The End of Envy--Jesus' Death! : Studies in Mark, Pt. 65

Perhaps more than any other scholar, Jerome Neyrey has researched envy and its role within the Gospel of Mark. In a thought-provoking essay, Neyrey surveys Mark’s work with an eye towards elucidating the meaning of Mk. 10.15: “It was ‘out of envy’ (dia phthonon) that they handed Jesus over.” Of course, the “they” here refers to the religious leaders who had been plotting to kill Jesus since the early days of His ministry (Mk. 3.6) and repeatedly trying to trap Him in His words and actions throughout the entirety of His ministry so that such plans might come to fruition (e.g. Mk. 10.2, 11.32, 12.12, 12.14-5, 14.1-2, 14.1-11, etc. *basically all of chapters 11-14).

Of course, envy was a serious matter and was even considered a vice in antiquity. Affiliated with the evil eye (Mk. 722), envy was a way to bring shame, harm, disaster, etc. on one’s opponents. Just as well, in a limited good culture where honor was a most precious commodity, when one gained honor, that meant others lost it. So, when someone like Jesus gained honor, others lost it and thus became envious. Of course, some didn’t react negatively (enviously) but rather sought to emulate Jesus—emulation was the converse of envy in antiquity. So, when we read Mk. 10.15 and run across the statement about Jesus being handed over out of envy, if we allow the ancient cultural matrix to be our guide, one point we will glean is that some who were handing Jesus over probably felt their own honor at stake; to get Jesus out of the picture is to reclaim that honor!

But I want to go another direction with this (one Neyrey doesn't touch on). If we dwell on the social aspect of envy and it being the reason that Mark says Jesus was handed over, we must ask a question about prophecy (in the sense of foretelling). I have argued earlier in this series that Jesus didn’t predict His death (here). Instead, Jesus, having been made aware that people were plotting to take His life from the beginning of His ministry, knew that if He kept it up, the logical consequence would be His death. So, He wasn’t predicting His death in an I’m omniscience, I know the future, super-spiritual sort of way. Instead, as an astute human, He put two and two together and drew a conclusion.

This is the lens through which we should read passages like Mk. 15.10. Jesus knew, as a social personage, as a participant of His limited-good, honor-based society, that the more honor He accrued combined with the religious and political leaders losing honor, would result in them envying Him. The outcome of such envy would be their attempt to regain their honor the only way they knew how—by murdering Jesus. The end of envy was Jesus' death. Jesus knew it was coming and so did others, even if they were reticent to admit it (I’m thinking of people like Peter here, see Mk. 8). Some knew it however, and kept following Him “on the way” (a Markan catch phrase which, to some degree, informs the reader/hearer that people are well aware of what both they and Jesus have gotten themselves into).

So, once again, we see that when Jesus is placed in His ancient cultural milieu, He fits in well; He knows the ins and outs of His society, He knows the limited good, honor versus shame mindsets. Just as well, He knows the powerful role that envy plays. And it is for that reason that we can have greater insight into Jesus, the texts about Him, the world in which He lived and the social, political and group dynamics at work in those days. It is also for that reason that we can choose to subscribe to the Jesus Movement and be emulators instead of enviers. The author of John’s Gospel said it well when he wrote, “I must decrease and He must increase.” Can we say the same (and mean the same thing)? Think on these things!

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