Let the Scriptures Speak

The Fear That Frees

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but
cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one
who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Mt 10:28)

Fear God? This Sunday's Gospel flies in the face of what many current preachers and teachers take for granted is their task: to help people get over their fear of God.

Jesus says just the opposite. On the one hand, after predicting a time in which his disciples will experience their state as being like “sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt 10:16), undergoing scourgings, being handed over to death by family members, Jesus says not to be afraid of such people. They can only kill the body but cannot touch the soul. On the other hand, Jesus says, “Be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” In other words, fear God. But rather than leave us with that bald statement, Jesus hastens to add a thought “on the third hand”: God whose eye is on the sparrow, cares even more for you. Indeed, he even counts the hairs on your head. So do not be afraid. You are worth much more than a whole flock of sparrows.

Did the third hand take away what the second hand gave? Jesus is saying that the One who holds the ultimate power over you is the One who loves you the most. How, then, does exhortation to fear God apply? Jesus is here simply recalling a theme deep in the Hebrew tradition, the intimate connection between fear and love of God (see Deuteronomy 10:12; Psalms 33:18; 103:11,17; 118:4; Prov 16:6). What is meant by fear in these contexts is a complete awe and reverence for the Creator, such that one always acts out of profound respect for this Maker, Rescuer, Sustainer, and Judge of all. 

If “fear” of God has such a positive meaning, why, then, does Scripture insist on negative words that are best translated “fear” in this case? Analogy may help. Every parent wants to instill in a toddler a healthy fear of fire, deep water, and automobile traffic. Not to respect the danger of such things is to be dangerously out of touch. This is not the craven fear that would keep the child from eventually learning to cook, to swim, and to drive a car. It is a healthy fear that instills a respect for the power of such things. Similarly, biblical fear of God is a deep sense of God's otherness and ultimacy, such that all of our actions are governed by our wonder and respect for this powerful Other.

Perhaps a more helpful analogy is the fear we have of offending those we love the most. Are we not deeply pained when we discover that a word or act of ours has hurt a parent, a child, or a good friend? And do we not fear offending them? That's the fear Jesus would have us feel toward the Father. When our love life is governed by this fear of God, we discover that we really have nothing to be afraid of. “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson