A few months ago I was crossing the parking lot at a local big-box home improvement store. Some scruffy young men in a scruffier looking van drove up, and offered to sell me stereo equipment at a deep discount.
Geena Davis’ line from the 1986 remake of “The Fly” came to mind. “Be afraid; be very afraid.” I can think of only three possibilities for the provenance of discount stereo equipment sold from inside a rusty, old van. All of those possibilities are cause for concern.
The most likely possibility is that there is nothing in the cardboard boxes except a few bricks wrapped in newspaper. The second most likely possibility is that the stereo components were obtained by “five finger discount,” and the rightful owners are still looking for them. The third possibility is that the “sale” was actually a marketing campaign by one of the local law enforcement agencies trying to reconnect with repeat customers.
There is a line in today’s Gospel reading that ought to cause a similar sort of concern. Jesus said, “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10:28) “The one” Jesus referred to in this line of the Gospel is God. All of us know what it means to be afraid of something that is obviously dangerous or improbable, but what does it mean to fear God?
“Fear of the Lord” is an idea taken from politics in the ancient world. It was a commonly used phrase that referred to the loyalty one owed a Sovereign. The Queen, King or whoever, was the one who provided protection from foreign aggressors and a guarantee of prosperity for citizens. To “fear the Lord” meant to show the sort of respect and gratitude owed to a fair and effective monarch.
This political idea translated easily into Hebrew religion because of the Hebrew notion of justice. Justice, in ancient Hebrew culture and in the Scriptures, meant paying to someone the debt one owed them. The “debt” was defined variously in relation to various persons. One owed God a debt of complete loyalty. One owed family members a debt of complete trustworthiness. One owed a debt of hospitality to strangers.
In the Scriptures, to “fear God” does not mean to fear an angry, unpredictable or vengeful judge. Rather, “fear of the Lord” means giving to God the loyalty that one owes God because of God’s goodness and fidelity.
Although it might sound confusing, “fear of the Lord” means exactly the same as “You shall love the Lord, your God, will all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) In the Scriptures, “love” doesn’t mean emotional attachment or attraction; it means fidelity and loyalty – the kind of loyalty one owes to a covenant partner.
We live in a society that bristles at the notion of owing loyalty to anyone or anything. Unwavering loyalty to God is unpopular today because some people prefer to be disconnected entirely from society, and others prefer to give their loyalty to things they can control.
Complete loyalty to God is obviously missing from our society, but this is not the only thing lacking to us. There is an absence of respect for other people, a lack of tolerance for varying opinions, a lack of obedience to civil laws and a complete absence of long-term thought about the consequences of the actions of nations and individuals.
Do these various deficiencies have anything in common? I think they do.
Priorities tend toward disorder in the absence of an ordering principle. The ordering principle of our society is self-concern. The state of society today is compelling testimony that self is ineffectual as an ordering principle.
Ultimacy is the only ordering principle that is sufficient to prevent personal and societal priorities from running amuck. The awareness of God’s presence that is so lacking in our society is the cause of the absence of other forms of trustworthiness. It is in the best interests of humanity that we have a firm faith in God and a firm commitment to give God the respect and loyalty God deserves.
The complete lack of fidelity and loyalty in our society can wear down even the most faithful believer. It is not uncommon for people deeply committed to their religious faith to question whether there is any real point to the struggle to maintain a life out of synch with wider society.
The Scriptures remind us that there always has been, and always will be, opposition to authentic faith in God. The readings this Sunday encourage us never to be influenced by the doubts of those whose lives are in obvious disarray. Faith in God is unpopular and uncommon today, but not because of anything lacking in authentic religion.
Today’s Gospel reading is part of an instruction Jesus gave to his disciples before sending them on a preaching and healing mission. He instructed them about the hardships they would face, the miracles they would experience and the world’s profound need to hear their witness of faith.
Jesus’ instruction is just as apposite to our lives and our discipleship. We will face opposition to our faith. We will also experience miracles. The world still needs desperately to hear the Good News. There is no reason for us to be afraid or discouraged. The best interests of humanity are (obviously), not determined by majority opinion. Instead, all of us can be hopeful and eager to give witness to our faith, and to give non-believers a credible example of what they’re missing: the loyalty appropriate to our varied relationships.