When fear masks itself as piety

Hiding behind fear

It is easy to mistake piety for the genuine response that God wants of us, that is, to enter into a relationship of intimacy with Him and then try to help others have that same experience, writes Ron Rolheiser.

We see this everywhere in Scripture. For example, in Luke’s Gospel, after witnessing a miraculous catch of fish, Peter responds by falling at Jesus’ knees and saying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” At first glance, that would seem the appropriate response, a wonderfully pious one, an acknowledgement of his littleness and unworthiness in the face of God’s abundance and goodness. But, as John Shea points out in his commentary on this text, Jesus names Peter’s response differently and invites him to something else.

What?  Peter’s response manifests a sincere piety, but it is, in Shea’s words, “fearfully wrong”: "The awareness of God makes him [Peter] tremble and crushes him down. If he clings to the knees of Jesus, he must be on his own knees. Peter does not embrace the fullness; he wants to go away. This is hardly the response Jesus wants. So he instructs Peter not to be afraid. Instead, he is to use what he experienced to bring others to the same experience. As Jesus has caught him, he is to catch others.” Jesus is inviting Peter to move out of fear and into deeper waters of intimacy and God’s abundance.

We see a similar thing in the First Book of Samuel (21, 1-6). King David arrives at the temple one morning, hungry, without food. He asks the priest for five loaves of bread. The priest replies that he hasn’t any ordinary bread, only consecrated bread that can be eaten only after the appropriate fasting and rituals. David, nonetheless, knowing that, as God’s king on earth he is expected to act resourcefully rather than fearfully, asks for the loaves and he eats the bread that, in other circumstances, he would have been forbidden to eat.

What makes this story important is the Jesus, when confronted by the fear and piety of the Scribes and Pharisees, highlights it and tells us that David’s response was the right one. He tells those who were scandalised by his disciples’ lack of fear that David’s response was the right one because David recognised that, in our response to God, intimacy and a certain boldness in acting resourcefully, are meant to trump fear.

“The Sabbath,” Jesus asserts, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  That axiom might be rendered this way: God is not a law to be blindly obeyed. Rather God is a loving, creative presence that invites us into intimacy and then gives us energy to be more-creative in the light of that relationship.


Fear masking itself as piety

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