Painting: The Deadly Sin of Envy, Hieronymus Bosch (1480)
By Msgr. Charles Pope • January 17, 2018
In the reading at daily Mass for Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, we encounter an envious Saul. Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath, the women sing a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but instead he is resentful and envies David:
Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought, “They give David ten thousand, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glaring eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants (1 Sam 18:6-9).
Saul’s reaction is way over the top; this is what envy does.
What is envy? Most people use the word today as a synonym for jealousy, but traditionally speaking, they are not the same.
When I am jealous of you, there is something good that you have or are, that I want to have for myself. Jealousy is sinful when one desires something inordinately or unreasonably.
In traditional theology, envy is quite different (cf Summa Thelogica II, IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it as lessening my own.
The key difference is that with envy (unlike with jealousy) one does not merely want to possess the good or excellence of another but rather to destroy it.
Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David because he thinks that David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul should rejoice in David’s gifts, for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier, which is a blessing to everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, to be thankful to God, and where possible, imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead, Saul sulks. He sees David as stealing the limelight and possibly even the kingdom from him. Envy rears its ugly head when Saul concludes that David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.
Envy is diabolical. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316) because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, By the envy of the Devil death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) had and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his — or so he thought — and so he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is ugly and diabolical.
The virtues that cancel envy: The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in others is joy and zeal. We should rejoice that they are blessed because when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further, we should respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate (where possible) their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or from their good example.
Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as kindness and fairness. For example, the modern tendency to give everyone an award or to not keep score and instead say, “everyone is a winner,” may be rooted in subtle forms of envy cloaked in kindness. Such approaches diminish the truth that some are gifted, some are better than others in certain areas. I will not always be the best nor will I always be the winner. Rather than hide goodness and excellence, we should celebrate it. The proper response to excellence and goodness is joy and zeal.
Saul went to dark places because of his envy; we, too, must beware this deadly sin.
In the story Snow White, the wicked queen envied Snow White, who was “the fairest of them all.” Considering the young girl’s beauty as a threat, the evil queen cast a spell on her to remove her beauty. Envy consumed the evil queen and the satanic-like qualities of this scene well illustrate the darkness of this diabolical sin.