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The Fifth Commandment and Envy

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Our present meditation will be on envy. Remember we are reflecting on the fifth commandment of the Decalogue, which in the text of the Old Testament simply says, “You shall not kill.” We saw in our last meditation that Christ elevated the Old Testament understanding of this precept by going to the root of homicide.

Homicide has two roots: they are anger and envy. Anger, we saw, is the inordinate desire for revenge. Someone hurts us, or offends us, or causes us suffering, humiliation, or pain, and our instinctive urge is to some how “pay back”, “lash back”, “strike back”, if only by closing the eyes or gritting the teeth.

But, there is a second root to homicide and that is envy. Our present meditation therefore will be on envy, where the word itself comes from the Latin, envidia, for which we have the English equivalent “envidious”, or more commonly, envious.

We ask ourselves the following four questions: What is Christ’s teaching on envy? What is envy? What are some of the consequences of envy? And this being a retreat; what are the remedies for the vice? And it is a vice, the vice of envy.

First then, Christ’s teaching. Although implied in so much of what Christ taught in the gospels, His most detailed explanation and condemnation of envy occurs almost at the end of His public ministry. This teaching comes in the form of a parable. It is the parable of the laborer in the vineyard; specifically it is in Mathew 20, the first sixteen verses. Because it's (and I don’t use the adjective casually) it's critical, fundamentally important in the spiritual life to know what envy is. I think we should read all sixteen verses:

The kingdom of heaven is like a house holder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. And having agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard, and about the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the market place idle, and he said to them, “Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just.” So, they went and again he went out and about the sixth and about the ninth hour, and did as before. But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing about and he said to them, “Why do you stand here all day idle?” They said to him, “Because no man has hired us.”He said to them, “Go you also into the vineyard.” But, when evening had come the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages beginning with the last and even to the first.
Now when they, of the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius, and when the first in their turn came, they thought they would receive more. But they also received each his denarius. And on receiving it they began to murmur against the householder saying, “These last have worked a single hour, and you put them on a level with us who have borne the burden of the day’s heat.” But answering one of them he said, “Friend I do you no injustice. Did you not agree with me for one denarius? Take what is yours and go. I choose to give to this last, even as to you. Have I not a right to do what I choose, or are you envious because I am generous? Even so, the last shall be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.

Unquote Christ in this critical parable of our faith.

So we ask ourselves, what is Christ telling us in this parable? Let’s briefly synthesize. The owner of the vineyard hires laborers at different times of the day, to be exact, five different times. Early in the morning, at the third hour, at the sixth hour, at the ninth hour, and then just before sunset at the eleventh hour.

Each of the five groups of laborers receives the same wage, a denarius. No labor union in the world would settle for that, except here the employer is God.

The owner, how wise of our Lord, the perfect story teller. Christ tells us the owner starts to pay those who worked only one hour. He gives them one denarius, goes down the line (or should we say, goes up the line), when he comes to pay those who had been working all day, to be exact (I counted them) eight hours. That is where the eight hour day started, isn’t that good to hear? They couldn’t believe it, they put their hand out and they too got one denarius.

Understandingly, they complained, “How come we who have sweated all day are getting only as much as those loiterers who put in a measly (and if they are hired at the eleventh hour they probably didn’t even put in sixty minutes of work) and they got as much as those who had worked hard all day long.

The response of the owner is the response of God. And God is speaking to all of us. “Are you envious because I am generous?” This in summary, and what a summary is Christ teaching on envy.

Having seen the revealed truth about envy we now ask ourselves, that what theology is, trying to understand what God has revealed. What is envy? Envy is sadness, or discontent at the excellence, good fortune or success of another person. Envy implies that I consider myself somehow deprived, but why deprived? Deprived by what I envy in another person, and even, incredibly that an injustice has been done to me, because that person has what I lack, or has succeeded at what I have failed.

Forty-five years in the priesthood have taught me a lot! One thing I have learned, the root cause of most of the conflict among human beings is envy. Notice envy is not only sadness that someone has some desirable talent or possession, nor certainly is envy the ambition to equal or surpass another person which can be praise worthy emulation. Somebody has what I lack. Why do I lack, because I am lazy? I get moving. That is laudable. That is emulation.

Envy is not the same. Envy is not the same as jealousy, which implies unwillingness to share what I have, my possessions or gifts, whether natural or supernatural, whether physical or spiritual, with someone else. That is jealousy, holding on.

The most serious sin of envy is sadness that the supernatural gifts or graces that another person has received from God, in other words, the most grievous sin of envy is the envy of sanctity. Let me tell you, though I wrote the text for this meditation this morning, it is forty years in the making.

So we ask ourselves (next question) what are the results of envy? The consequences of envy are past counting. They are (and we may honestly say) a summation of all the evils in revealed history. The most authoritative treatment of the subject of envy written in the first century by Pope St. Clement I in his letter to the Corinthians. Read it! Mind you, first century. Even before the New Testament was completed. It is with emphasis part of the Church’s tradition.

Saint Clement begins his warning to the Corinthians, quarrelsome, with odds with one another, no peace, no harmony. “In the name of God,” he tells them “get hold of yourselves. You are envious of one another.” Then he explains it was envy of God that caused the fall of the angels. The devils came into existence through envy and you could not be either more fundamental or more crucially emphatic than that. That is how hell came into being - through envy.

Again, it was envy which brought on the fall of our first parents. The devil envied their happiness. Their happiness, and you may say our happiness, the descendents of our first parents. So what did the devil do? How shrewd, he tempted Eve, she tempted Adam. He brought sin into the human race.

I like the Dominican, Saint Vincent Ferrer's comparison between Christ’s identification of His followers and the devil’s identification of his followers. Says Christ, “By this, shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another as I have loved you.” The devil says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you envy one another as I have envied you.”

The Old Testament from Cain up to the dawn of Christianity: envy. Cain murdered his brother Abel out of envy. Saul tried, shall we say desperately, to murder David. Why? Because David was successful. David was popular. Saul, though king, was ignored. No position in life, no state in the Church, no profession, no state of life is exempt from the virus of envy.

Here is envy and all of this and much more is in Pope St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians. It was envy that caused the Scribes and Pharisees to persecute Christ, hound Him and finally bribe Judas to betray Him, and finally had Him crucified on Calvary. The cross and envy go together. So the litany of the consequences of envy resound.

In summary, and again in the Church’s theological analysis of the vice of envy, especially five consequences of the vice of envy:

Envy causes hatred of the person envied, where hatred is the opposite of love. You don’t love those who you envy.
Secondly, envy arouses criticism of the envied person. Criticism in the mind, criticism in the lips, criticism in speech, criticism in writing. Ah, how much of world literature (how well I know) is the literature of envy.
Third, detraction of the envied person’s character. All kinds of ideas the envious mind will concoct, to a point where the envious one won’t even realize that he or she is telling a lie.
Fourth, resentment at the envied person’s possession, prosperity, praise or achievement. I have dealt with too many souls, great souls, holy souls, struggling souls, let me tell you, envy is at the root of most people’s problems in dealing with others. And most people don’t even know they are envious.
Fifth, how strange, how strange sin can be. One of the consequences of envy, and the Church has been teaching this, I repeat, since the first century: joy that the envious person has [at] some misfortune or adversity [of another]. You don’t explain this, you believe it, and let me tell you, we better believe it.

All of this, the five principle consequences of envy that have brought, as faith tells us, tragedy first, on the very angels of God who envied their maker; on the human race through the envy of the evil spirit and among human beings in families. Husband envying his wife, the wife envying her husband. In the Church, the laity envying priests. And having taught my Jesuits for twenty-five years, how well I know. I like to tell what was not just an episode but was a twenty-five year experience. First year theologian whom I was teaching comes into my room, I am counseling them. Valedictorian in his graduation class from the University. The end of the Society of Jesus is the novitiate class, five valedictorians. Ah, how people can envy another person’s intelligence.

And now some remedies. In our next meditation (You say father please enough is enough). We have one more meditation on the fifth commandment. And the next meditation we shall consider the virtue and practice of charity.

Charity in the last analysis is THE remedy for envy. But concretely, to cure ourselves of envy, the masters of the spiritual life recommend the following: First, think kindly of the person you are tempted to envy.

And for some people this can be their most difficult and demanding mortification. Controlling of our thoughts!

Secondly, to overcome the vice of envy, act kindly to the person who you are tempted to envy. The key word there is kindly, willingly, generously, lovingly. It is remarkable how differently we can deal with different people. Pardon me, how differently we can deal with different people, how differently we do deal with different people. With some we spontaneously smile.

Third recommended remedy, do good to the person that you are tempted to envy. That is a little more than just acting kindly. You might say to yourself, “What can I possibly do for this person, she’s got everything?” Well, not quite. It may take some, well, some sifting, some self inquiring. And the one thing that every person wants, no matter how gifted, everyone wants to be loved. Everyone? Everyone! Even those who don’t need the good, well, that we want to do for them. Like who? Like God! God needs nothing we can possibly give Him, but He wants us to love Him.

Finally, if we are to conquer the demon of envy in our lives we must cultivate the habit of praying. And this I tell you can be hard, I dare say, even selectively praying for those who I am most inclined because of my fallen human nature to envy.

I like to close with an observation of Saint John Chrysostom. He tells us there is a double crown for those (please God all of us with God’s grace conquer, and he uses the word and the Church regularly uses the term, the demon of envy.)

That is how the angels became demons. Envy is demonic. Says Chrysostom, “The first crown that we gain from God through overcoming our envy is a crown of victory over the devil, and the second crown is a crown of selfless charity.”

When people tell me they want to practice mortification. “What are you doing now?”

“Well, one day a week I don’t eat anything until after sunset.” “Good idea, how is your health?”

Oh how shrewd, how creative we can be in finding ways of practicing mortification. Ah, the most demanding mortification in our lives is to mortify our self love by not envying those, from whom God who is all good has obviously (so we think) given more than He has given us.

Lord Jesus, if there is one sin that You made clear would deprive us of Your friendship, it is the sin of envy, but Lord we know ourselves too well not to realize we cannot overcome this vice by ourselves. With your grace we need your mercy so that by our conquering our tendency to envy others we will prove our deep love for you, because dear Jesus you are our God and you have a right to give every one what you want to give. And you forbid us to question your generosity by our practice of envy. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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