Ironically, it is one of the most hateful villains in all of Shakespeare’s plays that gives some of the most helpful and sage advice. In the play Othello, the cruel antagonist Iago advises Othello to beware of jealousy. He says, “Beware of jealousy; it is the green ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” For anyone who has experienced feelings of jealousy (which I imagine is all of us), you can likely attest to its monstrous and destructive nature. As I have been praying through this morning’s Scripture readings, I have found myself thinking about Iago’s advice.
This advice comes to mind because the Jewish rabbis explain that the ten commandments (the Decalogue) can be summed up in the final commandment: “Do not covet your neighbor’s belongings.” If we can follow this commandment, the rabbis say, we will not be tempted to steal, commit adultery, bear false witness or commit murder. Envy is the monster that poisons our hearts and minds and compels us to behave selfishly and irrationally and even violently, like Othello who ends up tragically murdering his own wife, Desdemona. If our lives are driven by jealousy and envy, we will not only be living lives of sin, we will be living lives of misery.
And God does not want any of us to be miserable; God wants us to thrive. This is why God makes covenants with us: to help us thrive and to help us enjoy the blessings and the abundance of his overflowing love. On the first Sunday of Lent, we read about the Noahic covenant in which God invited his people and all living creatures to rest in his loving protection and providence, to remember and claim that love every time we see a rainbow appear in the sky after a storm. Last Sunday, we read about the Abrahamic covenant, in which God promised that Abraham and his many spiritual descendants would be blessed and would indeed be blessings to the entire world.
Today, we read about the Mosaic covenant, the covenant God made with his people through Moses, through whom we receive the gift of the Torah, which really does not mean the “Law” as we often think it does, but actually rather means the “teachings.” And the gift of the Mosaic covenant teaches us very practical ways to thrive, ways to claim and enjoy God’s blessings and abundance. Because these practical teachings were given to a specific group of people living in a particular place at a particular time, some of the instructions do not translate perfectly to us. For example, I don’t think many of us struggle with coveting our neighbor’s ox or donkey here in Humboldt county (although I did recently learn about something called the “steam donkey,” which was an engine made for loggers that was invented by a local man named John Dolbeer, but that’s not what Moses was referring to.)
The general principles of the Torah and the Mosaic covenant, however, remain relevant and potentially life-changing for us today. And one of the most powerful teachings in the Torah is simply this: Avoid envy. Beware of that green-eyed monster.
And one of the best ways to avoid envy, one of the most effective methods for defeating the green-eyed monster is to obey another commandment in Scripture, which is actually not included in the ten commandments, but is in fact the most frequently repeated commandment in the entire Bible. It’s repeated all throughout the book of Psalms, which was the prayer book for the people of the Mosaic covenant. In the Hebrew Bible, the command is written as one word, which we actually refrain from saying during the season of Lent. But that one word is an imperative; it’s a commandment; and it means “Praise the Lord! Give thanks to the Lord. Practice gratitude.” The best antidote to envy is gratitude.
This is why our weekly gatherings here are so important and crucial for us and for our souls. It is a time when we collectively give thanks; when we celebrate Eucharist, which means “Thanksgiving.” We count our many blessings and we acknowledge that it is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. The great medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart believed that praising the Lord and giving thanks was so vital that he said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” Gratitude is the most effective weapon against jealousy and envy.
Although there are many ways to interpret Jesus’s cleansing of the temple, this morning I want to suggest that this is actually Jesus’s way of going to battle against the green-eyed monster, who especially loves to poison places of worship with the venom of envy. It is so easy for churches and temples to become places of spiritual and social competition where we are tempted to show off how holy and generous and self-sacrificial we are; where we might be tempted to envy others who seem to have more than us. In Jesus’s day, the wealthy people could show off their affluence and prestige by purchasing a cow or an ox for the temple sacrifice while poor people could usually only afford a dove or pigeon. Jesus likely sensed that the temple was becoming an incubator for envy rather than a house for worship and thanksgiving; and just as he had exorcised demons with his authority here he was casting out the green-eyed monster with zeal and righteous anger. And he was angry because places of worship are some of the few places that exist primarily for the purpose of inspiring awe and arousing deep gratitude for God’s many blessings and gifts. And if our churches and temples become poisoned with envy, jealousy and competition, then we are in deep trouble. And so Jesus was willing to overturn tables in order to protect these sacred places from such poison.
If anyone is still wondering what to do for Lent this year, I highly recommend fasting from envy and feasting on gratitude. I invite us to praise God and express our gratitude by giving generously (not in order to show off our wealth or to compete with others) but so that we can enter more deeply into that ever-giving flow of divine munificence, which we do every time we bring our gifts to the altar and say, “All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.”
In our Collect, we prayed that God defend us from “all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” I pray that God may defend each of us from the green eyed monster, which doth the mock the meat it feeds on; and I pray that we may each experience God’s blessings and abundance today more deeply by simply giving thanks. Amen.