The Lord speaks to us today of one of the most central struggles in our life: fear. Yes, fear is one of our deepest drives and though it has a positive purpose, too often we miss the mark in directing its energy. The positive role of fear is to alert us that something is wrong and to divert us from danger. With our fallen nature, though, we often fear the wrong things while lacking a sober fear of the right things. We major in the minors of life; we get all worked up about passing things but do not have a sober and reverent fear of eternal things. We fear sinful and weak human beings, but not God, who is just, who sees all, and who will assign us our eternal destiny.
The Lord thus teaches us today in order to help us to “get fear right.” He sets forth the proper object of our fear, points to the outcome of succeeding or failing in this matter, and reminds us of our proper role in this world as we master our fear.
I. The Object of Fear – Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one … And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna … 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.”
Wrong Fear – In speaking to the object of fear, Jesus is asking us to consider what and whom we fear most. We are going to fear someone and something. We are just too tiny and weak to be wholly free of fear. Yes, fear has its place and purpose; the problem is that we often fear the wrong things. We are a bit like Chicken Little, who was afraid of an utterly false threat (that the sky was falling) and in her panic ran right into the wolf, who devoured her.
Jesus is clear: Fear no man. The worst thing a human being can do to you is to kill you physically. Even if that happens, though, if you are faithful, dying is the path to Heaven; it’s a maximum promotion! Maybe people can steal your things or make your brief life here a little less pleasant, but life does not consist in our possessions. As an old gospel hymn says, “Trouble don’t last always.”
In a moment, Jesus will tell us whom we should fear. For now, consider again Jesus’ teaching: Fear no man. Yet the fact is that we do fear human beings. It’s incredible to find out how afraid we are. We’re afraid of everybody and everything! We’re more afraid of men than we are of God. We’re afraid of physical dangers, certainly, but even more so we’re afraid of being rejected by other people; of not being liked by others. We’ll do just about anything to ingratiate ourselves to others and to assuage our fear of being rejected or laughed at. We’ll gossip and lie; we’ll spend a lot of money on clothes, cosmetics, fancy cars, big houses, or the latest iPhone. Desperate to fit in, young people may join gangs, drop out of school, use drugs, fornicate, and/or engage in self-destructive behaviors, all in a desperate quest to be thought “hip” and loved.
Yes, too many of all ages have a mighty fear of rejection and humiliation by other human beings. And because we’re afraid of not being liked, we’ll do almost anything.
Not only does this fear drive us to do many things we shouldn’t, it also keeps us from doing many things we ought to do such as preaching the Gospel and insisting on what is right. Think of the martyrs of old who died professing the faith, and here we are afraid that someone will raise an eyebrow!
Fear is one of the chief habit patterns of sin, and it brings about countless other sins. It has to go.
Thus Jesus says, “Fear no one.” That is, fear no man. Whom do you fear more, men or God? Honestly?
Right Fear – God is the proper object of our fear.
Jesus teaches very provocatively, … rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna …
Some think that this text refers to Satan, but it does not. Luke’s version makes this even clearer: But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the One who, after you have been killed, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him (Luke 12:5).
This cannot be Satan because Satan is not our judge. Although he can tempt us, he has no authority to determine our final destiny. Scripture says that Satan, our accuser, has been cast out (see Rev 12:10). Further, it declares, The Father judges no one, but has consigned all judgment to the Son that the world may revere him (Jn 5:22).
Many are uncomfortable thinking of the Lord in this way. They prefer to think of Him as an affable fellow, a harmless hippie who’s not all that concerned with things like holiness and conversion, and who in the end will just wave everyone through.
This is simply not what Scripture teaches. God is holy, and His holiness exudes a power and glory that we must be purified in order to endure, let alone enjoy. Frankly, Heaven would be a miserable place for anyone who has not been brought up to the temperature of Heaven or been accustomed to the bright light of God’s truth. Heaven is not our personal “designer paradise.” It is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness and with all its values: forgiveness, generosity, love of one’s enemies, chastity, and so forth. There are many who don’t want anything to do with some or any of these values. They are much like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, the one who stands outside angry and unwilling to the enter the feast given by his father. He finds forgiveness untenable; he loathes the feast because his wayward brother is honored there. Judgment Day is something to have a holy fear about, for it is the day when God will ask this question: “Do you want the Heaven I offer on its terms or not?” On the Day of Judgment, God will assess what our decision has amounted. He will either welcome us into the feast or close the door and consign us to the “other arrangements” we ourselves have made and perversely preferred. Jesus says, As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him… The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day (John 12:47-48).
Balanced Fear – This proper fear is not a cringing one, rooted only in the dread of punishment (though if that’s all you’ve got, go with it). Rather, it is a reverential fear that remembers God’s love for us and His desire to save us. Jesus says, 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.
Although this proper fear remembers God’s love and does not give way to the imbalance of purely servile fear, neither does it swing to the other imbalance, which disregards the loving respect we should have for God and His holiness. God is who He is and Heaven is what it is. We simply cannot endure such realities without being purified and prepared for them first. God must have our repentance in order to do the work necessary to enable us for Heaven’s brightness and His fiery glory.
A reverential and balanced fear acknowledges God’s love and mercy, but also His awesome glory. Such a fear takes seriously our need to prepare for judgment and to avail ourselves of God’s graces in the sacraments, the Liturgy, His Word, and prayer.
II. The Outcome of Fear – Jesus adds, There is nothing that is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known … Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.
Our fear is going to have an outcome for either good or ill. If we have the wrong fear (fearing man more than God), it will lead us to silence and even outright denial of God and His truth before others. Fearing the opinion of the world and human beings more than God makes us silent and too easily conformed to a world opposed to Him. This amounts to a tacit denial (by silence) or to an outright denial wherein we publicly scorn God and/or His revealed truth in order to ingratiate ourselves to this world. The consequence of this denial is Jesus’ affirmation of our denial of God the Day of Judgment. The martyrs and confessors of the faith shine brightly before God, but we cannot endure their brightness because we have hidden out in the dark places and preferred the darkness of error to the light of truth.
If we have the right fear, we want to please God rather than man. We delight in representing Him and His teachings before others, even joyfully enduring the world’s scorn. If we fear God, we fear no one else. If we can kneel before God, we can stand before any man. If we fearlessly, charitably, and joyfully acknowledge God before others, we will be acknowledged before God the Father as someone who truly sought Him and witnessed to Him. A proper and balanced fear brings an outcome of glory and happiness. An improper fear (of man rather than God) brings denial, because we fear and prefer the opinions of men and this world rather than God. On Judgment Day the Lord will acknowledge our preference to His Father.
For a good outcome, make sure you have the right and balanced fear!
III. The Office of Holy Fear – What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
The Lord is summoning us to speak fearlessly to the world on account of a holy fear of Him.
1. But in the face of strong opposition, we were bold in our God to speak the gospel of God to you. … We speak … not in order to please men but God, who examines our hearts. As you know, we never used words of flattery or any pretext for greed. God is our witness! Nor did we seek praise from you or from anyone else (1 Thess 2:2-6).
2. Do you think I am seeking the approval of men, or of God?… I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10).
3. From henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear in my body the brand marks of the Lord Jesus (Gal 6:17).
4. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than God. For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
What about you? Do you speak the word of God to an often-scoffing world? Or do you fear the world more than God, and therefore stay silent, hiding out? If we reverently fear God more than the world, then we will speak out even in the face of opposition. We love the Lord more than we love the world. Therefore, we speak!
Summation – Make sure you fear the right thing, in this case the right One. Here is what Jesus teaches: Do not fear man. Rather, have a holy reverent fear of God. Get fear right. Stop getting so anxious about what mere mortals think of you. Your destiny will hinge on getting fear right. Fear the Lord; acknowledge Him before men and proclaim His world, and you be acknowledged greatly by him in Heaven. If you fear men and the world, just watch how quickly cave in, compromise, and deny the Lord, preferring worldly trinkets and the praise to eternal glories. But if you go that route, that’s all you’ll get. Beware, the Lord will one day have to acknowledge your preference: “Father He denied. He said no to our offer.”
Decide now whom you will fear. Your destiny depends on that decision.