An angel touching Isaiah's lips with a coal, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1726-1729).

God's word on Sunday: Giving in to fear can only lead to disaster

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  • September 8, 2018

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 9 (Year B) Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37


The stories of great heroes and martyrs are inspiring and mesmerizing. These individuals faced terrifying and overwhelming challenges but did not give in to fear. 

Although not all survived, all overcame, for they became examples of courage and commitment for people long after them. In fact, many of these “fearless” people freely admit that they were frightened beyond belief. But they had something within them that was stronger than the fear — religious faith, a sense of justice, commitment to principles or sometimes just stubbornness and an overpowering sense of personal integrity. 

Isaiah speaks to all of us who have been paralyzed by fear. He exhorts us to remember who stands behind us and has our back.

“Do not be afraid.” These words are often addressed to people throughout the Bible who are facing great obstacles. Giving in to fear is a prescription for disaster for this often leads to cowardice, infidelity or the abandonment of what we know is right. 

When we walk closely with God, fear should not have a hold on our hearts. This does not mean that our path will be easy or that we will avoid suffering — these are part of life — but they will not overwhelm us. 

With several beautiful images, Isaiah reveals what God is about: new life, wholeness, restoration, joy, healing and abundance. This flows from God’s compassionate mercy, kindness, provident care. When humans walk with God, they experience these gifts. When they live by principles based on negativity, selfishness, division and violence, the consequences are both predictable and distressing. 

Fear has the world by the throat — we are terrified of practically everything and everyone. We fear change, the unknown, other people — especially those who are different — economic and social insecurity, and our inability to have much control over our lives. These fears lead us down some very unhealthy paths. Polarization, scapegoating, intolerance and demagoguery top the list. 

These are the times that separate deep, abiding faith that is rooted in wisdom, experience and the spirit from religious faith that is social, cultural and superficial in nature. As we face our scary and unpredictable world, let us immerse ourselves in the compassion, care and justice of God rather than the fears that arise in our hearts.

The letter of James is a fine example of the Jewish wisdom spirituality. For James, faith is not a list of doctrines or dogmas that are held in one’s head and saluted from time to time. It is a verb, always expressed in action, and it mirrors one’s commitment to justice, compassion and open-handed generosity.

One is not to toady to the rich and powerful, for we are all equal in God’s eyes. All should be treated with the same dignity and respect, for God cares nothing for rank, station or reputation. Faith that is merely on the lips is not faith at all — it must always be expressed in concrete and credible terms.

The presence of God signals healing, wholeness and liberation. This was certainly evident in the healing of the deaf man with the speech impediment. Jesus did some things that He rarely did when healing someone. Usually, Jesus healed by a mere touch and a word. In this encounter, He spat and touched the man’s tongue, then put His fingers in his ears. 

Perhaps this reflects Mark’s unique earthy portrayal of the humanity of Jesus. His Heaven-ward gaze and His sigh made it clear that He healed by the power of God, the source of life and healing. There was no magic in His saliva or His fingers, and His word of command — ephphatha — expressed His will that the man’s ears be opened. 

Divine presence and divine wish/command equals healing and new life. His request that this be kept under wraps was ignored and the word spread rapidly. 

It wasn’t just that Jesus healed the man, it was why. The resonances of Isaiah would not have been lost on the crowd. The restoration of sight, speech and hearing was one of the many signs of the visitation of God and proof of God’s kindness and fidelity to His people. 

As our contribution to making God present on Earth and in our midst, we can pray fervently for God’s presence. More importantly, we can create an environment in which God is welcome. 

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