Post 291

All That Noise: Reflections on Envy

The Gospel reading for tomorrow, from Mark 5, is the one where Jesus cures the daughter of Jairus.

The theme of God being opposed to death appears in tomorrow’s first reading from Wisdom 1 and 2 (“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist”), and this ties in with Jesus wanting to rescue Jairus’ daughter from death. That all makes sense.

What caught my attention, however, was the notion of envy mentioned in the first reading: “but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.”

In the past, I did not understand the power and prevalence of envy, and how it acts almost as a fuel in the very bodies of so many people. It spurs them to action in the worst ways, and poisons their words. An envious person sees threats all around, and is in a constant state of competition. An envious person is unhappy when others are praised or exalted for their honest achievements or gifts, and an envious person is usually reluctant to praise or offer genuine compliments to others. The thing about envy, however, is that until you know what it looks like, you won’t even see it. It’s a very, very hidden thing, one that people will rarely admit to.

And envy does not occur very much in the stereotypical pattern of a poor person envying a rich person, for the reason that they usually live worlds apart (with the notable and dangerous exception of the impoverished nanny who works in the home of those who hire her). One of the main components of envy is proximity. A middle-income man will be more envious of his middle-income neighbour than he will be of the rich fellow who lives in the gated community across town. He rarely thinks about the person he doesn’t often see, but this neighbour with the new car is right before his eyes. For this reason, family relations that are not insulated with abundant love can be poisoned by envy. A mother can envy her daughter from the very earliest years. A woman can envy her sister-in-law. A cousin can envy a cousin. The frequent interaction brings information and opportunities to compare, which has very negative effects in envious people, and so the most competitive dynamic is often between women who are in the same workplace or social group, whether it’s a religious group or a soccer mom gathering at a child’s game. Who has the biggest diamond? Who has the most talented children? Who took the best vacation? Who is the prettiest? But even without physical interaction, there can be envy of people who are ‘proximate’ in terms of backgrounds or situations; how many women watch Meghan Markle and wonder why she has ‘succeeded’ where they haven’t? And of course, social media is set up in such a way that it fosters envy while bringing people together. It gives people the time to study the lives of others (as they appear to be), when the truth is that it would have been better for these people to know less about their ‘friends.’

Anyway, after reading the first reading, I looked for the theme of envy in the Gospel reading that I have heard so many times. I’ll show you what I see. Here are the lines: “While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.

It’s easy to consider the words of these people, notifying Jairus that his daughter has died, as being purely informational. But let’s slow this down. Jairus is well-respected in his circles. He is one of the leaders of the local synagogue. Humans being what they are, these two elements would be enough to incite envy among others, but we do not need to rely on that, because a moment spent in consideration of their words will reveal quite a bit. The speakers know that Jairus is in distress. This man has left his home to go looking for Jesus. Jairus is well-known, and if he seeks Jesus, the fact will be public soon enough. Jairus believes that Jesus has power to restore health to his daughter, and Jairus is single-minded. He is going to find Jesus and he is going to make his request. As Jairus hurries to find him, does he not pray that he will be fast enough? Does he not pray that Jesus will say yes? Then he sees him! He wastes no time. Not only does he make his request, but he also “fell at his feet.” What would that have looked like? That is more than bowing. He is kneeling at Jesus’s feet. Scripture says that Jairus “besought him,” in other words, pleaded with him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” His words echo the words tucked into Psalm 30 for Sunday’s Mass: “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be thou my helper!”

Anyone who knew Jairus would know that he is absolutely desperate for the life of his daughter, and that he is now hoping for a miracle.

How long has his daughter been ill? It would have been well known that Jairus was very concerned about her. His concern has reached an all-time high, sending him out into the streets looking for Jesus. Yet in this context, some people come from his house and, interrupting Jesus, give him the devastating news. They bluntly inform him of his daughter’s death, “Your daughter is dead,” and then, without missing a beat, talk about how Jairus should not inconvenience Jesus. Do you see it? Do you see the lack of compassion for Jairus, disguised as a high regard for Jesus’s time? In the name of not ‘troubling the Teacher,’ they tell Jairus that everything he feared has already happened, and that his efforts are futile. There is no sympathy here for Jairus; there is only feigned sympathy for Jesus. Perhaps some of these speakers were afraid that Jesus might be able to help Jairus, and they are trying to block Jairus from receiving any further assistance from Jesus. It’s actually very evil, and their words are recorded here for more than just information.

What does Jesus do? He ignores these words. It is because their words are neither good nor neutral. They are lies. Specifically, they are suggesting to Jairus that he is being a pest, that he has already troubled Jesus too much, and that if he continues to hope for Jesus’ help, then he will be troubling Jesus “further.” In other words, they are telling him that he has been doing the wrong thing by seeking Jesus’ help, who they respectfully refer to as “the Teacher.” They are sending the message that he is not worthy of Jesus’ help, due to the fact that Jairus is not himself at the same level as Jesus (he may be one of the temple leaders, but he is not “the Teacher”) and because his circumstances — a dead daughter who is now beyond help — do not merit further attention.

How often do we get the lie that God is not accessible to us? How often do we get the lie that we are too small — just one of the billions of people on earth — for God to care for us at all? Or how often do we get the lie that our problem is too small for God to care about? How often do we fear that God wants us to suffer? How often do we fear that God doesn’t mind if we live or die? How often do we get the lie that making a request will have no effect, that God doesn’t want to be ‘troubled’ by our petitions?

All of these things are lies, and the readings for tomorrow can go a long way to counter these fears and these lies. The readings tell us that God does not want death for us; he does not want suffering. A vision of what he wants is in the second reading, where we learn that Christ suffered so that we do not have to suffer. It says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This is mainly a reference to spiritual benefits, but understand that God cares about all aspects of our welfare. The more of our lives that we entrust to him, the better prepared we will be for receiving the surprises that he has planned for us.

In addition to ignoring the words of these advisors who give bad advice, Jesus comforts Jairus, who at this point, must be filled with fear that he has lost his daughter, and that his efforts were all in vain, and that Jesus is powerless in this situation. Jesus says to Jairus, as he says to us all, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Do not fear. Only believe.

Whenever you are afraid about the future, ignore the voice(s) that tells you all hope is gone, and things will go badly for you. Ignore the voice(s) that tells you that you will fail and that your efforts — past, present and future — are pointless. These voices come from the devil, the father of lies, who is, as the first reading says, full of envy. (The devil envies us because God loves us and because God is willing to be born as a human and die for us.) These voices are nothing more than noise.

It is no wonder that Jesus did not take these false advisors into the room. This is fitting because their efforts had been to prevent Jesus from coming to the home. So now there is a reversal. At first, Jesus is outside the home and the advisors were in the home (the Gospel says that these advisors had come from Jairus’ house), but now all the advisors and all of the false friends are put outside: “But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.”

As further confirmation of the evil intentions of the advisors and crowds and all who made themselves comfortable in Jairus’s home, notice that the Gospel shows them laughing at Jesus’ words. When he says that the daughter is not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. They laugh at God! Such people as these are, in a sense, dead, (“through the devil’s envy death entered the world and those who belong to his party experience it”) because they do not enjoy and proceed with their own lives. Instead, they are envious spectators of the lives of others. Neither do they have the spirit of sharing that is described in the second reading from 2 Corinthians 8; they cannot rejoice in the success and victories of other people. A person who is wholesome can enjoy the happiness of others. The accomplishments of others can be shared and appreciated by those who didn’t even have a hand in that accomplishment. Look at the words of the second reading, about those who have supplying those who don’t have. It is the opposite of the spirit of envy. A person without envy can partake, in a way, in what they don’t themselves have, and enjoy life even more. I can be glad that you can understand technology better than I can; I can be glad that you enjoy building roads better than I would. I can be glad for the people who climbed the mountain; I can be glad for the people who won the game against all odds.

So the people who habitually surrounded Jairus laughed at Jesus. These noisy friends, relatives, ‘helpers,’ and onlookers are removed, and the only ones left of that group are Jairus and his wife. They are the only ones who genuinely care about this girl, the twelve-year old that Jairus called his “little daughter.” The voices and the noise brought by everyone else is finally shut out.

The daughter is awoken (whether she was dead at any point, I do not know) and Jesus directs them to give her something to eat. This detail shows his kind thoughtfulness, and is meant to remind us that Christ thinks of such things. So let nobody doubt God’s providence and care. He wants what is best for us, and where there is suffering, it is for a greater purpose which is also for our ultimate benefit. So even if we are, like Jairus and his family, surrounded by those who hope for evil to befall us, and who delight in our suffering, there is nothing to worry about. If we call upon Jesus, he will come and disperse the false advisors, those who envy you and make plans against you. He will disperse these, and silence the tumult. Your foes will not rejoice over you, as the Psalm says. Indeed, they will stand outside while Jesus stands with you. So let us say, with Jairus, in the words of the Psalm, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to thee for ever.”