June 21, 2020
Fr. Joseph Jacobi
I still remember the encounter as if it happened yesterday, but it occurred a little over 8 years ago. It was the night of April 20, 2012, and the Mass of Dedication for the new church building at St. Eugene had just finished. The people were greeting me after Mass, all of them so excited to finally have a new church building after so many years of sweat and tears & sacrifice.
But then a little girl came up to me, her eyes glistening with tears. She asked me, “Father Jacobi, do you know about the bird?” I replied, “No. Tell me.” She said, a sob in her voice, “There’s a dead bird in our front yard.”
In the midst of a great celebration, in the midst of so much joy, this little one was concerned about one seemingly small thing—a bird had fallen from the sky and lay lifeless in her front yard.
I think about that little girl as I hear Jesus’ words that not one sparrow falls to the ground without our Heavenly Father’s knowledge. For that little girl gave voice to the concern of God for all of God’s creation, to the way God’s heart breaks over the broken body of a sparrow. For every single living creature, no matter how small, comes from the heart of God and receives its life from the God of all life.
You are worth more than many sparrows, so do not be afraid. Fear not! If God knows when a seemingly worthless sparrow falls to the ground, how much more will God be concerned about your well-being & be with you when you fall.
The context of this teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is the sending of his disciples out on mission: to proclaim the Gospel, to do his work, to be his presence in the world. He warns his disciples of every time and place that they will face hardship, rejection, and persecution But they are not to be afraid, because if they are cut down, the Father of Jesus will not only be aware of their plight but will raise them up to new life.
If a sparrow, which is of no worth in the eyes of the world, is worth so much to God and commands so much of God’s care and concern, then how much more are you worth in God’s eyes. Human beings are of infinite worth in the eyes of God. Not only because God has given us life and made us in God’s image. but also because God’s Son became fully human, became one of us, one with us, and gave his life for us, every human person is of infinite value in the eyes of God. Not one human being falls to the ground without the Father noticing and His heart breaking.
Sparrows are worth hardly anything in the marketplace but are priceless in God’s eyes. In our market economy, where economists even put a price on human life in order to calculate the damage done by deaths caused by the coronavirus, Jesus reminds us of the infinite value of every human life. In world where human beings are trafficked and sold, Jesus proclaims that every human person must be treated with dignity and respect.
To drive home this point Jesus uses another image— that God is so intimately involved in the life of every single person God has created that God has counted the hairs on every human head. Notice Jesus does not say His Father knows how many hairs are on your head or mine. Rather, Jesus states emphatically that His Father has counted the hairs on each of our heads. God can only do this by reaching out to touch us, to caress the hairs on our heads. After all, how is it possible to count the strands of hair on someone’s head without running your fingers through their hair?
The tender care of God is like a mother running her hand through the hairs on the head of her small child, tenderly caressing her loved one. The all-powerful God expresses His power in mercy and compassion, lifting up those who fall.
There are 3 “fear not” statements by Jesus in this instruction from Matthew’s Gospel, and there is one “Be afraid” statement. Be afraid, Jesus says, of the One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. Fear the all-powerful God who is the source of your life and the judge of your life.
The Christian can be defined, not foolishly as the person who never fears, but rather as the person who strives to fear only what he or she ought to fear.
If God is to be feared, it is quite simply because, as the Creator of both body and soul, he has actual jurisdiction over both body and soul. The Greek text refers not so much to the brute power to destroy as to the actual power that is God’s as absolute origin of man and woman’s whole being. It’s like the psalmist sang, “He made us, we belong to him, because he is our God and we are his people.” (Psalm 94: 6f)
How can the God of Jesus Christ, who knows when a single sparrow falls and loves each of us intimately enough to have counted the hairs on our head be the source of fear to the believer? Jesus’ command here to fear God aims at awakening the disciple to the truth that human life and its deepest choices are of lasting importance. To fear God is, in fact, to choose what is of eternal consequence over that which is passing. Or better said, to fear God is to choose that which is temporary within and in the light of the eternal. Such holy fear makes us attend to the welfare of the soul—our soul— as the place where the crucial drama of life is enacted.
So that in every choice we make, we are ask the question— is this choice drawing me closer to God or pushing me away from God? Is this choice, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, empowering me to love God more and love my neighbor or is it diminishing my capacity to love? There are consequences to going against the grain of love, causing shards of self-inflicted suffering. The wisdom that acknowledges this truth is what we can call, “fear of God.”
Yet, when we fail to love God or others, we need remember Jesus’ exact words. He said be afraid of the one who CAN destroy both soul and body. He did not say WILL destroy….
For the God who falls to earth with each dying sparrow and who numbers the hairs on every head, the God who is love and has loved us into life and sustains our life by His love and offers us eternal life through His love enfleshed in His Son, burns with a passionate desire that we respond to His love by loving Him and others.
We should be fearful of wasting our lives unaware of how much we are loved. We should be afraid of turning away from such a Lover who longs for us to receive even more of His love.