Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
SS Peter & Paul Parish, Fall River, MA
12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A
June 20, 1999
Jer 20:10-13; Ps 68; Rom 5:12-15; Mt 10:26-33
Be not afraid! So Jesus said to the apostles in the Gospel and so he says to each of us today. And how much we need to hear these words as we approach the end of the second millennium of the Church, because fear permeates our age. These were the first words — Be not afraid — that Pope John Paul II said in his first homily as Pope, words which he has repeated countless times in innumerable countries, as he did again on his just-completed trip to Poland, so much we need to hear them, because no matter how many times we hear them, they don’t seem to get all the way through. Hence it would be good for us to take advantage of the readings the Church gives us today and focus on fear, on our fears, in light of the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ.
If we’re not too afraid to admit it, we can say that human life as a whole is a long succession of fears. As babies, we fear darkness and loud noises. We fear when we cannot physically see our mother or father. As young children, we fear not fitting in at school. We even fear some of our teachers. As adolescents, we begin to fear ourselves, fear failure, fear the impulses within us for the opposite sex, fear whether we’ll be able to find a good job or get into college — all the while growing up thinking that finally when we become adults, the fears will stop. As adults, however, we discover that the fears don’t stop, they just change, and even increase. We fear for our kids, we fear for the future, we fear losing our jobs, and we begin to fear that most terrible of fears, death.
Against all of these fears Jesus tells us “be not afraid!” He does not do so naively. Having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary and become fully man, he knows everything human beings experience except sin. He knows that like love, fear is a human emotion. If a dump truck were out of control at 80 miles per hour coming straight at any one of us, the first reaction we would have — quite naturally — would be fear, and we’d run for our lives. Were there out-of-control dumptrucks in Palestine, Jesus would have felt the same thing. No, Jesus is not talking about this first reaction to an imminent harm, which is short-lived and natural. He’s talking, rather, about living in the state of fear, since he has come to bring us from a state of fear into the state of the peace of God’s kingdom.
When we come right down to it, every lasting fear we experience can be reduced to one of two types of fear: fear about some pain — be it physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual — affecting ourselves or someone else; and fear about a lack of control and what this means. Most of our fears are a combination of both. We see this in the life of the prophet Jeremiah whom we encounter in the first reading. He was scared to death of what those denouncing him would do to him — and for good reason, because they ended up killing him. But he was also tortured by the call of God within him, pushing him to proclaim God’s word, as unpopular as it was, and the loss of control he had over his own life.
If we were to examine our own fears, personal or collective, we would see these two same types of anxiety — against pain and against lack of control — at work in us. Without trying to simply things too much, we can take a few examples: Why do we fear crime? We fear it because we believe that criminals might harm us and thereby take away, at least for a short period of time, our control over our own lives. Why do so many married couples in the US fear being open to human life, and consequently either use artificial contraception to prevent human life or abort life that is already growing? Because often they fear the true sacrifices love requires and the loss of control over one’s own life that a child necessarily brings about. Why do so many young people fear lifetime commitments, whether to marrying and remaining faithful to one spouse for one’s whole life, or to remaining entirely committed and faithful to God in religious or priestly life? As the surveys tell us, because they too know that such commitments and responsibilities freely assumed naturally limit the range of choices that one subsequently has and they fear such a loss of control and the difficulties that a change will bring about in ones lives.
Against these fears, these states of anxiety, Jesus not only said “be not afraid!” but shows and gives us the way to overcome them. We overcome them by real living faith and trust in God our Father and in the power of Jesus’ loving life, death and resurrection. Listen to what Jesus says to each of us during the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? … Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus gives us the solution to our fears. Strive first for the kingdom of God, trust completely in God, and our fears will be taken away. And if he is saying this about the actual things that we really need in life — food, drink, clothing — then he’s saying that we should all the more not worry about all those other things in life that we worry about that we really don’t need, bigger houses, televisions, promotions, prestige, and more and more money.
But how many of us really trust God that much to take Jesus at his word? Those words of Jesus are soothing — one might say — but, hey, we’ve got to be realistic! We’ve got bills to worry about and mouths to feed. We don’t have to be a fundamentalist or fanatic or something! Imagine the risk one would be taking by taking Jesus at his word! Precisely — and that is the risk of true faith. If I or anyone else were to tell you, “be strong,” “you’ve got nothing to worry about,” “it’s going to be all right,” and you were facing something serious, like a major operation, my words would be little solace. But think about who is telling us not to be afraid, to trust and to put the kingdom of God first in our lives. It’s God himself, the very God who loved us so much he created us in cooperation with the love of our parents; the very God the Father who loved us so much that he considered it a bargain that his only Son die for us that than live forever without us. God loves us, and loves those we love, even more than we do or could imagine. On this weekend celebrating human fathers and their love for their children, we can reflect on the love of God the Father for each one of us. As Jesus himself said, “What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” How much more will he give to us if we ask him!
But there’s one last fear that we have to talk about today, the one St. Paul describes in the second reading: death, and what leads to it, sin. St. Paul writes, “Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin, death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned.” Yes, because of our sins and those of our first parents, we’re all born on death row. And hence death is the one thing that our world — which does not want to admit the reality of God and therefore the reality of sinning against him — does not want to talk about. But death is a fact that no one can run away from. When much of our modern world turns to death, they fear the loss of control and the possible physical, psychological and spiritual pain associated with suffering. Hence they want to control it — by controlling the time-table through assisted suicide and other means. But they don’t want to go to the root of the problem of death, sin, which is the only way to be liberated from death’s grip and fear. Christians, however, as St. Paul says, go not to Kevorkian as the world does, but to Jesus, who in one felled swoop robbed both sin and death of their victory and sting. Jesus did not take them away from human existence — each one of us still sins and each will die — but he removed their power over us by his own death and resurrection. Hence as Christians, as Jesus instructs the apostles in the Gospel, we shouldn’t fear what can only kill the body, but fear only what can destroy both body and soul in hell, namely the devil and sin. But not even that fear should cripple us, because God has given us the means through baptism and through the sacrament of reconciliation to be forgiven of our sins and become once again faithful sons an daughters of our heavenly Father.
At this Mass, on this weekend celebrating our human fathers, we can turn to God the Father and praise him for his fatherly love and care for us. Like a human father who takes against his chest a child frightened by thunder and lightening, so God the Father takes us, places us in his bosom, and he tells us not to be afraid, that nothing can truly harm us unless we let it. And no matter how many times we haven’t lived up to his fatherly love for us, he always forgives us and welcomes us back. Moreover, he doesn’t merely wait for us to return, hat-in-hand, but, like the father of the prodigal son in the Gospel, runs out to greet us, and kills the fatted calf for a huge celebration over the fact that his wayward child has come back to life. At this Mass, God the Father is about to do much more than that. He has gathered all of us here for all celebration, we who have been his wayward children trusting him so much less than we should. And rather than killing the fatted calf for the celebration, he has provided the Divine lamb of God, his only begotten Son, our Savior and our spiritual food, as we participate in that very same event that defeated sin, death and fear once-and-for-all.
My brothers and sisters in Christ. Be not afraid! After all, we are the disciples of the One who has conquered the world!