In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that there is empty fear and worthy fear. How will they know the difference?
Gospel (Read Mt 10:26-33)
The tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus calling the Twelve apostles. Then, He sends them out to preach the Good News He’s going to teach them. He gives them detailed instructions for their mission, telling them where to go, what to say, what to do, and, instead of the expected, what not to take with them. He also gives them a solemn warning, which was bound to leave them a little shaken: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (see vs. 16). He describes the serious opposition they will face as bearers of His message, even within their own families. However, He reassures them with this promise: “… do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of the Father speaking through you (see vss 19-20). Would this be enough to assuage their fears? Today’s reading tells us more.
First, Jesus tells the apostles to “fear no one.” He goes on to help them avoid the fear that can come from doubt about the truth of the message they will preach. Strong opposition can make us doubt that the Gospel (which is truly an outrageous message in every sense of the word) is actually what people need to hear. How could the Twelve, a small, ragtag band of traveling disciples, have confidence enough in their itinerant rabbi to sustain them during times of resistance, ridicule, and even violence when they delivered His word? He tells them, “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (vs 26). This is a promise meant to give courage to the apostles. He knows that the Gospel message He will give them, in relative quiet and secrecy, they will one day have to boldly announce to a world that doesn’t want to believe it.
Jesus gives them assurance that no matter how skeptical people are of their message of salvation resting on faith in a Man Who came back from death, one day its truth will be crystal clear to (and adored as glorious by) the whole universe. The apostles simply need patience and perseverance. We do, too.
Next, Jesus addresses the fear that comes from bodily persecution: “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (vs. 28). This is perhaps a fear stronger than the fear that comes from doubt. Fear of physical suffering is instinctive in us, and it runs deep. However, Jesus explains that their opponents’ power over them is only temporal and physical, as harsh and as final as it may seem. So this fear, along with doubt’s fear, is essentially empty. It cannot have the last word. There is another fear, however, that is a worthy one. What is it?
Jesus tells them, “… be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (vs 28b). Who has that kind of power? Some would say Satan, although his power over us is limited by God Himself. It is ultimately our own choice to either resist or receive the corruption he offers us disguised as a satisfying path to happiness. If we grant him a foothold in our lives, he can certainly lead us to destruction, for that has always been his goal (see Gen 3:1-7). We should, therefore, constantly be alert to his lying hatred for us (see Eph 6:1-11; Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8-10) and never underestimate him or overestimate our own mortal strength against him. In this sense, the “fear” of Satan means an informed vigilance against the great damage this enemy can do to us if we let him.
We might also see these words as a reminder to “fear” God, Who ultimately is the only One on earth or in heaven Who has the power over our eternal fate. Notice that here, too, our own personal choice is a factor in what becomes of us. Jesus tells the Twelve that their heavenly Father knows everything that happens in the world. Not even a tiny, insignificant sparrow dies without the Father’s knowledge. We have to wonder what the apostles made of that statement. Did it seem like wild hyperbole to them? If so, His next words must have pushed them over the top: “Even all the hairs of your heard are counted.” What more could Jesus say to give them great confidence in God’s love and care for them? He didn’t want them to fear any danger from anyone; He wanted them to have courage to do what He asked of them. Still, He reminded them that it would be their own personal response to Him that determined their future:
“Everyone who acknowledges Me before others, I will also acknowledge before My heavenly Father. But whoever denies Me before others, I will deny before My heavenly Father” (vs 23-33).
To “fear” God and act appropriately, with an understanding of our accountability to Him and His right to deal justly with what we choose for ourselves is another possible interpretation of Jesus’ warning to “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
Ultimately, these words contain both comfort and yet a warning. This Cistercian chant puts it well: “Victorious love shouts to the four winds. You who follow Jesus, do not fear what leads to death, rather fear to yield to fear.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me not to shrink in fear from shadows. Even a sparrow can remind me of what is real.
First Reading (Read Jer 20:10-13)
The prophet, Jeremiah, was one who knew quite well the opposition that those who speak God’s words will inevitably face. Jeremiah and his words were hated in his day, because he had the unenviable task of telling the Jews that God’s just judgment on their covenant infidelity was about to fall on them in a catastrophic way. Jeremiah knew his enemies were eager to silence him. As terrifying as this must have been, he found courage in the nearness of the Lord: “But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.” This is just the kind of courage Jesus had when He was faced with murderous opposition and the courage He urged on His apostles. Jeremiah was not only able to continue his prophet’s work, but in the midst of it, he was able to sing: “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for He has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!” This is truly fearless faith.
Possible response: Father, singing Your praise is the perfect antidote to fear.
Psalm (Read Ps. 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35)
The psalmist described the fate of those who fearlessly stand with God, consumed by their zeal for his house. Here we have a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus, Who likewise incurred the wrath of His brothers, the Jews, by daring to cleanse the Temple and to charge them with profaning it with their irreverent religiosity. The psalmist calls out for God’s help: “Lord, in Your great love, answer me.” Surely the apostles would need to follow his example when they set out on their mission to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth—many times over. The psalmist is confident of God’s kindness to one in desperate need: “For the Lord hears the poor, and His own who are in bonds, He spurns not.” Just as Jeremiah had faith to sing God’s praises in the midst of great persecution, so, too, the psalmist’s tongue was loosed when he was insulted and treated as an outcast: “Let the heavens and the earth praise Him, the seas and whatever moves in them!”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom 5:12-15)
St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the most theological of all his letters. From beginning to end, he sets out in clear, systematic fashion Who God is, who man is, the problem man created for himself, and how God fixed it. In the practical section of the epistle (the last several chapters), St. Paul explains how a person who has been fixed by God’s grace ought to live. Today’s reading touches on two truths that expand our understanding of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel not to be afraid of persecution and to count on God’s great love for us to enable us to do what He asks of us.
First, St. Paul gives us an explanation for why God’s message to man has always stirred up resistance: “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death.” It is the sin we inherited from our first parents that distorts our vision of God, making Him look like an enemy instead of our loving Father. Sin makes us want to silence God by persecuting His messengers. Next, St. Paul reminds us of the magnificent love of God for His sinful human children. He tells us that one act by Adam stained all of us with sin and death, but Jesus’ sacrificial life has caused grace to flow to all of us. That is why Jesus could say in the Gospel, “… do not be afraid [of persecution]; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Possible response: Father, You have shown Your love to us, Your rebellious children, not by getting revenge but by showering us with grace. How foolish fear seems!