A magician worked on a cruise ship and because he had a different audience each week he could get away with doing the same tricks over and over and over. There was one problem, however. The ship’s captain owned a parrot and the parrot always watched the shows. Eventually it figured out how the magician did all his tricks and during performances began to squawk out things like “Look, it’s not the same hat!”, “He’s hiding the flowers under the table”, and “the entire deck is made up of the ace of spades.” Well, as you can imagine the magician was furious, but because the parrot belonged to the captain there was nothing he could do. Then one day the ship hit an iceberg and sank. As fate would have it, the magician and parrot found themselves alone together drifting on a piece of wood. They stared at each other with hatred but did not utter a word. This went on for an entire day and then another and then another. On the fourth day adrift, the parrot broke down and said, “OK, I give up. What did you do with the ship?”
There is little we enjoy more than seeing a know-it-all, self-promoting, glory-hogging, show-boating so-and-so get taken down a peg or two. There is nothing quite as satisfying as witnessing the downfall of those who think they are better than the rest of us. There is something deliciously tasty about the governor’s trial going on in Richmond. Who doesn’t want to peak behind the ‘Ken and Barbie curtain’ in order to see the mess that was couple’s real life? Most Cleveland Browns fans are praying that Johnny Manziel (their rookie quarterback) will be able to walk on water while the rest of the world will be tuning in in hopes that he sinks like a stone in some glorious fashion.
If you understand this sentiment than you have tapped into a dynamic woven into two of today’s readings from Scripture.
First, there is Joseph, the youngest of twelve brothers and his father’s favorite. He enjoys snitching on his siblings, telling them about dreams he has where they bow down to him, and parading around in a special coat his dad made for him. By the time he tracks them to field where they are tending to the flock, the brothers have had enough of Joseph’s act. At first they plan to kill him, but eventually decide to sell him to a caravan of traders. If you put yourself in their shoes you would believe that Joseph got what was coming to him.
And then there is Peter, the rock on whom Jesus will build his church. The twelve disciples are in a boat, struggling all night to make headway in a storm. As morning approaches they look out over the water and see a ghost walking toward them. They are terrified. The figure shouts out to them, “It is me, Jesus.” That is when Peter pushes himself once again into the limelight and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on the water with you.” He steps out of the boat and onto the water, walking toward Jesus. Only when he looks down and sees what he is doing does he begin to sink. You have to think that the eleven disciples back in the boat were chuckling under their breath as they whispered to one another, “Who does he think he is?”
I suspect that when you boil it all down, the same emotion is driving both Joseph’s brothers and the eleven disciples: the emotion of resentment. While guilt is anger directed at oneself, resentment is anger directed at another for something either they did or did not do. Both groups resented the special treatment received by one of their members. The brothers resented Joseph for lording it over them. I suspect that the disciples resented Peter for taking center stage.
Some resentments are justified, like when we are offended by a governor and his wife who misuse an elected position to feather their own nest. Other resentments are not worth the time, like when we are upset by all the attention given to a star athlete who has yet to prove himself. But all resentments are more destructive to the person who holds them than they are to person who inspires them. Friedrich Nietzche said that nothing on earth consumes a person more quickly than the passion of resentment. Alcoholics’ Anonymous teaches that holding on to resentment in order to hurt another person is like drinking poison in hopes that person will die.
Here is something we should recognize about Joseph’s brothers and the eleven disciples: ultimately, what they resent is the ‘success’ of another. Joseph did not ask to be the favorite son. That was his father’s decision. He did not ask to rule over his brothers one day. That will be God’s decision. Peter did not ask to lead the church. That was Jesus’ decision. He was not showing off when he went out of the water, he just wanted to be close to his Lord.
Do you know who Dave Winer is? He has been called one of the 25 most influential people on the web and one of the 10 inventories of internet technology no one has heard of. Winer developed RSS, which stands for “Real Simple Syndication”, the software behind blogging, podcasting, and much of today’s content distribution. Back in the day he was a simple programmer doing mindless work as just one more interchangeable part of a long line of people writing code. But he was able to see something in the web’s potential that others could not. He wanted to open up its potential to everyone by freeing it from the control of billion dollar business like IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle. He quit his job, formed his own software company, and then developed RSS. Do you know what Dave Winer says should be written on his gravestone? “Who does he think he is?” He writes on his blog that you cannot begin to imagine the demeaning and condescending things people have said to him or about him on account of his success. Resentment runs deep in his critics.
I am convinced that each of us is born with a distinctive temperament and set of gifts that are God given. Through baptism I believe we acknowledge the power of the Holy Spirit to activate these gifts for service in God’s kingdom for the welfare and benefit of all. Each of us has a job to do. Each of us has a role to play. We don’t measure ourselves against others, rather we evaluate ourselves based on how God has equipped us and on what God has called us to do. Think about Jesus’ parable of the talents. What the person given five talents was able to do was not compared to the achievements of the person given ten. The person with five talents was judged based on faithfulness, not volume or outcome. So, if this is true (and I think it is), there is no place for resentment of the success of another.
After graduating from seminary I served as an assistant to two different rectors. Let me just say that they were very different people. One was threatened by the things I did well. He became uneasy if I did something that earned the praise of others. I have known narcissistic priests where everything had to be about them, but this person was not like that. He was more neurotic where everything that happened around him caused him to question his own worth and value. In that environment I found it very difficult to discover, develop, and use my gifts. The other priest I served delighted in the gifts and achievements of his staff. When one of us shined bright he beamed. I have always appreciated his witness and way and have tried to emulate it as best I can.
We are here, each one of us, to build up, not to tear down. I love the imagery of the proper preface in the Eucharistic prayer that says, “through Jesus Christ…, in whom we are built up as living stones of a holy temple.” It suggests that we each have a place and a part. It says that each of our places and parts is determined by Jesus. And it hints that we may need help from others to figure out exactly where that place is and exactly what that part is to be.
Let me leave you with this quote from Henri Nouwen:
Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.