The Scriptures of the last weeks have been a rich sampling of the Wisdom Tradition in the Bible. In this tradition is distinguished among other things, the wise from the foolish. The wise are those have set their hearts on God and the lasting things of eternity. They prepare for what is certain (death and judgement) and have their treasure with God and in heaven, God is the joy of their heart. The foolish set their hearts on the passing and uncertain things of this world. They focus on, prefer and find their joy in things that are uncertain and passing, like wealth, good looks, and popularity. And they neglect death and judgment or the things of God.
In today’s reading we are focused on another wisdom concept: the Fear of the Lord. In the First reading we hear, Charm is deceitful, beauty is fleeting, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.(Prov 23) The Psalm says, Blessed are you who fear the Lord (Psalm 128:1)
Now this phrase “the fear of the Lord” needs to be rescued from common misunderstandings. To fear the Lord does not mean to cringe with servile fear, with the fear of being crushed or destroyed. Such a fear as this is not what the beatitude is getting at. Rather to fear the the Lord is to hold him in awe, to reverence him with a deep and abiding love and appreciation as the source of all that I am and all that I have. It is a “fear” a reverence and awe rooted in love and appreciation. Since I love God and He is Abba to me, I fear offending him by sin, or severing my relationship to him by refusing his grace. Out of love, reverence and a sense of awe, I fear giving any offense to Him who is Holy, God, and deserving of all my love.
The Gospel today develops a kind of portrait of the Holy Fear of the Lord which is taught, and of the resentful servile fear which is not taught. Let’s look at it with this perspective in mind and discover the differences of each kind of fear.
A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one– to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
Three men are given resources to use. Two succeed, one fails. Why the difference? Ultimately it is the difference between holy fear, love and confidence on the one hand, and unholy fear and resentment on the other.
Consider the plan of the first two men who succeed.
- Receive Riches – One gets 5 Talents, the other 2 Talents, each according to his ability. While the “inequity” may offend modern notions, we can simply note the commentary in the scripture itself. Each had different abilities. And while some in our modern world may sniff at the the different amounts, it is rather to be doubted that any of these “enlightened” people, if they ran a business, would not give more resources to an industrious employee over an average employee. The fact is, God blesses some more abundantly than others due to their good use of gifts. As the Lord teaches later and gives a fundamental rule: We must prove faithful in a few things to be ruler over many (Matt 25:23).
- Risk Reinvestment -Something in these two men makes them free to risk reinvesting the money. It is likely their relationship with the Master. Implicitly they see him as a reasonable man, someone who would applaud their industriousness. Though there is a risk in reinvesting the money, they would seem to see the Master as reasonable and patient enough that even if there are losses, they will not be destroyed or dealt with unmercifully. Thus they seem to experience the freedom and courage to step out and make use of the Talents entrusted to them. Notice the text says they “immediately” went out and traded. Thus they are eager to work for their master and take the risks on his behalf in order to please him.
- Render a Report – Upon the Master’s return they are called to render an an account. The text depict a kind of joy on their part as they report: He said, ‘Master, you gave me five (two) talents. See, I have made five (two) more.’ There is sensible a kind of enthusiasm for the opportunity and a joy for the harvest.
- Rise in the Ranks. And note that their presumptions of the master as a fair and reasonable man are affirmed in his response. Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy. Hence we see that the Master is joyful and wants to share his joy with the servants. Further, he is willing to give them greater access to share in his blessings and joy based on their openness to trust him and prove trustworthy themselves.
Thus at some level the two successful servants see the owner of the riches as a man they can deal with. They have a healthy respect for him but not an unhealthy fear. The receive the funds gladly, and with that with gratitude go to work, motivated and enthusiastic. Together they say, “We choose the Fear of the Lord!”
Allow them to be portrait of Holy Fear of The Lord. With this sort of Holy Fear we love God, and are enthusiastic to work for him, realizing that he shares his blessings and is both reasonable and generous. Confident of His mercy, (though not presumptive of it) we go to work in his vineyard. It is true there are risks and temptation in the vineyard. But if we fail or fall, we do not make light of our sin, we repent of it and are confident of God’s mercy. Holy Fear of the Lord does not box us in or paralyze us. It does remind of our boundaries and keep us away from truly dangerous things that erode our talents. But, because we love God, respecting his boundaries is a joyful thing for us and protects us from “unsafe investments.” But within the designated boundaries there is both room to maneuver and safety from the thickets of sin. The Fear of the Lord is joyful and encouraging, not something to cause a cringing or hiding from God. Choose the Fear of the Lord
But the man who fails follows a different plan, a plan by which he is
- Fruitless – for he buries the treasure
- Furious – for he says, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground he considers the owner a hard man. He also sees him as unjust by having others do his planting etc. He sees his work as slavery, unlike the other men who see it as an opportunity. Notice too this subtlety. He the talent as “your talent” whereas the other men say, “You gave me five (two) talents.” These men see themselves as stewards whereas the third man sees himself as a slave.
- Fearful – For he says he buried it out of fear. In this case we see a cringing and servile fear, as distinct from the Holy Fear of the Lord, counseled by Scripture. Note too that it is his image of the Master that drives his fear.
- Forfeits – It is clear he wants nothing to do with the Master. The owner therefore says, in effect, Fine, if you don’t want to deal with me you don’t have to. I will take your talent and given it to the one with 10. And as for you, if you do not wish to be in my presence or deal with me, then consider yourself dismissed.
So we see how the failed servant gives way to anger, resentment and indulges his unholy fears that the owner is out to get him and the deck is stacked against him. He is not grateful for the opportunity afforded him by the owner. But notice these are thoughts he has that generate his feelings and actions. But are his thoughts true and unassailable? It is clear that the other two men do not see the Master in this way. And we see, by their example that the thoughts of the failed servant are not true, and that the Master is decent, just and joyful. The failed servant should believe everything he thinks, but should test it against reality.
It is a true and sad fact that many consider God in this way. They consider God trouble-maker and do not trust him. They are resentful of God and religion in general, due to what they perceive as rules and requirements, judgements and restrictions.
An old Irish saw says, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was “No!” Do you think of God this way? Many do, and on account of their thoughts a thousand negative feelings are generated. But the challenge for them must be the same as for the failed servant: Are your thoughts and ideas about God true? Why do you insist on thinking of God this way? Is there no other way to see and understand God?
For many believers know and experience God’s love for them. Many of us have learned to trust him and rejoice in his gifts. And as for rules and restrictions, these are accepted in the love with which they were given. Within the protective walls that Holy Fear of the Lord accepts there is great freedom and joy. God’s laws are not prison walls, they are defending walls. We choose the Fear of the Lord, a fear rooted in love and trust.
The third man failed because he believed everything he thought and did not check out the reality of the Master as He really was. Many today also give way to negative thoughts about God and never stop to consider that not everything they think is true.
The common stereotype of faith today is that religion is an unhappy life, stifling one’s humanity and freedom, binding people with moral rules and dogmas that restrict human fulfillment.
But just because people think this, doesn’t mean it is true. And to such as these the challenge must go forth: “Don’t believe everything you think. Test the reality, talk to believers and open your heart to the possibility that God and religious faith are none of the things you think.
A challenge for us who believe is: what if a person of this sort came to you? Would they find in you someone who is joyful, fulfilled and being transformed? Would their stereotypical thoughts not stand up against the stereotype as they observed you? Or would you tend more to confirm the stereotype, exhibiting a cringing fear and a grouchy, joyless, faith? What would they see? Would they see a man or a woman who is “sharing their master’s joy” and choosing the Fear of the Lord? For the fact is, there are some grouchy Christians, some sour-faced saints, bored believers and dour disciples, the frozen chosen; those who seem never to have heard the Lord say, “Come, share your Master’s joy.” They do not choose the Fear of the Lord, but seem rather to endure Faith as something to do or else.
Make sure it isn’t you, for Christians are the “scriptures” people most often read.
To fear the Lord is to hold him awe, rejoicing in his power and wisdom, accepting his authority as saving and helpful. And thus we yield an abundant harvest with his gifts. But resentment, anger, and a servile, cringing fear only make us averse to being in God’s presence. In the end, God will respect our aversion and not force us to remain, we can consider ourselves dismissed, if that be the case.
What will it be for you and me? Pray it will be: We Choose the Fear of the Lord
I will write more tomorrow on the Fear of the Lord.