“Jealous for God”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen (Sorry this is late but my computer at church gave out yesterday. After it is checked out tomorrow there may be a funeral … ):

First Kings 19:14-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Two of this Sunday’s Scripture lessons contain the word “jealous.” The two instances reveal two very different uses of the word that can be found in the Bible. On the one hand, a person can be said to be jealous for something or someone. If the object is God or some good cause, the person is held in high esteem. On the other hand, a person can be said to be jealous of something or someone. In this instance, the person is involved in sinful activity.

Crabbs’ English Synonyms defines the two uses of the word by saying that jealousy is either “a noble or an ignoble passion according to the object…it can be emulation sharpened by awe or greediness stimulated by fear.” I am not sure that I can fully agree with the first part of the definition. Even if the “object” is God, the jealousy can be good or evil. It is interesting that the prophets were jealous for God, wanted to be like Him, and God’s grace flowed through them like streams of cool, refreshing rain. Adam and Eve were jealous of God, wanted to be like Him, and got us all in hot water.

The first use of the word comes in Sunday’s first lesson. Elijah boldly and rather proudly proclaimed: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.” He believed he was the only prophet of God still alive in Israel–perhaps the only person who was genuinely jealous for the Lord. God pointed out that there were 7,000 faithful in Israel! He also pointed out that there was another man with a similar name, as well as a similar zeal and commitment. Elijah found Elisha and placed his mantle on the younger man’s shoulders. Elisha accepted the call and responsibility without reservation.

Apparently Elisha owned a large farm. When the prophet found him, he was plowing a field behind a yoke of oxen, and there were eleven other yoke of oxen working the same field! This is big business– hardly the typical little family plot of land. Yet, the fledgling man of God is more than ready to leave it all behind. He asked and received Elijah’s permission to say his good-byes to family and friends. Then he butchered his two work animals, used the yoke as fuel and cooked them. He fed his family and fellow-workers with these “burned bridges.” Then he kissed his father and mother and left to become
a prophet of God.

The second use of the word “jealous” comes in the Epistle lesson. Paul listed both jealousy and envy (two sides of the same coin) among the works of the flesh. Angus Wilson also listed jealousy in the book, The Seven Deadly Sins. Most works of the flesh offer the sinner some kind of profit: pleasure, material gain, power, revenge, etc. Wilson wrote that jealousy has nothing to offer, no satisfaction at all; it is “impotent, numbed with fear, and knows no gratification save endless self-torment.”

The strange thing is that some people seem to think that this kind of jealousy is good. A husband may think that his jealousy is proof of the depth of his love for his wife. The wife may even agree, and deliberately flirt with other men in an attempt to “make him jealous.” In reality, the jealousy is the result of his own insecurity in their relationship. Her flirting in order to get affirmation is motivated by a similar insecurity.

People who are secure in their relationships do not feel complimented by their partner’s jealousy. Quite the opposite, they feel complimented when others find their partners to be as interesting or attractive as they do! We become jealous when our view of ourselves is threatened. It is a feeling of inadequacy. It is selfishly motivated, self-deprecating and self-tormenting, good for nothing and no one. It should never be confused with righteous indignation that is motivated both by and for the other–particularly when the “other” is God.

How do we go about developing within ourselves the positive and good emotion that Elijah described as being jealous for God? The call of Elisha is echoed in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, but there are some very significant twists to the story. The Gospel begins with the green-eyed monster of jealousy raising its ugly head in some Samaritans–they rejected Jesus because He was headed for Jerusalem! This could be cause for some serious righteous indignation. The disciples thought so and were ready to call down fire from heaven to consume the rascals. Jesus chose to handle the sinners in typical form–with compassion, mercy and understanding. He cooled the disciples down and continued His journey.

The next paragraph in the story contains the parallels to Elisha’s call. Would-be followers of Jesus are confronted with the costs of discipleship. Jesus pointed out that His entourage was not exactly on the Hilton circuit. As a matter of fact they were not even on the Holiday Inn, budget, or cut-rate circuits: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head.” One fellow wanted to go, but needed to delay for what should have been an understandable, even urgent, reason–to bury his father. Jesus seems cold and heartless when He says, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Finally, one fellow was willing to follow, but requested exactly the same thing that Elisha asked of Elijah: “First let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus answered him with another thought reminiscent of Elisha: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Wow, if you can’t even have a roof over your head, bury your father, or say goodbye to your family, maybe being jealous for God is too much to ask! Then again, maybe Jesus was just more straightforward than we are with people who always make an excuse, but never make a commitment.

A few years ago, I received a letter from a friend, telling me that her father had died. The letter arrived on the exact same day that my father arrived at my home for a visit from Florida. The contrast between her pain and my joy is related to the distance between East and West. Fortunately, her father walked with God in this life and they are surely not strangers in the next. A peculiar joy that the world cannot know is mixed into a Christian’s grief and sorrow. Yet, how could Jesus say to such a one, “Let the dead bury their dead”?

The answer is that He didn’t say that to “such a one.” A few years ago, as I studied this passage, this one potential follower captured my attention above all else. I kept thinking how I would feel if Jesus were to put the hammer on my grief as He appears to have done to this man. I kept thinking that Jesus would never do that! After a long bout with those same thoughts about Jesus, I finally thought about the man himself and his circumstances.

I tried to put myself in his sandals. It was a very enlightening experience, because it finally dawned on me that my feet and sandals would not have been out on that road at all if my father had just died. I’d have been home making funeral arrangements! It struck me that Jesus knew this fellow was hedging and grabbing for a plausible excuse, but any of us could have guessed the same thing.

A professional fundraiser and enlister of volunteers has said that the simplest and most obvious observations are usually true. If we find ourselves rationalizing and making excuses about why we cannot make this or that commitment, it is usually because we don’t want or don’t intend to do it. First we need to distinguish between our idle wishes and our sincere wants. Then we need to be honest with ourselves and others. Wishes are like daydreams–pleasant, perhaps even delightful and innocently unproductive. Wants ought to be limited to those things that are within our potential and they should be systematically pursued.

I can wish I were seven feet tall, could run a three-minute mile and lose 20 pounds. I can only want one of those and if I do, I will watch what I eat and drink and start exercising! Some wants have to be postponed or denied because greater wants have priority.

God wanted to reconcile the world to Himself. He sent Jesus to make it happen, but in His wildest dreams He did not wish that Jesus would have to die. Jesus wanted to demonstrate His love and forgiveness for you and me, but He certainly did not wish for thorns and nails and slow suffocation.

This is the God for whom I want to be jealous and to whom I want to be committed. His is the Good News I will preach and tell. I will support and serve His mission with my money, my words and with all the other gifts He gives me. I will not use some other person’s or organization’s inadequacies as a selfish excuse for hoarding my money, ability or time. I know that only God can make me what I want to be, so I will pray without reservation, “God make me jealous for you.”

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