In today’s readings, the Lord acknowledges that we face difficulties – opposition, insult, persecution – but at the same time, he encourages us not to be afraid of them. Jesus, who so often in his public ministry told people not to be afraid, gives this same message repeatedly in today’s gospel: Do not let men intimidate you… Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul… Do not be afraid of anything! We do not have complete control over the emotion of fear. It rises spontaneously in our hearts whenever danger or any harm threatens us. So how can we do as Jesus says and not fear? By recognizing in faith that, whatever difficulty we may face right now, and whatever feeling we may be experiencing, the power of God is more than enough to overcome it.
The prophet Jeremiah has good reason to fear. He can hear many people whispering against him; they are determined to denounce him. He knows that those who were his friends are now on the watch for any misstep of his, and they are saying to themselves, “Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.” The prophet is naturally afraid, but he reveals how he perseveres in the face of such strong opposition to his mission: he entrusts himself entirely to the Lord. He knows that he is poor and weak, and that by himself he has no hope of surviving the attacks of his enemies – but he is not by himself: “The Lord is with me, like a mighty champion!” Jeremiah is so confident that the Lord will rescue him that he can sing the Lord’s praises even when the threats are still imminent. “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!” He speaks as if his rescue has already taken place! This kind of confidence and trust is available only by way of faith.
We do not face precisely the same sort of dangers that Jeremiah faces, but his predicament accurately represents the situation of every faithful Christian in a society that is growing increasingly hostile to the gospel. Behavior that in the past was universally recognized as morally wrong is now considered acceptable. Such things as divorce, abortion and homosexual acts are now being justified by the wisdom of the world and protected by the law. Anyone who raises an objection, or even a question, is more likely to be attacked than appreciated. In this sense, every one of us who strives to follow Jesus is now in the difficult and socially contradictory role of a prophet, just like Jeremiah.
In the gospel, Jesus affirms that, like Jeremiah, we should have confidence in God’s care for us. However, Jesus makes some important clarifications. For one thing, he does not say, as Jeremiah seems to believe, that God will physically rescue us every time, or that God will take vengeance on our foes. Jesus teaches that there is no need for us to fear the power of men because their power is limited; the worst they can do is kill us. For those who are living in fear of death, Jesus’ statement may not seem like much consolation. For us who look forward to life after death, it is a declaration of independence from all the threats of the world.
Jesus goes on to say that there is one whom we should fear, that is God himself, “who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” However, God is not interested in using his power to destroy us; rather he protects us with watchful, fatherly care. Every hair of our head has been counted. There is no detail, no threat, no event, no person or power that can stop the love of God. So Jesus is saying, in effect: It makes sense to fear God because of his power, but since he is a loving Father, do not fear him. What we should fear, rather, is our own tendency to turn away from God. God never rejects us, but we by our sins weaken or break off our relationship with him. Not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s consent, but we throw ourselves into the mud of sin against God’s will.
This tendency – known as “concupiscence” – is rooted in the sin of Adam, the “original sin,” that has contaminated the whole of humanity. In the second reading Paul reflects on this revolt of man against God which has had such disastrous effects, as we can see and experience every day. Sin brought death into the world, and death reigned over everyone. Paul insists, however, that the gift of God far surpasses the offense of man. Because of the obedience of Jesus Christ, the new Adam, the new life of grace abounds for us all, in every age.
This is the good news we must not be afraid to “acknowledge before men.” The victory of Jesus Christ must be “proclaimed from the housetops!” What does it mean to acknowledge the Lord before men? It is not simply saying pious-sounding words to everyone. Rather it means doing the will of God in every situation, striving for truth and love, helping the needy whom the Lord puts before us, submitting ourselves to his authority, living with courage and joy, being sensitive and responsive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, saying and doing whatever he wants us to say or do. Acknowledging Jesus before men is our whole way of life. We do not seek to impose religious beliefs or practices on others, for God does not force anyone to believe. We are simply to let the light of God in us shine out, not letting anyone intimidate us, so that the gift of faith we have received may benefit everyone, as God draws them toward himself, giving them life and salvation.
What is my response to fear and intimidation? In what ways do I turn away from the Lord? When do I find it difficult to have complete confidence in God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.