3 November 2009 Tuesday of the 31st Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 12, 5-16; Psalm 131; Luke 14, 15-24
To be envious of what other people have is common today. In a consumerist society, those who have more is given the prize. Those who acquire more things are comfortable. Those who possess resources have more opportunities. Those who are talented have the attention of the world.
In our lives, something lurks in our hearts that puts malice in another’s success. It is not uncommon to hear insinuations that attributes another person’s affluence from some questionable business or dishonesty, especially if one works in the government. Or some triumph to luck but it is never ascribed to their qualifications, diligence or hard work. Why is it difficult to be happy of another’s fortune?
At the depth of this tendency is envy: we resent the advantage enjoyed by another person and with it, we strongly desire to possess the same advantage. We want to attain the same comfort, opportunities, and popularity of another, and if possible to surpass them. Accompanying this tendency is the refusal to see and to appreciate what we already have. This is the difference between envy and jealousy. Jealousy is a perverted and obsessive desire to possess what it already has. Envy longs for what others have and thus the envious are forever reaching out for them. They continually believe that they are like empty glasses, and what would fill them is what others have. But I would like to assert that we are never totally devoid of content: maybe half full, but never empty. This has reason: our vacant space is meant for other people’s contribution; what is already with us is meant to be given to fill other people’s vacant spaces.
St. Paul gives us the proof.
“We, though many, are one Body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them: if prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
In other words, we all have gifts. And these gifts are given to us by God, according to our uniqueness. There is something that we can share and contribute to others. But we can only give what we have. However, the envious think that they don’t have any gift to share; and thus refuse to take responsibility for the role meant for them. Thus, they are self-possessed: they have to fill themselves first, before they can be of use to others. This endeavor, however, takes forever. In Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the envious are purified in the second terrace on the mountain of Purgatory. They are like blind beggars, their eyes are shut and sewn; and they sigh, constantly begging travelers to pray for them. They constantly stare at their unreal emptiness; they think that they are eternally at a disadvantage.
The envious are blind to the reality and purpose of the gifts. Our personal gifts point to the roles we are given at the service of humanity. These gifts are clues to our place in the greater scheme of things. St. Ignatius of Loyola asserts that we are able to know God’s will, if we can identify clearly and appreciate our gifts. Thus, the antidote to envy is the virtue of gratitude for what we have and what others possess.
Gratitude helps us discover our identity and appreciate our dignity. First, to know what we have will lead us to our identity: that each person has enough gifts to be content. Jesus already taught us how to attain what we long for in the Parable of the Talents. If we develop the gifts we have, we discover more gifts. We become richer and better. It is the proper way to attain comfort, to have more opportunities, and yes, the proper way to be somebody. Second, to appreciate what we have will point to our dignity: that we are loved enough and thus we are already somebody to start with.
When we are envious, we believe that we are not blessed. The Gospel today tells us that there is more than enough food to nourish us in the banquet of God. We just have to dine with God. Guests in a banquet are blessed: they have been invited and have more than enough to nourish them. Unfortunately, many of us would like to provide food for ourselves than depend on God’s blessings. Thus, we are never satisfied and we remain forever empty.
The envious thus suffers from low self-esteem. They have nothing compared to others; they are nothing compared to others. In Dante Alighieri, the envious are hardly noticed. They sit very still at the inner edge of the terrace. If the tenet is true that we become what we think we are, then the envious becomes nothing, and then, worse, they turn to be nobody.