(Matthew 25: 14-30)
Fear is sometimes contrasted with bravery and thought (by some) to be a sign of weakness or cowardice. However, as we know, there are many instances when fear is not only appropriate, but beneficial and, indeed, even essential to survival. This beneficial fear typically occurs in situations of danger connected with the so-called “fight or flight” response. In this regard one need only think of the perils of very small children whose ignorance of certain dangers (and a corresponding lack of appropriate fear) exposes them to possible serious injury and even death.
Conversely, there is a less helpful fear occurring as a result of another kind of ignorance that involves mistaking a fundamentally benign situation for a threatening and dangerous one. In such a case, fear is not beneficial and only serves to constrict a person’s freedom, spontaneity, and generate unnecessary stress and anxiety. Similarly, there is the maladaptive fear that paralyzes initiative, creativity, inhibits decision-making and fosters procrastination.
This seems to be the kind of fear gripping the third servant (in today’s gospel) who received the single talent and, out of fear of his demanding master, hid the talent in the ground. It is worth noting that the master does not reprimand this servant for fearing him, or reassure him that he had nothing to fear. Instead, he admonishes him for not utilizing that fear for a more creative response than burying the talent—namely, placing it in the bank so that it would have accrued interest.
As Christians accustomed to championing a God of mercy and infinite compassion, we can, perhaps, consider fear of God inappropriate and even offensive. And yet, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Jesus, likewise, warned us to not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, he said, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. More reassuringly, we just heard the psalmist saying blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Accordingly, fear does seem to be a necessary component of our relationship with God during this earthly sojourn. However, it does need to be of the beneficial kind that, initially, serves to curb our sinful tendencies leading to ever greater inner freedom. For, a maladaptive and slavish fear closes the heart to God’s love and coerces rather than draws one towards a life of, what the psalmist calls, walking in the ways of the Lord. Expressed slightly differently, it’s about initially utilizing fear to encourage virtue because of fear of punishment, but then advancing to that holy fear that dreads, not some external punishment, but the loss of God’s love and friendship.
Those who possess this holy fear, Paul calls children of light and children of the day. And it is to these whose holy and loving fear nurtures a longing for Christ’s return that the Day of the Lord will not come as the proverbial thief in the night. Thus the question for each one of us becomes: Are we children of the light and of the day, or of darkness and the night? Is our fear slavish, or steadily becoming holy?