The readings from Tuesday (13th week of the year speak about the right and wrong kinds of fear. The wrong kind of fear is illustrated in the Gospel reading.
As Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” (Mathew 8:23-27)
The world in which we live is filled with dangers. Some come from nature: floods, famines, earthquakes, plagues, and so forth. There are also dangers in terms of our finances, our reputation, and our physical safety from attack. Of such things we are often afraid, but Jesus said, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?”
Yes, the world is dangerous, but at some point, we have to put on our “big-boy pants” and go out there and live our lives anyway. The worst thing this world can do is to kill you. If you die faithful, you will be promoted out of this crazy world into a place of joys unspeakable and glories untold.
Yet still we hunker down and worry about so many things. COVID-19 has not just tested our bodies; it has also tried our souls. The death toll has been high, but not as high as with other plagues or even with common causes of death such as heart disease and cancer. And it certainly hasn’t been as high as the toll from abortion. Of those who catch the virus less than one percent will die and somewhat more will become seriously ill; most, however, will only get moderately sick and will not need hospitalization. The nearly worldwide panic over this admittedly serious virus appears to be out of proportion to the actual threat it poses. It seems we have lost our nerve; many want to wait for a world that does not exist: one in which all threats are gone. Even if a satisfactory treatment for COVID-19 were to be developed, there are still myriad other viruses and bacteria around us. Fear not, little flock; it has pleased the Father to give us an immune system, and it works pretty well most, but not all, of the time. There is no such thing as a world free of threats.
Let’s return to the Lord’s question: Why are you terrified? The worst (and least likely) case is that you will die, but for a Christian, death has meaning, and “To die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Would that we worried as much for our souls as we do for our bodies!
Now let’s look at the “right” kind of fear, which was discussed in Tuesday’s first reading. Amos warns the people of a coming day of judgment that they should reverently fear and prepare for. Sadly, there were many unrepentant sinners in his day who were unconcerned for the state of their souls; they would not be able to withstand the coming judgment and encounter with God:
Hear this word, O children of Israel, that the LORD pronounces over you, …. I will punish you for all your crimes…. Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey?… If the trumpet sounds in a city, will the people not be frightened? The lion roars—who will not be afraid! The Lord GOD speaks—who will not prophesy! I brought upon you such upheaval as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah you were like a brand plucked from the fire; Yet you returned not to me, says the LORD. So now I will deal with you in my own way, O Israel! And since I will deal thus with you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel (Amos 3:1-8).
Israel was lost in its affluence and injustice, stubbornly clinging to sin. Prophet after prophet warned of coming ruin but they were ignored, persecuted, and even killed. In 721 B.C., the clock finally ran out and the scales of justice tipped to disaster. The kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were all but lost to history.
Here is a proper thing to fear: sin and what it does to us, individually and collectively. For now, God sends us prophets, graces, sacraments, His Word, and other reminders as His voice echoes in our consciences. There will come a day when the question is called: Do you want my Kingdom and its values or not? Yes, this is a proper fear: the coming day of our judgment. Prepare to meet your God, O sinner.
Too many pay no heed to this. They run about the business of living unconcerned about where they will spend eternity. They fear declining health, financial ruin, and aging—things about which the Lord says, “Fear not.” They care about their bodies but not their souls. And they do not fear the one thing they should: the looming day of their judgment.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). This “One” of course is Jesus Himself, for, the Father judges no one but has handed all judgment over to the Son that the world may revere him (John 5:22). To revere Jesus means to hold Him in honor and holy fear.
As one matures in faith, this fear we have for Jesus should be a loving fear, in which we hold him in awe rather than cringing in dread of punishment. But if cringing fear is all you have, go with it, for it is far better than the foolish presumption that too many people hold today.
Tuesday’s readings provide great instruction on the right and wrong kinds of fear. What do you fear most? Whom do you fear most? Be honest with yourself when answering these questions. Ask the Lord to help you to put your fear in the right place and on the right One, namely, on Him whom even the winds and the sea obey!