Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic. When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him.
Many years ago in graduate school, we had a teacher who would occasionally remind us that, despite our efforts to portray ourselves to the contrary, we were not “nice.” Today’s readings confront us with the truth of how vicious and violent we human beings are capable of being. In Genesis we read of Joseph and his brothers and of how their envy of how he is seen in their father’s eyes leads them to hate him and to want to obliterate him. In the gospel from Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants who kill every one of the servants, including his son, that the landowner sends to collect his produce. It is impossible for us to grow in love without reckoning with the dark forces of our nature, our propensity to hatred and violence toward whomever and whatever we see as a threat to us.
Aggression, of course, is an integral part of who we are. Without it we and our species would not survive. However, as is often pointed out, only human beings kill gratuitously, including members of our own species. Our capacity and tendency for violence and killing is somehow different from what we arrogantly term “sub-human species.” We all know the experience of the sibling rivalry we read of today, and, if honest, we also know that, unmitigated, our rivalries evoke in us a desire for the elimination of the one who evokes them.
It is what is most distinctively human in us, our spirit, that accounts for the nature of our aggression and violence. Whereas, our aggression is meant to preserve us from threats to our being, we perceive threats not only in the physical realm but also in the psychic and spiritual. As Abraham Maslow pointed out, our needs are not only physiological but also for security, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. From the perspective of spirit we would also add for union and communion.
When we forget our more transcendent needs, our capacity for transcendence becomes directed downward toward our more physiological and emotional needs. We lose touch with our primordial destiny that seeks to live our own original and authentic calling, and so we aggressively turn on those whom we sense possess that which we lack. The brothers of Joseph burn with an envy and then hatred of him that is born of their living in comparison with him. Their sense of their own value comes not from their own original calling but rather from their father’s preferences. It is the threat this poses to their sense of themselves that leads to the violence they desire to inflict on Joseph.
A consumerist culture is driven by the energy of envious comparison. We are seduced to buy so that we shall have what the others have, what those with status possess. This energy is boundless in nature, for the lack we experience comes from a need that is of a different order from the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Thus, it is precisely because we are spirit and carry within us the longings of spirit that the refusal of spirit in us evokes such hatred and violence.
In the parable from Matthew, we see the spiritual source of our violence from another perspective. The problem with the tenants is that they forget they are tenants. They forget that the land, and so the produce, does not belong to them but to the landowner. Thus, when the servants and son of the landowner arrive and remind them of that truth, a truth they are unwilling to face and to bear, they seek to destroy them. One of the strongest symptoms of our repression of spirit is our arrogant assertion that the world, including ourselves, belongs to us. From the point of view of the spiritual life, we can only truly become ourselves and live our lives authentically when we realize that our lives are not our own.
While our culture values those who become “big people” in their own and others’ eyes, the truth of the matter is that we are but a grain of sand on the beach or a speck of dust in the air. We are but a part, and so a participant, in the greater whole. When Theodore James Ryken experiences being “put in his place” at the age of 19, he is experiencing the foundation of spiritual conversion. Our true value is realized when we we know our place and incarnate, for the sake of the world, our unique call. As “the world” sees it, one must be seen as important, recognized as a “big person,” in order to be significant, in order to have self-esteem. Yet, from the spiritual perspective, it is in knowing and living from our place, in living out our unique call in the world that we become real and realized.
To lay claim to what is not mine is at the root of our violent behavior. When we do our work in order to gain or possess things, material or emotional, we are inevitably in competition with others. We are competing out of a sense of scarcity, and so, the other is always a threat to our having our share. Yet, when I know my place, small as it may be, I also know that it is unique. There is no competition at all, for each of us is called to be and to bring into the world the life and call that each of us has been given.
Some years ago I became aware that a key spiritual directive is “to mind my own business.” St. John of the Cross writes that the monk or nun is to live in the monastery, “as if you were the only person in it.” This is not a call to solipsism; it is, rather, a call to live in responsibility for the unique call that God has given us. What and how the others are doing is not my business. This remains, for me at least, a perennially challenging task. All my efforts to the contrary, I am always to some degree or other looking out to others for approval of how I am doing. it is this “looking outwards” that is the very source of my disappointment, anger, and resentment toward others. When the other and his or her response becomes central for me, things will always end badly.
The impulse of spirit in us is always moving toward transcendence, toward the receiving and giving of form to that unique image of Christ we are called to realize. It is an energy that must constantly be directed toward its true end. If we invert it to our lesser needs and desires, it will of its nature become violent, for those lesser ends will always disappoint us. Adrian van Kaam says that “bioeros” becomes “transeros” through the experience of disappointment. We learn what our true desire is through the experience of our lesser desires being disappointed. Yet, our first reaction to disappointment will be blame and violence. It will be to project outward the cause of our feeling. It can even, as for Joseph’s brothers and the tenants in the parable, lead us to desire to eliminate the mistaken source of our disappointment. Yet, if we can live with, sit with, ponder our disappointments, they can begin to illumine our way on the path to realizing our own unique calling. From our own true place, we cease to compete with others and learn to appreciate their uniqueness, not as a threat to us but as a call to greater integrity and fidelity.
O Creator Lord, let me feel the “isness’ of
things and people, without resistance, without
trying to impose my own pattern upon them, or
export them for selfish ends. Let me welcome
them, enjoy them, value them, love them, for
what they are and for what they are becoming
through your creative love.