Sermon preached March 6, 2016
Texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
John Lennon, “Jealous Guy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwfZXxRe9eQ
I shared a bit of this story from my life last week, but here’s the dramatic version. I had a wonderful opportunity in my life to pursue a doctorate, a Ph.D. in religious studies. I was a pastor in Roseau, Minnesota and enjoyed that work, but there was something I still felt I wanted to accomplish educationally. I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I thought that if I successfully finished the program, I would pursue a teaching career in a college or theological seminary. So we moved from Roseau to Dallas, moved ourselves, and my first time ever driving a truck and a stick shift – but that’s another story.
We met a lot of wonderful people in Dallas. I met some great people in my program, one of whom was a student from Nigeria who was also interested in religious ethics. We worked together in some independent study classes. I appreciated him very much. As the time for graduation came, Simeon secured a tenure-track teaching position at Wake Forest University. When no teaching jobs were forthcoming for me, I asked for a pastoral appointment back in Minnesota and became part of a pastoral team for seven, mostly small congregations, on the Iron Range. Wake Forest, Northern Minnesota. When Simeon congratulated me, I was gracious on the outside, but felt a less pleasant feeling within. I was genuinely happy for him, and genuinely envious of him. I was a jealous guy. It probably did not help when I heard from him a few months later and he had spent his first Thanksgiving at Wake Forest with Maya Angelou.
So what does that story and the song that preceded it have to do with this lovely story from Luke – the story of the prodigal son, of the loving father? It is such a tender and joyous story, but let’s dig a little deeper.
We would like to be like the father in the story – loving, forgiving, generous, kind. We would like God to be like the father in that story, and certainly Jesus hints at that kind of connection. We may know what it is like to be like the son who wanders off. Perhaps there have been times in our lives when we have made some bad decision, found ourselves lost in some significant sense. I think of the words to the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. While we would not like to emulate the younger son, we may know his experience in life, and we yearn to find the kind of welcome he found when he returned home.
There is a third important character in the story, the older son, the one who never left home, but stayed and worked faithfully, day after day, for and with his father. No one wants to be like him in any way. We don’t want to recognize ourselves in him, though we sometimes do. This man is a jealous guy, and in an ugly way. His brother returns. There is a grand party, and he is angry and refuses to join the celebration. Even as his father “pleads” with him to join, he remains recalcitrant. Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him! The words are cutting, accusatory toward the father, and distancing from the younger brother.
In many ways, this older son is the crucial character in Jesus’s story, for he is telling it in response to criticisms from the scribes and Pharisees because of who he was eating with. He’s just a jealous guy.
Or maybe the more proper word is that he is an envious guy, but I couldn’t find a song for that! Some suggest that envy is the better term here, feeling bad about good things happening to others, wishing it might be you instead of the other who was receiving the good. I don’t want to quibble about that this morning, and use the terms interchangeably. Whatever you call it, I think the writer and scholar Joseph Epstein has it right when he says, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all” (Envy, 1). Epstein wrote the book on envy for a series on the seven deadly sins for the New York Public Library. He goes on. “Little is good about envy, except shaking it off, which, as any of us who have felt it deeply knows, is not so easily done” (3). The German philosopher Schopenhauer, not known as a really fun kind of a guy, wrote: Because they feel unhappy, men cannot bear the sight of someone they think is happy…. A human being, at the sight of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness. (in Envy, xxi). Is that who we are? Schopenhauer was a pretty unhappy person who may not have been able to enjoy the happiness of others because he felt so little himself, but sometimes we may be a little like him.
Envy or jealousy is a bit like disappointment. I think it is a mirror emotion, but unlike disappointment, what it tends to reveal is kind of ugly. Disappointment reveals that we care, that we dream, that we take risks – good things. That was last week’s sermon. Envy perhaps, at most, hints at some of our aspirations for doing well, but this is only a sideways glance. When we experience jealousy over the good fortune of others, what is often mirrored is our own unhappiness, some of our own shortcomings in our ability to empathize. There is a German word that captures this negative experience rather well, Schadenfreude. It means taking a measure of delight in someone else’s misfortune. It is a kind of jealousy. We envy someone and then are pleased a bit when the “mighty fall.” Studies have been done which indicate that people “would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors” (Envy, 33). Think about that. Think about the role of envy in our culture. Joseph Epstein suggests, insightfully, that “the entire advertising industry… can be viewed as little more than a vast and intricate envy-creating machine” (xxiv).
So when we feel jealous, when we experience envy, we need to ask, “What’s going on in my heart, mind, soul?” We need to seek some healing. Envy is no fun at all. The best we can do is be self-aware and find ways to grow beyond envy. Let me offer two suggestions for jousting with jealousy.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who no one probably considered a barrel of laughs either, did have an insight into envy better than Schopenhauer’s. While he thought it a part of the human experience, he thought it needed to be struggled with, and saw that one of its opposites was gratitude (Envy, xx).
Anne Lamott writes so well about gratitude. Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dove-tails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back…. When we go from rashy and clenched to grateful, we sometimes get to note the experience of grace, in knowing that we could not have gotten ourselves from where we were stuck, in hate or self-righteousness or self-loathing (which are the same thing), to freedom. (Help, Thanks, Wow, 56-57, 61)
The older son could not really see what he had to be grateful for. He was blinded by jealousy. Sometimes jealousy is called “the green-eyed monster.” It prevents us from seeing more truthfully. The older son seemed to have a pretty wonderful father. I can’t imagine him not being generous to this faithful son. This older son lost sight of that. There was a party happening. The older son seemed to be missing that.
A second way to grow beyond envy or jealousy is to remember the serenity prayer and its wisdom. God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Some things cannot be changed, and that includes the past. We cannot change the past. We can understand it more deeply. We can relate to it in the present more healthfully, but we cannot change it. The older son does not understand that. Had his brother squandered his inheritance? Yes. Had he engaged in dissolute living? Yes. You can’t go back and change that, but how do we move forward? One can be angry and bitter, or one can let go of that and try and find some new life. We can’t change the past but we can do something in the present and be wise about it.
Joseph Epstein argues that “the feeling of envy isn’t likely to increase one’s capacity for happiness” (15). He goes on. “Whatever else it is, envy is above all a great waste of mental energy” (97). Theologically speaking, envy, jealousy, block the flow of grace. Envy narrows our vision, and constricts our hearts.
These past four years I have served on a denominational committee with a professor from Wake Forest University, Tom. One time when we were meeting, I asked Tom about Simeon. He is still at Wake Forest. I hope he has had a good time, a good life, and that he has enjoyed his teaching career. I know in the last twenty-two years I have known extraordinary moments of grace. I have come to know wonderful people, and I am looking at many of them this morning. I like my life.
That’s sort of the thing with God, and with God’s grace. With God’s grace there is always some kind of party going on, and all envy or jealousy does is keep you on the outside stewing. And in the end, don’t you want to join the party? Amen.