Orbiting Dicta

26th Sunday of the Year: The Foul Air of Jealousy

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.

Num. 11:25-29
Ps. 19
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48

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.