2 Thessalonians 3:6-10,16-18; Psalm 128:1-2; Matthew 23:27-32
When I was a child, learning came quickly and easily to me. I was the type of student who excelled without much effort. I expected that to continue when I got to graduate school but it didn’t; I quickly found myself struggling. Although the other students seemed to have no trouble, the nebulous concepts and abstract theories baffled me. I was lost.
All that changed one semester when I took a class from a professor who had turned to teaching after a long career in the business world. He taught concepts and theories too but not as vague abstractions; he applied them to real-life situations that he had actually experienced. Under that kind of teaching I again excelled and this taught me something about myself: I did much better when concepts were modeled for me than when I was left to figure them out on my own.
Perhaps that’s why the first reading resonates with me. It is taken from St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. His first letter years earlier talked at some length about the end times and it may be that over time these people had focused on that and not on the gospel. In any event St. Paul and his companions visited them, as he says, to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us (2 Thessalonians 3:9). In so doing, he must have thought that modeling would serve as a concrete, practical example of how to more fully live out the gospel as Christ intended.
Of course, no matter how well the Thessalonians learned about the Christian life, their imitation of it had to come from a sincere and genuine faith. Otherwise it was merely an act, an outward show, and they were no more than hypocrites, the name Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees in the gospel. In those days the Greek word “hypocrite” referred to actors on stage who hid behind large masks and in exaggerated motions pretended to be who they were not.
Although we have long since lost that particular meaning, we all know that hypocrisy is hardly limited to the ancient world and that the words of Christ indict us as well. In our own ways each of us knows what it means to hide behind a mask, pretend to be who we are not, and speaks from a divided heart. We may have many reasons – the pain of rejection, reluctance to stand out from the crowd, etc. – nevertheless we know deep down that these are rationalizations based on fear.
But like the Thessalonians we have spent too much time on the wrong thing. We should not be focused on servile fear – a fear of punishment – but on holy fear, the fear of the Lord as in today’s psalm. Pope Francis has reminded us that holy fear is “the joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and a grateful realization that only in him do our hearts find true peace.”1
That is the peace prayed for by St. Paul at all times and in every way (2 Thessalonians 3:16) who knew that true peace only comes when we have conquered our servile fear and live in imitation of Christ as the people we were created to be. We can only do this by the Spirit’s gift of holy fear which, again to quote Pope Francis, “allows us to imitate the Lord in humility and obedience, not with a resigned and passive attitude, but with courage and joy.”2
Therefore, let us pray for the virtues that help us overcome hypocrisy: humility, obedience and fortitude, and especially for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s gift of fear of the Lord, that we may taste the wonderful fruits of his handiwork: Love, joy, and peace. As the psalmist has so beautifully sung, Happy shall you be, and favored (Psalm 128:2).