Our readings this weekend invite us to consider the emotion of fear—specifically, “fear of the Lord.” This emotion is named explicitly in our first reading and responsorial psalm: “[T]he woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” “Blessed are those who fear the Lord.” This emotion is also named implicitly in our gospel. The word which is translated “master” in our gospel is the Greek word “kyrios,” which can also be translated “lord,” as in “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord have mercy.” In our gospel, when the third servant is giving an account of his actions he says, “Master, [Lord,] I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” The third servant experienced a kind of fear of the Lord, but while this emotion is praised in our first reading and responsorial psalm, it is condemned in our gospel. How do we make sense of this?
Because fear tends to be regarded by our modern world as an exclusively negative emotion, fear of the Lord is sometimes explained as a kind of reverence for God, a kind of wonder and awe in His presence. But this does not do justice to this emotion. Fear of the Lord is a genuine fear. And fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. This fear should move us to fight the threat or flee from it. When a man is caught in a burning building, he should feel fear. That fear should correspond to the truth of the situation—the existence of a real threat to his life. And that fear should move him to flee from the building. A fireman, who sees that a building is on fire, should also feel a certain amount of fear. That fear should correspond to the truth of the situation—the existence of a real threat to the structural integrity of the building and to the lives of those who may be caught inside. That fear should move the fireman, in this case, not to flee from the fire but to fight it.
Fear of the Lord is a genuine fear. And we should feel it when we accurately perceive a threat, not to our natural life, but to our supernatural life. But this threat does not come from the Lord Himself—it comes from sin. Fear of the Lord is a fear of committing sin, a fear of thinking, speaking, or acting in a way which harms our relationship with the Lord. And we fear sin, we fight or flee from it, because we love the Lord. Just as a man flees from a burning building because he loves his natural life, so also we flee from sin, and from the fires of Hell, because we love the Lord and the supernatural life that comes from having a relationship with Him. And just as a fireman fights a fire because he loves the lives of others, so also we fight sin because it threatens not only our supernatural lives, but the supernatural lives of others. If our spiritual house goes up in flames, the spiritual homes of those around are at risk of catching fire as well.
Fear of the Lord comes from an accurate perception of a supernatural threat. If we do not accurately perceive the threat that sin poses to our lives, if we do not realize how sin can wound and even cut off our relationship with the Lord, if we don’t realize that our spiritual house is on fire, or we don’t think it’s a big deal, then we will not experience this fear and we will not fight or flee from the threat which faces us. Fear of the Lord, if it comes from an accurate perception of a supernatural threat, the threat of sin, is a good thing. It is something to be praised. We are blessed if we experience it. “[T]he woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” “Blessed are those who fear the Lord.”
The problem with what the third servant experiences in our gospel, is that his fear does not come from an accurate perception of a supernatural threat. He thinks his master, his lord, poses a threat to him. He thinks his master is a demanding and even unjust man: he thinks his master is in the habit of taking what does not belong to him: of harvesting what he did not plant and gathering what he did not scatter. But this perception is inaccurate. In truth, his master is a generous and just man: he gives his servants all his possessions and he gives to each of them according to their ability. The real threat, which the servant does not accurately perceive, comes from his sin of sloth, of his laziness in failing to use the gifts he had been given. The third servant’s fear was misplaced. He feared the lord himself, instead of the sin that would harm his relationship with him.
Do we experience a genuine fear of the Lord in our lives? Do we accurately perceive the supernatural threat posed to us by sin? Do we flee and fight sin in our lives? Or do we fear the Lord Himself? Do we think that the Lord is demanding and unjust, that He might ask for or take away something which is really ours, which exclusively belongs to us? Do we think that the Lord is in competition with us? Do we flee and fight the Lord? I’d encourage you to wrestle with these questions this week. And ask the Holy Spirit to stir up in you the gift of the fear of the Lord which you received at your baptism and at your confirmation. Let us flee from sin. Let us turn to the Lord in love. Amen.