“Disarming the Fear”
The Liturgy of the Word this Sunday deals with challenges which inevitably confront the person of faith. The first reading presents a fragment of the, so called, “confessions of Jeremiah” where the prophet expresses his deep feelings of disappointment in the form of a prayer. He laments the attempts of his enemies to discredit his prophetic message, “I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” Very likely, this affirmation refers to his conflict with the priest Pashhur, the chief of the Temple police (cf. Jer 20:1-6). “Terror is all around” was actually the name given by the Lord to Pashhur who struck the prophet Jeremiah and put him in chains. He did so because Jeremiah was announcing the imminent destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. In addition to predicting a national disaster, Jeremiah was pointing to its cause – disobedience to God and violation of his covenant by the people and, particularly, the leaders. Such a message offended the leaders and was considered dangerous to the people’s morale. Jeremiah was thrown into prison as a dangerous troublemaker. After his release, Jeremiah was mocked and reminded of what Pashhur did to him. He was also humiliated by insinuations that his prophecies failed to come true as Jerusalem still stood intact. His adversaries intimidated him with threats that his downfall would be an occasion for them to “take revenge”.
Faced with this threatening and dangerous situation Jeremiah did not despair but placed his hope in the Lord: “But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior”. At other times Jeremiah did loose heart. He even complained against the Lord knowing that his vocation would make him an object of mockery. However, at this time, he shows utter confidence. With deep conviction Jeremiah declared the fate of his opponents who “will stumble, and they will not prevail”. Sure of God’s justice, the prophet himself did not claim the right to vengeance against his enemies but prayed, “let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause”. Jeremiah, firm in his commitment to God, overcame his moments of desolation and reconfirmed his confidence in God. In his complaint he moves from fear to trust that the Lord defends his faithful ones. This made him pronounce the words of praise: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.”
At the beginning of ch. 5 of the Letter to the Romans, Paul shifts from the theme of “faith” to that of “hope”. Having dealt with righteousness based on faith in the first four chapters, the Apostle begins to discuss the effects of righteousness by faith on the life of the faithful and life “in Christ”. The passage opens with “well then”, an expression that links it to the previous paragraph, which concluded with “we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5:11). This joyful declaration of trust comes from the realization that sin has been overcome and, through Jesus, a new kind of relationship between the righteous person and God has been established. Through him, “the grace of God” which brings about true life has come to all.
Between the statement on hope in the preceding verses and the statement on grace Paul explains the fundamental change brought by Jesus. He emphasizes that all people – starting from Adam, the first human being – lived under the reign of sin and thus suffered death. Sin, as alienation from God, brings decay, corruption and death. But now, there is a new Adam, Christ, who converted death into a new life. “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many”. This gift of grace overthrows sin because Christ, through his resurrection, defeated death and made eternal life possible. Christ himself is the grace – the effect of his life is the possibility of life eternal opened to all who believe. The difference between Christ and Adam could not have been greater – the effect of Adam’s life was death, the effect of Jesus’ life is the defeat of sin and life with God.
In the Gospel passage we hear the continuation of Jesus’ “missionary discourse” located in Matthew ch. 10. This section of the Gospel aims to instruct and guide the disciples on how to carry out Jesus’ mission. He did not hide from them the hardships and dangers they were to face when witnessing to him. Just as he himself was persecuted and rejected, so will his disciples be. Nevertheless, they are not to be frightened. Three times in this short passage Jesus repeats: “Do not be afraid”. Disciples are not to be afraid of “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul”. If there is something to be feared, it is God himself. However, fear of God, in this case, does not refer to being afraid of God. Fear in the Bible means respect and obedience. The only thing they are to fear is being disobedient and disrespectful towards God who decides a person’s final destiny. What other people do to us is of little significance since it has no lasting consequences. Yet, it is not fear, even understood as obedience and respect, that should govern our relationship with God. The example of God’s care for small sparrows of almost no worth shows that human life has great value in God’s eyes: “you are of more value than many sparrows”. This is to give the disciples great confidence in God’s care, confidence that even the threat of death cannot undermine. Such confidence should enable them to proclaim the Gospel openly, regardless of the circumstances. Trust is to replace fear.
Further motivation for courage, despite opposition, is provided by reference to eternal life. Those who declare themselves for Jesus will enjoy life with him in eternity. Those who disown Jesus will be disowned in eternity. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me … I also will acknowledge … but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny …”. The disciple has to choose the way. Confronting danger and persecution with courage and trust can develop and strengthen the relationship with Jesus. Succumbing to fear and despair, on the other hand, will cause the relationship to die.
Today’s liturgy presents the right attitude in the face of tribulations and fears – namely confidence and trust. Jeremiah, attacked from every side, placed his cause in the hands of the Lord. Paul knew that Jesus overcame sin and joyfully proclaimed the defeat of death to the Romans. Jesus compelled his disciples not to be overcome by fear but to remember God’s saving presence. Since, as Paul stated, Jesus defeated sin and brought God’s grace, we have the gift of life that no opposition or hostility can take away. The prayer of the psalmist expresses the confidence that helps to disarm fear: “my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.”
Recently, I had a chat with a religious missionary who was preparing to go for mission in a war-torn country. As we recounted some of the media reports on the atrocities meted out to the vulnerable and the gruesome murder of a religious missionary in that country, I asked her, “Are you not scared?” She replied, “That country is already in my heart and it is now my turn to go to her heart. That is God’s mission for me and I must go. I am not afraid.” She was absolutely unperturbed and unafraid of whatever may befall her there. The secret of her confidence was her love for Christ and trust in divine providence.
There is an African proverb which says, “A dead goat does not fear a knife”. When you are dead to this world and alive for Christ, you no longer fear what the world may do to you. Your only concern is to live for Him who died for you. It is against this backdrop that the words of Christ, in our Gospel text, bring so much refreshment – “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
The fear of God, inferred from the text, is not a servile fear but a filial one. It is having confidence in the power of God. The greatest weapon for disarming fear of any kind is trust in divine providence. It is believing that the Lord who sees every sparrow that falls to the ground knows all about each one of us and watches over us.
The words of Jesus in the Gospel are apt for our time too. For fear of being ridiculed or persecuted, many of us have limited the practice of our faith to the confines of the church building and restricted it to Sundays. The moment the Church service comes to an end and we walk out of the church premises, we fearfully coil ourselves into our shells. Outside the church, some feel uncomfortable even to make the sign of the cross or carry with them any symbol of the Christian faith. We fear to uphold the church’s social teachings in our interactions with the social world. For fear of being labelled ‘backward’, we easily compromise and allow ourselves to be gagged by secular opinions.
In a conversation with a young teenage boy, I was amazed that he could mention almost all the names of the players of the teams in the English Premier League and yet, although he is a Christian, had no idea of where to find the Book of Zephaniah in the Bible. The secular world embraces you when you embrace its lifestyle but frowns at you when you embrace a godly way of life. This has made the pursuit of holiness unattractive for many.
It appears we are in the days of “Jeremiah”. Increasingly, it is becoming evident that an unflinching faith in God can lead to loss of friends and other material opportunities. In some cases, it even sparks antagonism, and evil-minded people set traps to bring down people of faith. However, Jeremiah makes a statement that should guide us in these perilous times – “The LORD is with me as a dread warrior; therefore, my persecutors will stumble, they will not overcome me...” (Jer 20:11).
We are never alone. In Christ we have found God’s gracious gift. He is our hope and the reason why we are not afraid to stand up and be counted as his followers in this passing world.