Responding to fear
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Everyone therefore 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.” Matthew 10:26-33 – NRSV
“Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.)
The command “Don’t be afraid” comes up in today’s Gospel. Afraid of what?
The Greek word, akolouthein, meaning “to walk behind, to follow” is frequently used in the Christian Scriptures to speak of discipleship. It gives a specific Christian meaning to the common Greek word mathētēs, meaning “disciple”. That word, mathētēs – in different forms – is used 261 times in the Gospels and Acts. It is rooted in the verb manthanō, meaning “to learn”. Put them together and you have the rich concept of Christian discipleship: Those who follow Jesus in order to learn what it means to be a human being. The following and the learning never cease. This is both the promise and the challenge of discipleship.
It is in the context of Jesus’ call to those eleven disciples to be disciples that Jesus says: “Remember, I am with you always … “ Jesus’ gentle reminder echoes God’s promise repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – for example Isaiah 41:10: “Do not be afraid for I am with you”.
What is it about being disciples – Jesus’ followers and learners – that frightens us?
The deep, primitive truth of our fear – as in other complex life matters – remains largely buried below the surface of our awareness, masked by our pretenses and wishes and expectations and yes, even other fears. We can suppress and repress our fear but we cannot get rid of it. Only love can do that. It is crucial that we give ourselves every possibility to hear God’s word of love – to hear it with the ear of the heart, to taste it. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
Everything in the Gospel accounts of discipleship implies that it is a response to being loved. Those first disciples did not take the initiative. It was not a career move. It was not even a decision of high moral principle. It was a very human response to a word of love: “Come!” Interestingly enough, today’s Gospel text, in saying explicitly that the number of disciples here is eleven, reminds us that one of their number, although involved, was never really a disciple, a follower and learner. And those who did begin the journey of discipleship – the eleven – sensed something in Jesus that drew them to follow and seek to learn, more and more.
The disciple is, first and foremost, one who has let her/himself taste the love embodied in Jesus. Once you have tasted God’s love, everything else will follow.
Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel is referred to in the Jerusalem Bible as “The Apostolic Discourse”. It begins with the mission of the twelve – they are named and sent out as disciple of Jesus, they are to proclaim what they have learned in following Jesus, there is a warning concerning the hardships of this mission, Jesus urges them not to be afraid.
Daniel Harrington writes: “In 10:26–31 the disciples are urged: ‘Do not fear’ (10:26, 28, 31). In their mission they continue the process of making public the message of Jesus, which is not hidden or esoteric (10:26–27). They are to fear God alone, not human beings (10:28). They are to trust in God’s care for them (10:29–31). Then in 10:32–33 they are reminded that their steadfast confession of Jesus will be rewarded and their denial of him will be punished. Though these sayings came as a package in Q (see Luke 12:2–9), they originated as small, independent units. Taken individually, they are difficult to interpret because we do not know their context. Whatever their original context may have been, Matthew has given them a new context in his mission discourse. In that context they take on a certain meaning.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 152.)
have no fear of them: This command – a reiteration of the great promise given to Moses (Exodus 3:12) and repeated in different ways throughout the Bible – holds our text together. This command demands that we focus on God – we are about God’s work, it is, in the end, not our work. The apostle is someone who makes him/herself available to God for God to do what God will do. Luke 1:38 is the paradigm, where we hear Mary respond to the call of God issued by the Angel Gabriel: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’.” We might regard this as the key to the apostolate, no matter what form it takes. Those who can hear that command and be transformed by it will be those who have a deep and rich relationship with Jesus – a crucial basis for the next command which follows: Go out and share it.
What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops: This builds on the previous command to take their discipleship to the world without fear. Let everybody know what you have come to know in being with Jesus, listening to him, absorbing his way of being. Every person can and should come to know the love of God revealed in Jesus. John puts it succinctly and beautifully: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). Clearly this proclamation is much more than merely passing on information!
hell: The English word “hell” is Old English, perhaps with a Germanic origin. It means roughly what the Jews meant in Jesus day when they spoke of “gehenna”. “Geenna, usually transliterated as ‘gehenna’ or translated as ‘hell’, refers to the place of punishment at the judgment. The term derives from the name of a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom (Josh 15:8; 18:16), where Ahaz and Manasseh followed the ‘detestable practices of the nations’ by burning sacrifices to Molech and even sacrificing their own sons in the fire (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; 2 Kings 16:3). Associated with such practices as these, the Hinnom Valley (or Valley of the Son of Hinnom) came to be associated with the most horrific images of divine judgment (Jer 7:30–33; 19:1–13; 32:34–35; cf. Is 31:9; 66:24). (J B Green, “Heaven and Hell” In J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, & N. Perrin (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition, IVP Academic, 2013, 371.)
“So have no fear”. That command is spoken in different ways three times in this brief passage. It stands in direct contrast with another command: “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. In fact, fear is part of the human journey. In itself, fear is neither good nor bad. Like all our feelings, the real issue is not the feeling as such but our response.
Fear can paralyze us, or it can prompt us to do silly things, even wicked things. On the other hand, fear can mobilize us, focus our attention and evoke courage. The first is a destructive, death-dealing response. The second is a constructive, life-giving response. The first is in opposition to the Kingdom Jesus has come to establish – that state of being in which love completely drives out all hate, truth completely drives out the lie, justice completely drives out all injustice. The second is in service of the Kingdom. We can and must choose.
Victor Frankl, in a classic which should be read by everyone, writes of his experience in the concentration camps: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they were sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Hodder & Stoughton, 1974, 65 & 6.)
The question then is: How do I respond to fear? Typically, I will respond to fear in a particular instance in the way I have tended to respond in the past. We all develop habits in this matter as in others. One of life’s major tasks is forming good habits. At the heart of all good habits is the commitment to facing the truth. Do not lie to yourself. This is of course a lifetime’s work. We are all born geniuses at self-deception. We can only counter the effects of this genius by the consistent and constant work of listening to what is actually going on, so that we can hear the truth of it and face it!
Some signals that we are in fact not facing our fear well, include judgmentalism, prejudice, chronic negativity, cynicism, stereotyping, sweeping generalizations, driving a car as if it was a competition, over-eating, inappropriate sexual activity, perfectionism …… We could go on. No wonder Jesus urges us not to be afraid – that is, face your fear. Perhaps we could say that the fear of fear is our undoing?
What are my unacknowledged fears? Do not dig or analyze, just pay attention! Awareness is an invitation to the Kingdom.
“Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.“ This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about that person. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
“We are not very good at recognizing illusions: least of all the ones we have about ourselves – the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which does not and cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life trying to accumulate pleasures and experiences and power and honor and knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself up with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
“But there is no substance under the things I have gathered together about me. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am a mistake.”
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, 1962, 34-35.