Jesus and Our Fears, Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), June 19, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
June 19, 2005
Jer 20:10-13; Rom 5:12-15; Mt 10:26-33

1) There’s a paradox in today’s Gospel. On the one hand, Jesus tells us not to be afraid, because our Father in heaven loves us more than all the sparrows in the world and knows us intimately down to our last strand of hair. Fifteen times in the Gospel, in fact, Jesus tells us not to be afraid, and almost every time he returns to the reason not to fear, because our Father in heaven – like any good father whom we remember on this Father’s day! – will provide for us and protect us. In the Sermon on the Mount, he tells us not to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear – things we really need – because that same Father who clothes the lilies of the field knows what we need and will take care of us (Mt 6:28-32). He tells us today that he doesn’t even want us to fear suffering and physical death, because not even death can separate us from our Father’s love (Rom 8:38-39).

2) But at the same time he says that there’s one fear we should have: “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.” This being who seeks to DESTROY us in hell is the devil. Out of love for us, Jesus tells us, very directly, that the devil exists, that he seeks to kill us, and that we should therefore have a healthy fear of him. The great Scottish apologist George MacDonald said, “As long as there are wild beasts around, it is much better to feel fear than to feel secure!” And St. Peter compares the devil to this type of wild beast: “Your adversary, the devil, is prowling the world like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8 ). That someone he longs to consume is you and me.

3) I mentioned that Jesus wants us to have a healthy fear of the evil one, which involves two elements:

a. First, we need to know how the devil seeks to attack us. The devil has no power over us unless we give him that power. He cannot kill our soul unless we become his accomplices and allow our souls to be killed through mortal (deadly) sin, which separates our souls from the source of life, who is God. The way the “Father of lies” (Jn 8:44) seeks to accomplish this assisted suicide is by getting us to succumb to one of his lies, just as he did with Eve and Adam in the Garden (Gen 3). A healthy fear of the devil involves no paranoia, but a sane vigilance against his lies and against all his temptations to induce us to sin.

b. Second, once we know that and how he’s out to get us, we have to know what the remedy is to defeat his attempt to defeat us forever. That remedy is a deep trust in God that expresses itself in saying yes to God in everything. The evil one got Adam and Eve to sin first by getting them to distrust God and his promises and then to do what God told them not to do; therefore, the antidote to the devil’s machinations is to accentuate the opposite of what the devil wants to achieve. In other words, if our best defense is a good offense, we need to trust in God and seek to do his will in all things. We see these principles at work in Jesus’ confrontation with the devil at the end of his forty days in the desert. To each of the devil’s three assaults, Jesus responded with trust in God his Father, living on His word more than on bread alone, and worshipping and serving Him alone and not presumptuously putting Him to the test (Mt 4:1-11). Jesus tells each of us, in this as in other things, “follow me!” If we trust in the Father enough to say “yes” to him and “no” to the devil, to base our lives on the Truth Incarnate (Jn 14:6) rather than on the “father of lies,” then we don’t need to fear the devil any more than Jesus did. Jesus is the “stronger man” whom he tells us in St. Luke’s Gospel has “attacked and overpowered” the devil, “taken away his armor” and “divided his spoils” (Lk 11:21-22). If we stick fully with the Lord, that stronger man, if we love him with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, then we have nothing to fear – that’s why Jesus’ statements in the Gospel today are a paradox and not a contradiction. It’s only when we are not totally God’s that we have to fear, as Jesus tells us, because the devil is constantly at the gate waiting for us to echo his “no” to God so that he might seduce us away from God for all eternity.

4) Since each of us has proven vulnerable to the devil’s salvos in the past, it’s obvious that Jesus was speaking to us in today’s Gospel. In creating us free, God left open the possibility that we might choose against him, like Satan and the demons did in heaven, like Adam and Eve did in Eden, like the multitudes did in preferring Barabbas to Christ in Pilate’s courtyard, as we have done whenever we’ve sinned. Our hearts, our souls, our lives, therefore, are a cosmic battleground between good and evil – between loving God and others freely in the truth (Jn 8:32) and adoring false gods of the devil’s and our own making. The outcome of that battle depends on our choices. Jesus has already won the cosmic war, but the devil is still trying to amass as many casualties as he can, and he wants us, and our loved ones, and our friends, and those around us on the list of casualties. To combat the evil one’s plans for as many victories in particular battles as possible, Jesus has obviously enlisted the angels and archangels, and has stock-piled, in Scripture and sacraments, a powerful arsenal of divine aid. But his special forces for this mission to defeat the devil may surprise you, for they are the very ones the devil is after: IT’S US! Despite our weaknesses, despite the many times we’ve gone over to the other side, Jesus wants to give us the joy of participating in his own victory over the devil and in helping Him to keep us and all those around us off that casualty list.

5) We could spend time in discussing how the devil tries to win individual battles with particular men and women. He tries to find a particular vulnerability – whether it be pride, or greed, or lust, or comfort-seeking, or a desire for control – and tries to manipulate it to get us to distrust God and choose against Him. There are as many examples we could cite as there are people. What I would like to focus on, rather, is the devil’s global strategy with all of us, which is directly opposed to God’s plans for us. God’s plans for us in response to his gift of salvation involves two simple and related elements: DISCIPLESHIP and APOSTOLATE, our personal holiness and fidelity on the one-hand, and our becoming God’s instruments to bring others to holiness and fidelity on the other. The devil’s strategy involves trying to oppose these two elements, either by getting us not to pay sufficient attention to them, or by trying to frighten us away from acting on them. Let’s look at what he does in greater detail with respect to each:

a. Personal holiness – The only way for us to share eternally in Jesus’ victory is for us to become a saint, because only saints are in heaven. Several times in the Old Testament, God said, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8 ). Jesus told us the same thing in other words when he said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48 ) and “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34; 15:12). To keep us from heaven, the devil wants to keep us from becoming holy, from becoming a saint. With some of us, he tries to accomplish this by convincing us that we don’t really have to be HOLY; we just have to be GOOD. We don’t have to strive to get an A with the gift of life God has given us; we just have to “do the best we can” and get a D-, because that’s all one needs to graduate to heaven. But we all know what happens when students try to get Ds: many times they fail, and that’s what the devil is counting on.

The second way the devil tries to convince us not to strive for sanctity is by making us fear the consequences of sanctity. He tries to persuade us that if we strive for sanctity we’ll lose our friends, we’ll lose our freedom, we’ll lose even our own personality and identity. Our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict, spoke to this fear in his inaugural homily two months ago and told us, just as his predecessor had, not to be afraid and not to give in to the devil’s lies: “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? … No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.” Our new vicar of Christ concludes with a powerful personal appeal: “And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.” That life, that friendship with Christ, is holiness, and it will be ours, as long as we don’t fear it or take it for granted!

b. Bringing others to holiness – If we are to love others as Christ has loved us, then this necessarily involves sharing the Gospel with others just as Jesus did with us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Our salvation, and others’, depends on our doing so. Jesus tells us that much in the Gospel: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” The devil wants to do whatever he can to get us not to acknowledge Jesus before others, so that Jesus will deny us before his Father. He does this, again, in two ways:

i. He gets many of us not to take our duty to evangelize seriously by convincing us that it’s not our mission to announce the Gospel, but maybe priests’ and nuns’, or catechists’, or some other group of specialists’. He persuades us to think that all we have to do is be good and to mind our own business, to concern ourselves with our own relationship with God, not with others’. He gets us to believe that to announce the Gospel to others is to “impose” something on others against their freedom and dignity, rather than to “rescue” them from a possible shipwreck.

ii. The second means the devil employs is to frighten us away from proclaiming the Gospel. He gets us to fear that we don’t know the faith well enough to pass it on, and will embarrass ourselves, God and the Church if we try. Or he successfully persuades us to think that our friends and family will think us hypocrites if we start to proclaim the Gospel now. Or he tries to intimidate us, by getting us to fear that if we bring the Gospel to the public square, we’ll suffer for it; others will call us intolerant, or bigots, or even do to us what they did to Jeremiah and the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the apostles and martyrs. This fear, of course, is justified: if we preach the Gospel, we will suffer for it, as those before us have. That’s why Jesus tells us – as he told his first followers – not to fear those who can only kill the body, but not the soul. He wants to fill us with his courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity to do the right thing despite our fears. We have no greater example in this than the Lord himself, who himself in the garden prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken away from him, but finished his prayer by entrusting himself once again to His Father, saying, “Not my will, but thine be done” (Lk 22:42). In this, once again as in everything, he says, “Follow me!”

6) To defeat the devil, the greatest help we have in the whole world is the Eucharist, in which we receive Jesus Christ, the conquerer of sin and death, the vanquisher of the devil, within us. Jesus in the Eucharist is the greatest source of holiness and the greatest cause of living and spreading the Gospel of love. The devil hates the Eucharist, and tries to do whatever he can to keep us away from the Eucharist. He tries first to keep us away from Mass and Eucharistic adoration, but if he can’t, he tries to get us to receive him sacrilegiously; and if he can’t get us to receive him in a state of sin, he at least tries to get us to receive him in a routine way, so that we won’t allow Jesus to change our lives, as Jesus wants to do from the inside every time we receive him with love. The best way, therefore, to be equipped to withstand the devil’s onslaught is to respond to God’s help to receive the Lord with ever greater fervor and respond to Him with ever greater zeal and fidelity. Each time we receive Jesus well in the Eucharist, we share in his victory over the devil and are strengthened with courage to carry that victory out to others. As we prepare to receive Him now, on this Father’s day weekend, we ask for his help that we, like Him, might trust His Father – our Father in heaven! – in all things, and with Him defeat the wicked “father of lies” once and for all.