24 An argument broke out among the disciples over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest. 25 But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ 26 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. 27 So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
A while back, a friend of mine posted on facebook that they would be receiving a new church appointment. I had known for awhile that they were ready for a move, and when I saw where they were moving and what they would be doing there, I confess to you that instead of being happy for them right away, I became envious: envious to the point of bitterness and anger. I thought to myself, “this person has the same ministry experience as I do, similar gifts, and ways of doing ministry. Yet here they are getting an appointment in a great location and getting a huge bump in salary.” It’s true when they say that we can become green with envy.
Looking back, I certainly still feel sick over it, because in that moment of envy and bitterness, I lost sight of all of the wonderful things going on in my life- ministry here in this congregation with you amazing people, a loving husband, security, friends, family, and support. In that moment I forgot to remind myself that we all have our own path, our own stories, and our own successes and failures. I forgot that this was a time of celebration for this person’s new congregation and a time to celebrate a new season of ministry for my friend. Envy blinded me to my own story and the happiness I should have felt for my colleague. Envy got under my skin and allowed me to diminish myself and my own calling to ministry, and made me forget my happiness and success here and now. Envy, as one of the 7 deadly sins, lived up to it name as it almost succeeded in separating my story from the story that God is telling about me.
It should come as no surprise to you, then, that out of the 7 deadly sins, envy is the one I struggle with the most. For whatever reason, I have always struggled with comparing myself to someone else and envy what they have or wish I could be like them. Growing up, I envied my sister: her outgoing personality, her popularity, and her beauty. I also envied the popular girls at school and what they had. And now I continue to have my struggles with the successes of clergy colleagues, when in reality we should all be celebrating our successes together for what the church is doing to make disciples of Jesus. Sometimes I would even venture to say that the clergy culture cultivates a sense of envy, especially in the United Methodist Church where appointments and salaries are listed for all to see, and people’s successes, and sometimes, even failures are listed and shared for all to see. My struggle with envy stems from the sense that I am never completely satisfied, and there is something that someone else has that I wish I had. Envy certainly tops my list of the 7 deadly sins.
But I am glad to know that I am not alone in this. I know that many of you struggle with envy, and I know that envy is simply part of the human condition, and something we all have to struggle to overcome. Our text from Luke 22 is a great example of this. Even after Jesus’ countless teachings about servanthood, even after he kneels before us with a basin and towel to wash our feet, even as he goes forth to suffer, we still want to be number one (39). The story recounts the disciples arguing over who will be the greatest, even as Jesus goes forth to die. Ironically, this conversation happens around the Passover table, the last supper, where Jesus is bidding them farewell and warns them of a betrayer. Even there, envy rears its ugly head.
Envy, like many of the other 7, is something that we feel. It is “more than jealously. Jealously is more of a crime of passion, a more active, resourceful source of sin than envy. Envy attempts to keep to itself, is shy to reveals its real feelings. It seethes and stews in resentment because of the good fortune of another…envy is a sort of refined, subtle form of hate” (41). It is especially deadly among friends or those with whom we have a close proximity. Envy also tends to get under our skin with those who are similar to us…co-workers, colleagues, those working toward the same goals we are. When we envy someone, we tend to magnify that person’s good fortune while at the same time, minimizing our own. Envy is a form of self-diminishment, which is one of the reasons why it is one of the saddest sins of the 7. When we envy someone, we really end of punishing ourselves.
Envy is perhaps the most secretive of the 7 deadly sins, and the one sin we are most likely not to admit (47). It’s hard to get people to talk about who or what they envy, because it acknowledges the fact that we are not satisfied with who we are or what we have. The Roman poet, Ovid, in his book Metamorphoses depicts envy as wasting away at a cave, cankerous and sick (49). That certainly makes sense to me.
Whenever I find myself envying someone else, I am really chipping away at myself, my life, and everything that I have going for me. I lose my sense of self and what I have accomplished. Even worse, I diminish the call that God has placed on my life to do certain things and minister in certain places and to certain people. I forget that the person I envy has just as many struggles and hurdles to overcome as I do, and perhaps they, too, struggle with envying someone else. They may even envy what I have. Envy makes me forget that every person has a story, and my story is just as important as the next person. We need to remember that our story is also God’s story, and that is something to be proud of.
Too often we forget that the story we tell about ourselves is not the same story that God is telling about us. We look in the mirror and say that we are not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not successful enough, not worth anyone’s time. We are too old, too young, too tired, too weak, or too scared. We envy those who….you fill in the blank. Envy is evidence that we are not created as we wish we had been therefore, by implication, envy is evidence of the creative mistakes of our creator. No wonder it’s one of the 7 deadly sins!
One young woman, tired of envying others and wishing she were different decided to do something about it when she made the decision to go without mirrors for an entire year. Let’s take a look at her story:
When we rediscover that our worth is not wrapped up in someone else’s successes, looks, or stories, then we can fully embrace who we are and what our story is. We improve our relationships with ourselves, our friends, and with God. If we are not careful, the deadly sin of envy can overtake our lives and begin to affect other people, and will even affect the church and our common purpose together. Envy can go beyond a passive emotion and actively contribute to the downfall of others. It can turn into the mentality that “if I cannot achieve this good, then why should I help you achieve it?” (53)
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses envy directly when he writes about what love looks like in the church. Most of us know this text by heart from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud…” Paul wouldn’t be preaching against envy if it wasn’t an issue in the church, and that still holds true today. How often do we envy someone’s spiritual journey, their gifts, or their personal successes? How often do we think about and envy the fact that the same grace of God that extends to those of us who have been Christians and church goers our whole lives is extended to someone who just walked in the door? If we have put in our time, then we might expect a special kind of grace or special treatment. But that is not the story that God tells us. Instead of envying, it is our job to come alongside and nurture, teach, and love. After all, remember: love does not envy. When we learn to acknowledge and set aside our envy of others, it is then that we can get to the real work of the ministry to which God calls each of us, and fully embrace who we are as human beings created in the image of God.
I chose the Prodigal Son text this morning because while it is ultimately a story about the unconditional grace and love of God, it is also a story that deals directly with envy. The younger son gets his inheritance, spends it all, makes many mistakes, and comes crawling back home. Surprisingly, and many believe undeservedly, he is welcomed with a robe and a feast, and the embrace of his father. The older son seethes with envy. He was the one who stuck around, the one who has worked hard for his inheritance, the one who was done everything asked of him. Where was his party? He complains to his father, “I have served you all these years and yet you haven’t even given me as much as a goat to celebrate with my friends.” I think it’s easy to side with the older brother in this story. We have all been there. We have worked hard and feel deserving of rewards and parties thrown in our honor. Yet the person who has not worked hard or has made mistakes is given the hero’s welcome. It is unfair.
Yet, many of us tend to gloss over the father’s response to the older son as he takes him in his arms and says, “Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.” There are several stories going in within this one story. One is the story that the prodigal son is telling about himself: he will be rejected, shamed, and will have to grovel at his father’s feet for forgiveness. Another is the older son whose story is one of envy and anger at the treatment his troubling making brother is receiving. But the story that is most important is the story that the Father tells about his children. In this parable, we are to assume that the Father represents God. And in this story, the father takes both sons equally in his arms and whispers to them a different story: a story of grace and mercy and forgiveness. And not only that, but he reminds them that he is always with them, and everything he has is theirs.
In our minds, we tend to think that the kind of grace that is so freely offered to any and all, when it comes without regard to any merit, and especially when it’s offered to latecomers or those who have screwed up, seems somehow less gracious than when it is reserved for us (48). We envy the grace that is extended to someone who we, for whatever reason, have deemed is less deserving than we are. This is envy at its worst. This is the kind of envy that destroys ourselves, our communities, our churches, and even our world. Envy is most dangerous when we allow it to seethe and fester to the point where destruction seems to be the only way to conquer it.
But God shows us a better way, and it begins with us hearing these words whispered upon our hearts: “I am always with you, and everything I have is yours.” We each have a story that we tell ourselves, but God has a better one. God has the story that says that God loves us so much that even as we continue to struggle with envy, even as we struggle to love ourselves and our own lives, even as we refuse to celebrate and rejoice in the successes of others, that God still takes us in his arms and breathes upon us a story of sacrificial love and truth. Jesus Christ shows us, through the cross and resurrection, that we are good enough. If that’s not enough reason to set aside our envy of others, then I don’t know what is. Amen.