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Envy — The Adversary of Mercy

  • FATHER PETER JOHN CAMERON, O.P.

From the moment Cain looks on Abel's excellent offering to God, disdaining both it and his younger brother (Gn 4:1-8), envy is born in the world.


What is envy? 

cain' The essence of envy is the manner in which Cain looked on Abel: with ill-will.  Envy in the Bible is referred to as the "evil eye" (for example, Mt 20:15; Mk 7:22; Lk 11:34; Rom 1:29; 1 Cor 13:4; Gal 5:21, 26;1 Pt 2:1).  This is why in Dante's Divine Comedy, the envious in Purgatory are punished by having their eyes sewn shut with iron wire. 

The parable of our Lord that gives many of us neuralgia is that of the workers hired late (Mt 20:1-16).  We feel indignant seeing that those who worked for only an hour receive pay the same as the lot who labored all day.  But here is how the owner/God responds: Are you envious because I am generous?" If they had simply taken their earnings and gone home — without looking at what others were getting — they would never have gotten upset

What Jesus is revealing in the parable is: I know you are susceptible to envy.  Now that you have tasted its venom and see how vulnerable you are in yourselves, turn it over to me so that I can free and heal you.  Don't look at what riles you; look at my generosity.

We must not forget the sole motivation given in the Gospel for Jesus being led to his Passion: it was out of envy that they had handed him over (Mt 27:18; also Mk 15:10). 

Envy is sadness over another person's achievements, talents, possessions, blessings."The envious could not profit by what they strive to take from their neighbor, but they would have all equally miserable with themselves" (Venerable Father Louis of Grenada). 

Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, is truly demonic.  Saint Gregory the Great gives this warning: "The envious must be told that, by not guarding themselves from envy, they are sinking down into the state of the ancient wickedness of the crafty Enemy, for of him it is written: By the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it (Wis 2:24).  Louis of Grenada points out how the envious person bears a resemblance to the devil "who looks with rage upon our good works and the heavenly reward we are to receive for them."  For "the crime of Satan is not theft or impurity, but enviously seeking, after his fall, to make man imitate his rebellion."  That is why "when the devil tempts us to envy, he is leading us to that which is the mainspring in his own heart." 

Envy's hideousness is seen in its effects.  "Envy corrodes the heart, weakens the understanding, destroys all peace of soul, and condemns us to a melancholy and intolerable existence" (Louis of Grenada). 

According to Gregory the Great, from the "inward plague" of envy "comes hatred, gossip, detraction, gloating over our neighbor's hard luck, and being sore at his success."  In this respect, envy is its own greatest punishment" (Louis of Grenada). 

But the sin of envy is potentially mortal because, like hatred, it is directly opposed to charity.  "In every sin," says Gregory the Great, "the virus of the archenemy is injected into the heart, but in this one the serpent works up his whole inside and discharges a bane of spite to infect the soul deeply."  Perhaps envy's greatest indictment is what Father John Hardon, S.J., Servant of God, observes: "Envy is the only vice in which the sinner takes no pleasure." 

The special menace of envy 

"The envious are not people of mercy, nor are merciful characters people of envy" (Aquinas).  For envy is the opposite of mercy.  As the Polish theologian Father Hyacinth Woroniecki, O.P. (†1949), Servant of God, explained: 

The vice in sharpest contrast with mercy is envy.  Whereas mercy is sadness at another's misfortune, envy, on the contrary, is sadness at the success of another or joy at another's misfortune.  Often it penetrates our soul with a silent influence and produces in it continuous reactions of discontent at anything in others surpassing us.  Surely, such an attitude cannot foster the development of Christian mercy. 

But why is envy so difficult to uproot?  The French Catholic philosopher and theologian Ernest Hello († 1885) answers brilliantly: 

Envy is the parody of aspiration.  Aspiration is that which is highest in man; envy is that which is lowest.  Aspiration is the eagle; envy is the serpent.  A man is ready enough to say: "I am quick to anger, and unless I restrained myself I should be formidable."  But he rarely, if ever, says: I have an envious nature."  Envy is such a strong proof of inferiority that it draws back before an open avowal.  It is an inferiority of nature, and it is much easier for a person to acknowledge that his will is corrupt than that his nature is corrupt. 

Envy's antidote 

When it's all said and done, what envy is about is this: doubt about how much we are loved...or doubt that we are being loved in the way that we need to be loved. 

When envy strikes, it is time to stop looking at whatever spikes rancor in us, and to look instead at the One who is always looking at us with a gaze of love.  We need to let ourselves be radiated by the gaze of Jesus. 

About this Pope Francis writes: 

Jesus gaze always uplifts us, it raises us.  He never leaves us there, where we were before we met him.  Nor does he take something from us.  He never lowers you, never humiliates you; he invites you to stand up.  Jesus gaze always gives us dignity.  His is a gaze that makes you develop and keep on going, that encourages you, because it makes you feel that he loves you.  And making you feel his love, he gives you the courage you need in order to follow him. 

After the Resurrection, the Apostle Peter turned and saw (Jn 21:20) his younger brother, the disciple whom Jesus loved, following him and Jesus.  And when Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" (Jn 21:21).  Jesus' reply is the perfect antidote to all envy: "What if I want him to remain until I come?  What concern is it of yours?  You follow me" (Jn 21:23).

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Acknowledgement

cameronFather Peter John Cameron, O.P. "Envy — The Adversary of Mercy." lead editorial from Magnificat (March, 2016) 3-8.

Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.  

The Author

cameron1 cameron2 Father Peter John Cameron, O.P. is Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat. He is also a playwright and director, the author of more than a dozen plays and many books including: Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living our Lady's Graces, Made for Love, Loved by God, Praying with Saint Paul: Daily Reflections on the Letters of the Apostle Paul, Jesus, Present Before Me: Meditations for Eucharistic Adoration, and Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI.  

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