As our formation as missionary disciples continues in this 12th Week in Ordinary Time, we are confronted with the conflict between faith and fear. Faith is one of the cardinal virtues we received in Baptism. Fear is an inborn protective emotional reaction that arises when we perceive a threat to our safety, health or well-being. Faith grows when we put it into practice, when we make decisions to trust in God, and when we pray and receive the Sacraments of the Church. Fear can also grow. From our earliest years we have learned, sometimes through painful experiences, what we should avoid; for example, touching a hot stove. The question before us is whether we will live by fear or by faith.
In our first reading today, Jeremiah recounts his terrible experience of being surrounded by former friends who are now hostile enemies. As a faithful prophet, he has told the Israelites of the punishment God planned to inflict on them for their offering of human sacrifices and their worship of Baal. In response, the people are resistant. Rather than give up their sinful ways, they try to take control of the situation by getting rid of the prophet.
Human nature doesn’t change. In our fear, we try many means of controlling situations and avoiding people we find too threatening or unpleasant. Sometimes mothers who are fearful and over-protective of their children hover over them so much they are referred to as “helicopter moms.” Some married couples are so fearful of the responsibility – and the cost – of having more children that they resort to artificial contraception and ignore the efficacy of Natural Family Planning. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has shown us all how fearful we can be. We all have natural fears of illness and death, for ourselves and our loved ones. But those fears, magnified by the media, can lead to panic-buying and hoarding – as if God had no part to play in our lives.
Jeremiah is just as human as we are. He is obviously not thrilled to hear the malcontented whisperings of people who are out to denounce him and take vengeance on him for speaking the truth. He fears for his mission and for his life. However, he quickly moves from fear to faith, proclaiming, “But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.” The prophet turns to the Lord, who knows exactly what is going on, who tests the just and probes mind and heart. To the Lord Jeremiah says, “to you I have entrusted my cause.” And from this initial step of trust in God, the prophet moves quickly to gratitude and praise: “Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD, for he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!” Nothing has changed in the threat against him – the people have not repented or gone away – but Jeremiah has overcome his fear with faith.
Some prayer groups in the Church make use of a slogan, using the initials, PTLA! – Praise the Lord Anyway! This indicates the decision to live by faith, regardless of our fear. To praise the Lord, as Jeremiah does, even when we are still experiencing fear, opens the way for us to live by faith. We acknowledge the presence and power of the Lord in the midst of our emotional turmoil. The Psalms are full of such prayers; these are a great help in times of anxiety and fear. Today’s Psalm is a good example: the psalmist is suffering insults and threats; he prays, declares his conviction that “the LORD hears the poor,” and then joins all creation in praising him. “Let the heavens and the earth praise him, the seas and whatever moves in them.” By the end of the Psalm, the psalmist’s fears have been overcome by his faith.
Like us, the disciples had many fears. Jesus addresses them in today’s Gospel as he prepares them for their mission. He knows that they will be intimidated to “proclaim on the housetops” the good news of salvation when the response of some in their audience will be to “kill the body.” Perhaps we too are intimidated to share our faith openly. Jesus tells them, and us, to fear no one. Yes, some people have power to harm our bodies, but they cannot kill our souls. Our souls are in the care of God our Father, who watches over every detail of our lives, even counting the hairs of our heads. Essentially, Jesus is teaching us that we are better off witnessing to our faith, even if it will cost our lives, than losing our relationship with our heavenly Father. “For whoever would save his life would lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).
Fear always makes the will of God look threatening or impossible. We have been set free from the chains of fear, however, by the power of grace. In today’s second reading, St. Paul teaches that while we have inherited from Adam a condition of sin and death, we have also received a gift that far surpasses it. Now the “the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ” is overflowing for us all. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we rely on this overflowing grace, a gift more powerful than any of the earthly threats we may fear.
As I ponder on my Christian walk with the Lord, am I living my life in faith or in fear? In my fears, do I praise the Lord anyway knowing that it will open the way for me to live by faith? Do I live by the belief that people may have the power to harm my body but cannot kill my soul?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.