Exodus 20:12-24 / Matthew 15:1-20
What kind of a motivator is fear? We tend to think it is not a very good one. Surely, we think, we ought to avoid what is to be avoided not out of anxiety, much less out of abject terror, but rather out of understanding. Fear, we think, is unhelpful precisely in being an enemy to understanding, opposed to the collective, contemplative stance that allows us to appreciate everything for what it is.
So, we at first glance think that Moses has it right when the people of Israel shy away from Sinai when they saw the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking. Seeing them being terrified and struck with fear, Moses says what Jesus would later say to his disciples, and what everyone says at one time or another to his beloved: Fear not. Yet, this is just when things take an unusual twist. Having just told them not to fear, Moses tells the people that God has come to try them, to prove them. And for what end? That the dread of Him might be in you, and you should not sin.
Now, what kind of prophet tells us not to fear precisely in order that we might have dread? What logic is there in that?
The answer lies in a distinction drawn in classic moral theology between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is a fear derived from the anticipated punishment or injury which will arise from offending another. It is rooted, that is, not in a concern for the other or for the wrongness that has caused the offense, but only in one's own integrity, and the threat that punishment will bring. In itself, servile fear in contrary to love.
In contrast, filial fear is the fear that arises from the injury another suffers because one's own acts have offended him. That is, in filial fear, one recognizes his own moral weakness, and is concerned that his own failings and failures will cause harm to another, especially to those whom he most loves. Filial fear, then, is not self-oriented like servile fear, but instead it arises from is is compatible with love. Indeed, the more one loves, the more one experiences filial fear, which leads not to paralysis, but to a renewed effort to moral goodness, to live a life worthy of the respect of the object of one's love.
This is why, on the one hand, the people of Israel needed to cease their fear, i.e. servile fear of destruction at the hand of God, and instead be filled with dread, in this case filial fear, which would lead them not to want to offend God by their sins. Jesus likewise critiques the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel not for their wanting to uphold the Law, nor even precisely for their living out the Law in light of human customs which they have girt about it. Rather, what concerns Jesus is that these customs have deadened them to a holy sense of dread of offending God through a failure to live righteously, as seen in their ways of avoiding the command to honor father and mother. Instead, Jesus sees in these customs a kind of servile fear, an anxiety about violating taboo, and not the wholesome fear that comes from a deeper love of God and of those whom God loves.
Jesus Christ, then, came both to remove our fear and to fill us with fear. Do we, in the times we have stumbled from our Lenten resolutions, find ourselves overcome with anxiety about how God treat us at the judgment, or have we embraced rather a better fear, the fear that our stumbling has revealed in us a tepid affection for our merciful Savior? If the latter, can we rekindle that fear not be trying to be more afraid, but rather by seeking all the more to love?