how one finds such support. Homer teaches that one can find support by knowing that all of mankind suffers together, ultimately tormented by the gods. The Gospel of Matthew, however, teaches that by placing faith in God, the tormented can find support from God. More, it teaches that God hears the calls for help from humans and, if asked in true faith, will give support to all sufferers.

To illustrate the teachings of these two works, one short passage from each is sufficient to give the kernel of the respective teachings on this subject:


Rag of man that I am, is this the end of me?

I fear the goddess told it all to wellÄ

predicting great adversity at sea

and far from home. Now all things bear her out:

he whole rondure of heaven hooded so

by Zeus in woeful cloud, and the sea raging

under such winds. I am going down, that's sure.

How lucky those Danaans were who perished

on Troy's wide seaboard, serving the Atreidai!

Would God I, too, had died there—met my end

that time the Trojans made so many casts at me

when I stood by Akhilleus after death.

I should have had a soldier's burial

and praise from the Akhanians—not this choking

waiting for me at sea, unmarked and lonely. (Homer V.309-323)

"He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said 'I am God's Son." The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (Matthew 27:43-51)


In the passage from the Odyssey, Homer places Odysseus in great peril, alone and at sea, so that we can see that all people must suffer together, against the gods if they are to find support in their torment. Odysseus clearly recognizes that his situation is potentially fatal, saying "'Rag of a man that I am, is this the end of me? …I am going down, that's for sure.'" As his comparison to a rag, the discarded piece of a larger cloth, shows, he is alone on the open ocean, without help, and in a dangerous situation. Homer reminds us though, that in such a situation, the first recourse is to blame the gods. Odysseus already knows that his suffering is caused by the gods although he mistakenly assumes fault to lie with Zeus. Furthermore, Odysseus wishes death over suffering alone as he is, saying "Would God I too, had died there—met my end that time the Trojans made so many casts at me when I stood by Akhilleus after death. …not this choking waiting for me at sea, unmarked and lonely." By separatin his description of his own situation so far from the description of the rest of the Argives and Trajans, even the text of his speech shows his feeling of lonelyness. Out of such a desperate situation, there seems little chance of Odysseus finding any support, but Homer cleverly shows a way out.

In his sad speech, Odysseus drops a clue that his fate is not set in stone. He admits that the will of the gods is not absolute and final. There is room for humans to establish their own mastery of suffering. He says "I fear the goddess told it all too well—predicting great adversity at sea and far from home." The phrase "I fear [italics added] the goddess told it all to well" indicates that there is still some doubt, or once was, in his mind that the prophecy of the goddess Athena was true. If there is doubt, there must be the possibility that the prophecy was wrong and, therefore, there is room to avoid the will of the gods.

Odysseus fully understands that since there is room for humans to out-will the gods, there is ample incentive for humans to band together in support of their mutual suffering. He expresses his admiration for those who are able to die on the battlefield (often a very painful way to die), "serving the Atreidai" because suffering is easier if endured together. When a soldier dies on the battlefield, his friends are there to stand over him, as Odysseus did for Akhilleus and to bury him in honor, whereas alone, Odysseus will be left to a grave at sea, "unmarked and lonely."

Even as he is preparing to die, however, Odysseus is saved by a sea nymph, Ino (Homer V.343-363). Although this section is not in the passage above, it is noteworthy that Ino was once a mortal. Odysseus only escapes certain death and suffering when he receives support from a former mortal (it is only important that she was once a mortal).

In the years between Homer and Matthew, it seems unlikely that people lost faith in the human race. Nonetheless, the Gospel of Matthew presents a very different postulate than the Odyssey. In the Gospel of Matthew, humans offer no help to sufferers. Instead, only God can provide relief. Jesus cannot escape suffering, even with the help of bystanders, until he places his faith in God.

The Gospel of Matthew begins the recounting of Jesus' death by establishing that Jesus expected God to keep him from suffering. There can be no doubt that Jesus knew he was going to die; he prophesied his death himself (for the third time) in Matthew 20:17. As the bystanders say, however, Jesus "…trusts in God" to deliver him. He does not expect to be left suffering on the cross. At three o'clock in the afternoon of the day of his execution, the only escape from his pain is death. Jesus' faith breaks. He no longer expects God to help and, alone without God for the first time in his life, cries out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" It is clear that Jesus fears being alone and desperately wants to be helped. Why else would he repeat the call for "My God" unless he was unsure that God was even close enough to hear him?

The Gospel of Matthew also carefully rules out mortal intervention, even as Jesus cries for help. The bystanders are unable to help him. Although one tries to bring him comfort with wine on a sponge, it does no good. The other bystanders further attack the notion of human aid, refraining from helping because they rightly assume that if help is to come at all, it will come from Elijah. No help arrives from the onlookers. In the Gospel of Matthew, humans are powerless to alleviate the suffering of others on their own.

Once the bystanders and Jesus place their faith in God's ability to alleviate pain, however, Jesus is allowed to die. The Gospel of Matthew says, "Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last," implying a causal relationship between the acceptance of faith of the bystanders and of Jesus and his death. Whereas the first time Jesus "cried with a loud voice," he had no faith in God's compassion, this time he does not question God's will and is allowed relief. Even though Jesus now seems to accept God’s presence, he still cries out loud. That he cries again in a "loud voice" teaches that even though God is not physically present, internal supplication is not enough; it must become public and, therefore, shared. Like the Odyssey, relief from suffering still comes from a communal expression, even if its source is different. But how do we know that Jesus accepted God, rather than just keeping his mouth shut because he'd learned not to question God’s presence?

The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus "…breathed his last." It does not say that he simply died. Assuming that the wording is significant, as it should be in a work that was argued over for so many years before it was canonized, the active implication of the phrase is important. It implies that Jesus actively took his last breath, knowing that he would die because he knew that God would comfort him. Matthew also shows that it was, in fact, God who did comfort Jesus. Immediately after Jesus dies, "…the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…" The curtain is torn at the top first and the tear moves downward towards earth. Recognition of Jesus' suffering comes from above, where God is presumed to sit, not from below, where mortals reside.

So are these two interpretations of suffering really different—did western thought on suffering reverse itself in a matter of a few hundred years? Not really. At their heart, these texts teach individuals how to handle suffering by finding support from others, mortals or immortals. Modern society is no different. We don't call support groups and councilors warriors or gods, but their function is the same; they help us to endure.


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