31st Sunday: TO FEAR THE LORD IS TO LOVE HIM
We read in the book of Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). What exactly does fear of the Lord mean? This weekend, scripture presents Moses speaking to the Israelites, “Fear the Lord, your God, and keep throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life.”
What is going on in this passage? Moses, by this point, is quite old and ready to go home to the Lord. The people have been wandering in the desert for a long time and are happy to be entering the land of Canaan. The scriptures tell us that Canaan is a land flowing with milk and honey, “a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 6:10-12). Human beings tend to remember God when the going gets tough, when we need help, but when life is great, we forget and think we are in control, “I got this.” Moses cautions the Israelites, “you made a promise to love God.” Moses is telling them to not abandon the God with whom they made a covenant. And we know the track record of the Israelites. Moses no sooner comes back from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments when he finds them worshipping the golden calf. They forget the true God that quickly. Moses understands that this can go badly in the land of Canaan just as fast. He implores them not to abandon the Lord God.
The phrase Moses uses is “Fear the Lord.” This isn’t a scary, fire and brimstone reference. He didn’t say, “Be afraid of the Lord.” Fear can be positive, depicting a healthy sense of respect and recognition of a superior authority. In this sense, it is defined as a feeling of respect and wonder for something very powerful. Moses ushers in a reverential attitude from the people for God. He admonishes the people to maintain a sustained respect for God, one which will last their entire life but also to be transmitted to their generations after them. Fear, as used in this passage, means a profound love for God. In the New Testament, fear of the Lord is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. For the Israelites, this code is like a lifeline because it provides for them hope of inheriting the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey. For them, to fear the Lord is a great link to achieving this hope and for which they express their commitment.
Here, Moses introduces the Israelites to the famous “Shema,” a code which every Jew is expected to repeat three times daily, carry as they walk about, post on their doorpost and constantly remind themselves of the invitation to live as God’s people who look forward to a future reality. Moses says to them, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today." This is one great way to fear God, to love him with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength. Two passages in the Psalms convey this meaning well, “How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments” (Ps. 112:1), and “How blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways” (Ps. 128:1). Those who fear the Lord walk in his ways; they keep his commandments.
The gift of the fear of the Lord is caused by love. Since we love God, we fear losing him by committing sin. We are in awe of him because he is so beautiful, so great and powerful. It is what’s called “filial” fear because it’s like the fear of a child who is afraid of hurting the feelings of his loving parent. It is different from“ servile” fear, which is based on punishment. The gift of fear of the Lord brings deep peace and happiness. This is what Moses is commanding them.
So, the question becomes, do I have a just and right fear of the Lord? We can go to mass but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re honoring and respecting the Lord. When I say today, “the mass is ended, go in peace,” some people are going to leave here with the mindset, “Hey, I did my Sunday duty. See you next week” and they are done with God for this week. It doesn’t work like that. When you leave here for the modern-day land of Canaan, will you remain faithful to the God who loves you? You see, we really aren’t much different than the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Times change but people don’t. Every time that we choose to sin, we make a decision against love. It’s an offense against a love that is personal. Christ loves us in a real personal way. So we ask ourselves, do I have a healthy fear of the Lord? Is there a difference between the way I live my life and the craziness of the modern-day Canaan outside these church walls? When the Lord says, “Hear O Israel,” do I hear Him by heeding his commandments? Again, Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Do I go into difficult situations presented to me at work, at home, while shopping or other areas of my life with the fear of the Lord in my mind?
In the gospel, the scribe approaches Jesus with the question about the greatest commandments. Jesus’ reply points him back to the passage on the Shema which highlights loving God above everything else. The commandments find fulfilment in loving God as an all embracing commitment. They also involve loving our neighbor as oneself. In loving one’s neighbor, one appreciates God’s love and in turn shares it with the human beings He has created. Doing so requires a good understanding of God’s commandments just as mentioned by the scribe in reaction to Jesus’ answer.
Let’s think about it this way. Assuming I break mom’s best drinking glass while she’s away. I am aware that mom loves that glass but I am also aware that mom loves me dearly. I could decide to run away from the house before mom gets home. In that case, I miss the opportunity to say sorry and to continue enjoying her care and love. My reaction here is driven by an image of punishment. If we relate to God this way, we turn towards him not out of love and reverence but simply because we are afraid that he will chastise us. We fear things that will harm us, so, God becomes a harmful image in that sense. And we run. We call it servile fear. That is not how God operates.