Someone Else Syndrome

Sermon for Sunday, September 21, 2014 || Proper 20A || Matthew 20:1-16

SomeoneElseSyndromeMy twins are not quite two months old, and yet I wonder when they will first look at the other and feel jealous. It might be my imagination, but I swear I’ve seen a barely perceptible glint in my daughter’s eye while she’s rocking away in the mechanical swing and I’m holding her brother – a barely perceptible glint of envy. Her eyes haven’t settled on a color yet, but I would swear in those few moments that they were green.

I can’t imagine there is conscious thought about it, but some instinct of survival tells her that her brother is getting something that she’s not getting, that he’s privy to a better bargain than she, while he’s in my arms and she’s in the swing. They aren’t quite two months old, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a primitive, pre-cognitive jealously rear its ugly head.

Of course, in a year or two, full-fledged active jealousy will come along. She will be playing with a toy and he will decide that toy is far more interesting than the one he is playing with. The green glint will flash across his eye; he’ll push his sister down and take her toy. At that point, he won’t be able yet to distinguish the horrible emotion he felt in that moment of envy, but he’ll feel it nonetheless.

Fast-forward a few more years, and the first day of middle school will come. They will step into school and immediately they will be bombarded by an overwhelming array of new and different ways to compare themselves to others, new and different ways to feel less than those around them, new and different ways to be envious. Someone will be wearing the sneakers he wanted to get, but – wretched parents that we are – we won’t want to spend the money because he’ll just grow out of them next month anyway. Someone will be wearing her hair the way she wanted to get it cut, but (darn it) if her hair just wouldn’t style that way. Too curly, the hairdresser will say.

I see these opportunities for jealousy in my children, and I also see the ancient nature of jealousy in our sacred texts. The first murder in the Bible happens because of Cain’s jealousy of his brother Abel’s sacrifice. Later, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery because they are jealous of his status as their father’s favored son.

Jealously is one of those primal emotions that shows up in our earliest texts and lurks within each of us from an early age. Think back – when was the first time you remember feeling jealous? Someone else had the new Barbie doll. Someone else got picked for the team ahead of you. Someone else had a fruit rollup at lunch and all you had was a lousy vanilla pudding.

It’s this notion of “Someone Else” I want to focus on for the next few minutes. I’d venture to say that a goodly portion of the world’s problems has come about because of “Someone Else Syndrome.” This syndrome attacks on a global scale. Poverty, hunger, access to basic medical care and clean water – they all have their roots in the jealous guarding of resources. After all, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. And yet some have too much and some have none at all. The Someone Else Syndrome attacks on a personal level, as well. Infidelity, covetousness – even bullying – have their roots in our incessant primal need to compare ourselves to others.

The Someone Else Syndrome is so prevalent in society, now and in Jesus’ time, that he addressed it in one of his parables, the one we read today about the landowner who invites workers into his vineyard. At the beginning of the story the landowner negotiates the appropriate daily wage with those who start out early in the morning. He hires more throughout the day, and the last enters the vineyard with not more than an hour left to work.

Up to this point, none of the workers has experienced Someone Else Syndrome yet, but it attacks with the first disbursement of wages. The latecomers receive the full daily wage, which prompts the original workers to expect quite a bit more. They compare themselves to the latecomers: “We worked twelve hours in the heat, while they only worked one. Could we possibly get nearly two weeks worth of wages for one day of work?”

But they are disappointed. They get to the front of the line and receive the same as everyone else. Now, if none of the workers were privy to the pay scale of the others, would the original workers have been jealous? Of course not! They would have received what they were promised and gone about their merry way. The simple fact that they compare themselves – and unfavorably so – to others makes them think they got a raw deal. The Someone Else Syndrome strikes, and jealously blazes up within them.

This Someone Else Syndrome strikes us, as well, all the time. Some of you might have been afflicted by it at breakfast this morning when your spouse nabbed the last of the orange juice. Or when you got to church and someone else was in your pew. I’m sad to say that each of us has a terminal case of Someone Else Syndrome. There is no known cure. But there is a treatment. The treatment involves dedication in prayer, practice of selflessness, and cultivation of the antidote for jealousy.

That antidote is generosity. Generosity comes in two forms. First, generosity flows from us when we share freely out of our abundance, when we don’t let our relentless comparisons to others trick us into thinking our resources are scarcer than they really are. Second, generosity compels us to desire good things for other people, independent of whether we get them, too.

The Someone Else Syndrome makes us think in zero-sum terms; that is, because someone else has something, we can’t have it, and therefore we must feel envious. But the generosity treatment exposes the lie of zero-sum thinking. A generous heart rejoices in the blessings others have received, and this joy leaves no room for jealously to strike. Someone else had the new Barbie doll; well, I’m glad to see her so happy. Someone else got picked for the team ahead of you; well, he was having a bad morning and that just made his day. Someone else had a fruit rollup at lunch and all you had was a lousy vanilla pudding; well, I’m not sure what to say about that one. It seems my generosity treatment is still in the early stages.

But you get the idea. Generosity flips the Someone Else Syndrome on its head. We are all connected to one another, so when one person is blessed, we all are. When we practice generosity, even as the Someone Else Syndrome tells us to be jealous, we access the source of all blessing. We access the love of God, which is the very thing that connects us to the Someone Else we’re supposed to be jealous of. The more we practice generosity, the closer God will draw us to all the Someone Elses in our lives. And the more joy we will share together, in community, in friendship.

So this week, I invite you to start actively combating the Someone Else Syndrome we’ve all had since childhood. Ask God for the strength to practice generosity, to rejoice at the fortunes of others, to share the joy of their triumphs and then to bear with them the pain of their defeats. Don’t let the Someone Else Syndrome cut you off from one of the greatest gifts God has given each of us, but which we fail to receive so much of the time. This gift is the joy made manifest by God’s love connecting each of us, one to the other. This gift is the capacity to rejoice no matter who is the object of good fortune. This gift is a heart overflowing with generosity.

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