Fear again. Just a few weeks ago the scriptural themes centered on fear and now here it is again. Maybe in the providence of God as we are in this scary time of pandemic the Church understands that we need some guidance on how to live in an atmosphere of fear. As we move into ordinary time we find once again Jesus is telling us, “Do not be afraid.” Throughout the Bible we are given the same admonition over and over again. When the angel appeared to Mary the first words spoken were the ones usually spoken when an angel appeared: “Do not be afraid.” After Peter, James and John heard the heavenly voice at the transfiguration Jesus told them not to be afraid. The white robed men at the empty tomb on the first Easter morning told the women coming to grieve “do not be afraid.” Notice that these words are not just offered as good advice. They are in the same form as a commandment. Do not steal. Do not murder. Do not lie. Do not be afraid. “Thou shalt not be afraid.” Jesus goes even further in another place when he says “Fear is useless” (Mark 5:36). On the other hand, contrast all the Biblical evidence with our own experience. We wear masks, keep social distance, avoid congregating in large groups because we are afraid of catching the virus. The United States spent $721.5 billion dollars on its military budget last year out of fear for what other nations were doing. We monitor carefully where we go and what time we come home due to a fear of crime. We buy insurance and try to save because we fear what might happen to our finances. If you are not afraid, you’re not paying attention. How are we supposed to heed the Biblical command: do not be afraid?
Jesus tells us we should not be afraid because “all the hairs on your head are counted” by God. (I personally am making God’s counting job a little easier.) In other words, we should not be afraid because we are in God’s hands and God’s plan is at work and in God’s time all will be well. On this Father’s Day we can be free of fear because God is our loving father who will watch over us with tender devotion. Like our fathers on earth God only wants what is best for us and when we are tossed up in the air we can be sure that we will fall back into the divine loving arms. Seeing the plan of God at work frees us from fear. If there is one thing we learn from salvation history is that God never gives up. God sent patriarchs and when they didn’t work God sent judges and when that didn’t work God sent kings and when that didn’t work God sent prophets and when that didn’t work God sent his only-begotten Son to create an unbreakable bond between humanity and divinity. We can trust in the plan of God. And we need not fear for the future is secure. As Dr. King reminded us, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We are at one of those critical moments in the nation’s history when the arc is bending.
However, a closer look at the text from St. Matthew’s gospel points out that there is a time when fear is appropriate: “Be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” After all of the “do not be afraid” language we are told whom we must fear: God. God is the one who can cast soul and body into Gehenna. The fear of the Lord was traditionally listed as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit but we don’t know what to do with that “fear” language so when we teach it to the children we soften the word. In the book of Proverbs we read “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So how is fear of the Lord a gift, how is it wisdom? Again, this being Fathers’ Day might give us a clue as to what the Bible is teaching us. While it is not universally true, in many cultures and certainly in the Biblical one, fathers were treated with more respect, given more deference. This respect is similar to what the Bible means by the fear of the Lord. It’s not that you fear your father will smack you upside the head. It’s more that you want to live in a way that gets your father’s approval. So with God: fear of the Lord does not mean that we think God is out to get us. Rather, it means that we want to live up to the love that God has showered on our hearts
So here we are: on the one hand we have the commandment “do not be afraid” and on the other we must practice fear of the Lord. How to reconcile them? One thought: what we are really afraid of is loss. We don’t want to lose our health. We don’t want to lose our income. We don’t want to lose a family member. We don’t want to lose our reputation. We don’t want to lose control. Fear can dominate us because we don’t want to confront these losses. Jesus commands us not to fear because we really can’t lose anything important. We can’t lose our lives since the life we live now is but a foretaste of the life with God on high. We can’t lose our loved ones since Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us. We can’t lose anything of value because our God will not be outdone in generosity. We practice fear of the Lord when we reverence a God who continually showers upon us graces and blessings and love without measure. We live without fear when we open our eyes and see God’s loving hand in everything. As the song goes: Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the light of my life.