12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A), 2020-06-21: The Fear of the Lord

Father MIKAEL SCHINK SJ
Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
June 21st, 2020, St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm
Readings: Jer. 20:10–13, Rom. 5:12–15, Matt. 10:26–33

 

+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

A theme in the Gospel text that we have just read is fear. Jesus says that we should not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, we should fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28), i.e. we should fear God and not men.

Fear of God is not a popular topic today. And yet, it is a constant theme of the Bible that has played an immense role in our tradition: The perhaps most well-known Bible verse that comes to mind is the one from Proverbs: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’ (Prov. 9:10). Another famous passage is where the prophet Isaiah numbers the fear of the Lord among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:1–2):

A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse
a scion from his roots:
on him the spirit of the Lord rests,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and fortitude,
the spirit of knowledge and piety:
it will fill him with the fear of the Lord.

What are we to make of these passages? What does it mean to fear the Lord? Traditionally, the fear of God has been treated in connection with the virtue of hope. Here, fear helps us to keep the mean so that we can stay oriented towards God and desire to be united with him. Too much or too little fear leads to the opposite vices of despair and presumption.

On the one hand, excessive fear causes the vice of despair. It implies that we focus too much on ourselves and our sins and imperfections: perhaps we have the impression that we are not advancing in the spiritual life, that we confess the same sins over and over again; or perhaps we experience that it is too difficult to live up to the precepts of the Church – or to our own standards.  And so, the situation might seem hopeless. In reality, despair betrays a lack of trust in the Lord. Of course, if we look only to ourselves – if our salvation would depend only on us – then we would be completely right in giving up, since we cannot save ourselves by our own powers. But we place our hope not in ourselves but in God. The virtue of hope leads us to the certainty that God will help us and that he will give us the grace necessary to attain eternal life.

In our times, the more common sin against hope is in the other extreme, namely in the vice of presumption. Whereas despair is linked with an excessive fear, presumption disregards fear completely. We think that because of our many merits and good deeds, our place in heaven is already secured. Or perhaps more commonly, we think that God – because of his immense goodness – will lead us into heaven without any merits and efforts on our part. Unfortunately, this is not at all that uncommon. It is not at all uncommon to stumble upon the opinion that you do not have to do anything in order to be saved: ‘I do not need to go to Church – I go to Church when I feel like it’; or: ‘I do not have to agree with what the Church teaches, because God loves me anyway.’

This kind of carelessness towards God is often linked with the excessive and one-sided emphasis on freedom in the culture around us. If personal freedom is the primary value in life, there can be no place for God in any ordinary sense. God can be a part of my life only if what he says happens to please me, only if it happens to agree with what I already think, with my intuitions and preconceived judgments. There can be no place for God as an exterior authority that prescribes how I should live my life, nor for a God that should be feared.

The Catholic view on freedom is somewhat different, because my freedom is always dependent on God: i.e. paradoxically, I am can only be truly free if I subject myself to God, because God is both my origin and my ultimate end. We exist through and for God. On every level, we are dependent and therefore also subject to God. He creates us now and sustains us in existence. He saves us by pouring in grace into our souls. And he leads us to a closer union with him by the interior motions of the Holy Spirit. And so, he is the Lord and I am like a servant that is subjected to him. This is the reason behind the saying that fear is the beginning of wisdom: because only if I subject myself to God as my teacher can I actually learn something. If I constantly try to go my own way without listening to the Lord, I cannot be taught, I cannot learn anything, and I cannot reach the end for which I have been created.

*

We can also fear the Lord in different ways. The tradition of the Church distinguishes between mundane fear, servile fear and filial fear. Mundane fear or worldly fear is the kind of fear that the Lord condemns when he says: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Matt. 10:26). The reason why mundane fear is bad is that it stems from an excessive love of worldly things. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus speaks of the goods of the body and perhaps more importantly the love of being appreciated by men. Let us read what he says one more time:

So if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven. But the one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven. (Matt. 10:32–33)

Mundane fear is a great temptation for us today, perhaps more so than ever before. We can often hear fine sounding rationalizations for worldliness as: ‘The Church has to become more modern’, ‘The Church has to be relevant’, ‘The Church has to adapt to the world around us’. As in all good rationalizations, there is always a bit of truth in them. It is for instance true that the Church has to adapt in the sense that it has to present its teaching in a persuasive and understandable way, but it does not mean that it should or even can change the ancient and venerable doctrines which we have received from the fathers.

The second kind of fear is servile fear. As a servant fears the master’s punishment, so servile fear is about fearing God’s punishment for sin. Ultimately, it is rooted in a love of self. In fearing punishment, I am not doing what is right primarily out of the love for God but rather out of love of myself. But there does not have to be any contradiction between love of self and love of God. I can love and indeed I should love myself as a way of loving God: true self love is to love God by loving oneself. And so, we can say that although servile fear is not necessarily bad in itself, it is deficient, so that when we progress in the spiritual life, our servile fear should more and more be transformed into filial fear. As the apostle Paul says:

The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, “Abba. Father!” (Rom. 8:15).

Finally, then, there is filial fear, which is the fear of being separated from God through our own sins. Ultimately, the only thing that can separate us from God are our own sins, and therefore, sin is really the only thing worth fearing. As saint Paul says in the passage just quoted, filial fear takes its name from the Latin words filius and filia, i.e. son and daughter. It is a fear that characterizes those who have received the grace of divine sonship and have been taken up into Christ, the true son of God. Filial fear follows on the charity that we receive when God pours his grace into our hearts: because the more someone loves a person, the more he also fears to offend him and be separated from him. And so, as sons and daughters of God, we are wholly orientated towards God, only fearing to be separated from him.

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Let us therefore turn to Christ, our Lord, and ask him to take away all despair and presumption from our hearts: to free us from our mundane and worldly fears and instead send his Holy Spirit that fills us with the true fear of the Lord, so that we may cling to God with all our strength and only fear to be separated from him through sin. + Amen.

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