“4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” This is how the 4th verse of the reading for this morning begins, with a description of one of the basest and tragically most natural of emotions, jealousy. A man named Israel, had a checkered past but managed to live out a rather large life with four women who bore him 12 sons.
The Hebrew word for “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God” or “May God join in the struggle!” The name “Israel” was given to Jacob, after he wrestled with someone who turned out to be God. Later, the land called Israel's twelve tribes were named for his sons and two of his grandsons, taking many years before those who belonged to the separate tribes became known as “the people of Israel.”(American Bible Society Resources “Israel” Philadelphia 2017)
This is the third Sunday in a row we have studied the family of Israel and it hasn’t been a picture of familial bliss, has it? These are not the nicest people in the world and the raw emotions of the brothers of Joseph, one of the sons who was highly favored by his father, is no exception. It’s a lesson on why parents claiming a favorite child is never a good idea.
Who among us has not at some time felt jealous or green-eyed? I bet there is no one in this room who can deny having had that experience at least once? It is terrible maybe, but normal. If we accept that as a given, then we can take a look at where the source of envy is to get some perspective on it and perhaps a jot of control over it. In Joseph’s case, he was sadly set up by his father to spy on his brothers. What better way to run a business than installing a trusted mole on the inside of your operation? Joseph may have been oblivious to any sinister motive, simply doing what his father asked of him. Nevertheless, as he approached his envious brothers, he was unaware they were planning to kill him.
Only one brother, Reuben, argues against murder and suggests that Joseph be left in (an empty) pit (which had been) dug by shepherds to capture rainwater. The others agree and strip Joseph’s coat off him before tossing him into the pit. Reuben’s intent was to come back and rescue Joseph but before this can happen Joseph is sold to passing traders and taken to Egypt as a slave. (In a divine turnaround of events) Joseph is now (put) in the place where he will become a savior to the people of Israel. (Reflection and Focus Seasons of the Spirit Aug. 13, 2017)
Perhaps Reuben had a weightier conscience than the other brothers, still throwing Joseph into a pit, not good. Maybe Reuben’s envy was a little less severe than that of the other brothers, but not by a lot. Surprisingly another brother Judah, figures out some basic truths. What’s the benefit of taking the life of our own flesh and blood? Why don’t we be smart and just sell him to traders? That way their hands were clean and they make a little money - 20 pieces of silver to be exact. 20 pieces of silver. It doesn’t seem to have affected them a great deal because after they threw him in the pit, the Bible says they all sat down to eat!
These acts illustrate what jealousy does to people. Although it may be a perfectly normal human experience, jealousy and envy destroy people’s sense of equanimity and it is worthless. Our current state of political discourse is rife with the venom of jealousy and envy, leaders on each side encouraging people to adore them and despise the opponent. Some of the recent anti-immigrant, racist sentiment is based on a kind of jealousy to guard what we have from an overblown sense of invasion.(NYT Magazine Sunday August 6, 2017 “Blending In” by Laila Lalami) Yesterday’s demonstration by the KKK, Nazi’s and Alt-Right in Charlottesville, VA seems to be anger fueled by white men who feel they aren’t getting what they deserve. Somehow, it’s felt as if their white population is threatened which is stirring them up into a racist frenzy. You might call this a kind of jealousy. Who is it that is on top, who is the boss? In some ways, I believe all conflict is the product of one faction wanting something the other faction has or wants to have. As we read in the Bible, it’s an old story.
As a child, I had one little sister among 7 siblings, two years younger, who drove me up the wall. I love this sister now, but as kids, ooh, she really pushed all my big sister buttons. She was jealous and envious of my clothes and seniority, which of course as we age, is an asset! This little kid would literally sneak in on her hands and feet to my clothes closet early in the morning while I was still asleep to get my clothes, hide them and then change into them at school. Maddening! I would run into her in the school hallway dressed in MY glorious 60’s attire! She had envy toward me and I was jealous she might look better than me in the clothes. She got rave reviews plus everyone loved her especially my Mother. Two blood relatives caught in the trap of a jealous relationship. She wanted my clothes and I wanted to be her. Ridiculous when you think about it and probably not the only sisters in town who felt that way. In fact, I know we weren’t.
Turning to the Gospel of today, imagine if you will, the level of anxiety and envy the Disciples had about Jesus walking on water. Jesus had been off to meditate and pray. Suddenly, a dangerous storm came upon his Disciples whom he had sent away on a boat. Jesus, being the good guy that he was, does not abandon his people and gave up praying in the mountain to go out onto the water to save them. Not only were the Disciples afraid and unable to help themselves, they must have been astounded by his ability to walk on water. Peter calls on Jesus to prove himself at that very moment by asking Jesus to give him (Peter) the gift of being able to walk on water too! To the Hebrew people, churning water was a symbol of chaos and in that chaos Jesus saved them, at the same time Peter challenged him.
Envy can bring its own chaos, can’t it? What are some of the things you feel jealous toward another about? Do you feel that green eyed monster when you see a friend driving a new BMW? How about when a neighbor moves into a bigger house than yours? Are you a Kardashian fan? Do you wish you had the figure of Heidi Klum or the physique of Hugh Jackman? Do you look at another person’s job and think, wow, if only I had that job, I would never complain about my life. Which is ridiculous because we all complain about our lives – it is learned human nature. I found a new book on meditation called “Why Buddhism is True.” I am not trying to convince you to become Buddhist, though more and more people of faith have taken on dual affiliations and certainly practicing some calming techniques quell a part of one’s envy. You can practice some Buddhist meditation and still be a fine, upstanding Christian.
Around 400 B.C. a wealthy Indian prince named Gotama came to realize that people suffer because the things we cherish inevitably change and rot, and desires are inevitably disappointed. But he also realized that, simply by sitting and breathing, people can begin to disengage from the normal run of desires and disappointments, and come to grasp that the (suffering) self, is an illusion. Set free from the self’s anxieties and appetites and constant, petulant demands, the meditator can see and share the actualities of existence with others. The sitter becomes less selfish and more selfless.” (“What Meditation Can and Cannot Do For Us” Adam Gopnik, New Yorker Magazine Aug. 7&14, 2017 [A review of book “Why Buddhism Is True” by Robert Wright])
I know we do meditations here now and then which may not be your cup of tea, however, meditation and its cousin, “mindfulness” prove that deep breathing exercises and a concentrated focus on a word or phrase for 30 minutes each day can actually change your brain! Quieting feelings of jealousy is right up there. It seems we need more quieting these days and less reacting.
In what ways may we as a church find ourselves envious of other churches or other successful institutions? In what way was the murder of peaceful demonstrator or ramming a car into a crowd in Charlottesville, VA a product of jealousy and hate? God, that’s counterproductive. Let’s open our doors even wider to let others of faith in while maintaining our Christian truths, as Jesus would have us do.