Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Fear and Trembling

St. Paul counsels 'fear and trembling' in three places: 2 Corinthians 7:15, Philippians 2:12, and Ephesians 6:5 (this directed by the 'literary Paul' to slaves). Peter, in a similar context, counsels fear in his first letter, 1:17. The pair 'fear and trembling' almost certainly derives from the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 2:11.

I mentioned the context of Peter's use of 'fear' being similar to Paul's contexts. That context is obedience in each case. Fear and trembling is the stance taken by one who wishes to obey God (or his human master). Now, counseling fear of the Lord is almost as popular today as counseling the use of corporal punishment. On the other hand, the admonition to fear God is constant throughout Scripture (Jesus Himself instrusts us to 'fear the one who can destroy body and soul in Gehenna [Mt 10:28];" on the other hand, Jesus more frequently [indeed, 3 verses later] says, Do not fear!). We need to make some account of 'fear of the Lord'.

Let me only mention here that like fear, obedience is a frame of mind not highly cultivated today. Perhaps they go together, as these quotes suggest. All of us need to obey, but the motive needn't be fear--unless we are in the bad habit of disobeying. The monastic tradition give three motives for obedience, the highest being love of God, the motive of a son. The second-best is hope for reward, the motive of the mercenary. For many of us, I imagine, the primary motivator is fear of something bad happening, the motive of the slave. This is where Paul seems to take us to be, at least at first.

It is worth noting that in Psalm 2, the opposite is murmuring and in Philippians, Paul warns against grumbling or arguing. This is the opposite of obedience: complaints against God's judgments on human affairs. Here, I believe is another aspect that speaks to us today. In a culture of victimhood, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. All of us are encouraged to defend our rights (even ones that aren't part of the law yet) and to take what's ours. Is it any wonder that St. Benedict, who begins his Rule with the word "Listen," and who prizes prompt obedience as the beginning of humility (and therefore truth) is death on murmuring?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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