We generally equate false idols with the pleasant things we put before the one true God. Indeed, the word “worship” is generally a synonym for “love,” the experience of which is understood to be inherently pleasant. However, we must also consider that things or people that cause strong negative emotions can also become idols. What we fear the most, what causes us to experience strong anxiety, can also be considered an idol. In today’s readings, we see how God wants to liberate us from becoming slaves to fear. One of the reasons God allows us to suffer in our bodies – even the looming fate of death itself – is so that we progressively discover our true freedom, the freedom of our soul. When we bend and submit to things or people out of fear of suffering or punishment they become an idol and we become their slave. Joseph understood from his time imprisoned in Egypt how God was liberating him from slavery to fear. He understood this so well, that he wanted his brothers to experience the same freedom and not turn their fear into an idol.
Is it better to be feared or to be loved? In either case, let us recognize the temptation to take the place of God in someone else’s life, the temptation to control people by becoming a false idol for them. Joseph recognized that his brothers’ fear was turning to idolatry so he said, “Have no fear. Can I take the place of God?” The people in our lives who control us because we fear them are just as much false idols as the people who control us by indulging us. We idolize someone when we allow them to control us – we think that we must answer ultimately to them rather than God.
Even in the religious life a superior never takes the place of God. We must seek the will of God in all things and not just follow blindly or out of fear.
How does the body die? By the departure of the soul. I say, by the departure of the soul the body dies, and it lies there as a mere carcass, what was a little before a lively, not a contemptible, object. There are in it still its several members, the eyes and ears. But these are merely the windows of the house; its inhabitant is gone. Those who bewail the dead cry in vain at the windows of the house. There is no one there within it to hear.… Why is the body dead? Because the soul, its life, is gone. But at what point is the soul itself dead? When God, its life, has forsaken it.… This then we can know and hold for certain: the body is dead without the soul, and the soul is dead without God. Every one without God has a dead soul. You who bewail the dead rather should bewail sin. Bewail ungodliness. Bewail disbelief.1
In this passage, Jesus demonstrates his foresight in all things. The word without refers not to will but to foreknowledge. Some things happen because of his direct will, but some happen merely with his approval and consent. And so on the literal level, he is showing the subtlety of his foresight and his previous knowledge of events.
On the spiritual level, however, a sparrow falls to the ground when it looks at what is below it and falls to earth, ensnared by the vices of the flesh, given up “to dishonorable passions.” It loses its freedom together with its honor. For a sparrow is either borne always upward, or else it comes to rest by alighting on mountains or hills (the hills are metaphors for Scripture). And such a person is one who has been raised aloft by the Word but has his mind on earthly concerns.2
Therefore, if God both knows all things that happen to us and is able to save us and willing to do so, then whatever we may be suffering, we need not think that God has forsaken us in our suffering. For it is not God’s will to keep us wholly separated from that which elicits dread but rather to persuade us not to make an idol out of whatever we dread. It is this, more than anything else, that constitutes deliverance from dread. “Therefore, don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.” Don’t you see that God views your fear with more concern than the lives of many sparrows? He already knows the secrets of your heart. Hence Jesus adds, “Do not fear.” For even if that which you dread prevails, it prevails only over your body; this is the limited part of yourself, which nature will surely take in due time and bring to an end.3
“But why,” you object, “should I need to confess faith with my mouth if I confess faith in my mind?” No, we must confess with our mouths in order that we may be steadily trained to speak boldly. It is only through this more abundant love and determination that we will be raised on high.
In this way Jesus addresses himself to each one of us personally. He is not here addressing his original disciples only but every one of us who follows after his disciples in accord with their witness to him. One who learns this lesson will teach it in boldness to others, prepared to suffer all things easily and with a ready mind. This is why so many have come to have faith in the witness of the apostles to this Word.4
If it benefits you to believe with the heart without confessing before others, does it also benefit an infidel to confess Christ deceitfully, even though he does not believe in his heart? If it results in no benefit to an unbeliever to confess without faith in the same way, it will not benefit you to believe without confessing.5
“Don’t be apprehensive or anxious,” Jacob says. “I belong to God,” and in imitation of my Lord I strive to reward with kindness those who are maliciously disposed to me—“I belong to God,” after all. Then to show how great is the favor he enjoys from God Joseph says, You acted against me with evil intent, but God turned everything to good for me. Hence Paul also said, “For those who love God all things work together for good.” “All things,” he says. What is meant by “all things”? Opposition and apparent disappointment—even these things are turned into good, which is exactly what happened with this remarkable man. In fact, what was done by his brothers had the particular effect of bringing him the kingship, thanks to the creative God’s wisdom transforming all their wickedness into good.6
The text goes on: “Joseph passed away at one hundred and ten.” Why did it indicate to us his age too? For you to learn how long he had been entrusted with the control of Egypt. He was seventeen when he went down to Egypt, and it was when he reached the age of thirty that he appeared before Pharaoh and interpreted his dreams. Joseph then held complete control of Egypt for eighty years. Do you see how the rewards were greater than the hardships and the recompense manifold? For thirteen years he struggled with temptations, suffering servitude, that illicit accusation, ill treatment in prison. Since he nobly bore everything with thankfulness, accordingly he attained generous rewards even in the present life. Consider, after all, I ask you, that as a result of that short period that he endured servitude and imprisonment Joseph occupied a royal position for eighty years. For proof that it was by faith that he did all this and for the same motive gave directions about the transfer of his bones, listen to Paul’s words: “It was by faith that at the point of death Joseph gave a reminder about the exodus of the sons of Israel.”7
- SERMON 65.5–7. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 206–207). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 212. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 207). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 34.2–3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 208). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 34.3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 209). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 25. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 210). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON GENESIS 67.19. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 351). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON GENESIS 67.22. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 352). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.