Genesis 37:12-27 & Luke 10:25-37

Envy and Compassion

This morning we’re continuing our series looking at heroes and villains in the Bible, and how their stories can help us root out vices in our lives, and to encourage virtues. Our heroes and villains today are some of the most well known in the whole of the Bible. Andrew Lloyd-Webber has helped popularise the story of Joseph and his brothers, and the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most retold, written about, and preached on parables that Jesus told.

We’re going to look at these stories to help us explore envy and compassion, how we can recognise them, how we can pray about them, and how we can escape envy and cultivate compassion.

So, to start with, how about some basic, simple definitions. It seems to me that in essence:

Envy is about resenting someone because they have something and I don’t. Compassion is about blessing someone with something I have and they don’t.

Envy is about resenting someone because they have something and I don’t. Compassion is about blessing someone with something I have and they don’t.

Envy is likely to be as satisfied by seeing the other person lose what they have, as by me gaining it. If I’m envious of a friend’s new TV, then I’d be happiest if I got a new TV as well (preferably better than theirs) but I’d also be pretty happy if their TV broke down. It’s not pretty, envy.

Compassion delights in seeing the other person go beyond me. If I know someone who doesn’t have what I have, and they need it, compassion gives it to them, even if it leaves me short. It’s not just about levelling the playing field, it’s not just about giving up my advantage, it’s about giving that advantage to someone else. Compassion is truly beautiful.

Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that. There are all the feelings that go with envy and compassion. They’re the kind of feelings that we feel with our gut.
In the eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life, it is often said that “he had compassion on someone”. Literally the word means gut-wrenched. When we talk about strong feelings we sometimes talk about being “sick to the stomach”. These can be feelings of envy – I’m sick to my stomach of seeing Bob swanning about in his new car. Or they can be feelings of compassion – It makes me sick to my stomach to think about those refugee children crossing the channel in those tiny boats.

So, with those ideas of envy and compassion in mind, lets look at these two famous stories.

Firstly that of Joseph and his brothers. There is, as always, some back story here. Joseph was one of twelve brothers, all sons of Jacob, but the 12 brothers had four different mothers. Joseph and Benjamin, the two youngest, were the only two of the brothers to be born to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was still a child, so Joseph, on the cusp of adulthood at seventeen, was his father’s favourite.

That’s why he was given the famous multi-coloured cloak. But, he wasn’t very popular with his brothers. He told tales on them to their father, and shared dreams he had about them all bowing down to him. He was a walking cliché, a spoiled, arrogant, entitled, teenage boy.

His older brothers envied him. They saw the way their father favoured him, they resented the nice things he was given, his privileged place in the household, and they wanted to put an end to it all, an end to him. So, regardless of the consequences, they sold him into slavery. They had no compassion on Joseph, or on their father. They were just focussed on taking him down. It’s not pretty, envy.

What about the story of the Good Samaritan? We often focus on the religious types as the villains of this story, more concerned about their ritual purity than the poor guy dying on the side of the road. But what about the thieves?
They saw an isolated man, who had something they wanted, they envied him and robbed him, beating him in the process. No compassion.

In contrast we see the practical compassion of the good Samaritan, the one who saw someone who wasn’t like him, who had a different culture and a different religion, and saw past all that to care for his pain and hurt, and to bring relief and healing. And not just short term crisis management, but long term provision until he was fully back on his feet. Compassion is truly beautiful.

These are great illustrations of the principles of envy and compassion, but they can feel a long way off. We’re not often faced with the temptation to sell our brother into slavery, or the opportunity to help someone who’s just been beaten up and robbed.

So, to give a practical, down to earth example, let’s look together at some pictures similar to some of those that have appeared on my Facebook feed over the last week or so, and my reaction to them. Here’s the first batch – lots of sunny holidays in lovely places, with some great family activities described and shared. Here’s the second batch – news stories of disasters, crises, and challenges.

I wonder how you feel when you see these kind of pictures on your Facebook feed, or when you hear people talking about their holidays or hear on the news about these difficult situations.

I have to confess that my reaction to this first set is often one of envy. Of course, I’m glad for my friends that are able to get out and about and have a great time – I’m not that mean spirited, but there is a sadness that our family holiday was booked for earlier in the year, that we missed it, and I’m envious. I don’t share this because I want sympathy, but just to give an example of how envy can sneak in if we’re not aware of it.

And what about the second set? Definitely not envy this time, but if I’m honest not often compassion either. I scroll past them quickly, not really wanting to think about them, not really wanting to engage, because I don’t want to feel sad, I don’t want to feel powerless, I don’t have the energy to engage. I pass by on the other side.

Earlier on I talked about the gut feelings associated with envy and compassion. As some of us have discovered in lock down, things of the gut grow when we feed them. I’ve put on half a stone and had to let my belt out a notch. Things of the physical gut grow when we feed them, and so do emotions of the gut. So, this leaves us with a couple of questions. If we want to cultivate compassion, how do we feed it? If we want to escape envy, how do we starve it?

It seems to me that the first thing is to recognise it and be honest with ourselves. I don’t think anybody likes to think of themselves as envious, so we don’t admit it, even to ourselves. When we do, I wonder if gratitude and blessing are a helpful antidote. When we see someone enjoying something, and feel ourselves beginning to resent it, how would it be if we talked to God about it, rather than muttering away to ourselves, or grumbling to others. We can be honest, we can tell God that we’re struggling, that we want something, we can also pray that the person who has it will be blessed by it. Bringing envy to Jesus is the surest way of escaping it.

And what about cultivating compassion, how do we feed that? Again, it seems to me that we need to choose to see, and not to look away. To engage and not to pass by on the other side. We may not be able to meet every need ourselves, but there are some that are ours to meet, and we shouldn’t allow the fact that we can’t do everything to stop us doing something. It’s not always about things or what we can do, sometimes compassion is expressed in spending time with people and listening. The deepest wells of compassion are found in the heart of God, and when we’re struggling, we can always go to God and ask for a deeper compassion and more profound love for those around us. Asking for Jesus’ compassion is the surest way of cultivating it.

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