Fear and the worth of sparrows: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 10:26–33:

Jesus said to the Twelve:

“Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. 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. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

“What are you afraid of?”

We grow up with this schoolyard taunt. We live with it for the rest of our lives, it seems. Fear and shame over fear are two keys for manipulating people, something we understand instinctually even as children, and certainly as adults. People will go to great lengths to avoid fear, and others will go to great lengths to use it to get what they want.

Sometimes we don’t even need to have that question asked in order for it to work on our decisions and choices. Fear, especially in its inchoate form, can feel omnipresent and suffocating. We will do anything to put it aside. In more specific forms, we do our best to avoid it, or failing that, to take actions that might not be in our best interests to deal with it. That’s not always on the playground, either.

But the question remains, and it requires an answer: what are we afraid of? Death? Pain? Ruin? Perhaps all of these, but there may be a deeper answer than those — the loss of our own sense of dominion.

We see a glimpse of this in our first reading from Jeremiah today. The prophet talks about the rise of fear around him, originating from his unpopular prophecies just before the sacking of Jerusalem. Jeremiah warned that Judah’s refusal to trust the Lord and do His will had abandoned Him, leaving the kingdom and the city at the mercy of worldly powers. Rather than listen to Jeremiah, the city and Jeremiah’s own friends turned on him.

“I hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!’ All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. ‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.’

If the Judeans feared death and destruction above all other things, would they not have listened to Jeremiah? After all, the Northern Kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians a century earlier for the same sins. The Israelites went into captivity and never returned. A similar fate awaited Jerusalem for the same reasons, Jeremiah warned. If the fear of death, pain, and ruin drives us most, why not pay heed to Jeremiah and mend those ways?

This episode tells us that we value something more than just life or peace. Jerusalem wanted to control its world without reckoning with the Lord. In fact, the city’s leaders relied on a kind of hostaging of the temple to justify its actions, arguing that the Lord would never allow the temple to be destroyed regardless of how the Judeans acted. As long as they controlled the temple, they controlled the Lord — or so they thought. They had turned it into an idol of their own making rather than recognize the Lord’s presence as a gift to them in a covenant that worked bi-directionally.

And the Judeans ended up realizing their worst fears in their stubbornness. They got sent into exile and the city got sacked. It took seventy years for them to regain their freedom, by which time they learned a very hard lesson about Who’s really in charge around here.

This is the point Jesus makes to His disciples, both about the Father’s supremacy and the foolishness of fear. In His way, He asks what are you afraid of, but to make the point of the senselessness of fear. It matters not what others think of you, nor does your life in this world matter much if you have prepared yourself for the next. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus teaches, “rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

That is not to say that Jesus does not understand our fears. He lived as a human and had His own profound encounter with fear in Gethsemane, which serves as a model for how to deal with our own. The front-page image on this post reminds us of Christ’s encounter with mortal fear, how He sweat blood in anticipation of His excruciating death, and His plea to the Father to let the cup pass. However, Jesus also embraced the Father’s will and put that above His own human-nature desire to live longer. The image from Caracciolo’s painting also gives us a glimpse of the comfort Jesus received from the Father in that firm knowledge of His will.

This reminds us that fear itself is not shameful, but the idea that our will should be driven by it puts us at risk of serious sin. Dominion is His, not ours; ours is but stewardship, and only for a short time for each of us. We are part of His creation, not the other way around, Jesus reminds us in his mention of sparrows. They are of little worth in our material reckoning, Jesus says; in our time, we might have said, “Aren’t sparrows a dime a dozen?” However, the Father loves them so much that He knows the fate of every last one of them. How much more does the Father love those He gave stewardship over His creation? Even when we presume to become gods ourselves?

This teaching brings us comfort when fear grips our hearts. Jesus’ triumph on the Cross and in His Resurrection serves as signs pointing to the power of faith over fear. If we put our trust in the Lord and recognize His dominion, then nothing can harm us in the eternal sense. As children of God, that eternal sense should be our priority, and our stewardship in this world our opportunity to express it. That won’t put an end to fear, but it will put an end to fear’s power over us.


The front-page image is a detail from “Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christ’s Fear of Death)” by Battistello Caracciolo, c. 1615-17, currently on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.