The noun rendered jealousy in our text this morning gets read as envy in every other translation. The difference is jealousy is possessive and desires to keep. Envy has not and bitterly covets. Jealousy is not always a sin. Envy is one of the seven deadliest.
Envy is as old as humanity itself. At the first utterance of the word sin in Scripture, two brothers come to grief over, of all things, an offering given to God. “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The LORD looked with favor on Abel, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. Cain was very angry” and Cain killed his brother. What happened? Was Abel’s offering better or more generous than Cain’s? Or has the Lord always just had this thing for shepherds? It’s hard not to suspect favoritism at work here—the same kind of favoritism that unfairly parcels out beauty, intelligence, ability and opportunity to some but not all. To those who envy, it doesn’t matter whether the other has earned his advantage or simply been blessed out of the blue, Either outcome is totally intolerable.
In Jesus’ most famous parable, another younger brother shockingly seeks his share of inheritance before it’s due—in effect wishing his father dead. And the father consents. This likely meant selling off assets and investments, land, livestock, a house and a barn, and then giving half of it over to his prodigal son whom the father had to know was take it and squander it on what Jesus calls “dissolute living.” After the fortune’s spent, the kid comes groveling back, welcomed home by the father, no questions asked. Who’s the prodigal here? What parenting magazine that would ever commend such irresponsible child-rearing? Where was the mother?
And then there’s the older son, an envious and sanctimonious goody-two-shoes who has a valid gripe. His resentment isn’t against his brother’s inexcusable behavior as much as against his father’s indulgence—a father who had never cooked him even a goat-burger for being the good boy he was. The father tries to comfort his firstborn by reminding him how “all that is mine is yours.” Really? What comfort is that? Of course all you own belongs to me because my share of the inheritance is all you have left. And still he gets a whole cow? Why does the baby in the family always get off so easily?
As you know, this story always cuts too close to home for me as I am the oldest son. The good boy. The pleaser. studied hard to make good grades and win the awards. Played by the rules. Went to church every Sunday. Became a freakin’ minister for Christ’s sake. My little brother? Always got into trouble. Shrugged off school. Questionable relationships. Jail time. Drank too much. Skipped church. My dad felt sorry for him. Helped him start his own construction business. Made him a millionaire. Not that I’m envious.
Just prior to the prodigal parable, we’re read of tax collectors and sinners coming near to hear Jesus. The Pharisees and religious leaders—pleasers and rule-followers—seethed that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. Tax collectors were universally despised in Jesus’ world for their dishonesty and exploitation. Sinners were all those whose behavior excluded them from respectable society—be their sins merely detestable or outrightly criminal. Tax collectors and sinners were prodigal people, not the kind you’re comfortable having sit near you in church.
The Pharisees, by contrast, were well-mannered, devoted and respectable with good reputations. They’re offended that Jesus so blatantly betrays social and religious protocol. But what really ticks them off is how Jesus became so popular for doing it. Here’s the envy. It would have been fine had Jesus been a bad boy himself—like Barabbas, the insurrectionist, in this morning’s passage. But instead, Jesus is hailed as a wise rabbi and wonderworker, an incredible teacher and paragon of virtue with the sort of celebrity the Pharisees strived so hard to attain for themselves. Jesus walks in and steals their lines and their thunder; hogging a righteous limelight they’d labored their whole careers to secure, all by going around dispensing cheap forgiveness and telling stories that never make any sense, making them look bad in the process. The Pharisees can’t stand this guy.
On the Sunday of his last week on earth, Jesus rode into Jerusalem astride a humble colt. He was joyfully hailed by a multitudinous crowd who waved palms and praised him as the promised King to come in the name of the Lord! The Pharisees, furious at what they considered misplaced adulation, demanded Jesus order his followers to cease and desist. But Jesus brushed them off: “If the crowds kept quiet,” he said, “the stones along the road would burst into cheers!” Of all the arrogance! Soon after, Jesus angrily cleared the Jerusalem Temple of those abusing it as a hideout for their greediness and a cover for their sin. “It is written,” Jesus roared, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The religious leaders took this as the offending condemnation Jesus intended. And they began plotting about how to kill him, Scripture tells us, because the people were spellbound by his authority instead of theirs.
You know what envy feels like. You look around the room, compare and can’t bear to behold what you imagine to be the full lives others enjoy: their happy marriages and their successful careers, their perfect children and big bank accounts. They make you sick. If you have to hear one more word about how great their life is you’ll scream. Oh sure, you could delight in their happiness; but why do that when you can begrudge their existence to fuel your own misery? If only they could taste just a bite of your bitterness. Not that you’d ever pray for that to happen. OK, you might. And then when their misfortune finally hits, you can hide your perverse pleasure behind a façade of fake compassion. You never had anything nice to say during their good times, but now that they suffer you are so there for them; not because you care, but because witnessing their pain up close brings you such satisfaction.
It’s possible I’m being a little melodramatic. You judge yourself. After all, Lent is the season for self-examination. We’ve studied and likely committed all Seven Deadly Sins this Lent—gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy and pride—perversions recognized by early Christian monks and later theologians as capital vices that curve our souls in onto themselves, stunting love intended for others and God. Like all sin, these get their energy from the goodness they pervert. Gluttony perverts the goodness of eating and nourishment; lust the goodness of relationship and sex. Greed perverts contentment and sufficiency. Anger perverts the goodness and passion of justice. Sloth subverts joy and sucks the life out of conscientiousness and good work, it doesn’t care about anything. Envy only cares enough to ruin. Envy gets its energy from distorting a healthy sense of self-worth. God loves you, we’re told, but he obviously loves her more. Essential to envy is an unbearable sense of inferiority. Jesus commands you love your neighbor as yourself. But envy can do neither.
The diabolical paradox of envy’s power can be seen in the comparisons we make. We don’t envy Jordan Speith or Justin Rose. Those guys are golfers. You envy your playing partner who always manages to sink those few lucky putts every round while yours always lip out. Envy breeds on proximity; it works at close range. Its target are siblings, co-workers, friends, neighbors—those who are similar to us—only better. Envy is what leads a child to break another child’s favorite toy, or a boss to frustrate a talented employee, or a confidant to spread gossip out of spite. The medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, observed how both charity and envy behold our neighbor’s good. Charity then celebrates the good while envy grieves it and can’t let it go. Frustrated and furious, enviers literally raise Cain in the lives of their rivals.
It’d be pitiful if it wasn’t so pathetic. A young woman had captured my affections my freshman year of college (at the now Six-Time National Champion University of North Carolina, speaking of envy). I’d captured her affections too, so I thought, until one whom I’d considered a friend breezily lured her into his orbit. The ease with which he did this was humiliating enough. Worse was that my rival also belonged to the university cheerleading squad. He got to toss gorgeous girls in the air at football games. Unable to compete with this pompom wielding yahoo, I plotted to make certain any romantic rendezvous with my beloved would be his last hurrah.
Outside the window of her dorm room grew a tall, leafy maple tree, its upper branches providing unobstructed views of any hanky-panky inside. Tipped off that the unscrupulous rah-rah was stopping by after a game, in full uniform no less, I perched myself in the tree to spy—behavior some have since recognized as paranoid obsessiveness, though I preferred to think of it just plain stalking. Jumping Jack showed up as expected and tried to slide his barbaric bones to the couch alongside side my cherished. Envy overwhelmed. In days prior to cellular communication, telephones hung on walls with wires and dials. One hung outside her dorm with which to call in, so I’d scramble down from my perch, run to the phone and ring her room whenever the fiend made a move. These also being the days before answering machines, she’d have to get up to answer, fully dousing cheerleader boy’s amorousness. If I couldn’t have her neither could he. From my perch I easily monitored and marred every advance until he finally got smart and removed the phone from the hook. My only remaining option was to create a distraction. Modesty prevents my reporting the pandemonium caused by pulling that fire alarm.
There is nothing noble about envy. It gains nothing for the envier and provides nothing, and usually deprives nothing, to the envied. It only eats away at your heart. Jesus spoke of its danger. “From your hearts come evil thoughts, murder, greed, malice, envy… All these evils come from inside and defile you.”
Prior to any grief and resentment toward another’s fortune, there is first that recognition of its goodness. This recognition may be painful and instantly contaminated by coveting it, then hating it, and needing to spoil it, but the energy comes from first seeing that the envied thing is enviable because it is good. We like to imagine sin and virtue as binary, a hard and fast boundary in between, right on the one side and wrong on the other. But our hearts are not so clearly partitioned. We do the very things we hate, the apostle Paul admitted, but we usually only hate them after we do them, and then rarely enough to prevent us from doing them again. That we actually can like doing the things we hate is attributable to the entangled delight they bring.
Any antidote to envy requires a transformation of heart; a capacity, as the poet WH Auden put it, “to love without desiring all that you are not.” One way to do this is through hospitality—the kind Jesus showed to tax collectors and sinners. Provocateur Peter Rollins tells a parable of a kindly priest, well-known for his generous geniality toward all.
One day, a demon knocked at the church door and asked the priest whether he’d be welcomed inside. Without hesitation, the priest welcomed the demon into church, whereupon the demon ransacked the sanctuary and cursed all that was sacred. The demon then followed the priest home and inquired whether he might come inside for a bite, and the priest again said, of course, whereupon the demon demolished the table and spit out the food and called the priest every name in the book, which the priest received calmly and kindly.
Finally, at the climax of the parable, the demon made one final test of the priest’s hospitality. “Old man,” it hissed, “you welcomed me first into your church and then into your house. Will you now welcome me into your heart?” “Why of course,” said the priest, “what I have is yours and what I am in yours.” The response stopped the demon dead in his tracks. By giving everything, the priest retained the very thing the demon sought to steal and destroy. Unable to rob the priest of his kindness, the demon slithered away, in defeat.
Such welcome is radical and impossible, as well as prodigal. But as Rollins writes, through trying to offer hospitality to whatever demon is at our door, the demon may well be transformed by the grace we show. Or, we may come to realize that it was not really a demon at all, but just a broken, damaged person like ourselves. Hospitality is fundamentally about “making room,” but the biggest and most important room hospitality makes is room inside our own hearts for others, a willingness to welcome and embrace whomever.
The prodigal father welcomed home his wayward son. Jesus welcomed and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He ate with Pharisees and the religious leaders too. The sinners rejoiced at the inclusion. The religious leaders recoiled in disgust and contempt, envious older brothers who refused to step foot in the house for any party, preferring to stand outside and fume in the yard. “You Pharisees keep clean on the outside,” Jesus warned, “but inside you are full of wickedness.” The only way out of our envy is by way of assuming our own wickedness and wrongdoing—especially when we feel we are right and have done nothing wrong. Virtue requires a continual skepticism of what’s going inside us, a low grade self-suspicion as to the true content of our character. Our hearts can be murky as to motive, shadowed and uncertain, our best intentions tinged by self-interest. Our hearts and our hurts so easily deceive us; we pervert goodness even as we seek to do it.
Every instance of envy is an invitation to join in the outrage and unfairness of grace. It was while we were yet sinners that God in Christ loved us and died for us. It is while we are still sinners that Jesus presses against us, to redeem us and remake us as both lovable and loving. Envy melts in the presence of an open heart. This includes a heart open to what Jesus is doing to us. Embedded within our faith is our belief that God always acts prior to our awareness; that our prodigal Father who loves us knows what we need before we ever ask, and most significantly when we don’t ask or know what we need. But here’s the thing: God’s goodness often comes shaped like a cross—meaning it may neither feel good nor look good. Yet because it is cross-shaped, it resurrects for your good every time.