Ooh, I want that

by Marjorie George

Somewhere in my ancient past, my eighth-grade English teacher taught us that there is a difference between the words envy and covetousness. Envy, Mrs. Longyear said, means “I want one just like yours,” while covetousness means “I want yours.”

It’s a subtle difference: envy leans more toward simple jealousy, covetousness is downright larceny. Neither one is biblically acceptable because they are both based on my wanting you to have less so that I can have more. If I am envious of your new Ford, (and the advertisers will do everything they can to see to it), I am compelled to go out and buy a new Lexus.

In an ancient fable, a man is given the power to have anything for which he wishes with the stipulation that his neighbor will get twice as much. The man wishes for a big house and gets it, only to watch his neighbor receive a mansion. The man wishes for a million dollars, and, poof, there it is; his neighbor is given two million. Finally, the man wishes to be blind in one eye . . . better to suffer a little than to watch his neighbor succeed much.

Such is the path of envy. A friend said to me recently, “I have finally learned that you do not have to fail in order for me to succeed.”

Jesus tells the story in Matthew 20:1-15 of the vineyard owner who needed some day laborers. He went to the public square in the morning and hired several, offering to pay each $40. By noon he saw that he needed more workers, so he went back to the public square and hired some more. He did the same at 3 p.m. and again at 6 p.m.

At the end of the day, he paid every worker $40. “Wait a minute,” said the workers who were hired first thing in the morning. ”We’ve been working all day in the hot sun. And now you are paying the same wage to workers you hired late in the day.”

“Am I not paying you what I promised?” said the vineyard owner to the complaining workers. “Yes, but now we want more than the others. It’s not fair.”

“What is that to you?” replied the vineyard owner. “Or are you are envious because I am generous?”

Envy does indeed subvert God’s generosity. It says what God has given me is not sufficient — even if it is all I need. It is the two-year-old opening her present on Christmas morning, the gift her parents have picked out just for her, then watching her want her brother’s gift instead. Envy is the knife in God’s heart.

Charity of spirit is the antidote to envy. Not the giving away of possessions to the local thrift shop, but the giving away of one’s joy to the good fortune of another. It is joining in thanksgiving at God’s blessings upon friend and neighbor. It is rejoicing when another gets a promotion, snags a great husband, wins the lottery.

It is accepting with delight the gifts God has given me, and helping you to see the gifts God has given you, without wanting any of them for myself.

Marjorie George is editor of Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at Marjorie.george@dwtx.org.




3 thoughts on “Ooh, I want that”

  1. Using your definition of envy as compared to covetness, I wonder what the distinction is between envy and admiration or appreciation. We often admire another person’s coat or shoes, even his car or house. And then we go out and buy a pair of shoes like the ones we admired or purchase a similar car. Is that sinful?

    1. Hmmm, good question. I think it has to do with what Jane and John, in the next essay, term “pinched habits of the heart.” They also said that Jesus is concerned with any “persistent habit that erodes our heart and that eats away at our relationship with our neighbor.”

      My friend Barbara and I both have bad feet. Barbara found a source for shoes that aren’t too ugly and work well for our feet. I admired hers, asked if she minded if I got a pair, and went out and bought them. I was grateful to Barbara and to God. I don’t think that is envy.

      Had I become sullen because she has those great shoes and gotten mad at God as the source of my bad feet, that would have been envy. Had I simply taken her shoes when she was not looking, that would have been coveting. (After all, my feet hurt worse than hers.)

      Now, Nancy has great feet. Had I conked her on the head, put her in ice, and cut off her feet so I could sew them onto my legs, that would have made a great movie plot, but it would probably not have ended well.

      Just when you think you have one sin conquered . . .

      Marjorie George Editor, Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline Episcopal Diocese of West Texas http://www.reflections-dwtx.org

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