What is a "spiritual stumbling block?" Last week I suggested that spiritual stumbling blocks are those things that most alienate us from a healthy spirituality. Some components of a healthy spirituality are mindfulness, the ability to maintain perspective, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and unconditional love. A healthy spiritual person realizes that struggle is an inevitable part of life, and instead of regarding suffering as some kind of cosmic punishment, they allow it to expand their capacity for compassion. Spirituality does not promise happiness, but rather depth. It is not about feeling good, it is about maintaining a sense of meaning and worth in life, despite life' s brevity and its struggles.
There are so many human foibles that distance us from the wholeness that the spiritual path promises. I am focusing on a few this month. Last week we looked at the grace in foolishness, returning to the place of Zero, of original ignorance. Today, we' ll dig into the often secret experience of Jealousy. Is there anyone here who has never spent a moment of his or her life gripped by feelings of jealousy? If so, I brought a magazine for you to read for the next twenty minutes.
You have, of course, heard of the Seven Deadly Sins, those identified by medieval theologians as pride, avarice, anger, lust, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Is envy the same as jealousy? I think of jealousy as a more virulent form of envy. The English word for envy has its roots in the old French word envie , to look at someone; the connotation is that you are not looking at that someone with particular pleasure, but with a degree of resentment. But jealousy, I think, is something more. The word comes from the same root as "zeal" -- the Greek word zelos . Zealousness. In jealousy, then, we are dealing with something more irrational, highly emotional, full of passion and personal investment even than envy.
Envy is a fleeting experience that can involve a degree of admiration, as in, "Wow, I' d like to be like him." But jealousy is more like a possession, and while it makes for riveting drama (think Othello, think Dangerous Liaisons, think Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita, think all those wonderful episodes of "Dynasty" with Alexis and Crystal Carrington duking it out in their enormous shoulder pads), jealousy makes for very serious problems in real life, and particularly in the realm of all kinds of relationships.
It has always deeply sobered me to consider that the very first story about families in the Bible is all about a bitter sibling jealousy. What does this tell us? It tells us that the very first family in the western holy Scriptures is a very dysfunctional one, just like yours and mine.
I give you the story of Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis, Chapter 4, verses 1-9:
And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bore his brother, Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time, it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering.
But unto Cain and to his offering, he had no respect.
[You know where this is going, don't you?]
And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou so wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? If you do well, will you not have honour? and if you do wrong, sin is waiting at the door, desiring to have you, but do not let it be your master. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
And the Lord said unto Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" And he said, "I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?"
And here we have the first biblical example of mouthing off to the Lord. Up til then, Adam and Eve and even the Snake were careful to show some respect! But not Cain. Cain sounds just like every teenager we' ve ever known and ever been. There he is, in all his scowly-faced, violent humanity, hiding his face from God whose favor he so desperately craves, and whose rejection has led him to murder his innocent, favored brother. It is a heartbreaking moment, and although it was written more than 4,000 years ago, it still feels like a very contemporary tale.
You know, we really know very little about these brothers; only that one was a farmer and the other a shepherd. Some Biblical commentaries suggest that when Cain's prepared or offered up his sacrifice to God, he was not pure in his heart at the time, and that' s why God rejected it. I don' t see how they get this; I just think the God in this story is being unfair, period. Cain brought an offering of fruit, and that Abel brought an offering of meat. God preferred one to the other. (YHVH isn' t a vegetarian, I guess.)
The simple cruelty in this story stops my heart. What is this story saying? That this is a God who set these two up for this fratricide? Is it saying that this God sets up all brothers all human beings -- to be competitors for His limited favor? You can see that humans wrote this story, plagued by the anxious existential questions that still trouble humanity: questions like, what if God prefers some of us over others? What if God is that arbitrary, that capricious, that much like a mortal mother or father, who, without intention or plan, find themselves loving one child the best? What if love is not equal and abundant in the universe after all?
These questions and fears from the primal foundation of jealousy.
We become jealous because we fear that love is limited, and we know in our deepest selves that we can' t survive without it. And I don' t mean just emotionally, either. Every baby knows that it depends on love to get fed and changed and sheltered. When a new baby brother or sister appears on the scene and Junior is seen tipping the bassinet out the window, why do you think that is? Because there might not be enough love to go around, and therefore not enough food and shelter. There are biological factors at play here; reptilian brain stuff.
But recall God's cryptic words to Cain, the angry and hurt Cain: "If you do well, will you not have honor? and if you do wrong, sin is waiting at the door, desiring to have you, but do not let it be your master."
If do well, you' ll have honor. This is from the Basic English Bible translation. If you do well, you' ll have integrity. If you' re coming from a good place, you don' t need to worry about what I think, or how I accept you. You have a conscience, says God. If it' s a clean conscience, you' re in good shape. If you do wrong, you get lost to sin. It' s up to you. Very tough love from the great I-Am, but very freeing. So very liberating.
But Cain doesn't hear this freeing message. He can' t handle it. Sin becomes his master and he kills his brother. He gets rid of the competition. And right away, we know that jealousy is a highly dangerous condition -- one that, left unchecked, can lead to terrible consequences.
But this is sibling jealousy, you say. This is the kind of childish jealousy for mommy and daddy's love that I can't relate to anymore. This, you might say, is not the jealousy that I have known in my most secret moments, the green-eyed monster who torments me even in the moments I believe myself to be a caring and reasonable person. What about the jealousy between lovers, for instance, or friends? Or between me and the person on the treadmill at the gym, who has such defined abs that I can never get no matter how many crunches I do?
As our earlier reading stated, jealousy is a disease of the soul. When we are possessed by jealousy, we are in the grips of a soul-sickness, a tragic mistaking of fear for love.
Jealousy between people in any relationships (whether they be friendships or romantic or professional) is based on the mistaken belief that there is not enough love or beauty or regard in the world to go around.
It is a poisonous intoxicant that too many of us have gotten high off of, and that we have accepted in ourselves and in each other. We have even sometimes made jealousy into a team sport: have you ever sat at a table with a group of gal pals when a really gorgeous female walks by? Have you ever heard them say, "God, look at those thighs. I hate her." Do you think this is a harmlessly wicked, catty little indulgence? I don' t often say this, but I' m going to say it today: it' s not harmlessly wicked, and it' s not okay. How can it possibly be okay to say "I hate her?" Until we learn to squelch that meanness in ourselves, and learn to bless the beauty and let that person alone in the privacy of their complicated life, we' re not spiritually healthy beings.
Jealousy is rather exciting: it creates obsession, and obsession fuels energy, and energy fuels a sense that life has meaning. Pretty sad meaning, if that' s where we find it.
One of the most pernicious aspects of jealousy is that it never occurs in a vacuum: there is always an object of one's jealousy. For my mother, it was Frannie and June, the girls who had the multiple cashmere sweater sets and real pearls she could never afford, and the aura of country club entitlement that she had not inherited as the daughter of Czechoslovakian immigrants. For me, it was the pretty theatre majors in college (male and female) who were always after my boyfriend. For you, the object of jealousy is perhaps a distant ideal figure, or someone at work, or even at church, who seems so much more together, so much more something that you wish you had or could be. I will tell you, my friends, if you knew the underside of life' s struggle as a minister gets to know it, you would never be jealous again.
Jealousy is disfiguring. There is a wonderful image to illustrate this: in the original, quite graphic version of the "Cinderella" story, the prince comes to the house of the evil stepsisters with the glass slipper, to see if he can find the maiden he has fallen in love with at the ball. The girls are so determined to fit into that slipper, that they each slice off a part of their heel and jam their bloody foot into the glass slipper, grimacing with determination: "There is only one source of love and happiness in this kingdom, and I' m going to slice off a part of myself to get it!"
Jealousy is a torture we inflict on ourselves when we hand over our sense of self worth to someone who doesn' t even know how much power they' ve got over us, and who probably wouldn' t want it if you told them they had it. Have you ever learned that someone was jealous of you? Kind of creepy, wasn' t it? Jealousy, like hatred, creates a very sick intimacy between people a twisted, most unreciprocal relationship.
One of my favorite plays, Peter Shaffer's Amadeus is about the terrible, damaging intimacy that forms between a person and the object of their jealousy.
Salieri, a real historical figure, is a pampered and successful Viennese court composer who thinks himself a fine and accomplished musician -- until he is invited to a party where he meets, and hears the music of, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As Cain railed at God for shunning his offering, and destroyed his preferred brother, Salieri also rages at God and promises to destroy this Ama-Deus (which actually means Beloved of God):
"Tonight at an inn somewhere in this city stands a giggling child who can put on paper, without actually setting down his billiard cue, casual notes which turn my most considered ones into lifeless scratches . . . Dio ingiusto - You are the enemy! . . . And this I swear: to my last breath I shall block You on earth, as far as I am able!"
As his insane jealousy spurs him onward, Salieri does manage to destroy Mozart's professional life and health and so Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dies a pauper. History, of course, eventually celebrates him as one of the world' s great musical geniuses, while posterity forgets Salieri.
These stories are exciting. They are driven by human passions we can easily recognize as our own. But in our striving toward spiritual wholeness, we must rewrite these tragic endings and let Abel live, let Mozart thrive. Keep the knife in the drawer and let Cinderella have her prince. Frannie and June got nothing on you. There is enough for all.
We cannot be certain whose life offerings, beauty or talents are most pleasing to the Creator. We cannot be certain it even matters. What does matter is that we trust that there is enough beauty, enough love, enough talent, enough of God' s favor. That one person should seem to have an abundance does not make less for you and me. "If you do well, will you not have honor?"
We most certainly shall. And a pure heart besides.