The Word Encountered
Lording It over the Rest
“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” (Mk 10:49)
I was once invited to give a series of meditations to a group of sisters who were new novices in a rather strict—some would call it conservative—community.
I made an early mistake. One of the first things I proposed to the young gathering was my conviction that fear was not the best way to approach God, especially if we are followers of Christ. In fact, I said, it seems that fear has very little place in our relationship to God.
As we see in the prophecy of Jeremiah, God wants us to shout for joy. We are delivered, gently gathered from the ends of the earth, with all the others of our motley kind, neither seeing straight nor walking tall. We may have had our tears, but our God wants to console and guide us, to lead us to refreshing waters. God is a parent to us. What use is there to fear a parent unless that parent is not very good? And surely God is good. We are like God’s “firstborn.” Why would we live in fear of God?
Even our great high priest is portrayed in the Letter to the Hebrews as someone who disarms our fears. He is not some unapproachably bombastic Wizard of Oz, before whom we cringe and crawl. No, “He is able to deal patiently with erring sinners, for he himself is beset by weakness.”
One of the novices who was subjected to my ruminations had many reservations about my criticism of fear. “We should work out our salvation in fear and trembling,” I was told, with a quotation from St. Paul. “Fear of the Lord is one of the great gifts of faith,” another said.
I unfortunately took the challenge. “Well,” I said, “let’s take the week to look through the Gospels and the Epistles and find out how much fear is recommended to us and how much it is not.”
I thought I would surely come up with twenty passages advising love and trust for every one promoting fear. And right I was. “Fear not” is a constant refrain, from the moment of the angel’s visit to Mary all the way to the risen Lord’s visit to the timid Apostles. In fact, I made a strong case that even the passage in the Letter to the Philippians about “fear and trembling” made little sense without the redeeming death of Jesus that St. Paul commemorates in the immediately preceding lines of chapter two.
Things did not go well. Somehow, it caused a storm. It seems there were long discussions over the intervening week about this problem of fear. I had pressed my point too strongly. And the novice director did not like my minimizing the virtue of “fear of the Lord.” I was not invited back.
Perhaps it was for the best. For, although I feel quite confident at times about my experience of Jesus and the foolishness of fear, often I just seem to grope in the dark.
But even in these times, the story of Bartimaeus (does that really mean “son of fear”?) comes to my rescue. He was a blind groper, sitting by the side of the road. And all he could say was, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” It is a prayer of last resort, the kind that supplies my words when there is nothing left to groan or claim.
Bartimaeus summoned a courage that many of us lack. To make matters worse, the people around him scolded him. They tried to shut him up. But he yelled out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me!”
This persistent, bold trust must have stopped Jesus, who ordered his people to call the blind man over. Then the crowd changed its tone: “You have nothing whatever to fear from him. Get up. He is calling you.”
The best instincts of history’s Christian crowd echo the refrain. There is nothing to fear from him. And yet we halt. We had better wait. What will he ask of us? How might we be properly prepared to enter his presence? How can we be worthy to approach him?
The great, sweet punchline of this story is given to Jesus. He does not ask for fear or virtue. He does not demand righteousness or rectitude. He simply asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Now, what do you make of this God-man we worship, the savior we drink and nourish ourselves by? He loves our faith—he cherishes our trust—more than all our quivering fear.
I do not know whether the novices I encountered had found a greater wisdom than I proposed. After all, one cannot presume to constrain the great and good God.
But my hope remains. In every blindness I may have, may I, begging for pity, bring it to the One before whom I have “nothing to fear.” May I have nothing other to offer than my faith. May my hope surmount my fear. And may he say to me, thank God, “What do you want me to do for you?”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University