[Yesterday evening and this morning, I was waylaid by the unnecessarily complex ordeal of getting my booster shot for the coronavirus – most of it paperwork and confusion at the pharmacy. My students are also nipping at my heels for results of their recent contributions. Having run close to zero time remaining, I am offering up a homily from this Sunday in 2015, which may evoke memories of a distant past (Pope Francis had just spoken, largely on global climate change and immigration, at the United Nations and to a joint session of Congress) but seems oddly current, as well. What is it the French say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’?]
With Pope Francis’ visit still with us, I found it interesting that in some dark corners of the US news world, he is being called a “false prophet” and even the “antichrist” because of his statements on the environment, immigration, and poverty. More disturbing, some of these remarks are coming from prominent Catholics such as the retired judge Andrew Napolitano, now a regular commentator on Fox News, whose political orientation seems to outweigh his sense of religious identity. The same might be said for the three Catholic Supreme Court justices who refused to attend the pope’s address to Congress.
While these fortunately rare instances are more sad than scary, they are not unrelated to today’s scriptural lessons. People can be dangerously fond of branding views they dislike as being sinful or worse, sometimes beyond the pale of common sense. But that’s hardly news.
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.
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 little children in the nursery, in the psychological warfare between spouses, in political factionalism, and ultimately in “ethnic cleansing.” Some call it “road rage.”
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 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 our refusal to share. Pope Francis sees that as well. 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 Arabs and Israelis over control of the Holy Land, the carnage in Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Even the NFL, international soccer, and the Olympic Games themselves are contaminated by jealousy. Professional and amateur sports may have become what William James once called “the moral equivalent of war.” That’s better than shooting each other, but vicious competition, cheating, and lethal rivalry are not what the Olympics or high-school football are supposed to be about.
This is where respect for life enters the picture. The most important gift we have and have to share if life itself. And it is our refusal to share that gift that defines the ultimate root of jealousy. Pope Francis sees that, too.
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.