Gospel Commentary for 12th Sunday in
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap
ROME, 20 JUNE 2008 (ZENIT)
This Sunday's Gospel contains a number of ideas but they all can be
summarized in this apparently contradictory phrase: "Have fear but do
not be afraid." Jesus says: "Do not be afraid of those who can kill the
body but cannot kill the soul; fear rather him who has the power to make
both the soul and the body perish in Gehenna." We must not be afraid of,
nor fear human beings; we must fear God but not be afraid of him.
There is a difference between being afraid and fearing and I would
like to take this occasion to try to understand why this is so and in
what this difference consists. Being afraid is a manifestation of our
fundamental instinct for preservation. It is a reaction to a threat to
our life, the response to a real or perceived danger, whether this be
the greatest danger of all, death, or particular dangers that threaten
our tranquility, our physical safety, or our affective world.
With respect to whether the dangers are real or imagined, we say that
someone is "justifiably" or "unjustifiably" or "pathologically" afraid.
Like sicknesses, this worry can be acute or chronic. If it is acute, it
has to do with states determined by situations of extraordinary danger.
If I am about to be hit by a car or I begin to feel the earth quake
under my feet, this is being acutely afraid. These "scares" arise
suddenly and without warning and cease when the danger has passed,
leaving, if anything, just a bad memory. Being chronically afraid is to
be constantly in a state of preoccupation, this state grows up with us
from birth or childhood and becomes part of our being, and we end up
developing an attachment to it. We call such a state a complex or
phobia: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and so on.
The Gospel helps to free us from all of these worries and reveals
their relative, non-absolute, nature. There is something of ours that
nothing and no one in the world can truly take away from us or damage:
For believers it is the immortal soul; for everyone it is the testimony
of their own conscience.
The fear of God is quite different from being afraid. The fear of God
must be learned: "Come, my children, listen to me," a Psalm says, "I
will teach you the fear of the Lord" (33:12); being afraid, on the other
hand, does not need to be learned at school; it overtakes us suddenly in
the face of danger; the things themselves bring about our being afraid.
But the meaning itself of fearing God is different from being afraid.
It is a component of faith: It is born from knowledge of who God is. It
is the same sentiment that we feel before some great spectacle of
nature. It is feeling small before something that is immense; it is
stupor, marvel mixed with admiration. Beholding the miracle of the
paralytic who gets up on his feet and walks, the Gospel says, "Everyone
was in awe and praised God; filled with fear they said: ‘Today we have
seen wondrous things'" (Luke 5:26). Fear is here simply another name for
stupor and praise.
This sort of fear is a companion of and allied to love: It is the
fear of offending the beloved that we see in everyone who is truly in
love, even in the merely human realm. This fear is often called "the
beginning of wisdom" because it leads to making the right choices in
life. Indeed it is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit! (cf.
As always, the Gospel does not only illumine our faith but it also
helps us to understand the reality of everyday life. Our time has been
called "the age of anxiety" (W.H. Auden). Anxiety, which is closely
related to being afraid, has become the sickness of the century and it
is, they say, one of the principal causes of the large number of heart
attacks. This spread of anxiety seems connected with the fact that,
compared with the past, we have many more forms of economic insurance,
life insurance, many more means of preventing illness and delaying
The cause of this anxiety is the diminishing
if not the complete disappearance
in our society of the holy fear of God. "No one fears God anymore!" We
say this sometimes jokingly but it contains a tragic truth. The more
that the fear of God diminishes, the more we become afraid of our fellow
It is easy to understand why this is the case. Forgetting God, we
place all our confidence in the things of this world, that is, in the
things that Christ says "thieves can steal and moths consume"
uncertain things that can disappear from one moment to the next, that
time (and moths!) inexorably consume, things that everyone is after and
which therefore cause competition and rivalry (the famous "mimetic
desire" of which René Girard speaks), things that need to be defended
with clenched teeth and, sometimes, with a gun in hand.
The decline in fear of God, rather than liberating us from worry,
gets us more entangled in worry. Look at what happens in the
relationship between children and parents in our society. Fathers no
longer fear God and children no longer fear fathers! The fear of God is
reflected in and analogous to the reverential fear of children for
parents. The Bible continually associates the two things. But does the
lack of this reverential fear for their parents make the children and
young people of today more free and self-confident? We know well that
the exact opposite is true.
The way out of the crisis is to rediscover the necessity and the
beauty of the holy fear of God. Jesus explains to us in the Gospel that
we will hear on Sunday that the constant companion of the fear of God is
confidence in God. "Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not
one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. Even
all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are
worth more than many sparrows!"
God does not want us to be afraid of him but to have confidence in
him. It is the contrary of that emperor who said: "Oderint dum metuant"
"Let them hate me so long as they are afraid of me!" Our earthly fathers
must imitate God; they must not make us afraid of them but have
confidence in them. It is in this way that respect is nourished:
admiration, confidence, everything that falls under the name of "holy