Do not be afraid
“Terror is on every side.”
These words of Jeremiah can well be our own, for indeed fear is all around us. We fear the deadly corona virus and the havoc it brings to our life, whether economic, social, psychological, or even spiritual.
On top of Covid-19, we also fear for our freedom. The speedy passage of a controversial bill, the shutting down of a TV station and the dubious conviction of journalists are but the latest of many attempts to suppress legitimate dissent. We fear for the world. There seems to be no end to wars within and between nations. Moreover, our wanton abuse of nature has brought unprecedented destruction to our common home. The present pandemic is itself a proof and a warning.
As fear hounds us from all sides, Jesus tells us today, “Do not be afraid.” This is the message in all our three readings, including the responsorial psalm. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but have no power to kill the soul. Rather be afraid of him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” What does Jesus mean by this?
Our gospel passage is part of Matthew’s chapter 10, often referred to as “The Mission Sermon.” The chapter contains the Lord’s instruction to his apostles before sending them on mission. He warns them of opposition and persecution that go with the proclamation of the gospel. But then, he tells them not to fear those who can kill only the body. (The majority of the apostles, in fact, would end their mission in martyrdom.) What they are to fear instead is he who can destroy both body and soul in hell. To whom is Jesus referring here?
The last verse of the gospel gives us a hint. “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my Father.” Denial of Jesus is denial of God. And denial of God is denial of life. Denial of God then is the ultimate death.
True, persecution, poverty, sickness… can kill, but only the body. It is rejection of God that kills body and soul. Such is the greater fear that we should have. For when we lose God in life, we lose life itself. This is true when we sin. Dominic Savio understood this so well, that he could say, “Death, but not sin.”
However, denial of God can also happen in subtle ways. When we feel we are self-sufficient and have no need of God, we deny him a place in our life. This can happen even as we “believe in God” and profess our faith.
Remember the story of Jesus and his disciples when they were in the middle of the lake and were suddenly tossed by a violent storm? The disciples panicked and shouted to Jesus who was soundly asleep in the stern, “Master, don’t you care that we are about to drown?” Waking up, Jesus rebuked the wind and calmed the sea. Then turning to his disciples, he said, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mk 4:40)
The Lord questioned the faith of his disciples. But didn’t they know Jesus and believe him to be the Messiah? They had seen the power of his words in his many miracles. What is faith?
Faith is not just an intellectual assent to truths about God. It is an act whereby I freely entrust myself to a God who loves me. Faith is belief not only in a powerful God, but in a caring God who will not allow me to perish.
When the disciples shouted, “Master, don’t you care that we are about to drown?” Jesus must have been stung. And so, he retorted, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” The disciples believed in the power of Jesus but not in his love and concern for them.
What kind of faith do we have? What kind of God do we believe in? Today, Jesus invites us to believe in an almighty God, but more importantly in a loving Father. If God cares so much for the sparrow which does not fall from the sky without his consent, how much more for us, his children. When our faith can move from mere intellectual knowledge to a relationship of trust in a loving God, we have nothing and nobody to fear at all.
St. Teresa of Avila powerfully expresses this in her celebrated poem:
Let nothing trouble you;
let nothing frighten you;
but God does not.
you will obtain everything;
whoever has God lacks nothing:
God alone is enough.*
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