12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
The official documents issued in the name of Domitian began with: “Our Lord and God commands you to do the following ….” He was the emperor who erected statues everywhere in his honor and demanded to be worshiped as a god. The consul Flavius Clemens, his cousin, converted to Christ, could not adhere to such insane requirement. He was executed and his wife Domitilla was exiled in Sardinia.
The worship of the emperor spread mostly in Asia Minor. A temple and a colossal statue of the god Domitian were erected in Ephesus. The local authorities, subservient to power, wanted everyone to bow down and worship the one whom the seer of Revelation calls “the beast” (Rev 13:4, 12).
Christians could not bestow divine honors to the king. For this, misappropriations, punishments, discriminations, and confiscation of properties started for them. Many could no longer bear these constant harassments. They were at the limit of endurance and the looming risk of apostasy. How to help them through this difficult time?
To encourage the Christians of his community, Matthew wrote in this historical context, which he inserted in his Gospel, the sayings of the Master regarding the difficulties and persecutions that the disciples would have had to bear.
For the Christians, persecution is not an accident; it is an inescapable fact. Even the author of the second letter to Timothy (written more or less in the same period) reminds us: “All who want to serve God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Tim 3:12).
What recommendations did Jesus give to his persecuted disciples?
He begins to warn them of fear. Fear has a positive vital function: it signals the dangers, prevents rash, risky, foolish gestures. However, if it gets out of control, it hinders the courageous actions and resolute choices.
For those who have made the decision to follow Christ, fear is often the worst enemy. It manifests itself in the fear of losing one’s position, of seeing the esteem of one’s superiors diminished, of losing friendships, of being deprived of one’s properties, of being punished, demoted, for some even of being killed. Whoever is afraid is no longer free. It is normal to be afraid, but woe to one dominated and guided by fear, one ends up paralyzed.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus insists, three times: “Do not be afraid!” (vv. 26, 28, 31) and each time, he adds a motive to justify his recommendation.
The announcer of the Gospel is afraid, first of all, because of the violence unleashed by the enemies of Christ, his mission might fail (vv. 26-27).
Jesus assures him that despite the trials and hardships, the Gospel will spread and transform the world. To better clarify, he cites the example of the rabbis of his time. Before sending their disciples to discuss publicly in the streets, they instructed them in secret. Their wisdom remained hidden for a long time, but one day all the people were forced to acknowledge their wisdom and their preparation. The same thing—Jesus assures us—will happen to his apostles. They probably will not see the seeds of light and goodness germinate which they have sown with toil and pain. However, they must cultivate the joyful certainty that the harvest will grow and will be plentiful. Their work will not be in vain; though they are put to death, no enemy force will be able to prevent the realization of God’s plan.
What happened to Jesus is revealing. His enemies were convinced they have silenced him forever, have put a huge, immovable rock on him and his message. However, on Easter day he is risen, just as the seed, buried in the ground, dies but only to reappear a hundredfold.
The second reason why one fears is the fear of being mistreated or even put to death (v. 28).
Jesus invites us to reflect: what harm can the enemies of the Gospel do? They can offend, accuse unjustly, beat, confiscate property, and take away life! Yes, but nothing more! No violence is capable of depriving the disciple of the only lasting treasure: the life he has received from God and that no one can take away. Paul was deeply convinced: “I am certain of this: neither trials or anguish, persecution or hunger, lack of clothing or dangers or sword … nothing will separate us from the love of God, which we have in Jesus Christ, our Lord”(Rom 8:35-39).
But there is someone—Jesus continues—that is to be feared. It is “the one who has the power to destroy both soul and body.” It is not an external character to us. It is the evil that, since birth, we carry within us. It is the negative force that suggests paths opposed to those of Christ. So, we need to fear above all, ourselves and our own fear. Have we not many times, for fear of being alone, cultivated ambiguous friendships or maintained relations that ended up making us slaves and preventing us from living? Have we not behaved in a cowardly manner, lied, and committed acts of injustice because of fear? Whoever is afraid fails to accomplish what would lead him to realize his life and therefore, perishes.”
The third reason why persecution frightens us is that oftentimes it does not only affect us, but also those around us who may be deprived of the necessary subsistence (vv. 29-31).
To this objection, Jesus responds by recalling the trust in the heavenly Father’s providence. He does not promise his disciples that nothing will happen, that they will always be rescued in a prodigious way. He assures them that God will still realize their true goodness if they have the courage to remain faithful. The reminder that every hair on one’s head has already been counted by God is effective. No one can escape his love and his kindness. He is interested in every creature, even the smallest. The more he will follow the cause of one who is fighting for the coming of his kingdom!
The passage ends with a promise: Jesus will recognize, before his Father, those who have recognized him before people (vv. 32-33). He is not speaking of the final judgment but of the occurrences of the present times. He is recognized by some of his disciples working in the world but in others, he is not. He is made known by one who has not feared of proclaiming his Gospel even at the cost of life. He is not recognized by those who do not follow his footsteps and by those who do not make his Word present in the world. Before the Father, he will testify this reality.
Today there are still many people who are killed because of the Gospel. Even without bloodshed, persecution exists, and it is unavoidable. Sometimes it openly manifests itself through insults, and public taunts; at other times through subtle and disguised marginalization, discrimination, and exclusion. One who has no concern for another has adapted the principles of this world and, perhaps, has given up the Kingdom of God without realizing it.
READ: We are engulfed by sin, but God’s grace will help us triumph over it. No human life is outside the caring providence of God, as every person is precious in God’s eyes.
PRAY: Faith should drive out all fear, both for the individual and for the Church. Let prayer free you from all fear.
REFLECT: Our very life may seem like a burden too great to bear. But those are the very times we must trust in the goodness of the Lord and his promises. We have been redeemed by no less than the blood of Jesus Christ and therefore, for God, we are far more precious than anything else in creation.
ACT: Write out a prayer of trust in God’s providence, which may be used in times of trials.
Italian missionary and biblical scholar
Have Fear But Do Not Be Afraid
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
This Sunday’s Gospel contains a number of ideas but they all can be summarized in this apparently contradictory phrase: “Have fear but do not be afraid.” Jesus says: “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear rather him who has the power to make both the soul and the body perish in Gehenna.” We must not be afraid of, nor fear human beings; we must fear God but not be afraid of him.
There is a difference between being afraid and fearing and I would like to take this occasion to try to understand why this is so and in what this difference consists. Being afraid is a manifestation of our fundamental instinct for preservation. It is a reaction to a threat to our life, the response to a real or perceived danger, whether this be the greatest danger of all, death, or particular dangers that threaten our tranquility, our physical safety, or our affective world.
With respect to whether the dangers are real or imagined, we say that someone is “justifiably” or “unjustifiably” or “pathologically” afraid. Like sicknesses, this worry can be acute or chronic. If it is acute, it has to do with states determined by situations of extraordinary danger. If I am about to be hit by a car or I begin to feel the earth quake under my feet, this is being acutely afraid. These “scares” arise suddenly and without warning and cease when the danger has passed, leaving, if anything, just a bad memory. Being chronically afraid is to be constantly in a state of preoccupation, this state grows up with us from birth or childhood and becomes part of our being, and we end up developing an attachment to it. We call such a state a complex or phobia: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and so on.
The Gospel helps to free us from all of these worries and reveals their relative, non-absolute, nature. There is something of ours that nothing and no one in the world can truly take away from us or damage: For believers it is the immortal soul; for everyone it is the testimony of their own conscience.
The fear of God is quite different from being afraid. The fear of God must be learned: “Come, my children, listen to me,” a Psalm says, “I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (33:12); being afraid, on the other hand, does not need to be learned at school; it overtakes us suddenly in the face of danger; the things themselves bring about our being afraid.
But the meaning itself of fearing God is different from being afraid. It is a component of faith: It is born from knowledge of who God is. It is the same sentiment that we feel before some great spectacle of nature. It is feeling small before something that is immense; it is stupor, marvel mixed with admiration. Beholding the miracle of the paralytic who gets up on his feet and walks, the Gospel says, “Everyone was in awe and praised God; filled with fear they said: ‘Today we have seen wondrous things'” (Luke 5:26). Fear is here simply another name for stupor and praise.
This sort of fear is a companion of and allied to love: It is the fear of offending the beloved that we see in everyone who is truly in love, even in the merely human realm. This fear is often called “the beginning of wisdom” because it leads to making the right choices in life. Indeed it is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit! (cf. Isaiah 11:2).
As always, the Gospel does not only illumine our faith but it also helps us to understand the reality of everyday life. Our time has been called “the age of anxiety” (W.H. Auden). Anxiety, which is closely related to being afraid, has become the sickness of the century and it is, they say, one of the principal causes of the large number of heart attacks. This spread of anxiety seems connected with the fact that, compared with the past, we have many more forms of economic insurance, life insurance, many more means of preventing illness and delaying death.
The cause of this anxiety is the diminishing — if not the complete disappearance — in our society of the holy fear of God. “No one fears God anymore!” We say this sometimes jokingly but it contains a tragic truth. The more that the fear of God diminishes, the more we become afraid of our fellow men!
It is easy to understand why this is the case. Forgetting God, we place all our confidence in the things of this world, that is, in the things that Christ says “thieves can steal and moths consume” — uncertain things that can disappear from one moment to the next, that time (and moths!) inexorably consume, things that everyone is after and which therefore cause competition and rivalry (the famous “mimetic desire” of which René Girard speaks), things that need to be defended with clenched teeth and, sometimes, with a gun in hand.
The decline in fear of God, rather than liberating us from worry, gets us more entangled in worry. Look at what happens in the relationship between children and parents in our society. Fathers no longer fear God and children no longer fear fathers! The fear of God is reflected in and analogous to the reverential fear of children for parents. The Bible continually associates the two things. But does the lack of this reverential fear for their parents make the children and young people of today more free and self-confident? We know well that the exact opposite is true.
The way out of the crisis is to rediscover the necessity and the beauty of the holy fear of God. Jesus explains to us in the Gospel that we will hear on Sunday that the constant companion of the fear of God is confidence in God. “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows!”
God does not want us to be afraid of him but to have confidence in him. It is the contrary of that emperor who said: “Oderint dum metuant” — “Let them hate me so long as they are afraid of me!” Our earthly fathers must imitate God; they must not make us afraid of them but have confidence in them. It is in this way that respect is nourished: admiration, confidence, everything that falls under the name of “holy fear.”
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]