When I look back over my life, I have to acknowledge that most, if not all, of the actions and reactions that have left me with deep regret have arisen out of my fear. When I have over-reacted to something my children have done it has always been out of my fear for their safety and wellbeing. When I have found myself in an argument with my wife it has always been either out of a fear of losing the depth and intimacy of our connection, or out of fear of losing myself in some way in the relationship. Whenever I have made bad choices, it has been because of my fear of incurring God’s wrath, or of not having enough, or of losing something that I value. To be honest, I’m not sure that I can identify any real benefit that I have enjoyed because I have been afraid of something.
On the other hand, whenever I have allowed love to guide my choices, my reactions, my hopes and my relationships, I have found peace, joy and a sense of security – even when my life circumstances have been painful or insecure.
I find it hard to argue with the idea, much quoted and taught, that there are, essentially, only two human emotions: love and fear. Everything else we may experience is simply a manifestation of one of these two. Fear shrinks our lives, closes our hearts and leads us into destructive responses that hurt us and others. Love, on the other hand, expands our lives, opens our hearts and leads us into creative responses that bring life and healing to us and others. Pretty much every choice we face in our lives, and in our world, boils down to this – will we choose love or will we choose fear.
This choice is at the heart of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders that Matthew describes in his Gospel. It’s not hard to trace the way Jesus always chooses love in the Gospel narratives – even for those who seek his destruction. It’s equally easy to identify the fear of the religious leaders. The scent of it seems to waft off the pages of the Scriptures, and the stifling impact is clear and cold. If there is anything we need to learn in our world today as we face war, economic crisis, climate change and pandemics of dread diseases, it’s to choose love over fear. Perhaps the Lectionary for this week can be our teacher.
The Great Debate
Matthew’s entire Gospel is replete with hope, which is a strange thing for someone who had stooped low enough to become a co-operator with a hated oppressor. Tax collectors were sell-outs to the Roman Government, and were despised by their people. What could motivate someone to choose this life other than a deep and overwhelming fear? Yet, after living with Jesus, and in spite of witnessing the wrath of Rome when it brought about the destruction of his people, Matthew has found hope, and, it seems, is no longer afraid. It’s as if he has recognised that it is not Rome, nor the religious leaders of Israel, nor, really, any external force, that truly oppresses people. It is fear that does this – and it is fear that oppressors use to enforce their control. And so Jesus is truly the New Moses – the liberator of God’s people – because he has liberated them from the control of fear and moved them into God’s new realm – the reign of love.
In the chapter preceding this week’s pericope, Matthew has been preparing us for this moment, and the events that follow it. We have witnessed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple – acts which were expected of the Messiah, who was to restore the true worship of Israel, and who alone had authority beyond that of the high priest in the place of worship. As if to emphasise the point that Jesus is confronting the corruption of Israelite worship, Matthew also relates the story of the unfruitful fig tree which is cursed by Jesus. Now, in response to Jesus’ rather disturbing activities in the Temple, the religious leaders come out to confront and challenge him. Their motive is, very clearly, fear. They are afraid of Rome, and what might happen if wind of a new Messiah reaches the Emperor. They are afraid of God and what might happen if they allow the chosen people to fall prey to a false prophet. So, they have developed a rigid, structured system of control to ensure that they keep their noses, and those of their people, clean. They have learned how to regulate the nation in the ways of righteousness and peace, ensuring both physical and spiritual safety from destruction. Or so they think – ultimately, their fear-based control leaves them in the lurch and they find themselves facing the challenge of God’s Christ and, later, the wrath of Rome. Their fear does not save them. Rather, it ensures their ultimate destruction.
It is out of this fear, though, that they challenge Jesus, and the first point of debate is authority. If this country preacher is going to engage in Messiah-like actions, he had better be able to prove that he has the authority to do so. But, they are sure he won’t be able to prove it, and so they try to force him to make claims he can’t substantiate so that they can just get rid of him quickly and quietly. The true question they are asking, but choose not to voice directly, is this: are you claiming to be the Messiah.
Jesus’ answer is evasive, not because he is afraid, but because he still needs time to expose the corruption and destruction that their fear has wrought. And so he chooses not to answer their question directly, but to challenge them in return, in a way that exposes the fear that is at the root of their question. He asks them about John’s authority and where it originated. The religious leaders are afraid of the people, who are still the ones, ultimately, who legitimate their power, and so they are unable to deny John’s divine appointment. But, if they admit to God’s calling of John, then they judge themselves for failing to follow his teaching. In the end they undermine their own authority by choosing a non-committal answer – those whose job it is to know whether prophets are true or not public say that they “don’t know”. Their inability to commit to an answer does not fool anyone, it seems, and their fear is exposed and revealed for the corrupting influence it is.
Which is what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. The first refuses, but then changes his mind and goes to work. The second agrees politely, but doesn’t actually do what he promised. After getting the religious leaders to agree that it is the first son who has actually obeyed the father, Jesus drives his point home. Those who appear to be disobeying God – whose lives seem to contradict the very purity that the Pharisees insist is required to avert God’s wrath – are the ones who are finding their way into God’s reign, while those who say the right things and follow the law, have lost the plot, and are missing the life that God offers. I suspect that, while this sounds like a judgmental, confrontational statement by Jesus, it is more likely an attempt to show the religious leaders what they’re missing, and give them a chance to change and join the people who, because they have nothing to lose and therefore nothing to fear, have found God’s grace and love.
In the end, the time will come when this debate turns into a public retaliation which leads to Jesus’ execution. And when that time comes Jesus will choose love, even for his executioners, over the fear he clearly faced in Gethsemane, and he will courageously die, defiantly refusing to allow his fear – or anyone else’s – to diminish his life. He will reveal, in stark detail, the difference between these most basic human responses and he will challenge us to choose as he did.
The Ultimate Choice
Fear still has the same effect on us as it always has had – the same effect it had on the religious leaders of Jesus day. All the “big issues” we’re dealing with in the Church can be traced back to some fear that we’re struggling to face. Many of the new movements in Church structures and in worship arise out of a fear that the Church is in decline and may, ultimately die. The anti-Muslim rhetoric that has spewed from the mouths of some Christian leaders reveals a fear that our faith may be overwhelmed by another, and that we may lose our “way of life”. The anti-gay rhetoric that has, likewise, been an unfortunate mark of the Church (irrespective of where you stand on this issue) is a mark of our fear that we could lose our families, our marriages and our moral compass (although I doubt that any gay person or group could be held responsible for this when divorce rates and heterosexual promiscuity are taken into account). The support for war, terrorism and capital punishment among people of faith is another telling sign that our fear is controlling us – the fear of “others” taking away what we believe is “ours”.
But, what we don’t seem to be able to admit is that our fear is not making us any safer, is not giving us life and is not making the world a better place. On the contrary, it is destroying us. It is causing the very things we fear to come about. Because of the coldness and rigidity that fear always brings into faith, people are rejecting the Church in large numbers and we are dying. Our wars and conflicts are costing us more than we can afford, and changing our lives and our world in painful ways. Our families are breaking up and our marriages are cracking under the strain, as our children reject the rigid and judgmental morality of the past, and seek to live out an ethic that can be both life-giving and loving.
Perhaps it’s time for us to choose differently. Perhaps it’s time for us to break the hold of fear on our faith. Perhaps it’s time to reject the Pharisaic strategy of fear, control and quick attack on what threatens us. Perhaps it’s time to try the strategy of Jesus – that choice for love, for welcome and for non-violence. After all, it’s not our fear that gets us into God’s reign. It’s reckless, adventurous, scandalous love. It’s the kind of lawless, abandoned jumping in that only those who are already completely scandalous can truly understand. It’s the kind of courageous risk that can only happen when we have learned that we have nothing to lose and therefore nothing to fear.
So, where, in yourself, your family, your community and your nation, is fear keeping you and others from entering God’s reign? Where can you begin to choose love over fear? Where are you already learning to do this? Can you see the difference? I hope we learn to, because this choice – do we live by love or by fear – is the ultimate choice we must all face.