The Worm of Envy, Second Thursday (II), January 23, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Priests of the Diocese of Winona
Alverna Center, Winona, Minnesota
Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Marianne (Cope) of Molokai
January 23, 2014
1 Sam 18:6-9.19:1-7, Ps 56, Mk 3:7-12

There was no audio recording of this homily. 

Jesus’ perennial attraction… and opposition

In the Gospel, we see the unitive attraction of Jesus. People were coming to him from everywhere. We hear the Biblical geography so often that we can sometimes just pass over the names, but people were walking not just from Galilee, but from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, Tyre and Sidon and across the Jordan — journeys, in some cases, of well more than 100 miles, often carrying their sick to be with Jesus. Everyone was pressing upon him to touch him to such a degree that Jesus had to tell his disciples to have a boat ready so that he wouldn’t be crushed and could continue to feed them with his teaching from within the boat. Such was the attractive power of Jesus that he was drawing to himself Jews and Gentiles from everywhere. Even the demons couldn’t help, in a sense, but praise him, blurting out against themselves that he was far more than the Jews’ long-awaited Messiah, but something far more significant, “You are the Son of God.” Jesus retains this attractiveness when his real face appears, when we’re able to help people get past our domesticated, tried, second-hand images of him, but encounter him. As we carry out the new evangelization, we should have great confidence in Jesus’ ability, when he’s presented in all his fascinating, living reality, to draw all people to himself.

At the same time, however, we see in this scene that not everyone was attracted to Jesus. Amidst the joy of so many miraculous healings, so many exorcisms, so many blind people seeing for the first time, so many deaf and mute communicating normally, so many lame people leaving their mats and exultingly ripping off their bandages, not everyone was happy. In fact there were some people who at this time were plotting to have him murdered, because he actually had the gall to love people with deeds on the Lord’s day. These were people who resented what he was doing, resented other people’s happiness, because of their own miserable approach to God, others and themselves. They were a society of older brothers from the Parable of the Prodigal Son who lived religious like servants not sons who when their brothers received any blessing couldn’t celebrate because their hearts were lived in resentment. They would rather have their brothers suffer, remain lost, remain crippled, even die than to celebrate their healing, rediscovery and spiritual resurrection. That is the evil that envy wreaks.

The envy that turns a great victory into a defeat

We see the same destructive power of envy in today’s first reading. The Israelites, led by Saul, had triumphed in battle. Everyone was rejoicing. The women came out to meet the returning soldiers with an ancient ticker-tape parade, singing and dancing, with tambourines, sistrums and joyful songs they had composed. They began singing, “Saul has slain his thousands.” Think about that. Saul had triumphed over thousands of people. He was not just a king but a hero. And all the women were fawning over him. He should have been exultant, but his joy at his battlefield prowess was short-lived. In the second verse, they sang, “and David his ten thousands.” And that filled Saul with bitterness. Remember, he was slaying tens of thousands of people for the Israelites, for the nation Saul was leading. It would be like cheerleaders on a basketball team that has just won a championship, “Lebron has scored 50 points, but Dwyane has scored 60,” and Lebron being more upset that he was upstaged by a teammate striving for the same team goal than he would be at winning a championship. It was ugly. It was petty. And it was destructive. Rather than rejoicing that God had obviously anointed David with special blessing — otherwise how could the harpist-shepherd really take down so many? — and blessed Saul and his armies with that gift, he said to himself, “All that remains for him is the kingship.” The victory turned into a defeat in his heart and he sought revenge against the one who helped him triumph. Like King Herod would eventually try to strike down out of envy David’s 28th generation grandson, so Saul put David in his royal crosshairs. Rather than fighting together, rather than working together for the good, rather than rejoicing in their victory, Saul decided to go and destroy his greatest military asset.

The future Pope Francis, in a book containing 48 spiritual conferences from his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires that was compiled as he was preparing to retire two years ago, pondered what happened in Saul during this scene. “Saul’s envy of David,” he wrote, “betrayed a serious obtuseness on his part. Instead of joining with the people and benefitting from the unification of the whole nation around David, Saul preferred to go on his own way, stubbornly refusing to recognize this man anointed by God. Envy always errs in its object and frustrates the struggle. When people desire something good but do so with envy, they end up losing what is truly good, and, in the case of Saul, it was the common project, the corporate institution. When Saul’s isolated, disobedient conscience separated him from the Lord, he dragged the whole people down with him.” Cardinal Bergoglio makes a very profound point. When envy exists in a heart, it really can’t rejoice in a common victory because one can’t tolerate sharing the credit. Envy is a destructive selfishness that makes true solidarity disintegrate, because one is sad rather than joyful at the success or blessing of a teammate or a brother. Jealousy and envy are two different things. Jealously is basically, “I like your shirt and I hope to have one just like it one day.” Envy is, “I like your shirt, and because I don’t have one, I don’t want you to have yours either.” And it leads to terrible atrocities. It led Cain to kill Abel. It led to the devil’s fall and his desire to destroy us.

The worm of envy and what it leads to

This morning in his homily at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis talked about the “worm of envy” which is a “weapon of the devil” and a “powerful poison.” Envy, he said, “can’t tolerate that a brother or sister has something I don’t.” He said it leads to “bitterness,” to “hatred” for a brother or sister, to the “gossip” that flows from envy and hatred, seeking to drag others down to lift ourselves up a little higher,” to “murder” in our hearts or in deeds, and to the division and destruction of a community. He describes how so many beautiful Christian communities, families, parishes, dioceses, convents, religious orders, and presbyterates have been injured, sometimes beyond repair, when the “worm of envy …insinuated itself into one of the members.”

Clerical Envy

It’s important for us on a retreat to confront straight on one of the worst metastasizing cancers that can infect the priesthood: invidia clericalis, clerical envy. We’ve seen it throughout the history of the priesthood. We saw it among the first apostles, who were all jockeying for positions in the supposed messianic cabinet that they believed Jesus the Messiah would institute, where James and John begged for the prominent seats and everyone else resented it, because they themselves wanted those seats. We saw it in the life of the Curé of Ars, when many of the priests of the region mocked him publicly, even from the pulpit, because they were envious that this priest, who was kicked out of the seminary three times, was drawing people not only from their parishes but from all of France to go through the mud to wait for 8 days to have five minutes to confess to him. We see it still today behind almost any rumor, any detraction or calumny, that’s ever said about a brother priest. And it debilitates the priesthood. Rather than working together against the principalities and powers of the one who through envy death entered the world, we work against each other.

Pope Francis talked about the evil of clerical envy on July 6 in a lengthy off the cuff question-and-answer session with seminarians and religious novices from around the world who had come to Rome for the Year of Faith. “So often I have found communities, seminarians, religious or diocesan communities,” he said, “where the most common remarks are gossip! It is terrible! They ‘flay each other alive.’ And this is our clerical or religious world…. Excuse me, but it is common: jealousy, envy, criticism of others. Not only speaking badly of our superiors, that’s a classic! But I want to tell you that this is so common, so very common. I too have fallen into this. I have often done it, often! And I am ashamed of myself! I am ashamed of this. It is not good to do this: to go and gossip: “Have you heard… have you heard?…”. That community is hell. …. If I have some problem with a sister or brother, I say so to his or her face or I say it to someone who can help, but I do not tell others in order to ‘blacken’ their name. Gossip is terrible! Underlying gossip is envy, jealousy and ambition. Think about this. … ‘But father, there are problems,’ you might say. Tell the superior, tell the Bishop who can remedy them. Do not tell a person who cannot help. … Tell me, would you speak badly of your mother, your father, your siblings? Never. And why do you do so in the consecrated life, at the seminary, in your priestly life?”

Envy is behind the gossip that can hurt priests so much and because it leads us to hurt rather than help each other, it impacts negatively the Church’s whole ministry.

Adulterous jealousy over priestly assignments

We also need to tackle another common situation where clerical envy rear its ugly head: with regard to assignments. When someone else gets a parish or a particular ministry we coveted, rather than rejoicing for him to be blessed in such a way, often the devil triumphs in getting us upset, wondering why the bishop or the assignment board must obviously dislike us, wondering what connections or back-handed means the one who got the assignment must have used to triumph. What’s need for us is gratitude, gratitude for the Lord’s trust shown to us in the assignment we have, and gratitude for the blessing he’s given to others. Pope Francis in a September address to new bishops in Rome, talked about how envy can lead to an ambition that can harm those we’re presently serving, others and the whole Church. He said sometimes we can become “ambitious men who are bridegrooms of this Church while awaiting another which is more beautiful, wealthier. What a scandal this is! If a penitent arrives and says to you: ‘I am married, I live with my wife, but I am always looking at that woman who is more beautiful than mine: is this a sin, Father?’ The Gospel says: it is a sin of adultery. Is there a ‘spiritual adultery?’ I don’t know; think about it. Do not wait for another more beautiful, more important or richer. Be careful not to slip into the spirit of careerism! That really is a form of cancer!” There’s a reason why the ninth and tenth commandments against coveting go together as the exclamation point for all the commandments. The jealousy and envying behind coveting is in a sense the root of our sins. We’re not happy with what we have, with what God has given us, and so we constantly look for other things.

Overcoming Envy

What’s the remedy? I’ll propose three concrete steps.

The first is that we need constantly to be wishing our brothers well, in our thoughts, in our words and with our deeds. Becoming the president of their fan club. Really wanting the best for them. Listing their good qualities. Praying for them to get ahead. This is the first antidote to invidia clericalis.

The second is authentic humility. I’ve always loved Cardinal Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility and I pray it very often, which sometimes takes heroism, because it goes so much against that spiritual worldliness we talked about on the first day of the retreat. We pray there, “That others may be esteemed more than I …
That, in the opinion of the world, 
others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.” This is a prayer that makes us happier when a brother is chosen than when we’re chosen and is a real expression of genuine love for our brother.

The third is to cultivate authentic fraternity and brotherhood. We see in contrast to Saul’s envy Jonathan’s fraternal love. If anyone should have been jealous over David’s success it should have been he, because he was presumptively Saul’s heir, but instead of being filled with envy, he intervened to save David’s life. Instead of invidia regalis, he was filled with fraternity and friendship. No wonder why he’s always been a model of a true friend and a model of priestly friendship.

Today as we come forward to celebrate this Mass, we rejoice at the success that God has given so many of our brothers who preach better than we do, who confess better than we do, who work with kids more effectively than we do, who manage the finances of parishes much more adeptly than we do, who have a better bedside manner than we do, who sing better than we do, who do just about everything better than we do. We rejoice that they are on our team and are doing so much good for the Lord in helping him save the world. And we thank him for loving us so much that he has drafted us by name onto that same championship team.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
1 SM 18:6-9;19:1-7

When David and Saul approached
(on David’s return after slaying the Philistine),
women came out from each of the cities of Israel to meet King Saul,
singing and dancing, with tambourines, joyful songs, and sistrums.
The women played and sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”

Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought:
“They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me.
All that remains for him is the kingship.”
And from that day on, Saul was jealous of David.

Saul discussed his intention of killing David
with his son Jonathan and with all his servants.
But Saul’s son Jonathan, who was very fond of David, told him:
“My father Saul is trying to kill you.
Therefore, please be on your guard tomorrow morning;
get out of sight and remain in hiding.
I, however, will go out and stand beside my father
in the countryside where you are, and will speak to him about you.
If I learn anything, I will let you know.”

Jonathan then spoke well of David to his father Saul, saying to him:
“Let not your majesty sin against his servant David,
for he has committed no offense against you,
but has helped you very much by his deeds.
When he took his life in his hands and slew the Philistine,
and the LORD brought about a great victory
for all Israel through him,
you were glad to see it.
Why, then, should you become guilty of shedding innocent blood
by killing David without cause?”
Saul heeded Jonathan’s plea and swore,
“As the LORD lives, he shall not be killed.”
So Jonathan summoned David and repeated the whole conversation to him.
Jonathan then brought David to Saul, and David served him as before.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 56:2-3, 9-10A, 10B-11, 12-13

R. (5b) In God I trust; I shall not fear.
Have mercy on me, O God, for men trample upon me;
all the day they press their attack against me.
My adversaries trample upon me all the day;
yes, many fight against me.
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
My wanderings you have counted;
my tears are stored in your flask;
are they not recorded in your book?
Then do my enemies turn back,
when I call upon you.
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
Now I know that God is with me.
In God, in whose promise I glory,
in God I trust without fear;
what can flesh do against me?
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.
I am bound, O God, by vows to you;
your thank offerings I will fulfill.
For you have rescued me from death,
my feet, too, from stumbling;
that I may walk before God in the light of the living.
R. In God I trust; I shall not fear.

MK 3:7-12

Jesus withdrew toward the sea with his disciples.
A large number of people followed from Galilee and from Judea.
Hearing what he was doing,
a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem,
from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan,
and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.
He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd,
so that they would not crush him.
He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases
were pressing upon him to touch him.
And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him
and shout, “You are the Son of God.”
He warned them sternly not to make him known.