As part of my other job this week, I was reading about a woman who had recently been widowed. She was in her mid-50s. Her husband had been a very successful lawyer, at least if you measure success in terms of money and toys. They had several very large houses, a condo on Park Avenue in New York City, two jets, a yacht and a sizable art collection. They employed a large staff of people to cook, clean, look after the gardens and the pools, fly airplanes, and so on. She had her hair done three times a week, a manicure a pedicure and a facial once a week. Aside from visiting their various houses, they vacationed in exotic places and attended many local social functions. She spent about $75,000 a month on her credit card. Apparently, she liked shoes. She typically spent $600 on a pair of shoes, but she didn’t think she had as many as 100 pairs.
How many of you are saying: “I want that kind of life!”? Certainly, there are parts of this lifestyle that would sound really good to a young mother up to her elbows in dirty diapers – a family struggling to make mortgage payments – a business person eking out a small profit each month. I must admit, I got excited about the airplanes. But I wondered, as I read her story, how this woman could have had time to do anything but spend money. I would think that it would take a lot of time to spend $75,000 every month.
Each of the readings today talks about our reactions to what other people have. In the reading from the Book of Wisdom we hear some people who are called “godless people.” Just before the part we heard today, these godless people were talking about the fact that they were going to die. They believed that death was the end of everything. No one would remember them after they were gone – there was no afterlife. So they said: “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by.” So basically, they were saying: “Let’s live it up.” Now these were Jewish people, and they knew the law – and they knew that the kind of life they were thinking about was contrary to the law. They knew a righteous man – a person who kept the law and who believed that God would protect him. He made the godless people very uncomfortable. The godless people would test the righteous man, even to the point of killing him, to see if God would protect him. They wanted their carefree, self-indulgent life, but they were also envious of the righteous man. The verses just after the ones we heard today say: “Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God…through the devil’s envy, death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.” Their envy of the righteous man brought them only death.
In the second reading, St. James also spoke about envy and said that, where there is envy, there will be “disorder and wickedness of every kind.” He talked about conflicts within the community of Christians and asked where these conflicts came from. He said: “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” Remember how the godless men had internal struggles: “I want to live a carefree and selfish life, but I envy this man who lives by the law.” Well, these early Christians also had the same internal struggles.
St. James used the word “covet.” The definitions of “jealousy,” “envy,” and “covetousness” are related, especially envy and covetousness. We “covet” when we want something that another person has. This goes beyond simply admiring someone else’s possessions or thinking “I’d like to have one of those.” It reflects a sinful attitude toward material things. When we covet a thing, we often envy the person who has what we don’t have. We resent them and even wish them harm. For example, the student who can’t afford fancy clothes might covet the designer jeans that a classmate is wearing. They might envy their classmate and then say nasty things behind their back.
What we see in the first two readings is that covetousness and envy come from a conflict within ourselves: we want what we have but we also want what someone else has and we resent them because they have it and we don’t.
In the Gospel, we see jealousy even among Jesus’ closest followers. You know, I’ve read this part of Mark’s Gospel a number of times, and I always get upset about the disciples arguing with one another about who was the greatest. But I never connected that discussion with the fact that Jesus was telling them in this part of the Gospel that he was going to be killed. Were the disciples just arguing about who was the holiest person (kind of a spiritual contest), or were they saying: “Hey, Jesus told us he’s going to die, who’s going to be next in charge?” If I were Jesus, I would have been hurt and angry. Jesus used it as an opportunity to teach. He said that their leader would not be the one who was the greatest in terms that we usually use to measure greatness – things like wealth, power, and prestige – or even holiness, but rather, it would be the one who served – the one who put himself last – the one welcomed even the least powerful in the community – the children.
The readings today tell us that jealousy, envy, and covetousness have a long history. Mark’s Gospel and the Letter of St. James were written in the first century and the Book of Wisdom even earlier. We saw in all of these instances that the people who had these feelings were not happy. These feelings brought arguments and conflicts. The people wanted something that they didn’t have – something material, or even something spiritual. St. James said: “You do not have because you do not ask.” If we don’t have something that we desire, is it the fault of someone else who has what we want, or have we not asked – have we not done what is necessary to have the material goods, the position or prestige, or the spiritual gifts that others have? Or, as St. James suggests, do we ask for the wrong things
I haven’t spoken today about our desire and tendency to accumulate things. That’s for another day. Actually, we pray about that each time we say the Stewardship Prayer, when we ask God that we will “possess sensibly.” But there will always be people who are wealthier, more successful, or holier than we are. Indeed, even the couple that I spoke about earlier had friends who had more money than they did.
We spoke today about how we react to what other people have. We can rejoice in the good fortune of others, we can even admire their possessions – their successes of every kind – material and spiritual, or we can bog ourselves down with jealousy, envy, and covetousness. The readings today tell us clearly that when we turn to these negative thoughts, we compromise our
own happiness, our relationships with other people, and most importantly, our relationship with God.