Tag Archives: envy

Human, and made that way

I am ambivalent about this week’s readings. On the one hand they dismiss wealth and the striving after it as trivial. In 2019 and facing climate change that seems pretty relatable. Vanity of vanities, the way people keep stressing out over promotions and presents and their love-lives. When I say “people” I’d be lying if I pretended to be superior. I am writing lesson plans all week, not engaged in the political struggle, I almost even forgot to write my blog this week. But maybe that too is a vanity, for a tiny handful of people to read, mainly just to humour me. These readings have come around again, I have written on them already.

But it does not always feel like vanity to work, to strive, to desire, and yes even to write. It feels human, life is empty unless we have purpose and connection. I can have empathy for the writer of Ecclesiastes but I don’t think it is a healthy headspace to see all things as “vanity”. It is like some of my colleagues and students who seem overly scandalized about other people’s sex-life choices. We don’t need to dismiss or judge everything we see, sometimes it is just the experience of being human that is in front of us- whether that means sacrificing sleep time to get a promotion (vanity) or it means over-eating the delicious lentil bolognese (vanity) or it means feeling sad and lonely when you should be sleeping and being jealous of people who actually HAVE a sex life (vanity). But to limit people’s joys too much is a type of purity that limits our own capacity not just to feel and experience but in the end I think also to live and love. Why are we on this planet? Is it all just chasing wind? Noone should be forced to labour so long or deal with such hardship that life is vain. We live, not to enrich others but to enliven ourselves, to enloven all things.

Do we hear her voice then as the psalm seems to think we do? How do we stop our hearts being hardened when we are facing destruction, when people even less deserving than us prosper, when we are overlooked or hurting? God turns us back into dust as if we never were? What dust? Could it be star-dust? Is it “dusty” like after a great night out? What is this”wisdom of heart”that is not scared of it’s own mortality?

Kindness imbues us, it brings great (and undignified) joy. There is a morning after the night of ruminating. Whose heart needs to stay soft, ours or Godde’s? I will move forward in case wisdom is waiting.

There is some sort of renewal in the second reading, I am suspicious of it because to me it sounds Platonic, it sounds like the epistemology of the mind without a body, a patriarchal way of finding meaning (while expecting women to do all the real work). Enlightenment, the privileged man’s luxury and yet didn’t I flee from the world of children into academia as soon as I could? My issue with texts about rising above the body is envy. I want to be so male that my body ceases to matter. I want to be all spirit, pure mind and I want food and home and cleanliness to magically appear in front of me while I read and think deep thoughts. Unfortunately I am woman enough to know that is nonsense.

So rather than the advice from this all too male and privileged writer of Colossians I say “put to death that which calls you to be in denial about the fact that you are a child of earth. You are dust, remember the psalm told us. Vanity is also freedom perhaps, but there is love. Put to death your reluctance to face your own mortality and messiness. Put to death how easily you compartmentalise and ignore the pain of others. Put to death a church that is built on the fear and crying of children, the exclusion of women, the exploitation of the poor. Put to death inhumanity. Don’t be so foolish, God made our bones out of earth and our substance out of stardust. Put to death your illusion that you are superior to the bleeding, emotional woman or the starving, struggling poor person. Remember that you are dust. Vanity/sacredness/humanity.

In the gospel Jesus says something that is either healthy boundaries or lack of empathy. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, because we all too often judge each other for healthy boundaries, but I am afraid of the tradition of interpretation that would tell us that the things of this world (justice, fairness, having enough to live on) are insignificant and Jesus is all about the spiritual. I see a grittier Messiah with dusty feet (though admittedly washed by a woman of more kindness than reputation). I see a Jesus for whom John was not worthy to undo his sandal (or maybe just didn’t want to touch such filthy feet). No I am being a bit silly, I am breaking out in possibly inappropriate humour. I am tired from the vanity of my week. Maybe Jesus was too tired to play judge. Maybe he said as I said to my students this week “you are qualified to make this decision yourself”. One of them told me it was a “cop out” but I begged to differ. I think Jesus gives me that sarcastic smile if I try to call him out there. Ok, Ok you rascal, you always catch me being incoherent!

But the wealth-hoarders get short shrift here. Jesus might as well be talking about certain churches I think…or maybe as a first-world person I ought to hear this. Am I working too much? Is my greed taking me away from my real calling? How about the way my work is more love than just profit, does that count for anything? Is this a reassurance for the person who has no super, or is Jesus going to remind me that my (lack of) super is not his problem?

I am without answers but I sort of feel like Jesus is a hopeless rebel like me too. Maybe we can discuss wine and debate philosophy? Maybe we can pray? Maybe it only matters that I love. Maybe it is valid to spend a few hours washing clothes and writing and NOT interacting with others.

If everything is vanity, there are no KPIs and there are no “targets” for the kindom of God. Spend some time in joy and peace today as you don’t know when you will be able to again. But also Jesus implies there is a wealth that “matters to God” not airy-fairy things I dare say but meaning and connection. Breast-milk as much or more than ideas. Chickpea patties as much or more than a promotion. Kind and understanding words or just and loving anger.

God knows we are human.

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What do I get out of it?

Ah this difficult parable that I have grappled and struggled with for so many years. This parable that wounds me because one of my greatest failings is an ever present tendency to envy. It comes back regularly to test me and I have been through all sorts of emotions- guilt that I don’t find the idea of grace in it all that beautiful, an unconvincing attempt to focus it on my prodigality and see it as unconditional good news for the “prodigal” in me (but why then the older brother at the end?). A feeling of sadness and guilt toward the older brother type people in my life, the people who have not as obviously received undeserved blessings as I have. A conviction that I do after all side with the older brother that the exploitative and cynical parasites of this world take advantage of the good nature of God and the labour of the rest of us.

Which lengthy battle shall I recreate in my blog this week? Which angst to plunge into.

Prayer has yielded a simple and clear truth. Envy is a defining sin in my life, it is a daily struggle not to be so consumed by it that I fail and make excuses because other people seem better off. But then I don’t think I am alone in the temptation to let envy rule my relationships and decision making. Look at how grudging we as a society have become, how keen to sniff out welfare “cheats” and refugees who may be trying to take advantage of us. Look at how bitterly we fight against a generosity which we might see as too much, try to protect our borders against prodigal brothers who might destroy our way of life which we deserve.

That word deserve, deserve, deserve….like the older brother who has risen before dawn daily and suffered the lines of weather and time on his face and his tired hands. All should be his, he is the only one who has been faithful and worked. And in faith, by our vocation we may feel like that too…why does God deal so kindly with those who squander what we work for and do not appreciate our labours and throw our faithfulness in our faces. Such as the patriarchal church. What a bitter pill to swallow at times that God still deals with them and forgives them.

I hated this reading for years for that, for showing me my own parsimonious meanness. I do not want to be taken advantage of. I want to reward I DESERVE and do not want some parasite taking part of it (ironic when you look at just how much I myself have been a recipient of other people’s free generosity). But it is lent a time for turning again to the apparently familiar and seeing it differently (repentance). A time of creativity and change a time of rekindling truth and love and growing toward God’s harvest.

So God turns me around to this reading and says “read it again envious one” and I read ti through to the bitter end to see the punishment to be meted out for my sin, the sin of envy. And that is precisely where I have not ever paid attention before! There’s no sort of punishment or cruelty here from God…no sort of bitter justice against my sin of envy. The “father” (not my favourite metaphor) says “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”. That is the unerodible reward that I have if I have (infrequently) got up before dawn and laboured according to my vocation, if I have tried to avoid sin and temptation and done what I think is better for God’s reign on earth or eternally.

God has already given, eternally conferred to “always” and the “everything” on our faithfulness just as much as God has already welcomed with open arms our unfaithfulness (and that is the other point of the story, that each of us is both brothers). So when the jealous stirrings see someone else’s need for grace as a threat to what we have, God gently consoles us reminding us of “always” and “everything”.

That is my challenge this lent, to avoid all the despairs of the world and of my life and to focus and refocus every moment on the “always” and the “everything” that is mine when I turn to God. Anything God asks of me is asked out of an infinite abundance, replenishing anything lost. My vocation to be kinder, more human, more just may seem like duty but inbuilt into it is the joy of God’s “always” and the wealth of God’s “everything”.

No place to be grudging, we have lost brothers and sisters to reclaim and feed!