Envy and Greed- The 7 Deadly Sins



 

Today we are continuing our series on the Seven Deadly Sins- the seven major diseases of the soul and the graces that cure them. Today we are dealing with 2 of the Seven Sins- Envy and Greed. These two can seem somewhat related, and they are sometimes confused, so it might be helpful if we define them alongside each other.

Envy is the pain or sadness we feel when someone possesses some object, quality, or status that we don’t possess. Related to this, we will also feel a kind of pleasure when we see something bad happen to the person we envy. Envy doesn’t necessarily want the thing, they just don’t want the other person to have it.

Envy is different than admiration. I can admire a saint and be drawn deeper into relationship with God. Admiration can motivate me to be better than I am. The Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft says, 
"Aspiration looks up and says, 'I aspire to be up there too.' ...Envy, on the other hand, looks up and says, 'I want you to be below me.' Envy is essentially competitive."

How envy works is this: there is a good that someone has. I am upset that that good is not mine because in my mind it elevates them above me. I then begin to hate them for possessing this good. This leads me to desire their downfall. I want that person to fall on their face in the mud. I am pleased to see the suffering of the person who has that good that I don’t have.

Greed can be related to envy because for us to envy someone we have to value what they have. For example, if we have an intense love for money it is more likely that we will be envious of a person who has more money than us. We can only envy people who possess something we highly value. The difference it this- Greed has to do with a desire for the thing that is valued. Envy values the self-worth or status that comes with having the thing, and we compare their status with our own assuming they are on a higher level than us.

Usually we connect greed to wealth because that’s where many people experience it. Greed is a kind of idolatry. For example, we set money up as a god- we place our hope, trust, and security in it. We believe it will save us from what troubles life throws at us.

Greed manifests in many ways. It can look like an immoral competitor, a workaholic, a thief, a gambler, or a miser. Greed is the inordinate love of money or material possessions, and the dedication of one’s life to pursue them. Greed is love for wealth that goes beyond providing for one’s life and family. It is focused on amassing wealth and not sharing it. … One can be greedy and own little, or greedy and own much, but the state of the heart is the same. Greed leads us to the pursuit and protection of wealth as an end in itself.

Turning back to envy again, we see envy throughout the Scriptures. We see envy when King Saul becomes envious of David as a successful warrior. We see envy in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. We see envy again when we read about Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery and faking his death because their father, Jacob, bestowed favors on him that he withholds from the others.

We see an example of Envy in our Old Testament reading- two mothers are standing before King Solomon and are arguing over a baby. The envious mother is happy just for the other woman to be childless as well, and so she accepts the king’s proposal to cut the living child in two.

Envy is focused on the other person. It leaves us wondering why they have what they have rather than us. Them having what they have feels like an attack on our self-worth. We might feel envious of someone because they received a better grade than us, or they make more money than us, or they have a relationship with someone who is interesting or beautiful, or they have some sort of social prestige we don’t have. Someone is blessed with some good- a beautiful body, a nice car, a new iPhone, a vacation, a new house, musical talent, ... (fill in the blank).... And we can't stand the person because they have been blessed with that good.

In envy there is a twisting of our sense of fairness and equality. Something inside us can't stand that someone has something we don't. It's not fair. Envy hates the idea that we are living in a world where people have more money than us, and are more talented than us, or are in a happier relationship than us. Envy hates that some people can conceive and have children and others can't. Envy hates that someone can travel to exotic places and we can’t. Envy hates that some of us have to grow up without both our parents in our lives. Some of us deal with tragedy and trauma and others don't seem to. And envy hates them for it. To feel envious is to feel inferior.

Envy is essentially a selfish state of mind. Rather than rejoicing at the blessings of those around us, we feel contempt for them. … Contrary to Envy, God calls us to rejoice when something good has happened to our neighbor. Peter Keeft points out that, we are to 
"'rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep'.... [but] envy weeps at those who rejoice and rejoices at those who weep."
 Envy denies that God is sovereign to deliver good gifts to whoever He likes. Envy causes us to be ungrateful for what we have been given, and focuses our attention on what has been denied us and given to another.

There is an old Jewish story about an envious man and greedy man who stand before a king. The king says he will give to the other twice what the person asks. The greedy man doesn’t want to go first because he wants to ask for everything (which can’t be doubled). The Envious man thinks, but can’t stand the thought of the other man having twice the amount, so he finally turns to the king and says, “pluck out one of my eyes.”

Turning to greed now, we see it described in Jesus’ parable.
In our Gospel reading Jesus tells a story about a man who focuses completely on his wealth and builds bigger barns to hold all his possessions, but who then suddenly dies and can take none of it with him.

We live in a hyper-consumerist world where there are forces that encourage us towards greed. We are surrounded by advertising that is continuously trying to convince us that we are in need. We live in a culture that allows greed to run amok. It was greed that caused the near economic collapse just a few years ago.

The system we live in encourages us to be the man in Jesus’ parable who is able to make the system work in his favor. We accumulate so much that we need to tear down our barns and build bigger barns to hold all our wealth. We accumulate so that we can say to ourselves in retirement, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

We are told to be this person, but what does Jesus say in the parable? God says to the man, 
'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." (12:20-21).

Anyone who loves Jesus and has any savings in the bank is a bit bothered by that parable. … We have attached to wealth notions such as security, power, success, and happiness. And there is some truth there, though it is a partial truth. We have become convinced that all we need to make our life better is more money. You don’t have to be rich to be consumed by wealth. Anyone who places their ultimate trust in wealth- rich or poor- has fallen pray to greed.

It is an especially deep trap because it is insatiable. There is always more to have. I read that John D. Rockefeller, who I’m told was once the wealthiest man in the world, once expressed to a reporter that he was not really happy or satisfied. When the reporter asked how much money it would take to make him happy, Rockefeller replied, 
“Just a little bit more”.[1]
The ability of wealth to satisfy all our desires is limited. Like Rockefeller, we will eventually reach the limits of our wealth to give us security, happiness, success, and power.

If the diseases are envy and greed then the graces that cure them are kindness and charity. To some degree these treatments overlap. Both diseases are helped by a strengthened faith In God as the provider of our needs and that God is ultimately where we find worth and treasure. To cure greed it will help to contemplate the impermanence of material things and even our own lives. There will be an end for us, just as the man who built new barns died before he could enjoy them, so we will someday die and we will not be able to take what we own with us. … We are called to use our wealth as something that has been entrusted to us by God. Practicing generosity and giving to charity will help cure us of greed. It is by acting this way that Jesus says we will be building treasure in heaven, rather than on earth.

Looking at envy now, part of the cure is first to realize the irrational nature of envy. Envy makes assumptions about the ability of something like wealth to make a person happy, or give fulfillment to life. It also tends to diminish the blessings we have in our own lives. Envy causes us to compare ourselves with those who have something we don’t, but we often possess many things that others do not.

When addressing envy within ourselves it is important for us to remind ourselves that God is sovereign. God has things under control.

We can also practice compassion and empathy towards the person we are envious of. We can learn to shift the focus off ourselves and learn to celebrate the blessings others have.

We can remind ourselves that God loves us, not because of any good that we possess, but simply because we are His creatures. If we can learn to believe that God truly does love us, then we can trust Him to care for us. Then, we can learn to be content with what God has given us.

The best example of God's love poured out is Christ on the cross in his willingness to suffer for the benefit of others. He becomes our example. When we grow in Christ-likeness and learn to love as he loved, then we will be able to suffer in love for others as well. When we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of others our soul will be free of envy and greed.

AMEN


[1] Good and beautiful life, James Bryan Smith, p. 157

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