September 24, 2023

The Greatest of These, III: Equanimity

Passage: I Corinthians 13:1–4; I Kings 21: 1–19
This fall at Kenilworth Union we’re preaching a sermon series called The Greatest of These in which we’re looking at St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Then from the Hebrew scripture 1 Kings:

Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it, or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the had said to him, for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because Naboth won’t give me his vineyard. His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will get you the vineyard.”

Jezebel convinced two scoundrels to accuse Naboth of treason and blasphemy so they took him out and stone him to death.

When I was a kid in Sunday School, Ahab was my favorite Israelite King because he was so reliably and comprehensively awful. When Ahab was on the throne, everything was blowing up or breaking or dying. It was exciting for a little kid, like watching West World or Game of Thrones

Every good story needs one of these vivid, violent, venal villains, right? I mean, who would want to read about Middle Earth without Sauron, or Narnia without the White Witch, or Hogwarts without Voldemort, or speaking of Ahab, who would want to read about Captain Ahab without Moby Dick?

Ahab is the undisputed King of Israel in the ninth century before Jesus. At that time, Israel was near the zenith of its global hegemony. Presumably Ahab has everything his royal little grasping heart could desire, but he wants to expand his estate. He wants to plant a garden, but his neighbor Naboth’s 20-acre vineyard is in the way.

This of course is an early instance of ‘eminent domain.’ If your family has owned a modest diner in the West Loop for generations and a wealthy real estate developer comes along and wants to put up a 50-story office building where your diner now sits, you are in big trouble, especially if the wealthy real estate developer takes Brandon Johnson out to lunch at Luke’s Lobster once in a while.

When Ahab’s negotiations with his powerless neighbor turn out to be as successful as the UAW’s with GM and Stellantis, he goes home and pouts so pathetically that his shiksa wife Jezebel has Naboth convicted in a kangaroo court and executed for treason and blasphemy. Problem solved.

Ahab is the Vladimir Putin of the ninth century BC, concocting a brazen land grab from a smaller, weaker neighbor.

God is so disgusted with Ahab that God will make sure that the rest of Ahab’s reign will be unhappy, his death violent, and his dynasty foreshortened. Ahab’s problem, of course, is the deadly sin of envy.

In St. Paul’s multi-faceted description of love in First Corinthians 13, there are many things love IS, and there are also many things it’s NOT. Love IS patient. Love IS kind. Love IS NOT envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.

If love is not envious, what is it? You could say that love is content with what it has. You could say that a loving person features the virtue of equanimity. A loving person is serene, confident, at ease. A loving person doesn’t grasp or clutch or seize.

Paul doesn’t quite say this, but almost: it is impossible to be loving and envious at the same time. If you love someone, you will never resent—or even want—their success or happiness.

It’s often pointed out that Envy is the only deadly sin that’s no fun. The other deadly sins have some kind of reward. With Gluttony and Lust, there’s a pleasant dopamine kick. If you have Pride, you feel good about yourself. With Greed, you get lots of stuff. If you’re slothful, you get to sleep till noon. Even Anger can be satisfying, but Envy is never any fun.

Someone once talked about the “searing heartburn of envy.”[1] Yes? The searing heartburn of envy. The envious feel as if their insides are being corroded away by some poisonous bile that they’ve generated themselves but somehow have no power to ebb.

Envy has an ugly twin sister called schadenfreude, which is German for ‘shadow joy.’ It is “sorrow in another person’s success,” or “joy in their failures and hurts.”[2]

Someone said, “In the misfortunes of our friends, there is something which is not displeasing to us.”[3]

Envy has less to do with what we lack than with what our neighbor has.  Just notice how pointless that is. We are usually well-fed, well-clothed, well-sheltered, and well-loved, and quite satisfied with what we have until we meet somebody who has more. And then the heartburn begins.

Maybe I’ve told you this before. This has been proven over and over again in experiment after experiment: Americans would rather earn $50,000 a year, if everybody around them is making $40,000, than $100,000 a year, if everybody around them is making $125,000. We don’t necessarily want more; we just want more than our neighbor. H. L. Mencken once said that happiness in America is making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law.[4]

Have you heard this story before? Two shopkeepers with stores across the street from each other were bitter rivals. They vied for every customer who came down the street. They’d gloat at each other over every customer they stole away from the competition.

One night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers in a dream and said, “God has sent me to give you whatever you want in life. What do you want: wealth, honor, fame, long life? It’s yours. There’s only one catch. Whatever you get, your rival across the street will get twice as much. You want to be rich? You will be rich. But your rival will be twice as rich. You want long life? You’ll have long life, but your rival’s life will be twice as long. What do you want?”

The man thought for a long time and then finally said, “Strike me blind in one eye.”[5]  Envy is not about what we lack; it’s about what our neighbor has, and that is just so pointless.

Sisters Eileen Tarr and Ellen Hess remember the day from their childhood in 1966 when they put their father, James Dowling, on a plane at the Pittsburgh Airport, headed for Vietnam.

James Dowling was a Chief Warrant Officer in the United States Army who’d already fought in the South Pacific during World War II and in Korea, and now they were sending him to Vietnam.

His girls were in like the third and fourth grade at the time, and it was the saddest day of their lives. One of the sisters was so dejected she couldn’t go to school that day.

It was so brutal over there; you never knew if they would be coming home. Tours in Vietnam back then were one year long.

So Eileen and Ellen’s mother made a chain of 365 safety pins, and hung that chain from a floor lamp in their living room. It was so long it wrapped around the lampshade a few times and pooled up on the floor.

And every evening after she wrote her daily letter to her husband, she removed one safety pin. And of course as the months went by, the chain got shorter and shorter. It was a momentous day when the safety-pin chain was too short to pool up on the floor, another big day when it stopped wrapping around the lampshade.

If one of the girls had a birthday, or got an ‘A’ in school, she was granted the honor of removing that day’s safety pin. And then finally after 365 days, there are no more safety pins, and Eileen and Ellen’s father comes marching safely home. He’d not only come home safe; he came home with the Bronze Star.[6]

If your father comes home whole from the war; if your wife comes home from the hospital after serious surgery, well and hale and healed; if your daughter comes home from university at Thanksgiving bursting with newfound knowledge and excitement over the growing largeness of life on this planet; if you have each other; what more do you need?

Go ahead and envy Brad Pitt for his coven of comely concubines and his brood of six adorable orphans and his $20-million-a-movie salary. Go ahead and envy Tom Brady for his impossible good looks and his seven Super Bowls rings. But what do you need that for? You’ve already won the lottery.

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[1]Y. Olesha in a novel called Envy (1927), quoted by Joseph Epstein in Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press and The New York Public Library, 2003), p. 57.

[2]Robert Burton, in ''The Anatomy of Melancholy'' (first published 1621), quoted by Edward Rothstein, “Missing the Fun of a Minor Sin,” a review of the book When Bad Things Happen to Other People, by John Portman, The New York Times, February 5, 2000.

[3]François de La Rochefoucauld, quoted by Joseph Epstein, “The Green-Eyed Monster: Envy Is Nothing to Be Jealous of,” The Washington Monthly, July 1, 2003.

[4]H. L. Mencken, quoted by Joseph Epstein in Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, op. cit., pp.33–34.

[5]Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).

[6]“Sisters Marked Each Day with Dad Away at War,” NPR Morning Edition, May 11, 2007.