Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Murderer Has Green Eyes

Mark 15:1-15 / Philippians 2:5-11
Palm Sunday
March 28, 2010
William G. Carter

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate ... he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.

Here is a story of envy gone bad. We have looked at the Seven Deadly Sins during the weeks of Lent. We have learned again how sinister the sins can be, particularly as they consume all life-giving energy. Pride, anger, greed, lust, gluttony, and sloth are black holes of the soul. They feed upon themselves, suck in all the light, and have the dark power to pull in others with us. Today the sin of envy finds itself on the lips of Jesus’ enemies.

The Gospel of Mark tells us how Holy Week ended for Jesus. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and quickly found himself in trouble. Authorities questioned him. Enemies hunted for him. Friends abandoned him. Judas sold him out. Now he stands before Pontius Pilate, and condemnation is certain.

Pilate is no psychiatrist, but he can sniff what’s going on. Those religious leaders seemed so pious, so smug, so sure of themselves. They dragged this thin man in front of him, and stood nearby as he began to interrogate him. They screamed, they murmured, they made their accusations – and the thin man just stood there, silent. Didn’t say a thing. They cursed him, spat at him. He never said a mumblin’ word. Pilate scratched the back of his head – what in the world had he ever done to set them off?

Pilate had no stake in this, so he could see it for what it was – they were jealous of him. They wanted something that he had. They condemned him out of envy.

Seems so trivial, I suppose. Envy doesn’t seem like a substantial motive. It begins by looking over the fence. The neighbor has a beautiful house. The neighbor has capable kids. The neighbor climbed the success ladder faster and higher. The neighbor gets more attention than you. The neighbor has more raw talent. The neighbor has more influence. The neighbor makes more money.

Each appraisal might be based in fact: the house may be bigger, the neighbor gets more recognition. We constantly measure our lives to those around us. It seems to be how we are wired. Pretty soon we notice there is inequity built into the system. We are not the same as our neighbors. Some have better breaks, others are worse off. Life would be a lot simpler if we stopped there. But we can’t.

We make comparisons. We question differences. We harbor grudges. We feed our hurts. What begins as a simple observation becomes a petty grievance. The petty grievance ferments into sour grapes. Jealousy takes root like a weed.

It happens every day. Two people work in adjoining cubicles. They arrive each day at the same time, do the same work, receive the same pay, and take the same opportunities. When the promotion is announced, one of them moves ahead. Why? Is she a better worker? Does she get more done? Does the boss play favorites? Does the company want to promote her gender? The answer to any of those questions might be “yes” - - or “no.” Dwell too long over that situation, and envy takes root.

It happens to classmates, to team mates, to house mates – and to that most competitive of populations, high school women. “He sent me a note on Facebook” – Why would he send you a note on Facebook? – “Because I am prettier” - What, does he need an optometrist? You don’t often hear such things among high school men, mostly because if they were anything like me, they were pretty clueless. But eventually the envy comes.

We compare, we contrast, we measure, we judge. By midlife, other people are passing you by. You go to the high school reunion, and people are bragging about their jobs, telling stories about their achievements, showing off their new and improved spouses. “This is Husband 3.0,” one woman announced. Most of the time, this is a parlor game, a playful little sport. And then it grows and begins to take over.

Envy can begin as a little game. For that reason, it’s often called “the Green Eyed Monster.” That term comes from a line in Shakespeare’s play “Othello.” Iago describes envy as if it is a green-eyed cat that plays with its food before devouring it. Iago says:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on

Comparisons are made. Relationships are cracked. Resentments fall into the cracks and grow like weeds. Pretty soon, they take over – and solid concrete can crumble.

Remember that woman in Texas whose daughter got cut from the cheerleading try-outs? Her daughter was 13 years old, and another 13 year old girl made the squad while her own daughter did not. It started working on her. She tried to hire a hitman to kill the other girl’s mother, because that would upset the girl enough to drop out of the competition. The hitman was so horrified by her proposal that he turned her in to the cops. “People like that ought to be locked up,” he declared. And so she was. The story was later turned into two TV-movies and a true-crime book.

That sounds like an extreme case, but maybe not. If a major politician is charged with taking bribes, do you think he’s going to go down by himself? Chances are pretty good that he will do unto others as they have done unto him. When the dust settles, everybody within reach will be damaged. That’s what unchecked envy can do.

There’s a delicious German word for this: “Schadenfreude.” It does not translate evenly into English, but the general sense is to take pleasure in somebody else’s misfortune. To delight in somebody else’s pain. It’s Homer Simpson, jumping for joy when his next door neighbor’s business fails. It’s the hometown football crowd, cheering when the star quarterback of the opposing team breaks his leg. It’s the salutatorian offering a quiet prayer of thanks when the valedictorian gets a B-. If such envy consumes you, you may think it is ascendancy, but it spells equal destruction for you. As Annie Lamott describes it in one of her books, “It’s like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” (Traveling Mercies)

In a recent essay, Joseph Epstein put it this way:

Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Sloth may not seem much fun, nor anger either, but giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights. In recompense, envy may be the subtlest - perhaps I should say the most insidious - of the seven deadly sins. Surely it is the one that people are least likely to want to own up to, for to do so is to admit that one is probably ungenerous, mean, small-hearted. It may also be the most endemic . . . At one time or another, we have all felt flashes of envy, even if in varying intensities, from its minor pricks to its deep, soul-destroying, lacerating stabs. So widespread is it--a word for envy, I have read, exists in all known languages--that one is ready to believe it is the sin for which the best argument can be made that it is part of human nature. (Envy, Oxford University Press).

When envy crouches behind the door, it is poised to pounce and kill. The only known antidote is encouragement. Just as gratitude cancels greed, encouragement trumps envy every time. It is impossible to be jealous of the neighbor that we are wishing well. But should our best wishes be compromised, should we daydream of another person’s failure, our own feet begin to slip. When that happens, the generous mind of Christ – that self-giving love of Jesus which is promised and so available in his Spirit – is overpowered by good old-fashioned selfishness. Envy will consume us every time, unless we sacrifice our dark wishes to the will of Christ – and work for our neighbors’ benefit.

It is telling that, of all people, Pontius Pilate would look at the enemies of Jesus and detect their collective envy. He himself had been passed over for a number of promotions. Now he found himself in a dusty old city. He looked at those cranky priests with their obscure religion. They despised him as a Roman, yet now they wanted to use him. They refused to step through the doorposts of his chamber, as if he, the Emperor’s ruler, was filthy. Yet it was they who demanded the Galilean’s blood.

Pilate considered the prisoner before him. He was innocent – anybody could see that! His countenance was regal, quietly defiant, and that seemed to push their buttons all the more. The room was abuzz with whispers about him. Wherever Jesus had gone, he had crowds, success, fame, and attention. “They are jealous of him,” Pilate said to himself, his thin lips curling into a smile. Such an all-too-human trait for holy men, he thought.

In the end, Pilate gave them what they wanted. Give them what they want, and let them go back to their irrelevant faith. It was one less situation to settle before the weekend. Pilate was pretty sure he would never see this Jesus again. Pretty sure . . .

He squinted in the morning sun. You could see the color of his eyes. They were green.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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