One of the themes in today’s readings is fear of the Lord. We hear it mentioned in our second reading. It features in different ways in our gospel today. It has also been something of a backdrop to our readings last week and this week about reconciliation. So, what are we talking about when we say fear of the Lord?
The first thing to note is a general uneasiness about this topic. This week we had a number of students receive the sacrament of confirmation. As part of their preparation, they have to learn about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one of which is fear of the Lord. As an exercise, we usually get families to discuss the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We ask them to name which ones they see in each other. It is rare that fear of the Lord will be named by a student or a parent as evident in the other.
We also seem to link fear of the Lord with fire and brimstone. There is therefore a tendency to be a bit embarrassed about this topic. To think that it is a bit old-fashioned. That an angry God is a bit fundamentalist, and therefore perhaps bad religion. It is the type of thing that critics of religion raise, and therefore I think there is perhaps a tendency for us to gloss over this. We are perhaps tempted to skip over any mention of an angry God.
However, it is probably worth facing up to this aspect: fear of the Lord as somehow connected to God’s anger. While an angry God might be the subject of atheist jokes, we should perhaps pause in taking such comments very seriously. This is because as soon as we start to think about these passages, we begin to realise how necessary God’s anger is for any religion that want to be coherent, that want to deal properly with realities like justice and mercy.
For example, righteous anger is perhaps the basic response to injustice. Anyone who has experienced a loved one suffering injustice, anyone who has seen someone else put a loved one in peril, knows this reaction all too well. Love is rightly protective of its beloved. And so to think that injustice does not make God angry is to make justice meaningless. Of course, God cannot stand those who step on God’s little ones. Of course, God cannot abide the desecration of his creation. Just as any parent would do anything to protect their children, just imagine what this means when we are talking about the love of God.
We should therefore take seriously the reality that mercy, justice and suffering have some kind of cosmic import. As St Paul says in our second reading, the lives of each one of us affect everyone else. We should be very aware that what we do affects God’s loved ones.
However, fear of the Lord is not primarily about God’s anger. Our first reading comes from the genre known as the Wisdom literature. There we find the refrain that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of the Lord therefore is not primarily about God’s anger. Rather, it is first and foremost simply the proper reaction to being in the presence of God. All the saints in the Bible, whenever they are in the presence of God, are afraid. Yes, God tells them not to be afraid. But fear of God is the first step.
This is because it is a proper recognition of who God is. God is the Lord of Life. God is the creator of all. God holds all things in being. To come into the presence of God, we are told, is a fearful thing. The blazing fire of God’s love burns away anything opposed to God’s love. Thus, fear of the Lord is a simple recognition of the nature of the divine, the power of God, and our relation to God. It is the proper response of humility.
We actually hear this spelled out for us in our gospel. The amount that the first servant has to repay is astronomical. It is beyond the means of the servant in any scenario. It is supposed to show that the very life of the servant is dependent on the king. The servant really owns nothing. All is gift.
When we recognise this, fear begins to give way to gratitude. We realise that we are not entitled to anything. God does not owe us anything, yet we are given everything. Including God’s Son. Fear of the Lord then should lead to thanksgiving. It should lead to the Eucharist. It should lead to the insight that each one of us are in the same boat. That whatever is ours is really God’s and therefore free to be given away. In fact, since God is infinite and all is gift, the right thing to do is to share. The right thing to do is extend the mercy shown us.
This is why God gets angry in our gospel. Not only has the servant’s fear been false, not only has the servant simply thought about himself, he is so locked up in himself and his desires, that he cannot see who he is serving. He cannot therefor serve well, serve well by extending the love that he has received.
Let’s pray in our Mass today for a profound sense of the fear of the Lord. But may this fear turn into gratitude, gratitude that feeds us and through us the world.