Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Green Eyed Monster

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

You may have heard the expression, ‘green with envy’ and wondered, ‘Why is jealousy or envy often associated with the colour green?’ Shakespeare may be faulted for this since it is he who came up with that deliciously vivid metaphor of the ‘green-eyed monster’. Perhaps, the colour green is used in this case because it is a colour associated with sickness and also with unripe foods that cause stomach pains. In short, green helps us to appreciate how envy and jealousy sickens us and the community. As the illustration in the margin of one of the earliest copies of Shakespeare’s collected works would indicate, this ‘green-eyed monster,’ is exceedingly dangerous because he’s perched on top of the head of the unsuspecting victim, hidden from his field of vision. Thus, what is more damning than our envy and ambition, is our inability to recognise our own predilection to these vices.
What is this jealousy and ambition? They are really two sides of the same coin. They both arise from a perceived lack in one’s life. There is a belief that one doesn’t have what they should and they either hate someone else for it or they try all they can to try to get it. St Thomas Aquinas says that jealousy is an irrational anger at the success of others. If that is the case, then ambition must be the desire to possess for ourselves what the other has. Jealousy and ambitions have been a part of human relationships for a very long time. Both ambition and jealousy are convenient bedfellows and the consummation of their alliance seems to be fatal – they have spawned death.

Think of the ways that jealousy and ambition have played out in the Bible, and you would see the truth of the above claim. The ambition of our first parents to become like gods, due to their own envy of God’s power and knowledge, drove them to commit the first sin, and with original sin, came death as its main effect. Cain’s ambition to outdo his brother in finding favour with God coupled with his envy that God had preferred Abel’s sacrifice to his, became the catalyst for the first homicide. The first recorded case of human trafficking in the Bible was that of Joseph, who were sold by his brothers to slavers because they were envious of the father’s preferential love for Joseph. Saul’s envy of David led him to attempt on several occasions to take the life of this rising star who seem to have captured the imagination and affection of the people.  And finally, it was ambition and jealousy that got the Son of God killed. Perhaps, this is the true face of jealousy. Our hostility is directed not at others but really at God. In a world which can’t face its own sinfulness, the only solution seems to be to get rid of the source of discomfort, God Himself.

St James sums it all in the second reading of today, “Wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done …” This line is an antithesis of the earlier verse 13. If a person is harbouring bitter envy and selfish ambition that stands in direct contrast to a wisdom from above that displays humility and gentleness. Therefore, if meekness marks a wise man, then bitter envy and selfishness reveal the unwise. This kind of jealousy is a desire to possess what isn’t really ours. It is an envy which is sharp, cutting and destructive with no regard for others. On the other hand, the Greek word for “ambition” used by St James describes the self-serving, self-centred, evil attitude of one whose purpose is a self-seeking pursuit. This is how a wisdom from the world is displayed. Aristotle had used the same word in Greek to describe the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day. In the same manner, St James uses this word to describe those, who for personal advantage, work to promote their own view or interest.

In today’s gospel, the disciples had been arguing over who is the greatest in Jesus’ new kingdom. They did not mean who would be greatest in character or virtue, but were thinking of power and position. They were not alone. The Jewish people hoped for a new status in the milieu to come, raised above other nations, one not based on birth right, but on their special position sealed by a covenant with God. The disciples too sensed that Jesus was about to establish His kingdom and assume His throne. They were looking to become leaders in the new kingdom. They had seen Peter, James and John honoured in special ways. The other disciples were gripped with jealousy, ambition and rivalry.

Here were these disciples on the way to Jerusalem with their Master, on their way to the cross, yet arguing as to who was the greatest among them. Physically, they were with Jesus; they were following him. But spiritually and ideologically the disciples were far from him. Reading their thoughts, Jesus called these disciples to himself and began a lesson of vast importance. He did not chide or rebuke them for their ambition, but guided their ambition in the right direction. The essence of greatness is humble service to others. If any man wishes to be great, he must actively seek to serve. He is not to rule for the sake of holding a position of authority or receiving the honour of men. This is why ministry is never about power, it is about service. If the disciples desires greatness in the Kingdom of God, he will achieve it, not by being first, but by being last, not by being masters, but by being servants of all.

Then Jesus took a child and set him in their midst. To use a child as an example to be imitated was contrary to Jewish culture in the first century. Children had no power, status or rights. To be treated as a child means to recognise one’s own insignificance. Therefore when he called a child to them and told them that their position in the Church should be like that of a little child, he was knocking them down from what they perceived as the top rung to the very bottom of the ladder. Jesus tells his disciples that their ambition should be to be as insignificant as a child of their day.The child provides the important lesson of humble dependence. Those who wish to be great in the new kingdom of God, those who wish to serve must be as vulnerable like the little child.

After years of observing people getting jealous in myriad ways, I understand that our culture is riddled with jealousy and ambition and greed, all of which are by-products of our competitive, consumer driven culture. But it is not society alone which suffers this malaise. Many members of the Church have also fallen victim to its clutches. Some do not even blink an eye when they choose to advance themselves by tearing down others. Rather, than furthering the mission of the Church, they end up furthering their own cause, setting obstacles in the path of others, to the extent of even sabotaging the projects of others. So often we see ministries and communities being transformed into battlegrounds, where collateral damage is never insignificant. The problem is that most people would never admit that they are jealous. Just like the green eyed monster perched on the head of its host and hidden from his vision, most people are blind to their own ambitions and jealousy. We often hide behind the excuse that we want what is best for the community or that the other person poses an objective danger to the mission of the group.

Today, as Jesus brings this lesson home to his disciples, may we too become the wiser for it. The challenge means avoiding self-promotion by noting the failings of others, real or contrived. It means not using others for our own selfish gain. It means always remembering that it is never about us. It is always about Christ, who calls us to serve as He did.

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