The first reading today reminds me of an incident that took place in my community many years ago when I almost lost my hearing. As a community we were listening to a talk by Dr. Scott Hahn on the Book of Genesis. The talk was recorded during one of his classes at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Now, in our community, we ate most of our meals in silence and we would listen to readings during the meals. Due to a lack of numbers we had to turn to technology in the form of a cassette player to listen to edifying material. And because one of our number was hard of hearing the volume was generally turned up pretty high. Sometimes you tend not to listen too carefully to the reading if you have to concentrate on something complicated like eating spaghetti bolognaise. As the Sisters will no doubt verify this is not an easy meal to eat when you are dressed in a white habit and want to keep it white. Anyway at one point, Dr. Hahn spoke about Cain and Abel, and he asked his students this question: ‘What was Cain feeling towards his brother before he killed him? What was his attitude towards Abel?’ I vaguely remember hearing one brave young man in the background replying that it was ‘Jealousy. He felt jealousy towards his brother.’ Dr. Hahn shouted, NO!! And that’s when I almost lost my hearing. It took me a couple of minutes to get rid of the ringing in my ears. And not only that, we all had red specks of tomato sauce all over our white habits! Dr. Hahn then went on to make a very important distinction: the distinction between jealousy and envy. He said, ‘Cain did not feel jealousy toward his brother, he felt envy towards him, and that was far worse. Jealousy is acquisitive, but envy is destructive. What does he mean by that? Well, if I’m jealous of someone, I generally want something they have. But if I’m envious of someone, I resent the fact that they have something I don’t, and I may set out to destroy it. If I’m jealous that you have a new car, I’ll want a new car for myself. But if I’m envious that you have a new car, I may slash your tyres or pour sand into the petrol tank. Cain was envious of his brother’s relationship with God, and so he decided to destroy his brother – literally.
I mention this today because our first reading is from the Book of Wisdom, and it’s all about envy. These are not the words of jealous people: they are the words of envious people. Now it’s not a coincidence that in today’s gospel Our Lord predicts his approaching Passion. Over the years many biblical scholars have suggested that the passage from the Book of Wisdom is actually a direct prophecy of what happened to Our Lord during Holy Week.
But our reflection on this text shouldn’t stop with Our Lord’s Passion. These words from the Book of Wisdom are also a powerful warning to us today, because we can all be tempted to envy others. No one is immune; and unfortunately many people seem to give in to this very common temptation without much of a struggle.
The words of St. James in the second reading really hit the mark in this regard. St. James says, ‘You envy and you cannot acquire, so you quarrel and fight.’ I think there’s a great insight there: St. James is telling us that much of the conflict we experience in our lives is actually rooted in envy. Think for a moment of the conflicts in your family, think of the conflicts at school or at work, or in the parish; how many of them are rooted in one person’s envy of another? Mother loves you best and I don’t like it, so I’ll make things difficult for you at home. I don’t think you deserve that promotion. I should have got it, so I’ll make your life miserable at work. In this regard, there are even stories of teenagers who will sometimes kill other teenagers because they envy the trainers they have. Imagine that! It used to be that they’d fight because they envied a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Now they envy people for the trainers they wear and it motivates some of them to kill. Sounds like Cain and Abel all over again.
It’s probably the case that much of the anti-Catholic rubbish you see in the media these days is rooted in envy. Why do film producers insist on producing this kind of garbage year after year? Well, the answer could be envy. I understand that most of the media moguls in Hollywood are anti-religious people who hate what the Church stands for and who envy the Church’s moral and spiritual influence in the world. They see the Pope travelling the world and calling people to follow Christ, they see a man filled with joy at proclaiming the truths of our faith, and they see millions of young people flocking to his side and they are simply filled with envy. They wish they had that kind of influence. And so they do what they can to undermine it all. The Church preaches the message of eternal life, the message of absolute truth, and nothing can compare with it. So, they envy it and they try to destroy it with their films and other programmes that do their best to knock the Church.
Coming back to ourselves: how can we avoid envy in our lives? How can we keep from falling into this sin, which is one of the seven deadly sins?
First of all, we need to know God’s love. If we really know and understand the love that God has for us as individuals, then we will never envy anyone else. We won’t have to. We’ll realize that God loves us totally and completely just as we are, the good and the bad, warts and all. This is something that some of us may well need to pray for. We may know in our heads that God cares for us, but we may not feel it in our hearts.
We also need to seek God’s will for our lives. That needs to be our focus as we go through our day. Because if we’re constantly trying to discern and carry out God’s will, then we won’t have time to worry about what other people have and don’t have. In other words, we won’t have time to be envious. This was one of the keys to Blessed Mother Teresa’s holiness: she always had her eyes fixed on God and not on other people.
So don’t give way to envy in your lives, rather burn with desire to share the great gift of faith and love.