It was a trying week, not merely because of the equinoctial storms that ravaged various areas of the planet, but the political upheavals in Washington, London, Paris, and elsewhere. Struggles for power, land, and wealth seem to be unusually widespread and disturbingly vicious.
Today’s readings from scripture coincidentally focus on jealousy. Jealousy is another way of describing possessiveness.
Jealousy is not the same as envy — which is resentment at another’s good fortune, or delight at their misfortune. Traditionally, envy is reckoned one of the seven deadly sins. But jealousy is worse. It has led to all sorts of disasters, whether on grand international scales or in the personal sphere.
Even God is sometimes spoken of as jealous, as in the famous passage from the Book of Exodus— “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” [Ex. 20: 5 and 34:14].
But God’s jealousy is a very different matter. It is human jealousy that poses the problem. As we see in the story of Moses and the two elders, Eldad and Medad, good might come out of jealousy, but it is more likely to lead to disaster, as in the story of David and Bathsheba, or the adulterous relationship between Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife that led to the execution of John the Baptist. It’s truly the stuff of tragedy, perhaps nowhere more stunningly portrayed than in Shakespeare’s Othello:
I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner of the thing I love
For others’ uses…. (Othello III, 3, 268.)
In today’s Gospel, we see it in the attitude of Jesus’ disciples, who seemed to bicker a lot about who was greater or who got to sit closest to Jesus, or in this case, who had exclusive rights to healing ministries. As usual, Jesus will have none of it. The rest of the reading is largely a list of things Mark added that Jesus opposed. The main point has to do with what might be called disciple rivalry. Eldad and Medad all over again.
But we also see jealousy every day: in gang wars on the streets of Chicago and in the offices of corporations and universities, in spats and fights among children in the nursery, in the psychological warfare between spouses, and ultimately in pitiless immigrant-bashing and ethnic cleansing. Some call it “road rage.” We have just seen it magnified in the battle over a seat on the high bench of the US Supreme Court. One doesn’t have to look too carefully to see the trail of the serpent of jealousy in the partisan politics that have so disfigured American politics for the last twenty years or more. “Only our side is fit to rule…”
Jealousy is the desire to keep things only for oneself or someone’s group, not to share with others, and to resist any perceived threat to complete ownership or control, whether crude oil or a place in a line of traffic. Envy is a very small and pale monster compared to the jealousy which is “cruel as the grave,” as we read in the Song of Songs [8:6.]
Both in literature and in life, jealousy often leads to violence and death, and this is where respect for diversity and especially diverse forms of living enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share is life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that ultimately defines the root of jealousy.
Which brings us back to the Letter of James, who clearly saw that the self-destructive character of jealousy lies in that refusal. Money itself is not the problem, but the love of money is, a misplaced love that leads us to refuse to share our surplus with those in want. And not just wealth: it can be anything. The conflict between Jews and Arabs over control of the Holy Land, the carnage in Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and here in the US as well. Even the NFL, international soccer, and the Olympic Games themselves have been contaminated by jealousy.
This is where respect for life enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share is life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that defines the ultimate root of jealousy.
The only remedy for jealousy, and that’s what today’s readings are really about, is generosity, and particularly in the form of love, justice, and compassion — not just for human beings everywhere, but for all life. In fact, all creation. It is in sharing the gift of life that we truly imitate the generosity of God, who is so jealous for all of us. Only in God, in whom all things are one, can fierce jealousy and absolute generosity be the same. The rest of us have to choose between them. So let us pray for the strength and wisdom to choose mercy, peace, and a generous spirit.
Mid-September brings the autumnal equinox, the end of summer, and usually occurs around the time of Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. For Catholics and many other Christians, the 14th marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, traditionally the beginning of the Great Fast before Easter. Fittingly, today’s first reading is the also that for Palm Sunday, which will be seven months from now. The Gospel also reminds us of the Cross – how Jesus, the man of sorrows, cautioned his followers that they, too, should take up their own cross in order to follow him rightly. That is, to embrace the rejection and likely persecution that inevitably seems to accompany discipleship.
Catholics don’t fast much these days, and Lent is pretty far away from our thoughts as we face the turbulent final throes of a stormy and in many areas, an incendiary season. Much of the world’s attention has lately been fixated on the devastating hurricane, ironically called Florence, that continues to imperil huge swaths of the eastern US seaboard. Other hurricanes are brewing in the Atlantic and are heading west toward the Americas. Less attention has been given to Typhoon Mangkhut, the fiercest storm this year and for many years previously, which killed 36 people in the Philippines and is rampaging across Hong Kong as it heads toward mainland China.
The crosses that hundreds of millions of people must bear today are the manifest effect of global climate change, which is far from being a hoax. But we here in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, are also keenly aware of the apparent upsurge in violence, especially mass shootings, which occur now on a daily basis. [https://www.infoplease.com/us/crime/timeline-worldwide-school-and-mass-shootings] As more and more firearms flood into our cities and towns, this should not be as surprising as it seems to be to many. Natural disasters take many more lives, but there is something particularly ominous about the number of innocent lives, especially those of children, lost to gunfire.
Road rage, bullying, gang warfare, and sectarian animosity account for much of the carnage. So do accidental shootings, the fruit of the growing abundance of firearms in homes. We long for some respite from it all, and not by just turning off the TV news and the Internet newsfeeds.
And so it may seem a little weird to hear Jesus speaking the way he does about rejection and violence as the price we have to be prepared to pay for
discipleship. But Mark’s message about Jesus is clear enough: to be the anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ, meant to be rejected and put to death by government and religious officials. Many ordinary people would reject him as well. From the beginning, Christians applied other words of the prophet Isaiah to him: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” [Isaiah 53:3]
Our faith tells us that God’s will to create goodness out of evil, to bring joy out of sorrow, to bring comfort and hope where there is suffering and despair, must not be deflected by suspicion or cynicism or outright opposition. As Isaiah says in today’s first reading, “I have set my face like flint knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Not in the end. The responsory psalm appointed for today reminds us, more gently that “God keeps the little ones; I was brought low, and the Lord saved me. God freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”
James repeats the same message: faith that does not become evident in good works is simply not real faith. But it is not how the world gauges success that determines how well that faith is realized in practice. It is courageous persistence in the face of opposition and rejection that tests and eventually proves the merit of what Isaiah, James, Jesus, and contemporary witnesses are committed to — especially young people who, like the students I met recently, who organize benefits for those in need or march for an end to gun violence in Chicago. This week I was deeply impressed by TV interviews with several young and not-so-young people who, much like the first responders who sprang into action in New York that sunny and awful day seventeen years ago, have volunteered to travel to the floodplains of the Carolinas or the borderland of the US as well as the Middle East, Greece, Spain, and Italy to help ease the awful suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, many children themselves, fleeing their violence-torn homelands for a better, safer life.
There is an alternative to the cynicism, bitterness, and despair that blights the goodness in the world. The clue is in Jesus’ words to Peter and all of us, just as it lies in the other readings and in the stories of helpers and workers. It has to do with courage. Not sheer stubbornness, much less vindictiveness, but the ability to keep going when opposition and rejection and even outright persecution threaten to destroy our confidence in God’s presence and ever-ready assistance when we try to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn, and create a world where peace and justice are not just words.
The cross we face may seem huge and heavy, but still we need to pick it up every day. But if I am not mistaken, it gets lighter as we go, because we are not carrying it by ourselves. In the end, we will find it carrying us … in the hands of countless followers of the rejected Christ.
When I was a lot younger, the onset of early September didn’t seem so bad, except for the start of school, and even that was a welcome change from the lazy last days of August. Things are different now. In 1985 my father died on the 6th of September. And It was on the first day of September in 1997 that I first learned of the death of Princess Diana. I was attending a conference in England at the time. The news stunned everyone. For a week an entire nation came to a stop. Later that same week, on Sept. 5th, we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died. And then in 2001, came that terrible 11th day, which we are about to commemorate 17 years later. For anyone of a certain age today, the beginning of September can bring a host of sorrowful memories to mind. But it can also remind us that God is never far from us.
Today, our lives are increasingly troubled by urban violence, strange and destructive changes in the climate, grim accounts of atrocities in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar (among too many other places), the never-ending war in Afghanistan, the ongoing saga of Brexit in England, the rise of fascism, and here in the United States, wildfires, flash floods, immigration conflicts, and the ongoing saga of political turmoil in Washington. Perhaps it’s just because bad news comes faster and more furiously. But we can still learn from those events of a less troubled era, and that has a lot to do with today’s readings.
A memorable photo of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana taken several years before their deaths shows them walking hand-in-hand, the young princess being led, it seems, by the ancient nun through the halls and corridors of human illness and suffering. Both will be long remembered for their efforts to alleviate poverty, sickness, and shame, just as the First Responders on 9/11 will always be recalled with honor because of their heroism and compassion. Yet, except for their gender and the Christian faith these two women shared along with their commitment and compassion, they could hardly have been more different. And it is here that our lesson begins.
In many ways, our own times are not so much different from the world Jesus lived in or even the world of 1997 or 2001. Then, too, people were sick, impoverished, suffered from what seemed to be incurable diseases, died in military disasters, and languished under many kinds of oppression. In Mark’s gospel, how Jesus met these people and touched their lives pointed to his identity as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Savior, so beautifully described by the Prophet Isaiah. But, it is worth noting, the gospels also relate how Jesus, too, sought to escape the crowds attracted by his celebrity. At least there were no paparazzi, drones, or Twitter in those days.
In Jesus’ time, to be deaf, dumb, or blind was a personal and social catastrophe, far more than for us today. Not only did it deprive a person of a livelihood other than begging and any role in the ordinary affairs of social life. Religiously, it meant that you were not only disqualified from the priesthood if you were male, but were even excluded from the inner court of the Temple, which was reserved for those without physical defect. It meant you could not hear the word of God, or speak it, which distanced you even further from the worshipping community. Such afflictions were also thought by many to have been somehow deserved, a punishment for sin.
Like lepers, the blind, deaf, and mute found themselves scorned, destitute, and at the mercy of others. Many still do, as Mother Teresa and Princess Diana discovered. They were counted among the rejected, distant from God. Yet as Psalm 146 reminds us today, and Jesus showed us, God does not blight people with disease and injury, but gives sight to the blind, speech to the mute, and hearing to the deaf, whether by some healing touch of a miracle worker or through the wonders of medical arts and sciences. And that’s important.
Jesus also tells us that spiritual blindness, silence, and the refusal to hear are far more disastrous than physical disabilities. It is those who will not listen or see who are really deaf and blind to the wonders of life and unable to give praise. But sometimes it takes a shock to open our eyes and ears and mouths. One way or the other it is the Lord who raises those crushed to the earth, the oppressed, the starving, refugees, orphans and widows. But God does it with human hands. Hands like those of Mother Teresa, Diana Spencer, the First Responders on 9/11, Syria’s White Helmets, and so many heroic saviors since then. Hands like yours and mine.
It is in human ways, sometimes extraordinary ones, but more often common acts of care and compassion that God works among us to end human suffering, to promote justice and peace, to increase love and care for all. This is the lesson we can take away from the commemorations of early September, one given us in the short life of the troubled young aristocrat who was deeply unsure of herself, and the little old woman who knew she was only a pencil in the hand of God, and the brave, fearful firemen and policemen and other First Responders who reentered the Twin Towers to save as many lives as they could and lost their own. And the thousands of White Helmets, Doctors without Borders, Nurses beyond Borders, thousands of other volunteers… and your grandparents and parents. All their lives and deaths remind us how important it is to give voice to our love and compassion while there is still light and time and possibility. And surely this, too, is to hear the word of God, to see God all around us, and to announce the good news to those who desperately need it. May the example and achievements of all such great women and men draw us all ever closer into the healing circle of God’s love.