Envy

by the Rev. Drs. Jane Patterson and John Lewis

Because we teach exclusively in the area of the Bible, our first question about any spiritual principle is, “Is it biblical?” The seven deadly sins are not specifically biblical. Jesus doesn’t appear to have been big on lists of anything. But he was concerned about any persistent habit that erodes our heart and that eats away at our relationship with our neighbor (Mark 7:14-23). The destruction brought about by pinched habits of the heart goes in two directions, both inward and outward, just as the fullness of life brought by “clothing ourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27) begins within us and spills over as blessing for our neighbor.

The big lie that undergirds envy is the notion that anything that you have, you have at my expense, and anything I have, I have at your expense. Against this lie, Jesus said simply, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Not “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” But “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus would allow nothing to stand between ourselves and our neighbor, least of all envy.

What appears to have concerned Jesus was the way in which some of our narrow little habits of mind destroy both ourselves and others and misconstrue the bounty of God. To Jesus’ way of thinking, what my neighbor has, whether materially or spiritually, is intended to overflow to my benefit; and what I have is intended to overflow as a blessing for my neighbor.

The sin of envy has two faces: one is my envy of what someone else has or is, and the other is the way I secretly desire to make others envious of me, which is at least as destructive. A member of one of our discernment groups lived for a time in Egypt. The family’s maid stole some jewelry from the dresser-top, and the family was encouraged to press charges. When they went to court, they were surprised to find that the first questions were directed to them, not to their maid. “Do you know what financial responsibilities she has? Do you know whether or not she can live on what you pay her? Do you frequently parade your expensive objects in front of her?” The family was called to account for having incited the envy of the woman who worked for them, thus working her destruction.

Jesus calls us, time and again, to be scrupulous about the habits of our hearts, not for our own benefit, but for the full life of those around us. Following Jesus wholeheartedly is about cultivating the willingness to be pulled into the tow of God’s love for all.

The Rev. Drs. John Lewis and Jane Patterson are co-directors of The Work+shop (www.theworkshop-sa.org) and are on staff at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX.