A sermon on Envy by St. Jean-Marie Vianney
“Is thy eye evil, because I am good?” —Matt. xx. 15.
Why did the laborers murmur, who were sent first into the vineyard, that their fellow laborers who were set to work later than they received the same pay as they did? They had no right to ask for more than their day’s wages which they had agreed upon with the lord of the vineyard, and which they received. Did they suffer any wrong, because the others were paid as much as they were? Would they have received more if the others had been paid less? Why then did they murmur at the Master, and show their indignation at His action? You may guess the reason, dear brethren, and reply that it was because they were envious. If they had not been possessed by envy, they would have praised the Master as a kind and generous Lord, and congratulated their fortunate fellow laborers.
What a hateful and abominable thing envy is!
Every one who has not lost all feelings of morality considers envy as a most disgraceful vice, and yet this vice is not as rare as people think. There is no end to envy in the world. Even amongst ourselves, envy is not a stranger. Indeed, there is not a man upon earth who has not to be upon his guard to close his heart to the vice of envy, to keep down every emotion of envy within him. For this reason I wish to warn you today against envy, to show you, (1) how disgraceful and (2) how injurious envy is.
If we recognize how bad and pernicious a vice is, then we shall detest and avoid it.
1. It is not a very difficult task to show the hideousness of envy. We have only to explain what envy is, to make its disgracefulness understood. What is envy? None other than a certain sadness and trouble, a vexation and displeasure at the happiness and success of our fellow men, and a certain joy and satisfaction, pleasure and elation at the unhappiness and misfortune of others. To envy our neighbour, means to grudge him his good fortune, and to wish him evil. In the Orient there is said to be a bird which stays in its nest sad and troubled when the weather is fine and the sun shines, but when it is stormy it flies gaily and joyfully about. This extraordinary bird is an image of envy. It resembles exactly those envious persons who in the same manner are sad when the sun of good fortune is shining on their fellow men, but on the contrary are joyful and delighted when the storm of misfortune breaks over them. Is anything further necessary to prove the hideousness of envy? Is it not a shame to be vexed at the well-being of our neighbour, at which we ought to be glad, and to feel pleased when misfortune overtakes our neighbour, when we should be sorry? Every vice is disgraceful; but none of them carry their disgrace so publicly on their forehead as the vice of envy. Other vices have even a pretext with which at least they can be apparently explained; but where will you find an excuse of envy?
The impure person may say he has been violently tempted, sensuality made him blind, the dangerous occasion caused him to fall; the thief may say that want and hunger misled him; the revengeful person may say that he was overcome by anger; but the envious person, what excuse can he or will he make? None; nothing but his disgraceful malice. Envy is pure malice, a true child of hell. Yes, envy is the devil’s sin. If there are envious men, it is a sad proof that the devil has gained influence, power, and dominion over men, otherwise there would be no envy amongst them. When man came from the hand of God, he knew not what envy was. It is natural for man to rejoice with the joyful, and to be sad with the sorrowful. In the heart of man, as it was formed by God, there is to be found pity and charity, a brotherly interest in the weal or woe of his fellow creatures. If there are men who betray their human nature, and who rejoice at those things which cause good men to grieve, it is evident that these men are under the devil’s influence, whose concern it is to pervert what God has ordained, and to ruin that which God has made.
I will even venture to say that the envious man is more malicious and behaves more disgracefully than the envious devil. Why is this? The envious man vents his poison on his own kind, and the devil does not do that. The devil burns with envy toward man. Human happiness distresses him, human misery delights him, but the other devils do not excite his envy. Yet men envy one another: envious men rage against their own flesh. Is not every man our brother, and does not our enemy belong as we do to the same family of God? How can the happiness of a brother vex a brother, or the unhappiness of the one be the delight of the other? I will show you envy from another point of view, from which it will appear no less disgraceful. Envy not only consists in a diabolical malice toward our fellow men, but it is also a heinous crime against God. To envy our neighbour’s happiness means to murmur at the dispensations of Providence and at God’s government of the world. The envious laborers in the vineyard, of whom the gospel speaks, murmured at the father of the family, and in like manner do all envious persons. Even if they do not grumble in just so many words, envy is practically a complaint against God. The envious person grudges his neighbour the good fortune that befalls him. But is it not God who has granted it to him? It is a subject of vexation to the envious that his neighbour’s undertaking has succeeded, that his business is prosperous, that a joyful event has taken place. But does not every good gift come from God, who is the success of every enterprise, allows business to prosper, and brings about that joyful event? Envy therefore, is a censure, a disapprobation of divine Providence. The eye of the envious one is evil, because God is good. According to this reasoning, God ought not to rule the world according to the decrees of His love and justice, but in accordance with the diabolical wishes of the envious, dispense His gifts and His chastisements. How malicious, and what a crime envy is! This vice, however, is not only shameful, but also injurious, not only malicious but also ruinous, as we shall discover in the second part.
2. The destructiveness of envy is even easier to demonstrate and to recognize than its baseness.
It is not without reason that we find envy amongst the seven deadly sins. It is the source of innumerable other sins. The evil is boundless which has its origin and root in envy. Envy is in reality the origin of every sin, because on account of the devil’s envy sin came into the world. Holy Writ, the history of mankind, and daily experience prove that there is no vice which creates more evil, or produces more harm than envy.
What was the cause of the first murder that was committed? Did not the wicked Cain slay his brother Abel out of envy? Did not Jacob’s sons sin against their brother Joseph out of envy? Was it not envy that caused the enraged Saul to hurl his spear at David? Was it not envy which caused Daniel’s enemies to cast that great prophet into the lions’ den? Did not the Pharisees and the elders conspire to put to death the Son of God; did they not crucify the divine Saviour from envy? How many crimes have occurred in the history of the world, all of which had their source in envy! Envy has occasioned divisions in the Church, produced heresies, originated wars, armed brother against brother, laid countries waste, pillaged cities, separated families, and brought them to ruin. Envy knows no bounds. It regards neither the bonds of friendship nor of blood. It incites the child against his father, as in the case of Absalom ; brother against brother, like Cain; friend against friend, as with Saul; it causes men to forget the greatest benefaction, and to hate the kindest of benefactors, as was the case with the Pharisees toward our divine Saviour. Envy occasions a great host of sins; ingratitude toward God, even blasphemy; hatred and enmity toward mankind, very often a deadly hatred, an irreconcilable enmity; calumny, defamation of character, tale-bearing, desire of revenge, and of persecution: all these are the daughters of envy, verily a hellish crew, worthy of their hellish progenitor. It is hardly necessary to have recourse to Holy Scripture, or to history, to prove the disastrous effects of envy. It suffices to draw your attention to daily experience, and to your immediate surroundings, where the havoc worked by envy is everywhere apparent. Ought not the evil fruits of envy to be a motive for us to strive to banish this devilish vice from our hearts? So as to encourage you still more in this resolution, I will show you, in conclusion, how injurious this vice of envy is for the envious man himself. Envy certainly causes a great deal of misery in the world, but it produces the greatest havoc in that man who fosters it, and who is controlled by it. No vice punishes itself so severely as envy does. For this reason the holy fathers called envy a just vice, not because it was just in itself, but because it is itself its own punishment; by its own torture it chastises itself, and in a way exercises justice upon itself. As the worm eats the wood, to which it owes its existence, so envy gnaws at the heart of the man who admits it. And when it has taken up its abode in our hearts, it soon shows itself in our outward bearing, for it takes the glow of health from the cheek of the envious, and reveals its presence in our interior, by sickly pale cheeks and hollow eyes. Envy gnaws at the heart as the rust does at the iron, it enfeebles the body like a lingering fever, tortures the soul, destroys the peace of our mind, and fills man with dejection and sadness, and banishes all peace and gladness from the soul.
“Soundness of heart is the life of the flesh; but envy is the rottenness of the bones” (Prov. xiv., 30). “Envy and anger shorten a man’s days” (Ecclus. xxx. 26). The way in which envy is generally portrayed is very appropriate. It is represented as an old woman, bearing in her hands snakes and torches, with long sharp finger nails, pale of countenance and emaciated in body. Envy is represented as a woman, because it is a vice of a weak, unmanly, effeminate spirit; as an old woman, because it is as ancient as the world itself; with snakes and torches in the hands, because it stings and exudes poison like the snake, and kindles the torch of hatred and discord everywhere; with long sharp nails, because it preys upon itself and others; with a pale countenance and emaciated body, because it pines away through constant vexation and ill-humour; and finally the woman eats up her own heart, because envious persons shorten their lives and hasten themselves to an early death. “Envy and anger shorten a man’s days” (Ecclus. xxx. 26). Besides the torture which the envious prepare for themselves in this life, a still greater one awaits them in eternity. Perhaps you believe that the envious may be saved? St. Paul names envy amongst those works of the flesh which close the kingdom of heaven to us (Gal. v. 21). Let us not be surprised at this. Eternal blessedness is the reward of love, the hope and portion of those who love God and man. The envious person, however, loves neither God nor man. If he would work miracles, says St. John Chrysostom, or even if he preserved his chastity, or fasted, slept on the ground, and resembled the angels in their virtues, so long as he was polluted with envy, he would remain a lost man. It is utterly impossible for us to escape that fire which is prepared for the spirit of malice, if we do not liberate ourselves from this passion.
Spare yourselves, therefore, the torments of the envious in this world, and their chastisement in the next. Banish from your heart this shameful and destructive vice. Let charity reign amongst you, and do not envy one another any more. Rejoice with the joyful, and mourn with the sorrowful. Take a sincere interest in the weal or woe of your fellow man. Grant to every one the good which belongs to him, even to your enemy; and do not refuse your sympathy to any unfortunate person, not even to your enemy. And thus you will fulfil the law of the Lord: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark xii. 30. Let us beseech God to preserve us from the vice of envy, and to fill our hearts with His holy love. Amen.