“Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age. I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence. Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”2 Maccabees 7:27-29
His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, ‘We do not want this man to be our king.’Luke 19:14
In his commentary on the above verse from Luke, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “In Greek moral philosophy, misos (“hatred”) is often associated with envy, phthonos, and like it tends toward the harming of another.” To hear repeatedly in the gospels of the hatred of many of the religious leaders of Jesus gives rise to the question of “Why?” Conventionally we answer this question by pointing out that Jesus poses a threat to their status as leaders by revealing what is impure and self-serving in their motivation. However, there is perhaps an even more fundamental reason for their hatred of him, and that is envy.
In today’s reading from 2 Maccabees we hear yet more of the persecution of the Jewish people. This is a people who have been so horrifically persecuted through the ages. We know that scapegoating is an inherent part of human society. Yet, we have often pondered why this particular “tribe” has so often been the target of that hatred. Perhaps one reason is that in diaspora this relatively small population tends to have such a powerful influence in every culture they enter. The impact of the Jewish people in science, art, and culture has consistently been outsized for their relatively small numbers. Does this also point, at least to a significant degree, to envy as the cause of the irrational and often deadly hatred aimed at them?
One of the most frequent anti-Semitic charges that is aimed at a Jewish population is that they are somehow trying to control the wealth and art of the culture. It is an easy charge to make because their influence often is far greater than their numbers would seem to warrant. The hatred and envy to which they are subjected arises in large part from their very ability to make such an impact by realizing their human potential and by their responsibility to the God who has created it. It is as we, as the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ time, see in the hated ones what is possible for us and our failure to realize that possibility that we come to hate them, because we envy them.
The mother of the seven sons who are killed for their refusal to deny their God describes, in speaking to her youngest son, the motivation of her people: “I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence.” In the Jewish tradition beliefs are not abstractions; they require action. One does not proclaim one’s belief in the God who made everything, including ourselves, from nothing in words but rather in every small and large act of life. One’s life, then, is a grave responsibility.
Yesterday we spoke of the tension between congeniality and compatibility. A real part of the pull of compatibility is a downward pull toward complaisance and sloth. There is pull in what St. Paul calls “the law of our members” toward a refusal of the summons and responsibility of our life call for the world. For all of our good intentions, we tire quickly. As I reflect on my own life I can see many ways in which as a younger person I put off for later the fulfilling of the more significant aspects of my call. Now that I am old, I can readily feel as if I don’t have the energy to do the deeper things. Life’s deepest regret is what of the gift and possibility that is my life have I never realized and given away to the world. It is not to say I have not done some good things and attempted to be a faithful person. But it is to say that I know that out of laziness, or fear, or complaisance some of the gold with which I have been entrusted has remained buried.
Given this truth, how do I and how do we react to another who has not buried his or her gold but has multiplied it tenfold? Likely, with a bit of admiration, but not without envy. For they are a living reminder of what I have not done. I come to hate them because I am too frightened to face my own self-hatred for what I have wasted.
The mother in Maccabees tells her youngest son not even to choose physical life over fidelity to the God who made us and everything from nothing. In effect, she tells him not to give life away to anyone but God by doing only what God commands. In our ordinary lives, however, we far too readily abandon our call and self for the sake of the comforts of an imposed compatibility. We do not need a lot of encouragement to disappear into the crowd and to lose contact with our original lives for the sake of comfort. Having done so, however, we then experience as threat those who have not settled for this.
Perhaps the best way to avoid hatred born of envy is “to mind our own business.” Our business is our responsibility for our life as call, and as unique call. What others do or don’t is not for us to be concerned about. What is our concern is whether or not we are offering what we have as the gift that God intends it to be for the world in our time. It is not to strain and make our life an ego-project, but it is to spend all we are and all we have for the sake of others, and for the sake of our common home.
Self motivation cannot create a spiritual life in and by itself. Only grace can do that. But I can remove obstacles to the Holy Spirit. A most serious obstacle to the Spirit’s inspiration is absorption in the group. If I want to please others, to be one of he crowd, I may no longer stand behind my task as a self-motivated person. Doing a good job in a human and spiritual sense entails more than skillful performance. I should be personally involved in my work as I strive to embody my love for the Lord. This intention gives my performance, over and above skillfulness, a special quality. It links my work motivation with my deepest aspiration.Adrian van Kaam, On Being Yourself, p. 95
Because dedication is unusual today, it often evokes envy and irritation. It may be felt by others as a reproach. Inspiration arouses envy too. This envy is a threat to the work that God wants to accomplish within every person’s unique situation.