I didn’t come to bring peace, Jesus says, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his
father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. It’s an old story. As our readings from Genesis tell us, families are often divided from within. And God is often in the middle of it. Last Sunday found us remembering how Sarah laughed when she learned in her old age she would soon give birth to a son. And today we remember how much she loved him: her boy Isaac. And how hard it was for her to reckon with the reality that Abraham already had a son by Hagar.
For a moment, Sarah delights in the blessing of Isaac, but then she wakes up to Hagar’s delight in her son Ishmael, and suddenly turns away from her own blessings to stalk the blessings of Hagar. This happens in the middle of a feast she hardly notices; in the middle of an abundance she fails to trust.
Zeroing in on that other boy, a child not hers to mind or tend, Sarah tells Abraham, It’s not right for that boy to inherit along with my son. In that fatal moment, you can hear the happy rhythm of her heart turning hard, beating, “My son, my son, my son, a-lone, not hers, not hers, nev-er.” How soon her laughter – her joy in her own life – is undone, offended by the chance blessings of Hagar.
Franciscan Richard Rohr claims you know when you’ve landed outside the zone of God’s blessings by how often you’re offended. It’s what envy does to you: it turns blessings into curses.
Years ago Ann and Barry Ulanov wrote a book on the subject of envy. As they tell it, envy is a sin that leaves you feeling chronically offended. Speaking for myself, I struggle with envy. I’m guessing some of you may wrestle with it too, either as one who envies or as one who’s been the object of someone else’s envy. It’s a double-edged problem, cuts like a sword, wounding both the envied and the envious.
At Sarah’s command, Abraham banishes Hagar. Potentially a fatal blow. What Sarah can’t see is Hagar’s dependent reality. And the reason she can’t see Hagar’s vulnerability is because she’s turned Hagar and Ishmael into the objects of her envy. She’s green with it. God, though, has no truck with envy, and so rescues Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. God’s blessings are God’s to bestow. Sarah has no ultimate power to banish them.
If you want to know what you long for, a good place to start is to name what you envy. And don’t stop there. Go beyond naming someone else’s stuff or achievement. Go deeper, and have the courage to ask, What part of my own life have I overlooked or neglected? What part of God’s goodness, hidden away in me, needs my attention and my love?
Envy most often shows up when you hear about somebody having something or doing something you wish you had or did. But it’s not about those things. It’s about your own life. A friend tells you they just won Best In Show at the local art festival, and all you can think of is your own paint box, the one you last opened decades ago, the one nobody knows about, stuck somewhere in your attic.
Witnessing the purity of joy on your friend’s face, you feel like spitting. And then comes the need to swallow hard on your own spit. Envy sticks in your throat, like something unsaid. If you’re like me, you try not to swallow. And instead try to smile like you’re glad to hear all about their good fortune.
Yeah, right. You’re not glad. Inside you’re not happy for them at all. In fact, you’re so unhappy about their happiness, you begin to the resent the whole idea of anyone being happy. According to the Ulanovs, envy has us in its grip whenever we’re offended by the goodness others enjoy. All goodness is part of God’s goodness. Even yours.
And here’s the thing: offended by someone else’s blessings, you neglect your own: neglect a deeper relationship with your own life. It becomes more important to monitor someone else’s life than live your own: more important to grieve what you don’t have than to open your own paint box and risk the offering of what you do have.
The good news is the Cross of Jesus is also double-edged, like a sword, sometimes calling you to kneel before it and repent, other times calling you to rise up and risk your life. Kneeling before it, you confess the many ways you’ve offended against God’s goodness, and sometimes you confess your envy of others. Stay there long enough, though, naming what lives in your heart of hearts, and the Cross of Jesus will call you to stand up and name the merciful blessings God has for you. God has blessed and blesses you. You know this.
The sainted life God calls you to live is your own. No one else’s. So take up the Cross of Jesus, and live your life as an offering and a sacrifice to God. It’s what God made you to do. You were made to risk your life, to tend your blessings and give them away.
- Ann and Barry Ulanov, Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying (Westminster Press; Philadelphia, 1983), 123.
- Ulanovs, 116-117.