Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

- Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith

By Rev. Joseph McSorley, C.S.P.



To defy God, dear brethren, is the greatest possible folly.  To live in sin, as if there were no danger of a sudden call to render an accounting, to postpone repentance, to take a chance and run the risk of dying unforgiven, to attempt to outwit the Lord by adding forbidden pleasure to those that He has granted – in a word, to go boldly on our sinful way, reckless, defiant, unafraid – this is the very acme of human foolishness.  To fear the Lord is the mere beginning of wisdom; it is suggested by the slightest attention to the plain facts of the case.  And so, it is a lesson not hard to learn, that the sinner has good reason to fear the judgments of God.

A keener power of vision is required, if we are to learn the lesson taught in the words of our text and to assimilate the principle elsewhere laid down in the declaration that “perfect love casts out fear.”  In one case, it is the virtue of faith, in the other case the virtue of love, which is pointed out as inconsistent with trembling fearfulness.  Put together, these two texts remind us that faith and hope and charity are inseparable in this life.  One who has faith, hopes and loves: one who loves, hopes and believes” hope is made possible only by faith and love.  These three truths are complementary, one of the other.  Perhaps, of the three, the last to be well understood, to be clearly realized, is the one which the disciples in the storm-beaten boat seemed unaware-that fearfulness is inconsistent with that kind of faith which our Lord inspires and exacts.  There is too little faith, He says, in the timorous, trembling Christian who cowers in the face of danger, just as if there were no God – who shivers at the menace of pain or of death, just as if Jesus Christ had never come into this world.

These are soft days into which we have been born, beloved brethren.  True, the lot of many millions is cruel enough; yet at present even the most unfortunate classes are dealt with in a way to check rather than promote the development of physical or moral bravery.  Men are not killed with battle-axes, nor towns given over to pillage, nor women carried away to be the wives of conquering armies, nowadays, in our world at least.  Our methods are more refined, not so open, less violent and incapable of being anticipated by the prudent or counteracted by the brave.

Of what avail individual prudence and courage against railway accidents, against starvation wages and adulterated food?  What-ever virtues our modern civilization may tend to foster, certainly it is not well adapted to bring out the virtues of the warrior.  Our social climate tends to develop a weak, suspicious, distrustful man.

One might add that there is an undoubted growth of self-consciousness in the contemporary mind.  To whatever cause we trace its origin, the evidence of its presence is not to be set aside.  Men are contemplating themselves in a fashion and to a degree that is far from healthy.  Self-consciousness has always been a foe of spontaneous bravery, of fearless simplicity.

In the spiritual order it would seem as if a similar process was going one.  And we mean to refer to good people, to practical Catholics, when we say: Surely this is an unheroic generation.  We think of the records writ by history, we recall the tales of our grandfathers, we enumerate the relaxations and dispensations forced from the Church’s hand by a sluggish age, and forthwith we are tempted to call ourselves the degenerate heirs of an heroic ancestry.  It is not simply that, as a people, we undertake so little that is noble, but we are reluctant even to be trained and disciplined after the mind of the Church herself.  Mitigations, concessions, excuses, these, rather than daring deeds, and great refusals, betray the interest that dominates mind and will.  To cast ourselves penniless upon the streets, or defenseless into the wilderness, or unprotected amid plague-stricken savages – what sinful and ridiculous madness it seems to our comfortable consciences!  Economics and domestic science and hygiene let their many crumbs of wisdom fall until even the least of us has had a taste of the new learning and acquired a little more foresight, a little more skill, in taking care of self.  But who sees to it, that we do not shrivel up with pettiness, except ourselves in selfish precautions, forget the use of hunger and pain and death, and lost the habit of bravery, the only garment that ever kept blessed charity alive and warm.

Selfishness goes hand in hand with fear.  You will risk nothing in behalf of a neighbor, you who are afraid.  You shrink from the specter you are so constantly contemplating, the specter of poverty, of illness, of shame; you cower if this phantom lifts a finger; you run like the wind to safe quarters if this ghost threatens you with a word.  Why give the starving man a loaf which later you may need yourself?  Why visit the sick to risk contagion?  Why go the prisoner and be infected with shame?  Others are appointed, or have volunteered, to champion the oppressed, to oppose injustice, to welcome the outcast, to uphold the weak - and, for you to undertake these things will bring neither profit, nor honor, but perhaps discomfort, and possible pain.  Fearful?  Yes, fearful indeed you are; as fearful as if there were no God.

Will you tell the truth?  Will you deal honestly with your customer or employer?  Will you speak out in defense of principle or against detraction, or condemn scandal, or rebuke the foul-mouthed, or warn the ignorant, or encourage the stumbling, or direct the searcher after truth?  Oh, no!  You are afraid you might then be involved in something unpleasant.  You had rather be a comfortable coward than a suffering hero – and your choice is granted you.  A comfortable coward you are.

To numb the courage and paralyze the activity of the average man or woman, it suffices to say: “Be not extreme” – that is to say be not extreme in your religion, in your charity, in your honesty, in your telling of truth, in your delicate sense of purity.  And many are the friends to impart this kindly warning.  But people may go far enough in the opposite direction without finding the red-lamp swung, the danger-signal set.  Few are at hand to tell us, “Put up with trials; consider others before yourself.  Give up irreverence; shun nasty things that convention has accepted to its shame,” Who says, “Avoid extremes”: Be unafraid; Shrink not from unpleasant truths; Do not defend the injustice of your patron; Follow not sinful fashions; Be not sheepishly led to book and play, to dress and dance, for want of the courage to elect what is good: Choose pain, illness, poverty, death, rather than disobedience to God in your preparation for matrimony and in your married life?”  Who gives us these counsels?  Although so many are ready with advice, few ever speak to us in the wise.  But Jesus Christ does.  To every soul trembling on the verge of sin, to every man who fears that God’s law may mean suffering, or hard work, or loss of money, or ridicule, or disappointment, or loneliness, or dishonor – to all such men, Christ says: “Why are ye fearful?  O ye of little faith.”

Dear brethren, is it not plain that as surely as God exists, so surely must we fear not the things He approves, but the things He prohibits.  It is as obvious as the simplest demonstration in logic or geometry, and more certain – that with God there is nothing, and without Him everything, to fear.  One cannot possibly escape pain and acquire pleasure more effectually by disobeying than by obeying God.

To the man who shrinks away from the stern command of conscience and deserts to the army of sin, instead of saying “Why so fearful?” we might indeed say “Why so bold?  There never yet was a deserter from this army that was not finally caught and punished.  Why so bold?  Do you no dread keen suffering, the anguish of despair, everlasting death?  Why so bold?  The wisest and the strongest that ever lived could not accomplish what you are going to venture upon – to get the best of God.  Why so bold?  You had better be afraid.  It is the beginning of wisdom to fear the Lord.”

That is what we would say to the sinner, if we were to look far ahead into the dim vista of the eternal years.  But to men now confronted by temptation, threatened by the powers of evil, quivering at the painful consequences of fidelity, we say simply: “Why are ye fearful.  O ye of little faith?  God is there: our Lord is with you; and they that put their trust in Jesus Christ have never been confounded.”