Love and Envy

Love is the power that builds up even what envy tries to tear down.

Proper 7b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul… But all Israel and Judah loved David.

Today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel is a classic example of the difference between love and envy. Two weeks ago we heard of the prophet Samuel’s warning that having a king is a bad idea; last week we heard of how Saul turned bad, and the spirit of the Lord departed from him, and Samuel set off to find a new king for Israel, the boy David. And today we hear the aftermath of young David’s first military victory — his one on one, mano a mano fight with the Philistine champion Goliath.

Saul can’t help but admire this young man, and David becomes a member of the king’s band of most trusted warriors, and their leader. Saul sends David out to battle again and again, and the young man always returns victorious — so victorious in comparison with Saul that the people come to favor David over Saul — and their cheers and their songs about David’s victories begin to ring discordantly in Saul’s ears. Even the music of the harp that David provides to soothe Saul’s vexed spirit becomes an annoyance — even David’s presence arouses Saul to thoughts and acts of mayhem, tossing a spear at David as he plays.

Here we have the very picture of green-eyed envy at its worst, at its most bitter and soul-destroying. Pride, as sins go, is often classed as the worst, but isn’t envy just a form of wounded pride? Saul has God’s favor for a time, and is proud of it. But as it drains away from him and rests on David, isn’t Saul’s resentment and anger just another form of pride? He is angry that someone else is able to do that of which he is no longer capable — and to do it better and more successfully than ever he did. And he just can’t stand it!

So much for envy! what about love? We see great love in Saul’s family too — in his son Jonathan, who, as soon as he sets eyes on David, feels his heart melt as if — as Scripture puts it — his own soul is bound to the soul of David, and he loves him as his own soul. That is powerful language, so powerful that some are embarrassed by it. It reads this way in the Hebrew Scripture, but when the Greeks got around to translating the Hebrew Scripture into their language, they seem to have been so put off by this passage that they left it out of their version of the Bible entirely.

And the urge to omit this story doesn’t stop with the Greeks. Those who prepared the Scripture reading cycle for the whole church chose to offer this passage, what we heard this morning, only as an option — so there will be many congregations who will never encounter it on a Sunday. Yet there it stands, the beginning of what some have called the greatest love story in the whole Bible.

And envy comes into this, too — for Saul knows full well that his son has taken a liking to David — to put it mildly. In succeeding chapters of First Samuel Saul will curse Jonathan on account of David, and even try to kill his own son. For it seems that Saul and Jonathan, father and son, have become rivals (at least in Saul’s mind) for David’s love and loyalty. Talk about a tragic turn to Fathers’ Day!

Of course, it starts even before David kills Goliath — though we didn’t hear that part of the account today, it tells a bit about what bothers Saul. When David first volunteers to take down Goliath, Saul tries to dress him up in his own armor, and gives him his sword. But they don’t fit — as you recall, Saul is a big fella, a mighty warrior. But David is still a boy, probably no more than fifteen or sixteen. So he rejects Saul’s armor — which doesn’t fit him — and that unwieldy sword, as I’m sure you recall. So what does he do? He uses his trusty sling and a smooth stone from the riverbed to bring down the proud giant Goliath. Then, after David’s victory, as we heard today, Jonathan, Saul’s son — also a young man about David’s age and size — is so taken with David that he strips off his robe his armor, and gives them to David, along with his sword, his bow, and his belt. Imagine how Saul felt at that moment: this David has rejected me, and chosen my son instead — and my son chooses him, and rejects me! And green-eyed envy is stirred up and Saul begins to give in to the Dark Side, even against his own son. And you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I say I can’t help but see an overtone of another father-son conflict involving turning from good to evil: the relationship of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader!

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Such is the dark side of the force of envy: it cannot bear to see others have what one lacks oneself. But while envy is a powerful force — that Dark Side of the Force — it cannot do what love can do. For even in the midst of this envious struggle, love is there, conquering all, as the Roman poet said.

Think for a moment, about how much of the world is driven by these two engines, love and envy. Think how much they resemble so many of the other pairs of joys and pains, of what builds up and what tries to tear down; and how the building-up always seems to triumph in the end. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about some of these conflicting forces, and how love always manages to triumph in the end. Envy may raise obstacles, but love will knock them down, or pass right through them: for all the dark forces of affliction, hardship, calamity, beating, imprisonment, riot, labor, sleepless nights and hunger — all of these are overcome by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth, and the power of God. All of this is better armor than a mere sword, bow and belt. These are the triumphant weapons of righteousness for a two-fisted fighter inspired with the love of God. All it takes is opening the doors of the heart — turning away from the dark side of envy and embracing true affection and love.

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For with God, and through the love of God, even the seemingly impossible is possible. With God, as the Apostle testifies, the one treated as an imposter is the one who tells the truth; the one undocumented and unknown is the chief witness; the one threatened with death and even dying is revealed to be alive and well; the one who seems to be in sorrow is lifted up with joy; the one who seems to have nothing is able to provide everything. And, as the Gospel reminds us, the one asleep in the stern of the boat is able to quell the storm and quiet even the winds and the sea.

And all of this is from the power of love, not envy — from the force that builds up and restores. Love opens doors and breaches the barricades that envy builds around a bitter heart. We will hear more of Saul and Jonathan and David in next weeks’ Scriptures — the story ends sadly for all three of them, and David laments the loss — and yet he continues to become a great king; not perfect, by any means — and we’ll hear about that as well — but one devoted to God even when he fails in how he treats others, even when he himself gives in to the envious desire to have what another possesses; even when he stoops to a criminal act worthy of punishment.

But for now, we have the image of young David — this teenager fresh from victory over Goliath, clothed in the garments of another young soldier — one who loves him as he loves his own soul — envied by Saul yet adored by the people. We have the image of the Apostle, shaming the haughtiness and closed hearts of the Corinthians by his own humility and the open-handed offer of forgiveness and love. And we have the image of our Lord himself, one who will also suffer attacks by the envious, but who will triumph in the end, as surely he triumphs over sea and wind, calming the storm and strife — not with a shout — but with a gentle word of peace.

And I will add one more sign of love’s victory over envy that we saw enacted this week, when another young man stood in blank confusion before the families of those he had so heartlessly slaughtered, and those daughters and sons, and sisters and brothers, and mothers and fathers, did not heap curses on his head, as he may have expected and deserved, but poured out a tsunami of forgiveness — a force and a power I can only hope may rend his heart in shame and bring him to repentance.

For the power of envy may stir up, but the power of love will conquer all. Even that dark force of envy itself and all the other evils that beset us, will, in the end, be calmed and quieted, and all our fears relieved; when we too place our trust in the love of God. Even if we do not see him, even if we fear he is asleep in the stern, he is the one who keeps us safe in the storm and the strife through the night; and it is to him, as is most justly due, that we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.

Humble Pie

SJF • Proper 17c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host...+

In his comic novel, Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope paints a portrait of Victorian manners and morals. Everything in the various plot-lines comes to a head at a great indoor-outdoor garden party thrown by Miss Thorne — the elderly maiden sister of the master of the manor on the outskirts of Barchester. She has invited all sorts and conditions of people to this great event — the tenant farmers who work on her brother’s estate, the Bishop of Barchester (and his indomitable wife!) most of the clergy from the cathedral, and of course the new parish priest. She has also not spared to invite the local nobility, including, as Trollope notes, the assorted regional baronets and their baronettes.

Now of course this creates some difficulties, as Miss Thorne is well aware. She can’t possibly have all of these guests — gentry, nobility, and commoners — dining together at the same table, or even in the same space. This is the Victorian Age! And so she sets up two large tents — one for the gentry on the spacious lawn just facing the manor-house; and one for the farmers, on the paddock on the other side of a ditch normally intended to keep cattle from straying — which she hopes will keep the farmers and their families from straying too! And finally in her own drawing-room she plans to host the cream of the crop: the Bishop and senior clergy, and the local lord and lady.

She has not, however, properly reckoned with the ambitions of one of the farmers’ wives, Mrs. Lookaloft. She is one who has always presumed to be higher than her station — and in spite of the halfhearted efforts of Miss Thorne’s servants to prevent it, not only does she stray from the paddock to the lawn, but forces her way into the inner sanctum of the drawing-room with her two daughters — her husband, knowing his wife, wisely having chosen to be indisposed and unable to attend the whole event!

Now, unlike the passage in our Gospel today — no goes to her and tells her and her daughters that they are in the wrong room. That’s another aspect of the Victorian Age: there are very strict rules, and you are expected to know them: people are supposed to know these things, and if they have to be told, well, as Dame Edith Evans once said, “That just won’t do.” And so Mrs. Lookaloft blithely ignores all of the cold shoulders and gets to hobnob and rub elbows with “the quality” — happy for the elbows and oblivious to the chilly shoulders!

Meanwhile another tenant farmer’s wife, Mrs. Greenacre, is simply furious. She is out on the paddock where she belongs, but is furious that Mrs. Lookaloft is not there too. She is not so much angry that Mrs. Lookaloft has risen, but rather that she herself has remained low. And her envy seethes and boils. She is somewhat consoled when she hears, via a servant, that the Lookalofts pushed their way in and were not in fact invited, but she wants more. As Trollope says, referring to today’s Gospel passage, “Mrs. Greenacre felt that justice to herself demanded that Mrs. Lookaloft should not only not be encouraged, but that she should also be absolutely punished. What after all had been done at that scriptural banquet? ... Why had not Miss Thorne boldly gone to the intruder and said, ‘Friend, thou hast come up hither to high places not fitted to thee. Go down lower, and thou wilt find thy mates.’”

In short, Mrs. Greenacre wants to see the Lookalofts cut down, literally to be put in their place, and made to eat humble pie.

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Why is it that it is so much easier to see when other people are acting pridefully? In fact, why is it that one of the surest marks of one’s own pride lies in thinking that others are too proud. As with most faults, why is it easier to see other people’s failings rather than our own — to be oblivious to the fact that it is we who have tried to rise up too high, and that our disdain for others who are also rising comes from the fact that they may have risen higher or faster than we? Pride is an insidious sin, and however foolish we may think it makes others appear, we are often blind to our own foolishness, our own failings, on that score.

So what do we do about it? Jesus, of course, gives us the best advice — however high you think you may be, take the lowest place. Then, if in fact you rate as high as you think you should, the host will come and place you higher — and if not, perhaps you will learn something about yourself — that you overestimated, and are where you belong; that you’ve acted rightly and you are not so important after all. As I’ve said before, there is all the difference in the world between humility and humiliation: humility is something we can choose for ourselves, but humiliation is something that will happen to us if we choose to exalt ourselves higher than we deserve. It is better to eat a humble meal than have to eat humble pie!

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Let me close with another tale, an older one than Trollope’s account of the doings in Barchester. There was once, you see, a great monastery on the lands of a certain Prince. He had heard that the Abbot of that monastery was a good and wise and holy man, and decided to pay a visit. While he was there, a servant from the town who worked in the abbey, and who secretly despised the monks and the Abbot, whispered to the Prince that while the monks ate simple meals at their common table, in small portions, the Abbot secretly feasted every night in his own cell. And the Prince was troubled at this information and decided to find out for himself. Instead of retiring after the evening prayer he stationed himself near the Abbot’s cell. And sure enough, later that night, a light was struck in the Abbot’s cell and he could be seen through the window wolfing down food from a huge wooden bowl.

This was more than the Prince could bear, and opening the Abbot’s door he was about to pronounce a heavy accusation, when the Abbot shook his head and said, “Oh, m’lord, I am so embarrassed that you should see this.” The Prince nodded vigorously, and was about to pronounce a heavy judgment, when the Abbot continued, “It’s my monks, you see. They are so wasteful of the food set before them. Here, let me show you.” And he stepped the few paces to the wall of his cell, and slid a small panel aside, and said, “You see, I’ve had the drain from the monastery kitchen routed through here, and I’ve put in a filter here — you see — to recapture all that would otherwise be wasted down the drain. Just look,” pointing at the bowl, “at that perfectly good food going to waste.” And as he gestured at the bowl, the Prince could now see it was filled with fragments of gristle and corn and rice and half chewed bits of vegetables; and the Abbot said, “Would you like some?” Whereupon the Prince fell to his knees, and said, “No, Father, I simply wish to receive a blessing from a truly holy, humble man.”

To be humble and holy — that is what God calls us to. Let us not judge the success of others, or their rising to heights beyond which we think they ought to scale; above all let us not judge others — as the Prince was ready to judge the Abbot — but rather let us always seek for ourselves the place of the humble, the place that our Lord himself took when he came among us, choosing, as our opening hymn said, “an humble birth.” He will indeed call us up higher some day, higher than we can either deserve or imagine.+

Front Row Seats

SJF • Proper 24b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”+Last Sunday and next Sunday we heard and will hear Gospel passages in which people ask Jesus various things. Last week it was the rich young man asking what he had to do to gain eternal life. Next week it will be blind Bartimaeus asking for mercy. This week we hear Mark’s account about two of the earliest disciples, the fisherman brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking for front row seats — the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory.

This Gospel has particular relevance for us because James is our patron saint, for whom Saint James Church is named. As you may know, the only stained-glass window of Saint James in the church is now walled up behind the altar — and we can only guess it is because when the altar was moved against the end of the church and raised on three steps, it cut the figure of Saint James off at the waist and people thought it looked a little odd.

Our patron saint is not completely without representation in the church, however. In the row of icons at the altar (which I reproduced in today’s bulletin) he is there at the far left, and his brother John is at the far right. So, in a way, at Saint James church at least, James and his brother John do have the honor of being to the left and right of Jesus.

But it is important to note that in most churches with icons, those places are taken by Peter and Paul, and in all churches with such an arrangement of icons, the most honorable seats in this portrayal of the heavenly banquet belong to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. In other words, the church has long understood Jesus’s response to James and John as indicating that those seats of honor were reserved for someone else — for the one whom every age would call Blessèd, and the one who was “the Forerunner” and first proclaimer of the Lamb of God.

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Now, I don’t know about you, but I can well understand the other disciples getting annoyed with James and John when they rushed to the head of the class. We’ve probably all known people who put themselves forward, in the process of putting everyone else down. People might call them the “teacher’s pet” or a “crawler.” There is something offputting about this kind of ambition — an instinctive sense that it is inappropriate to push forward and try to take the front row seats, the best seats, the seats of honor.

Indeed, Jesus elsewhere advises against this sort of behavior: telling people to take the lowest seats at the banquet so that they might be honored in being asked to come up higher, rather than taking a high seat and being embarrassed to be asked to move down lower. Apparently James and John did not think this applied to them — they were, after all, part of the inner circle, along with Peter, who had been invited to go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and later those three would accompany him to the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe the trip to the mountaintop went to their heads!

Whatever the reason, whether pride or self-satisfaction or because of earlier signs of favor, James and John clearly overstep in their request for prime seating, and Jesus gently corrects them, and the other disciples as well, when they get bent out of shape in this unsavory contest of “who does Jesus like best.” Jesus doesn’t settle the issue and say anything about who will be seated where — and as with the seats at the banquet advises taking the position of a servant — of one who serves.

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As with all Gospel passages, however, there is more to this account. Notice what Jesus does predict concerning James and John. They will drink the cup that he will drink, and undergo the baptism with which he is baptized. And this is where our row of icons comes in again: for although the images of the saints and angels are ranged at the altar where we celebrate the earthly foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, they are also ranged at the foot of the cross.

This is the cup that Christ would drink, the baptism with which he would be baptized: a cup he would earnestly entreat his father in Gethsemane to pass him by — while James, John and Peter were sleeping. But in union with his father’s will he accepted it, accepted death on the cross for our salvation, in union with us his brothers and sisters.

The prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries before of this suffering servant of God — the one upon whom the iniquity of all of us wandering sheep long since gone astray, would be laid. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Or as an old prayer has it, “By his cross and passion we come to the glory of his resurrection.”

Christ knew that this was what lay before him — the bitter cup and the baptism of death. James and John would indeed share in this with him — James would be the first of the apostles to die for his faith. And his brother John, though he lived to old age, would know the bitterness of exile on the island of Patmos.

And all of us who bear the name of Christian, if Christians we are, share with our Lord in his sufferings as we share in solidarity with all human suffering: doing our best to alleviate it as servants of the one in whose image every human being is made. This is the way that Jesus commends to his apostles, and through them to us: not to lord it over others as their masters, but to serve them as Christ served us and gave himself a ransom for many.

The Christian life is not about climbing the greasy pole to success, of clambering to attain a front row seat, to elbow others out of your way to get the places of honor. Rather it is about the ministry of service that stoops to wash the feet of the poor, that gives itself and spends itself for the benefit of others and their well-being.

But the Christian life is also not about envying those who do succeed or gain seats of honor and privilege, especially when that honor comes unexpected and as a surprise even to the one so honored. I think of some of the recent reactions to President Obama’s Nobel laureate. I very much doubt this is something he expected and he appears to have received it with grace; and I can’t help but hear in the voices of some of those who have said he doesn’t deserve it, the envious echoes of those other disciples.

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Neither pride nor envy are attractive human traits. Jesus would have us avoid them both. And the surest way to do that is to do as he said: to serve as he did, even if it means a bitter cup and a painful baptism. Few if any of us will be asked to go as far as the apostles and martyrs; but we can do our bit in patience and humility, in service to the least of our brothers and sisters.

And so, away with pride and envy. Our Lord and God has seats prepared for us, and though we know not where exactly they will be, we know that they will be with him, and that should be enough to satisfy us. What need is there for ambition when we have such promises from the living Word of God himself: that living, active word, sharper than a two edge sword that judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart; before whom nothing is hidden and to whom we must render an account; but one who is also able to sympathize with our weakness, as he has borne our griefs. With this Word of God for us, what can stand against us? As Martin Luther wrote,

That word above all earthly Powers,
no thanks to them abideth;
the spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever.+