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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Envy Will Destroy Us

Robert Barron - Envy Will Destroy Us

Robert Barron - Envy Will Destroy Us

Peace be with you. Friends, how prominent a role jealousy plays in the great literature of the world. Think for example of Shakespeare's Iago. Think of Melville's great story "Billy Budd," which focuses on the effects of envy. Think in the Bible, the story of Joseph and his brothers, how much of that narrative is driven by envy. Or the story of Saul and David in 1 Samuel. Saul's jealousy of David drives the narrative. How often envy, jealousy is just a powerful dynamic in human relations. Well, what is it? What is jealousy? My hero Thomas Aquinas, with typical pith, defines envy this way: an irrational anger at the success of others. That's good, isn't it?

As I say, typically, Aquinas there, very to the point. Envy is an irrational anger at the success of others. This calls to my mind Gore Vidal, the American novelist. I think great characterization of envy. He said, "When a friend of mine succeeds, something in me dies". Now mind you, the subtlety of that, the honesty of it. When a friend of mine succeeds. So it's an enemy of mine or someone I don't even know, and when they succeed, I don't care. But when a friend succeeds, something in me dies. An irrational anger at the success of others. Remember in the "Divine Comedy," Dante punishes the envious by having their eyelids sewn shut. The idea is they spent their whole life looking at other people, looking at how they're all doing, comparing themselves to others. So in purgatory their eyelids are sewn shut.

Now a very close cousin of envy is ambition, and it should be clear why. If envy is an irrational anger at the success of others, one way to deal with that is by putting people down. The other way is by relentlessly putting yourself up. So if you're ambitious, you're driving yourself ahead of the pack all the time. That way you never have to face this moment of the success of someone else. I don't have to face this. I'm driving myself ahead of them all the time. So envy is a close cousin of ambition. Now notice something in our marvelous second reading for today. It's taken from the letter of James. Can I recommend, it's very short, sit down, get your Bibles out, and read the letter of James. You can do it easily in one sitting. Takes you ten, fifteen minutes.

James is very wise when it comes to the practical affairs of the world, when it comes to affairs of the heart. James knows about that. Here's what he says. "Beloved: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice". Notice first he links together properly jealousy and selfish ambition. They're like cousins. One implies the other, as I was saying. But where that exists, listen, there is disorder and every foul practice. The great tradition refers to envy as one of the capital sins, the deadly sins, if you want. But I like capital, from "caput," meaning head. It means it's a kind of fountainhead of other sins and other dysfunctions. If I'm wracked by jealousy, I'm wracked by envy, that's going to give rise to all kinds of nasty stuff, isn't it? I'm going to start gossiping about other people.

I mean, why do we gossip? Well, because we want to keep people down. We want to destroy their reputations because they might get ahead of us. It gives rise to real cruelty. You know what I'm talking about, fellow sinners. We'll do very cruel things precisely because we don't want someone getting ahead of us. We might be very aggressive or we might be more subtle, like trying to destroy someone's reputation. Yeah, envy is a capital sin from the "caput," from the head. As James says, there follows disorder and every foul practice. How about ambition? Think of all the bad things that follow from ambition. I mean, I'll step on people if I'm driven to get ahead. I'll cause havoc around me as I'm trying to climb the ladder. So from these flow all kinds of bad things. But then James makes this observation, which I think is super important.

So we're talking about these objectivities of envy and jealousy and ambition and what they produce. Here's what he says though. "Where do the wars and where do conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members"? Now he's making a further move here. So, all these dysfunctions caused by envy and by ambition. But where do they come from ultimately? They come from disorders inside of us, you see. And all the spiritual masters, I think, agree with this. It's when there's a disintegration inside, there tends to be disintegration on the outside. When I fall apart spiritually and psychologically on the inside, I tend to sow disorder and disintegration outside. I've used before that image of the rose window, those beautiful windows in the Gothic churches at the center of which is always a depiction of Christ.

And then wheeling around that center are all the different elements of the window, connected harmoniously to each other and to the center. Okay, that's an image of the well-ordered soul, isn't it? Centered in Christ, all the elements that make me up on the inside now linked to Christ and therefore linked harmoniously to one another. A saint is someone who's found this wholeness, this integration, which is why saints tend to radiate integration outside. They produce harmony and integration outside of them. But we sinners who have fallen apart, what does James say? There's a war within you. That's what he means. I've fallen apart. My mind, my will, my passions, my interests, they're disassociated from Christ and therefore from each other.

And therefore I've become a sower of disharmony around me. That sound familiar? Fellow sinners, you know exactly what I'm talking about. When you're especially in a bad way on the inside, you tend to make things worse on the outside, right? That's what he's saying. Now in light of all of this, we have to look for the right solution, and we find it precisely in the pages of our Gospel for today. Jesus is journeying with the Twelve, and he's clearly laying out his mission and his identity. He'll be rejected by men who will kill him. And then he will rise from the dead. In short, he's laying out the dynamics of the Paschal Mystery, a life lived in self-emptying love for the sake of God's kingdom. He's implying, of course, this is their mission too. You're my disciples. Come after me. Walk in my path.

And so you got that same mission, by acts of self-emptying love, to bring about the kingdom of God. Okay. What follows from this is a scene that would really be funny if it weren't so tragic. As he's laying out this most profound of truth, precisely about how his life is all about self-emptying love, the disciples commence to argue about what? Which one of them is the greatest. What's happening here? And we can recognize this in a family, in a coffee klatch, in a community, in a society, in a culture. What's happening here is the typical move of the envious and ambitious spirit. Who's the greatest? Which of us should get ahead? How can I put you down so I appear better? This is the old familiar game, but it is directly repugnant to what Jesus has just been talking about.

His mission is about the overcoming of all this silliness and getting on with the work of love, getting on with the work of self-sacrifice for the sake of the mission. They're not listening to a word he's saying because all they're concerned about envy, ambition, who's ahead, what do I have to do to get into that position. Okay. At which point Jesus does something rather extraordinary. He takes a little child and places his arms around the child and puts the child there in the midst of them. Now get that scene in your mind: the disciples all gathered around Jesus and he has his arms around this little child. And he says this: "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me".

There's a lot going on here. First of all, a child in Jesus' time and culture would have been at the very, very bottom of the social ladder. What I mean is a child would not have been taken seriously, would not have been seen in any way as a figure worthy of attention. We're probably a little more romantic about that, but they weren't in the ancient world. A child was at the very, very bottom of the social ladder. Hey, I'm ambitious. I'm envious, and so I'm ambitious. I want to get to the top. Jesus puts in their midst a figure at the very, very bottom of the social ladder. In other words, let go of this stupid envy and ambition.

What else is he saying as he puts this child in their midst? I think this. Children are capable of being commanded. The child isn't reaching immediately for his own autonomy. Children live in a world where their parents command them. They do what they're told, etc. Well, that's the right attitude in the spiritual order. It's not my projects, my plans, my ambitious designs. No, no. Do what you're told. Allow yourself to be commanded by Christ. It's not your climbing the ladder that matters, it's what you do for the sake of the kingdom. There's this too, I think. Children have this wonderful capacity, and parents know about this, to get lost in the present moment.

Think of a child at play, and it's something silly, but play is always kind of like that. Not thinking about the past, not preoccupied with the future, but completely caught up with a kind of joyful abandon in the present moment. Children have got that capacity. Sadly, we either knock it out of them or life knocks it out of them. But little kids can do it. They can get lost in the present moment. Every spiritual master that I know talks about this in the spiritual life. What gives us joy? This capacity to give ourselves utterly to the present moment. As the Little Flower said, what's the present demand of love? What's love demanding of me right now? That's all that matters. Don't get preoccupied with the past.

Envy often looks to the past and what these people have done. And I resent this, and I'm still mad about that. Ambition looks to the future, right? What can I do? How can I get ahead? Where am I going? Forget the past and the future. But like a child, be able to live with a kind of beautiful, joyful abandon in the present moment. Okay, so fellow sinners, we all wrestle with envy and ambition. We all know that these inner conflicts, this disintegration on the inside produces disintegration on the outside. We all know that. We know that as we listen to Jesus all our lives talk to us about the Paschal Mystery, we're preoccupied with who's getting ahead. All right, all right. I get it. That's true. So keep this image before you: Jesus with his arms around this little child. That's what the kingdom of God is about. And God bless you.
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