Matthew 10:26-33 can be understood only if taken together with what is written in the preceding verses. In them Jesus conveys, in colorful yet mysterious tones, the idea of the explosive energy of the Gospel.
For Jesus the Good News packs such power that we should live it out and preach it without reliance on human resources (cf. Matthew 10:9-10). We should be so impelled by its content that we propose it to others with total disregard for our safety. In point of fact, Jesus expects of us, as true disciples of his, to be so possessed by the Holy Spirit that we dare to operate like insane sheep among rabid, hungry wolves. For Jesus, the spiritual and moral “muscle” of the Gospel is such that he orders us to count not on our human skills but, rather, on what the Holy Spirit will inspire us to say in due time. Then Jesus goes on to forewarn us about fierce persecution and rejection from all sides including from within our own family. Then, in the above-mentioned passage, immediately, the Lord tells us not to fear anyone who would oppose us in our effort to preach the Gospel with our lives.
But, let me be more specific as to the context in which this order of not being afraid is given. What can we expect if we are directly involved in the New Evangelization of which we have been hearing a lot in recent times from our priests and bishops?
Jesus is incredibly clear-cut with us. He truly levels with us, not hiding what we can expect if we live out the Gospel and we dare to preach it in the setting in which we happen to be living. Is Jesus exaggerating the power of the Gospel? And, in so doing, is he scaring us away from our assigned task of bearing witness to him and to his Gospel? We find the answer in St. Paul’s list of what he endured for the Gospel (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Because of Paul’s testimony, if we, too, truly love Jesus, we can embrace the following “odd” definition of the Gospel:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek. (Romans 1:16)
Then, counting on us being sold on the power of the Gospel, the Lord Jesus can order us:
“So have no fear of them:” Whatever might have fed our fear and made us reluctant to preach the Gospel will fail in stymieing the truth about anything and anyone; it will also be unable to stop the revealing of secret plans, sinister intentions and evil designs.
It is so because nothing can stand in the way of the irreversible, unstoppable unfolding of the Father’s plan of salvation announced by means of the Gospel. The One we should fear is he who can create a whole universe from nothing simply by uttering his word of command and can undo everything and everyone with equal ease and lightning speed.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who live by it. (Psalm 111:10)
We have to take Jesus’ order to bear witness to his Gospel with the same healthy and salvific fear we would have while standing at the foot of the “Three Gorges Dam” in Hubei Province, China, the largest in the world or while looking down from atop the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai.
These two settings should be more than enough to convince us of our insignificance: but in our relationship with God the Father our healthy and salvific fear has to be augmented exponentially by the superbly accurate care he takes in monitoring our well-being ahead of those of all the myriads of birds in the sky and even in keeping track of the exact number of strands of hair on our skull.
However, he is also telling us what we can expect if we clam up and crawl into the comfortable niche of disengagement and self-absorption. Reticence, unwillingness to be bothered, aloofness, refusal to live out and then to preach the Gospel with our life are not wise, prudent options.
We are ordered not be afraid of those who oppose us as preachers of the Gospel because the One who is in us is greater than the one who inspires them (cf. 1 John 4:4).
We are told to have no fear of those who are fixated on making our life miserable and on destroying our body, because our Father cares for us with unmatched solicitude.
We should rather have a healthy and salvific fear of him. That fear is to generate in us wisdom and also sufficient courage to avoid what is reserved for those who do not acknowledge Jesus before others.
Firmly grounded in reality, we acknowledge that our human limitations are such that they force us to manage our energies, emotional resources and inner drives to concentrate on what will eventually allow us admittance into heaven. This concept is simple enough for everyone to understand. Yet, not having the right type of fear of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna, some might take Jesus’ warning lightly with irreparable, disastrous consequences.
Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father. (Matthew 10:32-33)
Hence, it would be eternally healthy and salvific for us to try to imagine both scenes. We picture ourselves waiting in line by the pearly gates and we overhear the Father whispering to his Son Jesus: “Son, do you recognize that lady in the gray pantsuit? What about that young man in the tee shirt and jeans?”
“Oh, yes, Dad! They are my friends. For many years of their life, up to the end, they were not afraid of professing their faith and their loyalty to me. They endured a lot for the glory of your name; daily, they put into practice what I taught them in the Gospel!”
Next scene: again, we picture ourselves waiting by the pearly gates and we overhear the Father whispering to Jesus this: “Jesus, no matter how hard I try, I do not seem to make out who the man in the off-white leisure suit and the elegant lady with him are. Do you know them?” And Jesus would reply: “Sorry, Dad, I do not recognize either of them!”
Now, if we think that Jesus is absolutely dead serious about his warning and the two possible outcomes, we should pause and determine, with as much certainty as possible, which concrete aspects of our daily life can be construed as consistent with the Gospel vis-à-vis other aspects that show indifference and disengagement.
If we are confident that we are living out even the more challenging pages of the Gospel with a considerable degree of self-sacrifice out of love for Jesus, we ask the Holy Spirit to keep granting us boldness and courage as we go on preaching undaunted and confident. But if we are mediocre disciples bordering on spiritual wimps we must become aware of the urgency to reshape our life dramatically.
We know what Jesus predicts for those who acknowledge him before others. But it must be equally clear that inaction is not an option. Criticism, hardships, rejection, persecution itself cannot be sufficient to convince us to stay put and hope for a lucky break at the pearly gates…
So, we beg the Holy Spirit to enkindle the dying embers of our love for Jesus into a steady flame of love so that, at the end of our earthly life we may be acknowledged by him before the Father.