Those who overcome fear change history

  • June 12, 2008

Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A), June 22 (Jeremiah 20:7, 10-13; Psalm 69; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33)

Jeremiah was not the most enthusiastic prophet in the Old Testament. When God called him the only response he had was a long litany of his unworthiness, youth and incompetence. This was the usual pattern for those called by God — few went eagerly or willingly.

During his unhappy career Jeremiah tried to walk away on several occasions, but God always had the upper hand. He had to endure humiliation, plots and threats against his life, and even arrest and near execution. In this passage he has had enough — he accuses God of putting one over on him and more or less forcing him to consent to His call.

But Jeremiah never stays down for long for he is soon exulting in the power and presence of God. He has no doubt that God will triumph and that his tormentors and accusers will be put to shame. This sense of God’s presence as well as Jeremiah’s faith enables him to get up again and move forward on his mission. What began as a bitter lament ends in a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.

There are perhaps many times that we feel as much discouragement and aloneness as Jeremiah. We might feel that too much has been put on our plate — we are overwhelmed and would just like to quit. But we are never given more than we can bear. And if what we are doing is truly pleasing to God and according to His will, we will have all the strength and inspiration we need. That is what God told Jeremiah in answer to his objections when he was called, and that is what God tells each of us today. If God is with us, it doesn’t matter how much opposition we face and the obstacles in our path will not be insurmountable.

Much theological ink has been spilled over the passage from Romans, especially during the great debates on original sin, grace and free will. Paul uses the symbol of Adam as a human archetype to highlight the all-pervasive nature of human sin. Human beings imitate “Adam” in their disobedience and fear. They also pass on these negative patterns of human behaviour and thought from generation to generation. The whole point of the passage is not to paint a picture of human nature as depraved and fallen, but to celebrate the mercy and grace of God that are always more powerful than and one step ahead of all human sin and error.

It is said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do and say nothing. How do the tyrants and oppressive systems enslave entire nations? By terrifying people into silence and acquiescence. No worldly power system could exist without this fear, for it is when desperation overrides fear that people rise up and regimes fall. And human cultures with their pressure to conform can be the most oppressive of all.

Jesus exhorts His followers not to smother through fear the power and beauty of the message He has given them. It must be proclaimed openly and joyfully regardless of the immediate consequences. Too many are silent today in the face of violence and its many justifications. Too many are silent in the face of economic systems that deprive people of dignity and destroy both cultures and the natural environment. Those men and women whose faith and love were greater than their fear have been the ones who have changed history.

The message of Jesus is intended to set all people free and to enable them to recognize their dignity and infinite worth in God’s eyes. What God has planted in our hearts is not for us alone but must be proclaimed and practised before the eyes of the world. The unjust powers of this world must be confronted regardless of identity, rank or status.

There is the distinct possibility that some will suffer and even die for their openness and courage. But Jesus hastens to assure them that suffering or death for this reason should not frighten us for God will not forget or abandon us.

Like the sparrow we may fall to the ground but God will know and God will care. Silence and fear serve only evil, but courage, truth and love serve both God and humanity.