Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 12, 2019)

Conflict is at the heart of a good story. In literature, on the stage, on the screen, the green-eyed monster of jealousy has provided many a tale of conflict. Lovers, business partners, politicians become involved in intrigue, revenge through jealousy that is said to be the one that no one of us easily admits.

Fear and anger are at the root of jealousy: fear of a possible, personal loss; anger at a perceived threat to something we consider our own and worth protecting – be it a relationship, a possession, our reputation.

We do not seem to identify jealousy with the same frequency as the early church did. The biblical writers used “jealously” more frequently. They seem to have thought through an individual situation of fear/anger one level deeper than we to give a name to this reality.

We recall in Matthew’s Gospel during Jesus’ trial scene: “He [Pilate] knew, of course, that it was out of jealousy that they handed him [Jesus] over.” Pilate defines the Jewish motivation as “jealousy” – in this, the Greatest Story ever told.

In today’s first reading, Paul and Barnabas were well received at Antioch and returned the following Sabbath to speak again in the synagogue. Paul and Barnabas remind the Jewish congregation that no less a prophet than Isaiah spoke of the ideal Israel as a light to the nations; that is, the non-Jews, the Gentiles. The leaders were fearful about the apostles’ reminder of Isaiah’s statement that they would like to forget. The two, in speaking of salvation for the Gentiles, became a perceived threat to the Jewish leaders’ conviction of having sole ownership of being God’s chosen people.

The basic ingredients for jealousy were there: they were fearful that they would have to accept this correction from Isaiah and correct their own teaching. Also, they might well lose their status/authority as teachers. We heard: “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.”

Jealousy trumped rationality: “I’ve made up my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts.” This is jealousy at the institutional level of religion. The Jewish leadership, “filled with jealousy”, had to nip this threat in the bud, so they rabble- roused the congregation, and the apostles were expelled from the area.

The Book of Revelation, the second reading, speaks about the multitude of heaven “which no one could count from every nation, race, people and tongue.” That newer phrase has translated the older version that used the symbolic number 144,000. That number appears twice in scripture, once to count the saved of Israel and once to count the followers of “the lamb,” Jesus. So, 144 thousand is symbolic shorthand for both Israel and the Gentiles. It indicates the direct opposite of an exclusive elite. It holds the door open for all, just as Jesus showed in his day.

It is a shame that divisions within and between religions and churches exist. Divisions set up “either / or dualism.” Dualism then sets us up for jealousy. “Both / and” precludes jealousy. Religions seem to have always showed a bent toward being exclusive just as nations have had a bent toward nationalism and isolationism. Triumphalism seems to be a perennial temptation.

Recall the recently proclaimed account in the Acts of the Apostles when the apostles are brought before the angry Sanhedrin. Gamaliel, a highly respected member said that if Jesus were a phony, the movement would die. He gave two historical examples of failure. We applauded his wisdom. His argument prevailed – but only for a time.

For your thoughtful consideration: in the big picture and the current swirl of condemnations, would it not be wise not to rush to judgment as the Jewish Gamaliel pleaded for Jesus? Jesus said long before Gamaliel when asked what to do with weeds growing together with and resembling wheat: wait! Wait until time and growth prove what is good. Be patient.

God, the light of the world, shines as love, on everyone. Light has no borders that it cannot cross. The light of love and truth will always, eventually shine through. At a time when fears and angers spawn jealousy, let us not do anything foolish. Two Jewish rabbis from two thousand years ago advised us well. One is still very much around.