Rev. Joseph Keating
25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
In the tradition of Catholic theology, we have this concept of the “seven deadly sins” which goes back to the early centuries of the Church. These seven deadly sins, or capital sins, are grouped together because they are the major sins from which all the lesser sins seem to flow.
Now, it’s not one of the more pleasant aspects of our Faith to focus in on the topic of sin, but I hold that if we are to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ with joy, then we first need to know the bad news. And the bad news is that we are fallen creatures, prone to sin, and that we live in a time of great spiritual conflict.
Last week I spoke a bit about the deadly sin of pride, and today we see that another one of the seven deadly sins is highlighted in today’s readings: the sin of envy. St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as a sorrow, or sadness that we experience when someone else possesses a good. This definition can be parsed in a number of ways, but let’s first take a look at some examples of envy.
We see envy in the readings today, most clearly in the Gospel reading. The Apostles start bickering with one another, and Jesus overhears them. When they arrive in Capernaum, and get settled in at the house, Jesus calls them on it. He already knows what they were arguing about. They were discussing who among them was the greatest, which means they were comparing themselves to one another. You can call it ambition if you like, but it starts off with the Apostles noticing the inequalities that exist among them, and then it leads to an argument—a grappling for equality.
We see envy in ourselves, too, and it frequently comes to us in subtle ways. When we start comparing ourselves to others, this is the beginning of envy. If we notice ourselves saying, “he’s smarter than me, she’s more beautiful that me…” Watch out! This way of thinking is the Devil’s playground.
Now sure, there’s always going to be someone smarter, stronger, prettier, wealthier than us. The danger is that we each buy into the lie that I should be the best. I should be the smartest one in the room. I should be the funniest. I should be the most athletic. And to be the best, I’ve got to take all of you down.
This is the essence of envy: a disparity in some good, combined with the belief that I should have this good. I’m entitled to this good. I have a right to this good.
This way of thinking is so powerful a sin that entire political systems are based on it. I’m thinking especially of Marxism, which begins from the idea that the history of humanity hinges on a number of revolutionary moments. If humanity is to progress as a species, it must usher in the next revolution. And the revolution will be sparked by the common people rising up against the institutions of power and seizing power back from them. And what will drive them to rise up? An acute awareness of their own poverty, and the belief that the rich are the ones responsible for their poverty. They believe that the rich have grown wealthy by exploiting the lower classes, and so their wealth is illegitimate and unfair. The wealth should rightly belong to those who are currently poor. In short, it is a system that runs entirely on envy.
Karl Marx’s contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche also saw the world thru the lens of power. He believed that the old Christian moral system was completely broken and outdated, and that a new morality must arise. This morality was based not on the categories of good and evil, but on relationships of power. In his view, the measure of human flourishing was the ability to exercise one’s own free will to the greatest extent, and the more power one has, the freer he is. Of course, a logical consequence to this theory is that in order to gain power, one must take it from the ones who currently have power. This, too, is envy.
And this is the bad news. We live in a society that has accepted these philosophies. Western civilization, which was built on Christian ideals of morality and human flourishing, is now being threatened by political ideologies that run on envy. It seems that the second reading, from the Epistle of St. James, was written specifically for the situation in which we find ourselves:
Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions
that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3).
Our system of governance was designed for a virtuous citizenry led by self-control, not a vicious one led by our passions. A people enslaved to its own passions is a people incapable of governing itself. For the Christian, each time we tune into a political speech, we must ask ourselves if this candidate is trying to manipulate us by playing into our human tendency to envy one another. A society based on envy will not stand. Just as envy is deadly to the individual’s soul, so also it is deleterious for the soul of society. The society that will stand is one based on charity, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Now that we’ve covered the bad news, the Good News is that there is a remedy for envy.
As I mentioned before, the definition of envy is a feeling of sadness when someone else has something good. Now, let’s say for example, that Stephen is a great violinist, and for some reason this makes me sad. It ought to make me happy for Stephen, but I am sad because I am not a great violinist. In fact, I don’t play the violin at all. If the cause of my sadness is that I wish I was a great violinist, and I am not, then this realization can drive me to practice my fingers to the bone until I am a great violinist. And this is not envy, but rather it is zeal. And zeal is a good thing, because it can lead us into virtue.
But if, in the same example, I was sad precisely because Stephen is better than me at the violin, then this envy, properly speaking. I mention this because the line between envy and zeal is such a fine one. If we can change our way of thinking just slightly, from envy to zeal, then we escape the realm of sin and journey towards virtue and flourishing. The key difference is whether I start comparing myself to Stephen and, in my ambition, desire to tear him down. Rather, the zealous person takes the initial sadness and turns it into a drive for personal excellence.
And this turning from envy to zeal is part of the remedy. The rest of the solution is not just to aim for our own good, as zeal does, but to rejoice in the good of our neighbor. To continue our example: when Stephen plays Vivaldi flawlessly and it makes me joyful instead of sad, then I know that envy is not in me. Or take it from Sacred Scripture, as the first letter of St. John says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14).
This love for our brethren, especially when they possess some good, is the realm of charity. Since envy is a sin against charity, the remedy is doing acts of charity. As Jesus himself said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all, and the servant of all.” That is, if we find ourselves comparing ourselves to others, jockeying for social position, or passive-aggressively plotting their demise, then stop, get a hold of yourself, and decide to do an act of charity for that person. And then do it. The result is that we retrain the way we think about that person. It changes our selfish ambition into selfless support of our neighbor. It changes sorrow into joy. It changes deadly poison into life-giving virtue.
Today, we may take some time to examine the ways in which we allow envy to control our thoughts. We resolve today to root out envy, and instead to be people of zeal and charity. A people that rejoices in our neighbor’s good, and pursues the way of virtue. This way is the road to true happiness.