Harmonizing Love and Fear

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

If we were to go back to the Garden of Eden, to our first parents, Adam and Eve, we would discover that they existed in state of perfect harmony: harmony with God, harmony with each other, and harmony with the rest of creation. They also had a state of perfect harmony within themselves. All of this was disrupted, however, when they fell from grace. They fell out of harmony with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. The perfect harmony they experienced within themselves was also disrupted. This fallen state was then passed on to their offspring and we experience this lack of harmony even to this day.

One of most common experiences of this today is the lack of harmony that often exists internally between our mind, our will, and our emotions. We might intend to do one thing, for example, but we might choose to do another. That’s a disconnect between our mind and our will. And while there’s many other ways this lack of harmony can manifest itself, there’s one way in particular that’s relevant to our readings this weekend. And that’s the lack of harmony between love, which is an act of the will, and fear, which, of course, is an emotion.

Now we don’t always think about love as an act of our will, as a decision or choice we make; we often think of it as an emotion. And love can be emotion. But anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that love is ultimately a choice, one which we can choose to make even when the emotion of love has faded.

Fear, on the other hand, is an emotion we experience when what we love is threatened in some way. And the greater our love for someone or something, the greater our fear we will be when that person or thing is threatened.

It then follows that if our love goes wrong, our fear will go wrong as well. If we love something more than we should, then we will be more afraid than we should of it being harmed or lost in some way. And if we love something less than we should, then we will be less afraid than we should be. Fear, after all, is not always a bad thing. I’m sorry FDR, but the only thing to fear is not fear itself. A lack of fear can lead to reckless behavior, where we put ourselves or others in undue risk.

There’s meant to be a certain order to our love. We are meant to love certain things more than others. And when that order gets out of whack, our fear gets out of whack as well. As Christians, we are called to love God first, our neighbor second, and all other things, including our possessions, third. Sin always involves messing up this order in some way.

In our gospel today, Jesus warns us against the sin of greed. Behind the sin of greed is a love that has gone wrong—in this case, a love of possessions. There’s nothing wrong with having some amount of love for our possessions. It’s when we love them too much, when we love them more than God and our neighbor, that we go wrong. And when our love for possessions goes wrong, so also do our feelings about them. We feel sadder than we should when we lose them, and more afraid than we should when they are threatened. And this fear can lead us to accumulate more possessions than we really need or to be too stingy and ungenerous with the possessions we already have. 

This is what happened with the rich fool in our gospel. He already had multiple barns. And his harvest was so bountiful, that he could have filled all of them to the brim. But because of his greed, because he loved his possessions more than God and more than his neighbor, he was more afraid of missing out on a life of pleasure than he was of losing his soul. Because of his disordered love, his feelings did not correspond to the truth of the situation. His disordered love led to a disordered fear which blinded him to the truth of reality. His fear of missing out on a life of pleasure blinded him to the truth that, instead of tearing down his barns and building new ones, he could have opened them up to the poor and needy. It also blinded him to the truth that he was not going to live forever and that one day, and in fact that same very day, he would have to give an account of his life before God. Instead of thinking of what is above, as St. Paul tells us to do in our second reading, the rich fool thought only about what is on earth.

Pope Francis refers to this way of thinking as “the culture of the ephemeral.” What is ephemeral is what is fleeting and transitory. It doesn’t last. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. And that is the nature of our possessions. They don’t last; they’re ephemeral. And yet we place such an emphasis on them, and we often love them more than God and more than our neighbor. And this disordered love leads to disordered emotions. 

The greatest tragedy in life is not to become a saint—not to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the thing to fear above all else, and thing which, above all else, should cause us the greatest sadness: not to become a saint. If our love is rightly ordered, then our fear will be rightly ordered. We will be more afraid that our neighbor might starve because of shortages and higher prices, than that certain luxuries are no longer available or affordable to us. And we will be more afraid that our neighbor might lose his soul, than that he will lose his salary. Of course, we can be concerned about both, but the point is, one should concern us more than the other.

Fear is not a bad thing in itself. But it can become disordered if our love is disordered. If we try to love God first, our neighbor second, and anything else, including our possessions, third, then our love and fear will be rightly ordered; they will be in harmony with each other. My challenge to all of us this week is to ask ourselves if there is any possession in our lives that we put before God or our neighbor. And if there is such a possession, my further challenge is to do something about it. Perhaps God is inviting us to give something away, or at least to put something in its proper place. “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Greed is not the exclusive property of the rich. It’s not a sin only they commit. Any one of us, whether rich or poor, can have a disordered love of possessions. Let’s not assume that we are exempt from this. But let’s take Jesus’ words to heart and seek to live by them more closely this week. Amen.