Pentecost 21 C: Envy, the Primal Sin

The readings for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4

Psalm                    Psalm 119:137–144


Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Isaiah 1:10–18

Psalm                    Psalm 32:1–7

New Testament     2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12

Gospel                   Luke 19:1–10

The Gospel lesson today is about how the people of Jericho  grumbled when Jesus decided to go to the house of Zacchaeus. It is a story about the Bible’s primal sin, which is not dirty sex, but envy.

Envy is such a bad thing precisely because it poisons our heart against God’s grace. It’s what caused Cain to murder his brother Abel, who’s offerings God enjoyed. It’s what made Esau want to kill Jacob, and Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. It’s what made the brother of the prodigal son sulk rather than join the great homecoming party. And it’s the central reason the scribes and the Pharisees were bitter when the saw Jesus feasting with notorious sinners.

Envy finds its reasons. The residents of Jericho had their pick with this man, Zacchaeus. He was rich, he was a chief tax collector, and he was small. You don’t have to be poor to envy the rich. I can vouch for the fact that, even if you are quite comfortable, well provided for, and middle class, you can walk into Bahia Mar yacht basin in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and immediately fantasize of blowing up all those gaudy symbols of excess. Wealth is its own reason. I had that conviction when I was a very young man, I can still taste it to this very day.

Surely landing sunny side up enough to be that rich makes you unworthy of the love of the humble Messiah on his way to the cross!

The second strike Zacchaeus has against him is being a chief tax collector. We have all heard enough stories of thick headed, cold hearted bureaucrats and smarmy politicians, that run the world. We absolutely know that all of them are treacherous hypocrites. If nothing is as certain as death and taxes, then surely nothing is more hated than a man who is not only a tax collector, but the chief of them all!

Finally, Zacchaeus even looks the part. He is short. Sure, we know raw and reflexive prejudice is wrong. We mustn’t judge a book by its covers. But if we already know Zacchaeus is rich and a CHIEF tax collector, aren’t we warranted in agreeing with  Randy Newman’s song: “Short people got no reason to live.” And surely, short, fat and sassy bureaucrats don’t deserve to have Jesus say, “I must reside at your house today.”

Envy is the primal sin because it poisons our hearts toward the joy of God over a repentant sinner. It keeps us from appreciating just how deep and wide the love of God is. The heroes of the Bible are all tainted by envy. If they are gentile they envy the blessing of Israel and the Jews. If they are Israelite and Jewish they envy the blessing God wants to share with all the other nations.

And all of this distorts the great subtext of the Bible: the blessing of the unblessed. Yes, Jesus is of the seed of Abraham, and the blessing threads through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and on down the line. But Ishmael, Esau, and Joseph’s brothers are also blessed (with a bit of cursing thrown in for good measure). And Matthew sprinkles among the men of his family tree of the Messiah a quartet of dubious women: the Canaanite, Tamar; the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab; the Moabite, Ruth; and the adulterous wife of the Hittite hero, Uriah.

Envy seethes below the surface of our politics today; but from below it surely makes the pot boil. It is what fires up the base, as they say. So, we blow the dog whistles about the deep state, the elite, and all of those other chief tax collectors who rig everything against us little people. And we hate to think that affirmative action, the abolishment of cash bail, or anything else that would give a leg up to those who never earned it or don’t deserve what we already have is either called for or part of the American dream.

But even worse is the way envy keeps us from rejoicing over God’s grace, which is, by definition, unearned and undeserved. None of us deserve it. We are all unattractive sinners.

Jesus is saying, “Zacchaeus’s life matters.” He eats with tax collectors and sinners to proclaim that their lives matter. God is calling to all humanity that the lives of gays and trans-sexuals matter. And surely, Black lives matter. Envy then boils up in our hearts to make us find reasons to grumble: “Well what about me? What about white, straight, Christian lives? Where is our blessing? Don’t we matter?”

I heard a wonderful Black preacher put it this way, “God’s love breaks through every box we want to put it in. It breaks through our reasons. So, you can have all of it. I can have all of it. And there is still a whole lot of it left over.”


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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