The green-eyed monster

No, this isn’t about the Incredible Hulk (though that might be fun).

It’s about jealousy, the “green-eyed monster” that can lead us to behave in irrational and even dangerous ways. It’s similar to its cousin, envy, but with an important difference.

We feel jealous when we’re possessive about something that we believe rightfully belongs to us — as when a wife sees her husband turning his affections to another woman. But we feel envious when we desire what someone else has — as when a woman sees how affectionate her best friend’s husband is, and thinks, If only I were married to him

Again, we may feel envious at work when someone else gets a promotion; but we feel jealous when we believe that promotion should have been ours. We may feel envious when we see the neighbor’s ginormous new flat-screen TV; but we feel jealous of the person who got the last one, right in front of us, on Black Friday.

The Bible speaks of jealousy, too, but in terms that don’t quite line up with the way we use the word in English. We have to get some of the meaning from the context.

The apostle Paul, for example, teaches that love “isn’t jealous” (1 Cor 13:4). That’s how the Common English Bible renders Paul’s Greek. Thinking of the wife described above, perhaps we’re supposed to think that if she really loved her husband, she wouldn’t be feel possessive? But the New Revised Standard says that “love is not envious.” That’s not the same thing, not in English, anyway. So which is it?

Both. And neither.

The verb Paul uses, more literally, means “to be zealous,” not “jealous” per se. The word takes on a positive or negative cast depending on the reason for or the object of a person’s zeal. Are we zealous for God and the gospel, as was Paul himself? That’s good. But should we be zealous for other things? Well, it depends.

In Corinth, it seemed that believers were keen on one-upping each other spiritually, showing that they were somehow more spiritual and therefore more worthy in some way. This is the context for translating Paul as saying that love isn’t “jealous” or “envious”: the Corinthian believers’ desire for more impressive spiritual gifts was getting in the way of their love for one another, which was more important by far.

All of this, then, feeds back on how we might read Acts, when Luke tells us that the Jews in various cities persecuted Paul out of “jealousy.” As we’ve seen, on Paul’s first missionary journey, the Jews in Pisidian Antioch were “filled with jealousy” when they saw how many Gentiles had turned out to hear Paul (Acts 13:45, NRSV). Later, in Thessalonica, on Paul’s second missionary journey, the unbelieving Jews “became jealous” when a few of their number and a large number of Gentiles became converts (Acts 17:5). That jealousy led them to stir up an ugly lynch mob against Paul and Silas.

The word, again, in both cases, is “zeal” — a word that in itself can be good or bad, commendable or misdirected. It’s translated in negative emotional terms because the context obviously demands it: the Jews, after all, are rejecting the gospel and persecuting Paul.

But I think we need to preserve a bit of nuance here. This isn’t a horror movie; the Jews who rejected the gospel in Pisidian Antioch and Thessalonica weren’t simply possessed by some green-eyed monster. I suspect that they were convinced — or perhaps I should say, they had convinced themselves — that they were doing the right thing, even the godly thing.

This helps explain, for example, the arrogance of Caiaphas and the high priests in their persecution and crucifixion of Jesus. In part, they were jealous that Jesus had become so popular, and were worried that the Jesus movement threatened their own position (e.g., John 11:47-48). But calculating self-interest doesn’t tell the whole story; the Jerusalem leadership acted on the sadly mistaken belief that they were God’s champions.

Of even more direct relevance for the book of Acts, I believe we can say the same about the zeal of Saul of Tarsus. When Jesus took him by the scruff of his spiritual neck and turned him around, Saul didn’t suddenly lose his zeal. Far from it. Rather, in becoming the apostle Paul, his zeal was redirected: away from the things that he thought had marked him as a righteous man, and toward Jesus and the gospel (cf. Phil 3:3-9).

Why does it matter? Because it helps bring a bit more realism and dimension to the story. In Paul’s conflict with the Jews, it wasn’t simply “good guys versus bad guys,” a Christian evangelist heroically slaying Jewish dragons. The Jews with whom Paul attempted to reason were not his personal enemies. Rather, I suspect that as he looked at them, he thought, I understand you, because I was you.

And it’s this way of seeing that allowed him to bear his suffering with patience, compassion, and love.

If this reading is correct, there’s a moral and spiritual lesson for all of us. Zeal can be a good thing, when properly directed. But we’re quite capable of kidding ourselves into thinking that we’re doing God’s will when we’re not. We experience defensiveness and possessiveness, jealousy and envy, and it colors how we perceive situations and people.

If we refuse to acknowledge it when we feel that way, if we don’t take responsibility for it, we may run roughshod over love and justice — while patting ourselves on the back for being the good guys.