To fear or not to fear (Matthew 10:16-18; 24-39)

I love the story that is told about young Teddy Rooselvet. Some if not many of you have heard me tell this before. (By the way, the reason I will tell stories 2, 3, and 4 times is because good stories need to be remembered and retold in different contexts.) As a little boy he had this fear about going to church. When his mother inquired he told her that he was afraid of something called the “zeal.” He said he heard the minister read about it from the Bible.  He imagined “the zeal” was something like a wild animal or dragon hiding in wait in the hallways or under the pews at church. 

Using a concordance his mother looked up the word zeal and when she read to him John 2:17 in the AV he told her that was what he heard. The text is about Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals. The text reads, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” He was afraid the zeal that lived in God’s house was going to eat him up. 

Some people are conscious of their fears while others are not. For some folks fear operates at the subconscious level. It’s real and present, but lurks underneath the surface so one may not even be aware of its presence. Fear is certainly a factor in how we relate to God.

There are number of passages in the Hebrew Bible, our – the Christian’s – Old Testament, where fear of God seems to be commended such as: “The fear of God is the beginning of the wisdom.” In my seminary days I did a word study of “fear” and discovered that the way fear was used in the OT is quite a bit different than the way we talk about fear today. I concluded from that study that the Hebrews often employed the term “fear” to denote respect and reverence. To fear God was to reverence God; to stand in awe of God. Sometimes today’s Gospel reading is used to encourage fear of God. Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Destroy here, by the way, does not mean to torture, but to terminate, to do away with, to kill. The threat is a threat of termination, not torture. Most people who promote and preach fear as a positive response to God stop right here. They don’t go on to read the rest of the text.

In the passage that follows Jesus paints the picture of a God whom no one should fear. This God, the God of Jesus, takes notice of a little sparrow that falls to the ground and the God of Jesus knows the number of hairs on our head, which is just a colloquial way of saying that God knows us intimately and deeply cares for us. Jesus then says, “Don’t be afraid. You are much more valuable than sparrows.” The argument he is making is this: If there is anyone to fear it would be God, for God is able to terminate our very existence. God holds the key to life. God’s Spirit indwells us and gives us life, and God could withdraw God’s Spirit at any time, in which case, soul and body would become lifeless. But (and here’s the good news) there is no need to be afraid of God, because God cares intimately and deeply for each one of us.

The context for this teaching is a setting of persecution by the hostile powers who are intent on punishing and even killing disciples of Christ who work for justice and truth. Just as they rejected Jesus, we too can expect to be rejected by the powers that be. And while the powers that be can kill us, we need not fear them, because the God who is judge of all will be with us and God is for us (as Paul so beautifully says in Romans 8). If there is anyone to fear it would be God, but God is our Abba, our loving, compassionate motherly father and fatherly mother. So, “Don’t be afraid.”

This is such an important teaching. Why is it so important? I will tell you. You can obey a God you are afraid of, but you will never love that God deeply with all your heart and soul and strength. You may say that you do and even convince yourself you do, but you can’t. You can’t really love deeply anyone you are afraid of. So if you are going to love God, you need a God you don’t have to be afraid of.

Now, even though the Hebrews spoke of the fear of God in a more positive sense than people tend to do today – as reverence and respect – still it had its drawbacks. It still conveyed some notion of distance. From the Hebrew point of view, one didn’t get too close to God. There were exceptions to this tradition, but this was the dominant one. There was a popular saying in the Hebrew tradition that one could not see God and live. And anyone who has ever read the Bible knows that there is a good deal of divine violence and divinely sanctioned violence in the Bible. So getting too close to God was not recommended.

This is why the portrait we have of Jesus in the Gospels is so remarkable. Jesus speaks of a God who cares about a little sparrow that falls to the ground and knows and cares for us each one individually. In the ancient Hebrew tradition the group was often more important than the individual. Jesus emphasized both the community and the individual within the community, and said that God even loves those who are God’s enemies, raining blessings on all people, the just and the unjust alike. In Jesus we meet a totally non-violent God. This is the central message of the cross and why the cross is so important to us. On the cross Jesus is executed by the powers that be. He bears the wrath and hate and fury of the powers that be, without returning it upon his haters and killers. This is how Jesus bears the sin of the world. The powers that crucified Jesus represent all of us and our entanglement in the unjust system. He died on account of sinners, because sinners crucified him. And he died to rescue us from our sin, by showing us how to stop the violence and the hate. We stop it the way Jesus did – by absorbing it, by bearing it, by making forgiveness and reconciliation possible thus stopping the cycle of violence and death. 

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center. Roy Honeycutt, who for many years was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the days when that school was a highly esteemed theological institution, told this story.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honor to end the conflict.  

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon, punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through the opening. It could have been cut off, but instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture of peacemaking came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

Chancing one’s arm is always risky. It could get one killed. But it’s the way of Jesus, the way of peace. It’s the way of the cross and Jesus tells us to take up our cross. By losing our life we find life. By sacrificing our grudges and resentments and anger, and by offering forgiveness, we discover life. By the way, for the first several decades practically all Christ followers were pacifists. This is how they understood Jesus. To take up the cross was a call to non-violence. Now, I have to admit I am not a true pacifist even though I preach against violence. I believe in and preach non-violence, but if it comes down to kill or be killed, I will kill. But clearly, the first followers of Jesus believed Jesus revealed to them and us a non-violent God.

Now, sometimes a verse in our text today is referenced by those who try to argue that Jesus supported violence in some situations. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But then if you read what immediately follows about kingdom loyalty dividing families, you realize that the use of the word “sword” here is clearly metaphorical. Jesus often employed highly figurative, and sometimes shocking language to make his point. Like when he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” We don’t read that literally do we? It’s a shocking metaphor that makes a point. And here Jesus is using the word “sword” in the figurative sense of that which severs and divides. He doesn’t mean it literally. In fact, when the temple police came to arrest Jesus, in all the Gospel accounts one of the disciples draws his sword, and Jesus immediately rebukes him and tells him to put it up. Why? Because violence is not the way of Jesus.

When Jesus tells Pilot in John’s Gospel that his kingdom is not of this world, he does not mean that his kingdom is somewhere else in some other world, some heavenly place. After all Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” What Jesus was telling Pilot is that God’s kingdom does not share the violence and greed and lust for power and control that characterizes earthly kingdoms. And that’s as true of our democracy as any autocracy. Fortunately our democracy has safeguards against violence, but it’s still all about control. Look at how our Congress currently operates. It’s all about winning and control and very few of them seem to care about the common good, and all of us suffer the consequences from that and many of us get caught up in it. Such are the kingdoms of this world. Nevertheless, we have to work within the kingdoms of this world, within the unjust worldly systems to help to bring about God’s will on earth. God’s kingdom has to work with and through earthly kingdoms as corrupt as they may be, but God’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and greed and love of power that characterizes the world’s kingdoms.

Now, I want to close by talking about this teaching where Jesus is purported as saying that he has come to divide the family such as setting son against father and daughter against mother and making enemies of one’s own family. Again, Jesus is using hyperbole as he often does, but he is talking about how loyalty to the kingdom of God divides. But let me address first those who use loyalty to Jesus language to preach exclusivity and condemn people of other religious faiths. Unfortunately, this is how some Christians use a passage like this.

It’s important to keep in mind that we do not have the actual words of Jesus; we have the Christian interpretation and version of Jesus’ words. Jesus was a Galilean Jew with Galilean Jewish parents which makes it highly unlikely that he knew a lot of Greek. But even if he did know some Greek, in teaching his fellow Palestinian Jews Jesus would have taught in their common language, which was, of course, Aramaic. Also, the sayings of Jesus were not written down when he first said them. They were later remembered and passed down orally – passed on by word of mouth – most likely years before they were ever written down. All Jesus scholars point out that what Jesus actually talked about would have been loyalty to God or the kingdom of God not loyalty to himself. (Unfortunately, even someone as astute as C.S. Lewis missed . . . ) But as Christians passed on this teaching it’s easy to see how loyalty to Jesus makes its way into the saying. We Christians believe Jesus is the definitive revelation of the character of God and the values of God’s kingdom. So, in the course of transmission, loyalty to Jesus takes the place of loyalty to the kingdom, because we are talking about the same thing. People of other religious faiths do not believe what we believe about Jesus, but they may indeed embrace the values that Jesus lived and modeled. So, no Christian should use a saying like this as proof that people of other religious traditions who believe something different about Jesus cannot know God. They can know God and serve God by modeling the values of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his followers to embrace and do.

So, that brings me to the second point and this is really important. Being loyal to Jesus then is not loyalty to some version of Christian doctrine about Jesus or anything else like that. It’s about loyalty to the values – the attitudes and actions, words and deeds – that Jesus embodied and called his followers to live. So, loyalty to Jesus is about loyalty and commitment to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It’s about commitment to care and uplift and liberate “the little ones,” those most vulnerable and disadvantaged, the ones Jesus invested so much time with and cared so much about. It’s about doing acts of mercy and working to create a just system for the common good. That’s what loyalty to Jesus is. By the way, that’s why church is important or should be important. Church should be about forming worshiping, serving communities that can inspire and empower its members to love the way Jesus loved and be committed to the work of healing and liberation the way Jesus was.  

What Jesus is saying is that our commitment and loyalty to the values of the kingdom of God (which means being loyal to Jesus and to God) – our loyalty and commitment to works of mercy and justice, to taking care of the little ones, to peacemaking and forgiveness, to healing and liberation – our loyalty to these values of God’s kingdom and the way of Jesus must take priority over everything else, even our basic family relationships. That’s what this teaching is about. This is what is so hard for us, namely, commitment to God’s kingdom always involves expanding and enlarging our little world and vision. That’s why a person committed to Christ will give of themselves to help others and speak out against injustice even though it may upset members of their own family. Because their first priority is God’s kingdom.

Now, that’s tough. There is no sugar coating this. This is a hard teaching. I sometimes wonder how many Christians in churches across our country and our world, and I include myself, because I question myself too, I question my own loyalty too – how many of us are really that loyal to the kingdom of God? I wonder this about myself. Am I really that loyal? Maybe we should all give that some thought.

Our good God, I am so thankful that you are a God who takes notice of falling sparrows, because you surly notice and care for us when are falling too. I thank you that Jesus revealed to us that you are a God we do not need to be afraid of. A God that we can deeply love – because you deeply love us. We have to confess that in so many ways we fail to model your love – I know I do. And we struggle with the loyalty you ask of us and want us to be committed to. And the only reason you ask such loyalty is because you want us to love others with the same kind of love you have for each of us. Help us to know, O God, just as we used to sing when we were kids, how “deep and wide” is your love for each of us and the whole wide world, and not only know, but love that way too.


  1. So glad I stumbled across you on Patheos! Love your writing style and more importantly, your message. A fellow southerner with lots of deep fire and brimstone memories, how and when did you come to your progressive views?
    Also, you remind me of Richard Rohr. Google him if unfamiliar. His atonement and scapegoating theories are both inciteful and well articulated.
    Thanks for your scholarship and faith.
    Bob Morris

    1. Thanks Bob. Sometimes I am asked what writer/teacher has most influenced me in my spiritual journey. I always that while I have learned from a lot of people, two stand out: Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr. I love Rohr's writings. If I sound like him sometimes it's because his work has do deeply shaped me. Thanks again for your kind comments


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