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Whenever I’m driving through unfamiliar urban terrain, the same line from the Bible comes to mind. I don’t have to conjure it; it just comes “as the sparks fly upward,” to quote Job. Here it is: “In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune.”
Not very lofty, right? Not “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), or “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you” (Psalm 91:11).
I mumbled it under my breath the other day while behind the wheel, my husband riding shotgun. He knows the Bible well, but thought I made that one up or got it from a fortune cookie. But it’s really in there: Job 12:5.
Something about misfortune wakens the dark gods in the blood.
Old Job, you recall, was the guy in some “misfortune,” and his friends were the guys “at ease.” They started sympathetic enough, but something about misfortune wakens the dark gods in the blood. Don’t ask me why—I’m not a psychologist. Some say that on the road it’s the anonymity of being sheathed off from your fellow human in aluminum and steel, but that doesn’t explain it all.
I’ll be making my way down Washington Avenue in Crown Heights when the GPS commands a left turn. I am suddenly thrown on the mercy of a stream of Brooklyn traffic that sees my left turn signal and my desperation, and rather relishes it. “We’ll teach her a good lesson, stupid out-of-towner,” they are thinking. “Let her squirm!”
There’s total amnesia of the fact that they were in that same pickle last week in Queens, begging for mercy from the Queensonians.
Where have we seen this kind of amnesia before?
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts. … One was brought to him who owed him 10,000 talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold. … So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him. … And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him. … But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused … ” (Matthew 18:23-30).
There seems not much daylight in human nature between the pride of the powerful and the humility of the miserable—even if that “power” merely lasts 30 seconds at a Brooklyn intersection. One would think there would be. But the suddenly fortunate man’s pendulum swing to contempt is instantaneous and forgetful of its own recent lowliness. I myself have been snagged in addiction and low in my own esteem. Then when I have wriggled loose of the bondage (perhaps only for a week!), great and unforgiving has been my disdain for the still struggling sister.
It is no incidental element of Jesus’ parable that the first servant meets up with the second servant immediately after his own release from misery: The incomprehensible swiftness with which people forget the compassion they have just received is supposed to catch our attention.
Contempt for misfortune is the worst kind of evil because, unlike revenge, it has not even a twisted form of justice to commend it. Say what you will about Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice for insisting on his pound of flesh. But a deal is a deal, however unwisely entered into and unpalatable its terms and settlement. This matter can at least be argued in court.
But perpetrating cruelty simply because you are in the position to do so, though it gives you no tangible advantage, is the kind of wickedness no unaided human can forgive. An alien love is required.
“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person … but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).